By Thom Garfat
Date Posted: Wednesday, 9 June 2010
Thom Garfat is an internationally distinguished practitioner, researcher, teacher, consultant and author in child and youth care.
Sitting with Jason
I don’t know why I’m thinking about this. After all, it happened over 25 years ago. But then perhaps that’s what twilight reflections are all about — looking back in time and drawing whatever learning there is from old events. Eking out the value in memories stored deep. Building the future on learning from the past. ‘Extended reflective practice’ one might say — well, only if they were trying to make a joke.
So anyway, I am remembering sitting beside Jason, on the side of his bed. It was a small crowded room and as we sat on the bed the wall was right in front of us, no more than a foot or two away. As we sat there, every few minutes Jason would explode, lean forward and smash his fists in to the wall. We had been there a while and the wall was starting to look like a block of Swiss cheese, it had so many fresh holes in it. His fists, especially the knuckles, were starting to look like ground meat. But he was nowhere near stopping it seemed. He was following some internal process of his own.
This was Jason’s room. It was in the basement of his parents’ home. Tiny and tucked away in the corner of the basement, but it was his — at least that’s what he liked to say when he was feeling like talking, which wasn’t often. Most of the time he just acted out his feelings, like he was doing now. Not always this dramatically, of course. Sometimes it was just a silent storming. Or a dark withdrawal from contact. Or disappearance.
I had tried everything I could think of over the past hour or so to bring him down (as I thought of it then), to help him regain control (I thought that was important back then), to stop and move on from this intense rage he seemed to be experiencing (God knows, that’s sure what I wanted us to do). But nothing I had done, or was doing, made any difference. The rage just burned on. The only slowing was those moments between explosions when he seemed to simmer on high. I felt like I was sitting on the edge of a volcano and yes, I was nervous — okay, I was scared, too. But I was also determined to hang in with him through this — whatever it was. And I sure didn’t know what it was. Lorne had taught me that — hanging in even when you are unsure about what is going on. “Don’t run fearfully from your own ignorance”, he used to imply.
I was there because that was what I did back then — visited young people in their homes and communities trying to help them find what I thought of as “better ways”; better ways to live with others, better ways to live with themselves, better ways to get on with it. I was with Jason because he was messing up in school, had been arrested a few times and now was facing a sentencing hearing which, we all knew, was going to result in him being sent away for a while — to a “school”, as they were euphemistically called back then. We had been talking about the upcoming hearing — scheduled for the next day — when he started this explosive reaction. One minute we were talking, then there was a silence, and then the first explosion.
I call it a reaction because I thought he must be reacting to something. I had gone through all my own projections: that he was reacting to going away, that he realized how he had led himself to this point, how he regretted what he had done … But none of that had connected with him and now I realized that was all about me. I had no idea what he was reacting to at all. I was lost. “When you are lost, sit still”, my grandpa used to say.
Well, I won’t drag it out here — let me just say it went on for some time. So I just sat there and after a while I seemed to enter into an almost trance like state — slightly disconnected and differently present — as if I was a little outside myself, or deeper in there.
And in that state it seemed to me that I could sense his rhythm. The swelling and receding. The rage and the simmer. The out and the in. After a while, I found myself leaning forward towards the wall at the exact moment he exploded in to it, and then leaning back as his strength was expended. As if I was connected somehow to whatever was going on in him. Attached in the experience.
Forward, smash, release, back. Forward, smash, release, back. A rhythm of pain and destruction. A dam building up pressure and then releasing, only to build up again. And after a while, as simply as it started, it was done. One final release and then rest. Drained. Exhausted. Finished. Over.
Jason sat there for a minute and then said, “Thanks.” That was it. No explanation. No discussion. Just “thanks” and then he got up quietly and left his room. I followed.
Jason looked at his father and spoke. “I’ve ruined my wall again,” he said. “I’d like to fix it before I go away tomorrow. Will you help me?”
Now Jason never asked for anything, never said he had done anything wrong, and certainly never asked for help. His father looked momentarily stunned — but, I must confess, no more than I, for sure. His mother looked on, worried it seemed. His father responded calmly, tentatively. “Sure, but it’s not really necessary. I can do it.”
In case you are wondering, me, I was just standing there watching this go on. I had never seen Jason and his father do anything but fight — yell, stomp, hurt, retreat. Jason’s mother spoke up. “Let me fix your hands, Jason.”
Now this was just getting to be too much. Not only was Jason not fighting with his father, and was asking him for help, but now he was checking out how he felt about something. I waited for his father to tell him to get cleaned up. That would have been the normal routine. Then the argument would start. But that didn’t happen.
We went back downstairs to the other corner of the basement and into the workshop that his father seemed to retreat to so often. Jason’s dad rumbled around for a few minutes and came up with some wall plaster powder, a trowel and some cloths. “We’ll need some water,” he said.
Me, yes, I was still there, just tagging along but I wanted to know where this was all going. And, truth is, I was waiting for it all to fall apart, or erupt into something crazy, or get back to normal.
Once Jason had the water, he led the way and we all went in to his bedroom and surveyed the damage. The wall was a real wreck where he had been smashing it. I felt guilty, like I should have stopped him. It was as if my failure to be helpful was tattooed into the wall. I felt shame standing there.
Jason’s father must have sensed what I was feeling because he turned to me and told me I could clean off the loose pieces while he and Jason mixed the plaster powder and water. I was glad to have something to do but as I moved to start the clean-up, Jason spoke.
When he was finished, we all sat on the bed together looking at the wet patches which were his work, waiting for it to dry enough for sanding. Earlier I had sat there looking at destruction happening. Now we sat there looking at reparation. It was like we had shifted to a different universe; like it was Act Two with different actors filling in.
When I turned to leave, they were standing side by side, sanding the plaster over the holes. A different rhythm. A safer one it looked like to me. A healing one. Father and son, connected in a different experience.