Offering Our Presence

***Portions of this post focus on trauma, self-harm, and suicidal ideation.

My mind is often crowded with the images I have seen through the years working with at-risk youth.  They are often hidden for years, but come to the front of the crowd at unexpected times to teach me a new lesson, or help me see it from a new perspective. 

Last week, I was reminded of a boy we had on our unit years ago.  It was long before trauma-informed care was an expectation or we had options for placing kids in specific demographics.  We had lots of kids with lots of needs all on one hallway and we were doing the best we could with what we had.  And B was one of those kids with lots of needs.  He was extremely violent with both staff and the other residents, he would destroy property, and yell incessantly.  But each aggressive behavior was partnered with tears.  Without fail, his behaviors were angry, but his face was sad, afraid, hurt.  His cycle happened daily with very little reprieve, for him or those of us working with him.

Several months into his treatment he finally divulged that he had been a rape victim.  The shame and self-blame he felt was obvious, but it seemed the only emotion he felt comfortable showing was rage.  With his new confession, came an increase in his violence, and eventually some self-harming.  Things escalated, but surprisingly enough so did our love and concern for him.   He started to trust us, but even that created new fears and concerns for him. 

One evening while assisting with showers, I heard something break.  I ran down the hall where a co-worker was and she quickly explained it was B.  Since there were no men working that night and I was the supervisor, I quickly went to his bathroom door.  I knocked but my only response was deep breathing loud enough to be heard over the shower.  I knocked again, told him who it was and said I was opening the door.  I was met with shards of “unbreakable” glass laying on the floor.  B was standing in his clothes in the corner of the shower, a large shard in one hand, tears streaming down his face, and blood flowing from both arms.  I reached up to turn off the shower and my arm instantly went red from the scalding hot water his body was being met with to create more pain.

There was not a good protocol to follow in this instance, there wasn’t a system to follow, or a training we went through.  This was pain and love in its truest form. 

We both looked at each other and without talking I started to clear a path for him out of the bathroom.  He looked at the shard of glass in his hand over and over and then slowly handed it to me.  I gently assisted him out of the shower and we walked to another room. 

The nurse started getting bandages to clean him up, the other staff collected him clean, dry clothes, but he and I, now both splattered with blood, sat looking at each other without words.  There were no words.  We were both heart broken and respected that moment in one another, if only for that brief instance. 

Once the nurse and clean clothes returned, I stepped out.  I found myself slumped against a wall and exhaling, attempting to hold in the tears.  When he was dry and bandaged, he asked if I would come back in.  We returned to our silence of setting on the cold, hard ground facing each other, both unsure of how to begin. 

After what felt like an eternity of silence, I heard a mumbled, “I heard your voice.” 

My profound response was, “what?”

Again, “I heard your voice…so I stopped.”  That was it.  No more explanation.  No warm and fuzzy hugging.  No tearful recounting of how much we cared for one another.  Just more silence.  But, now the silence was different, because B had just shown me the importance of presence.  That was all I had offered him and all I could offer him in that moment…presence.

If it would have been someone else’s voice would the reaction have been the same … I don’t know.

If I would have noticed something with his behavior would it have been different … I don’t know.

If I would have had trauma-informed care, could I have responded better … I don’t know. 

All I know is that in a moment of what I can only imagine is complete desperation, the one thing B needed was presence. 

A few weeks later, B was moved to a different facility his behaviors being “too acute to handle.”  The staff watched devastated knowing that in this incident, with this kid, the system was going to fail.  I watched knowing that this kid had changed something in me even if I didn’t know what it was. 

Now, years later, I often wonder about B.  I try to push the memory of that night out of my mind as often as it surfaces, but last week I found myself an observer in another man’s desperation.  His desperation leading to dangerous behavior and it made me think about this idea of presence once again. 

How often do I offer my presence to another person?  With the chaos of life and work, have I forgotten the importance of just sitting with people and being present in their life?  Do I engage enough that my voice being heard is enough to help pull someone out of desperation, if only for a moment?  Do I allow myself to feel deeply for others that sometimes the only thing needed between us is silence? 

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