The story below was written by Catrina Brown, a Therapist at KVC Hospitals Kansas City where she works with children and teens who are struggling with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, the impacts of childhood trauma, and other mental health challenges. Catrina submitted this story during KVC’s Annual Story Contest to share about the importance of connection, showing children they’re safe, and allowing them the space to open up when they’re ready.
He sat across the room on the piece of furniture the furthest away from me. He was demonstrating what I recognized as “textbook” anxiety symptoms: rocking back and forth, bouncing one leg up and down, eyes darting up and down, and continually shifting in his seat. Silent tears rolled down his face as he tried to formulate words, but no longer could.
Mustering my confidence as a young clinician, I said, “What’s coming up for you in this moment?”
“I’m having a flashback, it’s playing like a movie on a loop in my head and won’t stop,” his wavering voice admitted.
His anxious body began to rock back and forth faster and faster. He squeezed his eyes tightly to stop the tears.
“Tell me about the movie that is playing. I’ll be here with you the whole time,” I said.
I quietly leaned forward, and my eyes connected with his terrified eyes. I listened as he told me about the pain. The abuse. The horrific night his biological father tried to drown his mother. The night his father cut him on his leg when he tried to get between his parents to stop the fighting. The times he curled up in the fetal position in a quiet room, willing himself to be invisible to his abusers.
My heart broke listening to the pain this young man had experienced. I could feel the tears burning my eyes as he continued to share his trauma. I asked myself — what are the “right” next steps? What theoretical approach or modality is appropriate to help this struggling adolescent? As a newly licensed clinician, I was struggling with the responsibility I felt for this teen’s mental health. I went to my clinical supervisor for help. His advice:
“Connection first. He needs a safe place.”
Over the next five months working with this client, my first goal of every session was to provide safety and connection as he shared about his experiences and feelings. This client slowly began to trust and accept my help. We explored coping skills to help his anxiety and grounding skills to use when the flashbacks would overtake his mind.
I listened when he shared that he didn’t think anyone would care if he died. We worked together to create his support system. And, as with many relationships, we hit a rough patch.
When faced with an unexpected family move, through his hurt and frustration this client decided to stop communicating with me and his parents, a wonderful and supportive family who had adopted him. I would come for sessions and he would become angry or hostile and refuse to speak. After more than three months of building a connection, I didn’t understand why he was pushing me away.
I continued to faithfully check in with him twice each week, reminding him that I was available whenever he was ready to come back to our work together. This stand-off went on for almost a month. He refused anything therapeutic, except sessions with the art therapist. That was a connection that helped him continue to process his past trauma and fear of abandonment.
One day, he came to me and said he was ready to meet with me again. He knew the connection was still there waiting for him when he was ready. We continued working together to further process his fear of rejection and abandonment that led him to push away others. I was able to support him while he reconnected with his family and they began to make plans for their future move and his eventual successful discharge.
Over the five months this client was in my life, I saw him transform from living with nearly constant suicidal ideations and self-harming behaviors to no longer self-harming and living life with a bright affect and a confidence to continue to make positive changes in his life.
I learned that all the textbooks, theories, and interventions are nothing if it doesn’t have a foundation of connection. As a therapist with these clients, I am able to walk alongside them and meet them in their pain.
“Positive changes are born from trusting relationships. We all need connection.”
Read more inspiring stories like this in KVC Health Systems’ print magazine, Thriving, now available online! This is a special anniversary issue commemorating KVC’s 50 years of heart-centered service to children and families. It includes emotional and impactful stories from the generations of people KVC has served, employed, and inspired over the past 50 years.