When you’re in transition, it seems like that’s all there is to talk about. Or maybe that’s just how it works for me. But I do think that people often define themselves by the big transitions and changes in their lives, whether only at the time or for a lifetime afterwards.
Most of my clients experience common childhood transitions as they move from elementary school to middle school to high school. But for a lot of them these milestones serve mainly as markers for greater sources of change. And although they can’t always remember what happened last summer, they remember the grade they were in when their parent left home and didn’t come back. And what school they went to when they first experienced the staying power of abuse, racism, or other injustice. They can pinpoint what they were doing when they found out a family member died. Or went to jail. And so on.
Sometimes transition is the baseline for the youth I meet. Foster care, immigration, or just frequent moves between states, countries or family members’ homes have contributed to constant change in the scenery around them. For some of these clients, routine feels more disruptive and unusual than the upheaval they anticipate daily. Temporary is understandable. Permanent is strange and unknown.
Often people assume that these must be the clients who are the hardest for me to work with. It seems impossible that I could “save” (because obviously that’s why I do? Sorry, no) youth who are so “damaged.” But as far as I’m concerned, that view of these kids is just plain wrong.
Some of the most resilient kids I have worked with have had the most turbulent lives. They know what people say about them as an “urban youth,” as a “foster kid,” as “low-income,” “poor,” “underprivileged,” “delinquent,” “at-risk,” etc. And they know the low expectations people have for them. It is not that they never waiver in their fortitude (Congratulations on finding today’s vocab. word!), but they aren’t apologizing for what they’ve been through. They share their stories with me in a way that says: this is my life. Take it or leave it.
So while I can’t shake off the unsettled feeling of transition and ending and beginning and changing and facing the unkown, I know that feeling settled and stable and supported and having consistency around me is a privilege. And I also know that it hasn’t always been this way for me, either. I am constantly revising my own narrative. How do I view the transitions, the lows and the obstacles, the highlights? Even the way I categorize my experiences changes as I move forward.
When writing assessments, I consider how my clients would want their stories told. How do they view their experiences? If an event in their lives sounds painful and heartbreaking to me, but they now see it as a formative learning experience, who am I to infuse suffering into their narrative? I might aim to learn how they came to view it the way they do. Was it always this way? How have they reframed things over time?
More than any other population, I have worked with teenagers and young adults. Their lives are just beginning, but they don’t always see it that way. As an adolescent, each moment can feel tremendous and eternal. The past can seem alive, ceaseless, and inescapable. The journey ahead often appears long and full of massive hurdles. And some have made it to this point with minor support from their family and must forge ahead with only the unproven support of their friends.
So each time I terminate with my adolescent clients and add one more transition to their transition résumé (obviously I just made that ridiculous term up), self-determination is even more at the forefront of my mind than usual. Since most of my clients have had extensive experience with relationships ending, we discuss how those incidents were or were not what they wanted them to be. What would they have wanted to be different? If they could plan the perfect goodbye, what would that look like? And how do they want us to say goodbye to each other?
This conversation goes in a different direction each time. Sometimes it is avoided with absence or simply with a change of subject. More than I ever expected, it is faced head-on with a rare seriousness.
One client whose life was littered with chaos, loss and abandonment came more consistently to our last few meetings than to her sessions throughout the school year.
Another announced one day that we should make each other collages during our last meeting. She said the collages would represent our work together and she would save them as the start to a book of collages she wanted to make throughout college as a way of managing her anxiety.
A recent client started the conversation before I could and wrote to me to say: even if we are not able to see each other to say the last goodbye, we can send meaningful letters to each other that will mean so much and will say the things we wish to tell each other about our experience with meeting.
With some of these clients I’ve wondered, did I say that out loud? Are they reading my mind? Or is this is the way things go in the best circumstances and with those clients who stuck with the work throughout?
Try and tell me these kids aren’t full of potential. Actually, don’t. That would really piss me off.