by Dondi Tondro-Smith
I read Mary Oliver poems on the couch
Listening to the chimes clink in the windy, yellowed aspens
They aren’t my chimes
This is not my house.
Birds are tap dancing across the roof
I am a visitor and yet I listen as if I were home.
Watching my old dog
Giving her an injection of insulin
Soaking her food with enzymes so she can digest
A dog’s life
A time capsule in four legged form
Her, at the side of the birthing tub
Her, in the first house we played house in
Her ears haven’t changed
They’re as gratifyingly soft to the touch as when she was new.
A flash of memory, a younger husband crawling in her crate to lie beside her.
I decided in that moment to make a baby with this man, because of the way he cuddled her to sleep.
A picture of him in the bath with her— two sets of puppy dog eyes.
When she ran figure eights in the grass and chased snow balls for hours.
As she witnessed our first years of marriage
The fights, the really good sex, the beginnings of so many beginnings.
Her breath comes in greater puffs now, her eyes at half mast, while she sleeps beside me; I can remember the wining sounds of her puppy dreams.
I keep listening to make sure she’s still breathing, that she’s still in this world, holding the space of memory in her arthritic joints, in the marrow of my mind, I am still hers, she is still mine.
Hospice watch for the dog we adopted out
who now lives down the street
on Fallen Pine Drive.
She doesn’t seem to mind that she’s dying. I made sure we found three young girls who’d love her just the same.
15 years a dog’s life—like a lesson in transitions and the finite span of a creature’s time.
I apologized for hating the loud bark she no longer has, that woke the baby, that broke me for a time. I hold her head, look into her eyes and say, “I understand more now, of why a new mom could crack under the weight of too much snow, in the pines, the strain of needs, of the barking and crying that broke the silence of her quiet forest.
I clean up her poop off the rough sewn timbers and flush it down the toilet. I will stay with her this weekend—to say good-bye—to say I love her—to honor the dog that came before the child, our practice baby, that’s grown old. Her ears just as soft. With the magpies and wind chimes calling us home.
I watched them for a few moments before I walked into the waiting room. The boy’s behavior had an innocent sweetness to it: I could see him smiling, crawling into his mother’s lap, squirming so that he could sit face-to-face with her. Then, he tenderly reached his hand up to her mouth and touched her, playful, exploring. The quiet interaction between the two was classic bonding behavior between a mother and an infant, even a toddler. But Peter was seven.
As I watched them, I could tell that mother and child had frequently engaged in this gentle, soothing game. When I walked in I also noticed that Amy, the mom, was embarrassed by it. Her husband, Jason, Peter’s father, seemed even more ashamed when I appeared to have caught them.
“Sit up, Peter,” Jason said as he stood up and shook my hand. I walked over to the boy, stood over him, looked down, and smiled.
“Hi, Peter.” I put my hand out. Peter reached up to touch my hand.
“Peter, stand up and shake Dr. Perry’s hand,” Jason said. Amy tried to push Peter off her lap to his feet. Peter went limp and laughed. It seemed like part of their game.
“Peter, stand up,” Jason said again, his voice patient but firm. I could feel his frustration and exhaustion. I knew they had their hands full. “That’s OK. You guys get comfortable. I just wanted to see how you think things went today?” I sat down across from them. “This first visit is really just to give Peter a chance to come and meet some of us and start to get familiar with us. Hopefully, you had some fun today?” Peter nodded.
“Use words, honey,” Amy said. Peter sat up and said, “Yes.”
The family had just spent three hours in our clinic for an intake appointment. They had come to see us because Peter had a long history of speech and language problems, as well as difficulties with attention and impulsivity. Not surprisingly, he also had social and academic problems in school. Occasionally he had bizarre and ferocious outbursts in which he seemed to completely lose control. They were terrifying and, unlike ordinary temper tantrums, could last for hours. Peter’s parents had adopted him from a Russian orphanage when he was three years old. They had immediately fallen in love with the blonde, blue-eyed boy with rosy cheeks who looked like a little angel. The operators of the orphanage had proudly shown off how well fed he was and how clean their facility was but, in truth, Peter and the other children who lived there had been profoundly neglected. Amy and Jason had heard about our work with maltreated children from other adoptive parents. We were at the end of the first day of a two-day consultation visit at our clinic. The family had traveled over five hundred miles for the evaluation.
“So, Peter, will you come back and visit us tomorrow?” I asked. “Yes,” he said with a big smile.
Our clinicians had a lot of work to do before then. During a typical evaluation, our interdisciplinary group of psychologists, social workers, child psychiatry fellows, and child psychiatrists usually spread multiple visits out over a few weeks to get to know a child and his family. In Peter’s case the process was condensed because he lived so far away. Records from the schools, the child’s pediatrician, previous mental health providers and other professionals were available for review to process and integrate into our impressions of the child and family. We also did a brain scan, an MRI, as part of a study we were working on to see how early neglect affected the brain. The data from our research has shown that significant early life neglect such as that seen in formerly institutionalized children like Peter leads to smaller brain size over all, brain shrinkage in certain regions, and a host of brain-related functional problems. By finding which areas were most affected in Peter’s case, we hoped to target our treatments to maximal effect. During the evaluation period, sometimes as many as a dozen staff members would meet to talk about what we were seeing and experiencing with this child. It was a process designed to identify the child’s strengths and vulnerabilities, and carefully determine his current developmental stage in a host of domains from perceptual abilities to motor skills, from emotional, cognitive and behavioral abilities to moral sentiments. This enabled us to come to a preliminary diagnosis and make our initial recommendations for intervention. Although it would be too time consuming and expensive to replicate in many settings, we hoped to develop models of care based on this process that would be less staff intensive.
At the time we began working with Peter and his family, we’d made good progress on our neurosequential approach to maltreated children. We’d recognized that victims of early trauma and neglect need experiences such as rocking and being held appropriate for the age at which they’d suffered damage or deprivation, not for their chronological age. We’d found that these develop-mentally appropriate enrichment and therapeutic experiences had to be provided repeatedly and consistently in a respectful and caring manner. Coercive, punitive and forceful delivery only made things worse. We’d also started to incorporate music, dance and massage in order to stimulate and organize the lower brain regions, which contain the key regulatory neurotransmitter systems involved in the stress response. As we’ve seen, these areas are more likely to be affected by early trauma because they undergo important, fast-paced development early in life.
Finally, we’d begun to use medications to help children with troublesome dissociative or hyper-arousal symptoms. But while we had realized that ongoing relationships are critical to healing, we hadn’t yet fully understood how important peer relationships are, especially as children get older. The details of Peters past brought the critical role of relationships into vivid focus for me. Peter had been raised without adult attention for the first three years of his life. He’d been kept in what was basically a baby warehouse: a big, bright room with sixty infants in seemingly endless, straight rows of perfectly sanitized cribs. The two caretakers on duty for each shift would work methodically from one bed to the next, feeding each child, changing his or her diaper, then moving on. That was all the individual adult attention the babies received: roughly fifteen minutes each per eight-hour shift. The infants were rarely spoken to or held other than during these brief intervals; they were not rocked or cradled or cooed at because there simply wasn’t time for staff to do more than feed and change, feed and change. Even the toddlers spent their days and nights caged in their cribs. With no one but each other to turn to, the children would reach their tiny hands through the bars into the next crib, holding hands, babbling and playing patty-cake. In the absence of adults, they became parents to each other. Their interaction, as impoverished as it was, probably helped to mitigate some of the damage such severe deprivation can cause.
When Peter’s adoptive parents first brought him home, they discovered that he was trying to communicate with them. Delighted, they sought a Russian translator. But the Russian translator said his speech wasn’t Russian; perhaps the orphanage workers had been immigrants from elsewhere in Eastern Europe who had taught the children to speak their native tongue? A Czech speaker said it wasn’t Czech, however, and soon Amy and Jason learned that Peter wasn’t speaking Hungarian or Polish, either. To their surprise, they found that the words Peter spoke didn’t belong to any known language. Apparently, the orphans had developed their own rudimentary language, like the private speech of twins or the improvised signing of deaf children raised together. Like King Psamtik of Egypt, who, according to Herodotus, isolated two children to learn what language they would naturally speak without the opportunity to learn from people around them, the operators of the orphanage had created a harsh and accidental experiment in linguistics. On their own, the children had apparently created and agreed upon several dozen words. One word the translators were able to figure out was that Mum meant adult or caregiver, just as similar sounds mean mother in almost every known human language, since the mm sound is the first one babies learn to make while suckling.
In our clinical meeting, my team and I went over everything we knew about the boy’s early history; including his limited exposure to adults and his linguistic deprivation. We also discussed his adoptive parents. My initial impression of Amy and Jason was confirmed by the rest of the staff: everyone agreed that they were remarkable. Even before they’d adopted Peter, they had read parenting books, watched parenting videos and talked extensively with their pediatrician about what to expect when adopting a child like him. After they brought Peter home they worked with speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and mental health providers to help Peter catch up. They followed the advice they were given diligently. They spent money, time and energy trying to give Peter what he needed to grow up healthy, happy, productive and compassionate. Yet, despite all of their best efforts, and the efforts of the dozens of specialists, Peter continued to struggle. He had improved dramatically in many regards, but his progress was spotty, slow and incremental. He would learn new skills only after hundreds of repetitions, not dozens like other children. He learned English but his enunciation was strange and his grammar was mangled. His movements were also uncoordinated, and even when he tried to sit still, he would sway. Also, he would rarely establish or maintain eye contact appropriately. At seven, he still had several primitive self-soothing behaviors, primarily rocking and sucking his thumb. He would sniff extensively at everything that he ate before putting it into his mouth and also tried noticeably to catch the scent of people whenever he met them. He was easily distracted and often laughed and smiled to himself, giving the impression that he was in his own little world. And in the last year he seemed to have hit a developmental plateau, and perhaps even regressed a bit.
We first discussed Peter’s strengths, starting with his friendly, almost goofy manner. He was also well above average in some aspects of language and seemed to have some mathematical talents. He was extremely nurturing, but in a blatantly immature fashion, responding to peers and adults the way a toddler might. It became clear through our discussions that while Peter was in some ways cognitively seven, in other domains, he acted much younger. Confirming our observations regarding the use-dependent nature of brain-development, the areas where he was doing better were related to brain regions that had received stimulation, and those where he had deficits represented brain regions that had either been more severely deprived or had not yet received enough stimulation to make up for the earlier neglect.
The scans of his brain reinforced our observations of his fractured neurodevelopment: he had cortical atrophy, large ventricles (which meant that spinal fluid was taking up space that would normally have been occupied by brain tissue) and lower-brain structures that were small for his age and likely underdeveloped. Such splintered development is common in children who grow up in chaotic or neglectful environments. It causes tremendous confusion for parents, teachers and peers. From the outside, Peter looked like a seven-year-old boy, but in some ways he was only a three-year-old. In terms of other skills and capabilities, he was eighteen months old, and he was eight or nine years old in still other respects. This inconsistency was a major source of the family’s problems.
There were also important differences in the way each parent interacted with Peter. When he was home and alone with Amy, she was extremely attuned to his needs. If he acted like a baby, she would engage him at that age level, and if he acted like an older child, she would interact with him that way. I believe that her intuitive capacity to meet his developmental needs was the primary reason he had made as much progress as he had. But as Peter got older Jason began to question some of Amy’s babying of the boy. This caused tension in the marriage, with Jason arguing that Amy was responsible for Peter’s lack of progress because she was smothering him, while Amy insisted that he needed the extra affection because of his past. Such differences are an almost universal feature of parenting. However, when disagreements are profound as they were becoming in Amy and Jason’s case, they can lead to serious marital problems. I had seen the conflict in my brief interaction with the family in the waiting room.
Part of my job would be to help the couple understand Peter’s needs and explain to them how it was necessary to meet him where he was developmentally. That way, they would be able to learn to avoid overwhelming Peter and frustrating themselves by requiring age-appropriate behavior in a domain for which he did not yet have the capacity. When the family came in for the second day of the evaluation we gave Peter some formal psychological tests. Later we observed more parent/child interactions and sent the boy off for another play break.
Finally, it was time to tell the parents what we thought about Peter’s case and what we proposed to do to help him. I could see that Amy and Jason were anxious as soon as I walked into the room.
“What do you think?” Jason said, clearly wanting to get bad news out of the way.
“I think Peter is really a very lucky boy,” I began, “You are wonderful parents. And he has shown remarkable progress over the last four years.” I paused for a moment to let that sink in. Then, I added, “Your efforts are heroic. You must be exhausted?”
Amy started to cry. Her husband tenderly put his arm around her, and I got some tissue and handed it to her. She wiped her eyes. I began to tell them what I thought, asking them to interrupt if I said anything that they thought wasn’t accurate or didn’t make sense. I related Peter’s history as I understood it, recounting the details of the orphanage and the list of developmental delays he had experienced. Then I asked if I was right in suspecting that when Peter became upset all of his developmental progress would seem to disappear and he would act in primitive, almost frightening ways. Perhaps he’d lie on the floor in the fetal position, moaning and rocking, or perhaps he’d let out unearthly screams. I added that I thought that once he started to get stirred up or overwhelmed he probably reached a point of no return and that he seemed to regress before slowly coming back to himself. They nodded. That’s when I explained how changes in our emotional state can affect how we learn. Skills that we’ve mastered like comprehension of certain concepts or even use of language itself may dissipate when we get worked up. I talked about how new or frightening situations would be stressful to a child-like Peter and would likely prompt this kind of regression.
Wrapping up what we’d learned from the evaluation, I said, “So, I think we have a pretty good idea about Peter’s problems and how he ended up with them. We also know some of his strengths; not all, but some. The key now is whether we can use what we know to help him.” I paused, struggling to strike a balance between hope and caution.
“Let me take a moment and talk with you about how the brain develops,” I began, “I think if you understand this a little bit more you will feel better about the progress that Peter has made, and I think you will better understand why progress now seems so slow?” As I spoke, my thoughts about the theory and practice I’d been working on for so many years seemed to crystallize for the first time as a coherent whole. I drew several charts on a blank piece of paper. The first showed a simple comparison of the growth of the brain relative to the growth of the rest of the body, making the point that while the body doesn’t reach its adult height and weight until adolescence, the brain’s growth follows a much different path. By age three it has reached 85 percent of its full adult size.
The human brain grows most rapidly early in life, I explained. In fact, the majority of brain growth takes place in the first three years of life. I wanted to help them understand the full significance of the fact that Peter had been in a sterile, neglectful institution during that critical period when the brain is rapidly organizing itself. Then I drew a pyramid and turned the page upside down. The brain is organized from the bottom to the top, I said. The top part here, I noted as I pointed to the wide base of the upside-down pyramid, is the cortex, the most complex part of the brain, responsible for our ability to think and for integrating many of our functions. I also described how some of the lower regions work, how the central emotional areas allow us to make social connections and control our stress and how the core brainstem areas drive the stress response itself. I explained how these regions awaken sequentially during development, starting from the innermost brainstem and moving out toward the cortex as the child grows. I discussed how the development of higher, more complex brain regions relies on proper organization of the lower, simpler areas. I explained how deprivation could affect these regions and cause the wide variations in their son’s behavior. “The key is to parent Peter where he is developmentally, not where he is chronologically,” I said. Jason nodded, beginning to understand what I was saying. “Which is a very difficult thing to do, right?” Now, both parents nodded. “The challenge is that, in one moment, you will need to have expectations and provide experiences that are appropriate for a five-year-old, for example, when you are teaching him a specific cognitive concept.
Ten minutes later, however, the expectation and challenges will have to match those for a younger child, for example, when you are trying to teach him to interact socially. He is, developmentally, a moving target. This is why parenting these children is such a frustrating experience. One moment you are doing the correct thing and the next, you are out of sync.” Amy and Jason had experienced this dichotomy many times, but until this conversation they hadn’t been able to articulate it. My explanations helped them enormously, immediately reducing their conflict over babying Peter and helping Jason not worry when his wife engaged in it. Now, in fact, he could allow himself to do it as well. Amy, however, could also see from what we’d taught her that there were times when Jason’s more demanding parenting style would be useful. But explanations alone would not be enough. The core challenges of parenting Peter would remain the same and it would be close to impossible for either parent to be attuned to him always or even most of the time without more support. Both parents were spent, emotionally and physically. We would need to help them get some respite care. We suggested bolstering their social network, taking time for themselves as a couple and doing things they enjoyed so that they could recharge their batteries for their time with Peter. Amy and Jason were open to all of our suggestions. Since they did not live near our clinic, we had to work with and through their local providers. Fortunately, most of the pieces of a good clinical team were in place. Peter had an excellent speech therapist, occupational therapist, master’s level therapist and an understanding pediatrician. We had talked with all of them. We wanted to add therapeutic massage and a music and movement class to his routine, which had been useful for other children who suffered early neglect. But what I thought, at first, would be just another piece of the puzzle turned out to be the most important element: Peter’s school and, especially, his classmates.
As I looked over his history, I suddenly recognized that most of Peter’s progress had come in the first three years after he came to the United States: when he spent his time alone with his parents, or with adults, or one or two peers selected by them. When he began attending kindergarten, however, his progress had ceased and his behavior problems had intensified. His mother had intuitively understood that he was chronologically six but behaviorally two, but his classmates couldn’t comprehend why he behaved so strangely. Even his teacher didn’t know how to handle him, despite having been told of his background. Peter would grab toys from other children without asking, missing the social cues the other kindergartners understood about when it was OK to take something and when it wasn’t. He didn’t understand when he should share his things and when to keep them to himself, when he should speak and when he should be quiet. At circle time he’d suddenly get up and slip into the teacher’s lap or begin to wander around without realizing he wasn’t supposed to. And he’d sometimes shriek and have his terrifying tantrums. As a result the other children began to fear and marginalize him. His oddly accented English didn’t help. His classmates viewed him as a strange and frightening boy. He’d done well in the sheltered world of his adoptive home, with one-on-one relationships with adults who knew and loved him. But the complex social world of kindergarten, with its varying peer and teacher relationships to negotiate, was beyond him. Instead of the patient, nurturing, loving responses he got at home, at kindergarten his behavior was met with suspicion and, often, outright rejection. The classroom filled with noisy children and loud toys and frequent movement was overwhelming to him. Where once he understood what was expected of him and was treated gently if he wasn’t able to do it, now he couldn’t figure out what was going on. No matter how many hours of healthy positive experiences Peter had each week, the hours when he was marginalized or teased could easily overshadow them. Peter had no real friends and preferred to play with much younger children; he felt most comfortable with three- or four-year-olds. His own classmates didn’t know what to make of the boy who talked funny and often acted like a baby. In many situations children can be kind and nurturing to someone who appears to be younger and more vulnerable. But Peter frightened them.
The behavior of his classmates was predictable. What was happening in this classroom was a small version of what happens all across the planet in various forms every day. Human beings fear what they don’t understand. The unknown scares us. When we meet people who look or act in unfamiliar or strange ways, our initial response is to keep them at arm’s length. At times we make ourselves feel superior, smarter or more competent by dehumanizing or degrading those who are different.
The roots of so many of our species’ ugliest behaviors – racism, ageism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, to name just a few – are in this basic brain-mediated response to perceived threat. We tend to fear what we do not understand, and fear can so easily twist into hate or even violence because it can suppress the rational parts of our brain. Faced with Peter’s growing ostracism and social rejection, Amy and Jason wanted to know what to do: should they hold him back in kindergarten, hoping he’d learn more socially the second time around? Yet his cognitive abilities were clearly on grade level for first grade, perhaps higher. Peter was intellectually advanced, but socially clueless. I realized that if he was going to catch up, he was going to need the help of his peers. It seemed to me that we might as well try letting him start first grade. When I had worked with adolescents, some of them had allowed me to talk with their classmates about their traumatic experiences and the effect it had on their brain. A bit of understanding had gone a long way in helping improve their social lives. But could this work with first graders? And would Peter find it acceptable? I knew that I would be in his hometown several weeks after his evaluation and could talk to his classmates at that time. I went back to explore this possibility with Peter.
As we were coloring, I asked, “Peter, do you remember living in Russia?” He stopped and looked at me for a moment. I kept slowly coloring, not looking back at him. The pace of his coloring slowed. I was just about to ask again when he took a new sheet of paper and drew a big blue circle around the entire page.” This is Russia?” He held the page up to me. He placed the paper back on the floor, took a color and made one tiny, delicate, almost invisible dot.
“And this is Peter.” I looked at him; he was clearly sad. He was eloquently expressing how he felt at the orphanage, where he’d been special to no one, just one of dozens of anonymous babies. I smiled sympathetically at him, then raised my eyebrows and said, “But that isn’t Peter anymore, is it?” He shook his head no, and smiled back.
“Peter, I was thinking that I would come to your first grade class to visit.” I wasn’t sure he would understand, but I wanted him to know what I wanted to do and why. “OK? You know how we have talked about how your brain is growing and changing? I was wondering if you would mind if I talked to your class about the brain. And maybe a little about the way you lived before you came to live with your parents?”
“OK,” he said, thoughtfully, adding, “Will you bring the pictures?”
“The pictures of my brain?”
“ Sure. You won’t mind if I show pictures of your brain to your class?” “No. My brain is cool.”
“You know, Peter, you are so right. Your brain is cool” And so, with his permission and with that of his parents and his school, I decided to see if I could make first graders into a new community of therapists for Peter. I addressed his first grade class at the beginning of the school year. “I’m Peter’s friend,” I said. I study the brain and Peter asked me to come from Houston to tell you some of the things about the brain that I taught him. I had Peter come up to the front of the class and serve as my assistant. I told the first graders about the brain, and about how in some ways, it acts like a muscle. I talked about how they were exercising their ABC muscles in school and about the importance of repetition. I described how they had many other similar kinds of muscles in their brains that also needed certain kinds of attention in order to grow big and strong. I talked about how the brain develops and what makes everyone’s brain work, emphasizing how the brain changes. “Remember, Peter, when we were talking about how it takes a lot of practice to learn anything new? That is because the brain changes when you use it, use it, use it.” I looked at the children and then back at Peter, “Right, Peter?” He smiled and nodded. “And that is why your teacher keeps having you practice writing again and again; and practice your letters again and again and again.” I showed some slides; I brought a model of the brain and Peter passed it around. I answered questions. “What part of the brain makes you talk? What color is the brain? Does the brain keep videos of your life?” I told the children how important it was for a developing baby’s brain to get stimulation from talk and touch and human interactions. I told them the same things that I told parents, judges, pediatricians and my own staff just with fewer big words. Then I talked a little bit about how different children grow up in different homes. How Japanese children learn Japanese; how in some cultures mothers carry their babies around all day long during their first year of life. How some children don’t get as much touch or talk or love early in life, and how that can change the brain. They were having fun. We laughed. Peter was smiling. Then, it was time. I didn’t know how much I would say, or even what I would say. I would let the response of the children and Peter guide me. I jumped in, “Well. Thank you for letting me come to your classroom. Peter told me about you guys when he came to visit me in Houston. I know he went to kindergarten with many of you.” A few of the children raised their hands. “We asked Peter to come to our clinic in Houston because we wanted to learn from him about his amazing brain.” The children looked at Peter. ”See, when he was a little boy he spent every minute of every day for the first three years of his life in one crib.” The children looked interested, but kind of confused. “Peter was born in another country where they did not know very much about the brain. His parents could not take care of him, so Peter went to an orphanage when he was just a baby. In this orphanage each baby was put in a crib and that was their home. They didn’t get to wander around, crawl anywhere, or even practice standing so they could learn to walk. Until his parents came to get him when he was three, Peter never had a chance to walk around, to play with friends, to get a hug from any loving grown-ups. His brain didn’t get very much stimulation.”The room was completely silent: twenty-six six-year-old children didn’t move, speak or fidget. “And then when he was three, his new parents came and brought him to live in Tulsa.” I paused to let some of the tension dissipate. “And that is when Peter’s amazing brain started to learn so many things. Even though he had never heard English, he learned English in just a couple years. He had never had a chance to walk or run or skip and he learned to do all of those things.” Peter looked embarrassed. I didn’t want to push too much. “And so even today, Peter’s amazing brain is learning. He has really done great. And that is why we wanted to meet Peter and learn more about how any person with such a hard start in life could do so well?” Then I ended with, “Part of what we learned is that every day in school, Peter learns things from all of you. He watches how you do things, he learns from playing with each of you and he learns from just being your friend. So thank you for helping Peter. And thanks for letting me come and talk about the brain.” It was a short and simple talk. I tried to take an unknown – Peter – and make him less frightening to these children. And over time, their natural goodness emerged. No longer an odd and scary boy, Peter became popular – so popular, in fact, that his peers would argue over who got to sit next to him, who got to be his partner, who got to be in his group. The brightest and strongest children in his class took a special interest in him and their leadership made all the difference. They included him, protected him and, ultimately, provided therapeutic experiences that helped Peter catch up. They were tolerant of his developmental problems, patient in correcting his social mistakes, and nurturing in their interactions. These children provided many more positive therapeutic experiences than we ever could have given Peter. Children, just like us adults, react badly to the unknown, to the strange and unfamiliar, especially when they themselves are trying to adjust to a new situation like the start of a school year. Although their social hierarchies aren’t always so easy to influence, most bullying and social rejection begins with fear of the unfamiliar, and adults have much more influence over the process than they may believe. When children understand why someone behaves oddly, they give him or her more slack, generally. And the younger the children are, the more easily they are influenced by both obvious and subtle cues of rejection and acceptance from adults. These cues often set the tone for the children’s status systems, and teachers and parents can either minimize bullying or unfortunately, maximize it, by either strongly discouraging or tolerating the scapegoating of those who are different. Knowing that Peter’s immature behavior came from his history of deprivation helped his classmates reinterpret it. When he grabbed something or talked out of turn, they no longer saw it as a personal affront or jarring oddity, but simply as a remnant from his past that they’d been taught to expect. The results were rapid: almost immediately he stopped having tantrums and outbursts, probably because what had prompted them was frustration, a sense of rejection and feeling misunderstood. Because the other children were more forgiving and more explicit about the social cues they were giving him, he was able to read them better and thus able to fit in better. What had been a downward spiral of rejection, confusion and frustration became instead a cascade of positive reinforcement, which fed on itself. The huge gaps in developmental age across emotional, social, motor and cognitive domains slowly filled in. By the time Peter reached high school he no longer stood out and he has continued to do well, both academically and socially. His peers and his family healed him by creating a rich social world, a nurturing community. While the neurosequential approach helped us provide the specific stimuli his brain had lacked, massage offering the physical affection that he’d missed, and music and movement to help restore his brain and bodily rhythms, none of that would have been enough without Amy and Jason’s love and sensitivity and without the patience and support of his classmates. The more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely he will be to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.
The Who Boy Was Raised as a Dog And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love, and Healing
BRUCE D. PERRY, M.D., Ph.D. and MAYA SZALAVITZ
In October of 1995 the photograph above showed up in the faculty mailbox of Dr. Peter Yardman,* a professor at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. Depicting a rescue worker rappelled off the roof of a concrete high-rise performing an act of apparent heroism, it took a while before Yardman realized exactly what he was looking at – that it actually had its origins in a course he had offered in Spiritual Economics months previously. Attached to the photo was a short explanation and a simple note of thanks, which both surprised and delighted Yardman.
Based in Native American and far Eastern Spirituality, Yardman’s
course essentially invited people into deep inquiry about money and
spirit. It also gave them something tangible to center their inquiry upon:
Yardman walked into that class the first day and deposited ten, foot-high,
banded stacks of hundred dollar bills on the desk in front of the class.
Each student was instructed to come up and have a picture taken with
“This is a million dollars!” the first student to step up to the desk
exclaimed incredulously. She impulsively scooped up the ten stacks and
held them all in her arms as the picture was snapped. Yardman only
smiled and invited the next student up to the desk. When the picture-
taking was complete, Yardman gave them the prime directive for the
course: to put twelve thousand real dollars to the highest and best use
they could collectively bring to bear. In true trickster fashion, the “million
dollars” that Yardman used as personal philanthropy to fund the class’s
work turned out to actually be ten stacks of real single dollars with
hundred dollar bills placed on the top and bottom – in actuality, only
$12,000, but an amount which exhibited the look, feel, smell, size and
weight of an actual million dollars in cash.
For the next ten weeks the class explored such works as Breton and Largent’s The Soul of Economies, Phillips’ The Seven Laws of Money, Butterworth’s Spiritual Economics and they read a collection of articles in a reader that Yardman had assembled on money and spirit ranging from Freud, to Jung, to John Templeton, to Adam Smith, to Alfred Keynes to Monty Python.
“After he started the largest foundation in American history, Bill Gates is reported to have discovered that it’s almost as difficult to give money away well, as it is to earn it in the first place,” Yardman said. “I think a LOT depends upon your orientation, your expectations and the intentions underlying your philanthropic philosophy.
“When I originally designed it, I had no idea what the results of this course would be. In fact, I hadn’t even planned to offer my own money up for giving away. The idea came to me during that first class. It sent chills through my body, and I knew that it would provide important lessons for everyone involved, especially me.”
According to Yardman, some of the lessons that were provided are still being learned by the students who participated in the class. Surrendering control, learning to trust, and regularly confronting fear are just some of the lessons he and his students grappled with as a result of that pilot course. When it became clear after the first six weeks that it was not going to be possible for the whole class to agree on a single “highest and best use” for the money, Yardman decided to allow the class to self-split into two groups.
The first group immediately made the choice to donate the money to friend of a classmember – Bob Lubin, a lawyer working pro bono, representing a patient suffering from ALS (Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis – Lou Gerhig’s Disease). A large California HMO had contested the woman’s claim to need ‘round-the-clock home care. They were only willing to provide care for 16 hours even though the policy did not limit the number of hours of care required. Caring for her at home had stretched and stressed the family to the breaking point. The money donated by the group allowed Mr. Lubin to obtain many evidentiary elements necessary to successfully press the case. The suit was settled shortly after the Spiritual Economics class ended, eventually resulting in the HMO agreeing to provide ‘round-the-clock care in this instance and in all similar cases. This outcome was unequivocally the highest and best use of the money the first group in Yardman’s class could envision.
The second group had a much more difficult time coming to agreement on the highest and best use for the money and by the end of the ten week course they still had not unanimously decided what to do with the cash. Rather than take the money back and let them off the hook simply because the ten weeks were over, Yardman set up a conferencing website on the Internet and required the group to continue working with the issues until consensus could be reached. He also required them to read two additional books: Zimmerman and Coyle’s The Way of Council and Sheeran’s Beyond Majority Rule. Beyond that, Yardman left them to their own devices.
Less than a month later, the group finally reached consensus agreement: they would give the money to a guy working in his garage right down the street from the Institute!
“My first impulse was an internal contraction,” Yardman confesses. “I thought that the students were possibly trying to waste the money, to somehow get back at me for requiring them to do this extra work on top of their regular load.”
But the guy working in his garage however, turned out to be the husband of a student not enrolled in Yardman’s class. And the work that he was doing in his garage was a work of true mechanical genius: Dan Pomeroy was converting a commercial Stihl chain saw into an eight pound, gasoline driven, portable concrete core drill, one that could bore a four inch hole through twelve inches of concrete in less than 30 seconds! And the picture that arrived in Yardman’s mailbox that autumn afternoon showed a search-and-rescue worker boring such a hole through the collapsed roof of a high-rise with Dan Pomeroy’s successful creation. Once the hole was in place, a spring-loaded grappling hook on a cable was pressed through, it expanded and the derrick on the ground below then lifted up the collapsed concrete section and allowed rescue workers to safely free the people trapped beneath. This procedure has since been used time and again in earthquake and other search-and-rescue operations all over the world. The very first time it was used with Dan’s portable drill was depicted in the photo that Yardman now has hanging in his office: that search-and-rescue worker is suspended from the roof of the Murrah Federal Building shortly after the bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995.
“There’s absolutely NO WAY I could have planned for or directed my money to work on behalf of this effort,” Yardman declares. “The collective wisdom operating within a structure with clear intent and little interference is what ultimately accomplished it.”
* All names and places are true in this account, except for the ones that are false.
Who benefits from support? In fact, those who give support may benefit even more than those who receive it. In one study, recruited non-professionals with multiple sclerosis were trained in active listening and taught to provide support to sixty-seven other people with multiple sclerosis over a two-year period.
The peer supporters were paid ten dollars an hour to provide telephone support for fifteen minutes a month throughout the two-year study.The peer supporters were recruited through several means. Some had volunteered to participate in a pilot group and were selected because they demonstrated an ability to communicate with others in the group and were willing to commit to a two-year effort. The Massachusetts chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society recommended others because they were helpful in volunteer activities.
Peer supporters completed a questionnaire before beginning to give support, and again after one and two years of providing support. The sixty-seven participants who received support also completed questionnaires at the same intervals. Three years after they finished providing active support, the peer telephone supporters were queried about the changes they noticed over the course of their participation in the study. In this follow-up evaluation, the peer supporters reported improvement in more areas as compared to improvements experienced by the patients who received the support. They reported improved listening skills, a stronger awareness of the existence of a higher power, increased self-acceptance, and enhanced self-confidence.
Peer supporters also reported experiencing a sense of inner peace that allowed them to listen to others without judgment or interference. Interestingly, these aspects of well-being accelerated during the second year of the study. As the supporters became more effective and more outer-directed, a shift occurred in the way they thought about themselves.
Participants who received support exhibited change in a number of these areas as well, but the changes were less pronounced than those experienced by the people who provided the support.
What brought about these positive changes for people giving support to others? The authors of the study propose that these shifts occurred because of the number of personal stories the peer supporters exchanged with the people they supported. As they heard more and more stories of other people with multiple sclerosis facing challenges, the supporters were able to disengage from their usual ways of thinking about themselves and their condition. In other words, as their focus moved from concern about themselves to concern for others, their attitudes about their own multiple sclerosis altered as well. As one supporter commented: “It’s tough to get depressed, because you’re helping someone.” Another supporter explained the change this way: “There’s a quietness when I’m talking to someone, and I’m really listening to them. I have to make an effort not to try and top them. It’s gotten easier. And I can listen, and I become interested in what he’s talking about. That’s a change. There’s a quietness in the soul because of it.”
Schwartz, C. E. and Sendor, M. (1999). Helping others helps oneself: Response shift effects in peer support. Social Science & Medicine, 48, No. 11, 1563-1575. In King, J. C. (2004). Cellular wisdom: Decoding the body’s secret language. (204-205). Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts.
When I was a little bitty kiddy, about five, my Dad began a process … anytime somebody came and said something to us, my dad would say, “You remember what he said, honey girl?” I would tell my father what the person said until I got so good at it that I could repeat verbatim even long presentations of what the person had said.
And he did this all the time.
Finally, one day there was this old gentleman, Richard Thompson. I still remember his name. He lived across the street, and every time my Dad started to mow the lawn, there came Mr. Thompson. And so I would stand out there.
Dad says, “You might come and listen to this man, honey girl. He’s pretty interesting.” And so I listened to him, and then my dad would say, “What did you hear him say?” And I would tell him.
Well, eventually I was repeating all the stories he liked to share with my dad verbatim.
I knew them all by heart.
And my Dad says, “You’re getting pretty good at that. But did you hear his heart?” And I thought, what? So I went around for days with my ear to people’s chest trying to hear their hearts.
Finally, my Dad created another learning situation for me by asking my mother to read an article from the newspaper. He says “Well, I guess if you want to understand that article, you have to read between the lines.”
I thought, “Oh, read between the lines. Hear between the words.”
So, the next time I listened to Mr. Thompson’s stories, I tried to listen between the words. My Dad said, “I know you know his story, but did you hear his heart?”
And I said, “Yes. He is very lonely and comes and shares his memories with you again and again because he’s asking you to keep him company in his memories.”
It just came out of me. In other words, my heart echoed his heart.
And when you can listen at that level, then you can hear not only the people. If you really pay attention, you can hear what the Universe is saying.
~ Paula Underwood, clan mother of the Turtle clan, Iroquois nation
Brand New Mobile 6′ x 8’
“Roll It Into the Back Yard and Plug It In!”
All new construction. 115 amp electric camper outlet.
New Lock. Cedar exterior. Interior Unfinished.
Mounted on four 8” hard rubber wheels.
Emergency Garden Storage
Fill with any number of these provisions:
Other Possible Uses:
Stress Relief Sanctuary
Personal Yoga Studio
Rentable Storage Unit
Sensory Dep Chamber
Mobile Spare Bedroom
Detached Home Office
10 Feet Across the Front Roof
120” Front Height from the Ground
102″ Side Eave to Eave
44” x 50” Wheel Centers
Weight: @ 2200#
Brand New Mobile 6′ x 8’
“Roll It Into the Back Yard and Plug It In!”
All new construction. 115 amp electric camper outlet.
New Lock. Cedar exterior. Interior Unfinished.
Mounted on four 8” hard rubber wheels.
Imagine: it’s early on a cold weekday morning. The Apocalypse is upon us. But you and your family are fully prepared. You have this locked storehouse filled with any number of these provisions:
Other Possible Uses:
Stress Relief Sanctuary
Personal Yoga Studio
Rentable Storage Unit
Sensory Dep Chamber
Mobile Spare Bedroom
Detached Home Office
10 Feet Across the Front Roof
120” Front Height from the Ground
102″ Side Eave to Eave
44” x 50” Wheel Centers
Weight: @ 2200#