On a warm Sunday evening a week ago, we were sitting outside watching the kids play four square and draw with sidewalk chalk. Daniel had been drawing a while when Robert told me I should look at Daniel’s drawing.
The chalk drawing was like the drawings I had found in Daniel’s note book – stick figures killing each other in various ways. This time it was a stick figure shooting a gun. The gun was large compared to the figure holding it. The bullet trajectory represented by a dashed line. The second stick figure’s body was curved around the end of the bullet. His face was no longer a circle but rather a half-moon with x’d out eyes. Daniel hadn’t yet filled in the usual dripping pools of blood.
I asked Daniel about the picture.
“Why is there so much violence in your pictures?”
“That is just my imagination.” he replied.
As I sat down next to my husband, I explained the drawings and asked if he thought I was over-reacting to be concerned.
“No. Daniel’s frustration sometimes presents itself in violent speech or loud violent screams. Occasionally, he has trouble keeping his hands to himself. That combined with the pictures is reason for concern.”
Immediately, I felt overwhelmed. Daniel had recently broken an extended period of successful behavior at school with a series of incidents. Most had been invading other peoples’ personal space in innocuous ways such as poking but there had been a biting incident as well. I felt like there was no way I was ever going to be ultimately successful in preparing Daniel for life.
I also felt worried that people would see these pictures. I felt an instant pressure that I needed to fix this now. My fear was that before I had time to successfully work with Daniel to address the thoughts, frustrations and stress behind these drawings, Daniel might suffer the stigma associated with violent expressions in our post Columbine world.
After dinner, I sat down and had a conversation with Daniel.
“I am concerned with your pictures. But more then the actual pictures, I am concerned that you are having so many violent thoughts.” I explained.
“Drawing those pictures keeps me from picking at my scabs. And anyway, it is like a cartoon, no one actually gets hurt.” Daniel said.
Daniel had become an obsessive scab picker about a year ago. Small bug bites on his arms had been repeated picked until the picking became gnawing. The small scabs became quarter sized or larger wounds. Finally, we had to bandage his arm to allow them to heal. Daniel had explained that the picking was to release stress. We attempted to teach him other stress managing techniques such as pressure points in his hands. It seemed to work and slowly the scabs healed. He still has scars on his arm. Recently, he had a minor picking relapse, but again that seemed to have been handled. I was unaware that Daniel had come up with his own remedy.
“My concern, Daniel, is that thinking and imagining violence so often will make you comfortable with violence. I am afraid that you might start to feel that even violence in real life doesn’t really hurt anyone.” I continued.
“I am not going to hurt anyone, mom.” Daniel protested.
“I don’t think you would ever intend to hurt anyone, but there have been times when you are playing and you don’t intend to hurt but you get carried away with the imagination of the game and someone does get hurt.” I replied. “I want you to know that in real life, violence hurts more than just the person who receives the violence. It hurt their family and it hurts the person who commits the violence by destroying their natural resistance to hurting others.”
Daniel got quiet. Then he said, “Like your family.”
I have told Daniel that I no longer have anything to do with my biological father because he is a violent man.
“Yes, like in my family. I saw my father’s violence hurt all of us and hurt him too. I want you to practice choosing thoughts that are of protecting people, helping others and kind actions.”
I hugged Daniel. “I believe you are a good person and that you don’t want to hurt anyone! I love you!”
“I love you too.” Daniel replied.
The next morning, as we piled into the car for the drive to school, Daniel brought up the drawings again. He again took the stand that doodling keeps him from picking scabs. I told him that I agreed that he should doodle.
He said those were just his thoughts. I asked him how he would feel if I drew pictures of children being beaten and hurt. He said it would scare him. I asked why. He said because he would be afraid I would do those things to him.
I responded, “But they are just my imagination!”
His frustrated response showed he got the point.
I explained that I didn’t care so much what he drew as what he let himself spend a lot of time thinking about. After a couple of times of him telling me I would just have to live with it scripture from my childhood popped into my head. I usually don’t quote scripture to my kids, but these seemed a perfect fit.
“As a man thinks within himself, so is he.” Proverbs 23:7
“Whatever things are true, whatever things are honest, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever is of good report, and if there be any virtue… think on these things.” Philippians 4:8 (I didn’t quote the verse verbatim or include everything in the list I just gave, but I think I got “true, just, good, and pure.”)
Daniel, of course didn’t agree.
I used the article about Dean, the man with schizophrenia, to illustrate my point that Daniel has the ability to control his thoughts. I reminded him again that he chooses what he is going to give a mental audience to. I explained that I even though expected him to change his thoughts I understood that at first it would be hard. I encouraged him that it would get easier.
Daniel’s frustration showed in every body movement as he left the car. Our conversation felt incomplete. As his mother, I worried. I had left him more stressed than was safe at the beginning of a school Monday.
A conversation with my mother helped me redirect my thoughts and get some perspective.
Daniel has successfully found a way to deal with the stress that was causing a self harming behavior, scab picking. Now, he is being told that not only is the release he has found disturbing, but that the thoughts are bad. I can only imagine how overwhelming that must be for him.
The reality is all of us have our shadow side. Demonstrated throughout history in plays, dramas and comic book heroes, this shadow side can not be eliminated. Instead each of us must learn how to deal with it. In life and literature the shadow is darkest for those who have the brightest light behind it.
It is also legitimate to mitigate the impact of our shadow side in our everyday lives through drawings and stories. Many artists have illustrated and told the stories of tortured superheroes without becoming violent.
I need to validate to Daniel the work that his has done in finding a way to relieve stress without hurting himself or others. Instead of presenting to him how far away he is from the goal, I need to come along side of him by showing him that there is another step needed. That is the difference between working with my more typical son, The Bear and working with Daniel. I have to remember the steps are smaller with Daniel and he will require more help defining them.
My husband reminded me of The Hulk in an email later that morning. “Bruce Banner was in hiding and working with a martial arts expert to learn how to control his body and breathing in order to keep his temper and heart rate under control. Until he could get his physical response to frustration and anger under control, he could never have relationships or the life he wanted to have.”
This could be a great tool in demonstrating to Daniel the work to be done and the pay off for doing that work.
As always, the continuing goal is that Daniel will learn the life skills to face his shadow side without fear, finding the light behind it and find the life he wants.