If I Was My Therapist, this is what I would write about those weird Watsons–that family that no one quite knows how to deal with, a family that at other times would have easily been described as “salt of the Earth”, actively engaged in the cause of good. They may be a little off the beaten path, but there is no denying that every member has depth, purpose, value, and a deep love for their faith and their fellow man. If I Was My Therapist, I would give this letter to anyone and everyone. I would challenge them to prove me wrong, or incompetent or unprofessional because I dared take them on. Bishops, Relief Society Presidents, friends, teachers, family, community leaders, policy makers, newspapers, churches of any variety, charities, the media, anyone who cared to read, to learn, to grow, to better our community. Because in the Watson’s story of recovery, just like the stories of millions of others who have recovered, then thrived after trauma (and I wont be ashamed of claiming this, since I believe it to be true) there is something that applies to all human suffering.
Friends, Family and Concerned Citizens,
I am writing this letter at the request of the Watson’s, who have been under my care since July 2010. I am a Masters level Licensed Social Worker in this state, and specialize in treatment of traumatized women and children. I informed the Watsons early on in their treatment that due to difficulties with keeping appropriate boundaries, it is not general practice in my profession to treat an entire family. However, since some of the Watsons had been on long waiting lists for treatment from other professionals, and due to the complicated nature of their trauma, I agreed to take them all on as clients. Throughout the process, I have consulted numerous fellow professionals in the field for continued training and guidance in handling the Watson’s high needs and unusual circumstances. I am not a personal friend of the Watsons, as it would compromise our therapeutic relationship if I was. My sole interest in this family is to facilitate healing. This is my chosen profession and my passion.
It has come to my attention that some friends and extended family members are expressing concern for the Watsons and how they are handling their difficult situation. Specifically there is concern that they are not healing and have made little progress in their mental health; are unwisely isolating themselves from their community; are not attending to their spiritual and physical health needs; have become unjustifiably angry, defensive and over-protective. Many friends and family are naturally concerned and confused as to how they can best support this family.
First let me assure everyone, that the Watsons are indeed healing and making tremendous progress in their recovery. I have been impressed with their efforts and can attest that they have handled their trials with engagement and effort that I have rarely seen in clients with such severe, long-term trauma. They are a strong, energetic, loving family that is tackling a myriad of issues and circumstances that have come to them through no fault of their own–severe trauma that most people in their community never experienced, let alone on multiple occasions and consecutively. They are a perfect example of the cliche, that bad things can happen to good people. Unfortunately, the supports they had in place have proven to be inadequate and/or incompetent. They have been let down by the justice system, their spiritual leaders, their employer, and much of the medical and mental health community. I have been astounded that with so many systems failing them, they have coped, and survived. Their financial survival thus far has been nothing short of miraculous, for which Ruth tells me she considers like the olive oil preserved by and increased by God for the lighting of the Menorah in the reclaimed temple during the time of the Maccabees.
It is unreasonable to assume that the success of Fred’s surgery, would magically heal the entire scope of the Watsons’ problems. Fred’s physical condition was simply a variable that had to be eliminated or reduced before proceeding to the many other issues at hand. It will take the Watsons several more years of intense therapy and hard work to fully rehabilitate. It is unlikely any of them will ever return to their pre-trauma condition. The youngest among them have experienced trauma for their entire lives, during their formative years. They will never be “normal”, if there really is such a thing. While friends and family may not see changes this last year, the changes and progress forward have been substantial. Off and on regression in their healing process is normal and should be expected.
Among the positive changes are the Watsons’ strengthening ability to prioritize their time. Every one of the children qualifies for full time residential treatment, yet the Watsons have chosen to provide this support themselves, at times even against my advice. I have learned they always weigh their choices carefully, and capably. Having such high needs children, means that running the Watson household requires at least four full time mental health professionals and support staff. This task is being accomplished by two well intentioned but also traumatized adults. Once Boe finds full time work, Ruth will be running the house primarily on her own. That leaves very little time for phone calls, emails, church callings, community and extended family responsibilities.
Another positive change is their ability to set stronger boundaries. Under my advice they are limiting any relationships that aren’t directly supportive and therapeutic. To be honest, I advised them to make deeper cuts, but again, they have proven that they can be excellent judges of character themselves. This is understandably painful for many of their closest family and friend relations, and wouldn’t be necessary if the Watsons didn’t already have more than impossible burdens to bear. Please understand that this is not a reflection of their love and regard to extended family and friends. By nature the Watsons are nurturing, loving, and supportive. However, it is imperative that they concentrate these positive traits and all their energies toward their immediate needs. Those needs include: Finding full time work or other means of financial support such as government stipends etc.
Putting their house in order in case of the likely event that they will need to sell or move
Competent medical and mental health care for the family
Adequate and informed supervision and supportive activities for the children
“Downtime” to process their feelings and find enjoyment in each other and on their own.
All These leave little if any time for for extended family and friendship responsibilities including reaching out for birthdays, holidays, community and church events.
The Watsons are by no means isolating themselves. They have signed numerous releases of information forms that have enabled me to be in close contact with their support system and providers. All the children are attending full time public school, in spite of Ruth’s strong belief in homeschooling. This decision was based on advice from several well established professionals in the field of child psychology. Ruth is still involved with her painting friends and even finds the occasional opportunity to relax and paint between her storms. Boe has enjoyed a new small community of friends in his massage therapy pursuits that support him yet demand little of his time. He is blossoming in the alternative therapy field, and I expect he will grow to facilitate much healing himself in the near future. Bill is involved in a club at his college and is making good grades and informed choices in school. Tori participates in scouting and track and field at school. Both of the younger boys are looking forward to participating in bible camp and if the Watsons can find the financial resources, Martial arts summer camp. While Fred has had some set backs, he is learning to make friends at school and is showing a surprising new talent in history. Obviously their involvement in these has been severely limited due to time constraints. Professionally they are in regular contact with their primary physician, me, an occupational therapist, school counselors and nurses, psychiatrists, neuropsychologists, masters level occupational counselors, neurologist, neurosurgeon, chiropractor, massage therapists, hospitals, residential treatments facilities, the brain injury center, numerous government professionals; professional online forums and support groups. The Watsons are not withdrawing from society. They are simply limiting their involvement to the activities that provide the highest levels of support for their individual needs.
It is a well documented fact that children who have been physically and sexual abused will act out their abuse. It is also well documented that victims of abuse are much more likely to be abused again. Statistically speaking victims of trauma and childhood abuse are more likely to develop chronic health and mental health illnesses. Fortunately, it is uncommon for those who have been abused to become abusers. Proper supervision, awareness, and strong boundaries and limitations will help the Watson boys re-learn proper socially appropriate behavior. It is imperative that the Watson boys have proper supervision, and informed support. They should not go to neighbors or friends without their primary caregiver. As they become better behaved and are able to show safe boundaries, this restriction will change. They will continue to have toileting challenges and should never be shamed for having “accidents”. Skippy still needs a lot of time and privacy in going to the bathroom and is still too vulnerable to go to public bathrooms by himself (including at church). Both younger boys need repeated reminders regarding toilet etiquette like wiping, flushing and, washing their hands. If they are shamed for not getting it right it will make going to the bathroom an even more of an unpleasant experience. They should also never be shamed for sexually acting out, acting aggressively, expressing their needs and wants inappropriately, or having what may seem unreasonable fears. Diminishing and shaming these behaviors will only further entrench their belief that they were hurt because they were bad. While it is important not to shame or diminish, it is also important that the children recognize inappropriate behavior and take responsibility for it. They respond well to positive rewards (particularly candy, stars, small gifts or any sort of realistic incentives), redirection, and “loaded”choices (as in you can choose to throw a fit in your room, or calm down and have me read with you). Time warnings before transitions, and limiting stimulation by keeping social groups small and quiet can also greatly decrease anxiety driven misbehaviors. The boys need healthy structured outlets for their high energy. Unstructured time must be very limited and always under close supervision. All the boys have a safety plan that should be reviewed with every caregiver so that the children understand that the limitations and boundaries apply regardless of their environment. Traumatized children, as well children in the autism spectrums (which the Watson boys are in) can also have sensory integration issues. They may be to loud, too quiet, cover their ears or eyes at odd times, get to close into personal space or withdraw physically; become over or under active, space out and daydream, have unexpected or inappropriate facial expressions or not be able to understand standard social cues. They are often picky eaters, with seemingly strange and changing aversions to food and textures. Avoid judging them as simply oppositional during these times. Asking them to eat lettuce is like telling someone with arachnophobia to pick up a spider. It’s just setting everyone up for failure. Set clear and reasonable expectation. Be clear, specific, ask simple questions, and expect A LOT of repetition. All of these behaviors are quite normal for children within the Autism spectrum and children who have had severe early trauma. If you pay close attention, you will find other fascinating and very positive “quirks” with the Watson children. Expect to be charmed and dazzled if they are having a good day. Exhausted if they are having a bad day, and most likely a little of both.
Because the Watsons are facing their trauma head on, it should be expected that they will be more sensitive to seemingly inoffensive remarks and situations. You can draw a parallel from cancer patients who are going through chemotherapy. All their therapy is focused on eliminating deadly cancer cells. But the very process that provides healing will also render them with no natural immunity to otherwise harmless viruses like the common cold. In addressing the Watsons recent trauma, every individually uncomfortable event that they formally disregarded will come to the surface. These are not recovered memories, but memories that compounded with the current trauma have developed a much stronger “sting” than they had originally. With the added focus, insight, and education, every memory and incident takes on new meaning and analysis. All emotion and experience becomes like new skin that is extremely sensitive to touch, and damage. The Watsons seem ultra sensitive because they ARE ultra sensitive. This is one of the reasons that strong boundaries are imperative for their protection. As they learn to resolve, forgive, and heal more fully, this new “skin”will acclimatize and again become an efficient filter and protection for them. Be prepared that there will likely always be sensitive areas, scars if you will, that will need to be “touched” lightly and empathetically, or all together avoided if possible. Trust that the Watsons are learning where those scars are and how to avoid having them touched. Forcing them into these painful situations too soon will only open up old wounds and make them harder to heal.
Since the Watsons are tackling such difficult issues, they are not likely to be able to relate to every-day sort of troubles. Expressing frustration over minor inconveniences will only alienate them when they are struggling to make ends meet and scraping human excrement from their washer and dryer. They would like nothing more than to return to the days that sibling rivalry, keeping their carpet clean, finding time for romance, or saving up for their sons missions and college were their worst problems. Keep conversation light and positive, enforcing that life has continued with its many rewards, and that there are indeed people who are not as burdened as they are. Leave counseling, questioning and venting to either professionals, or people who have been through similar trauma. This is the premise and rewarding model of support groups, that can better handle and relate to the Watsons needs. If you truly want to hear their grievances, be prepared to just listen. They won’t always make sense or be accurate. These are their feelings. They are not right or wrong, dangerous or safe. They are amoral. They are just feelings, meant to signal human need, danger, and protection. The Watsons already judge themselves and their feelings too harshly. Please don’t fuel their already low trust of themselves by telling them the feelings are wrong. There is little sense in disagreeing with feelings. While the Watsons perceptions, like all humans, can be mistaken, their view still needs to be validated in order for them to gain the confidence they need in their capacity to protect themselves. They are very open to being wrong, in fact too open. Consider instead that perhaps they are right, as I have found they often are, challenging assumptions that are easy to make under less stressful circumstances. If you find yourself getting angry, just tell them, “what you are saying is hurting me”. Trust me, they’ll stop. The Watsons are not for hurting, they are simply trying to learn to protect themselves.
Another common effect of trauma is the questioning of ones faith and spirituality. This is particularly the case in very structured and patriarchal religions such as the Watsons were born into and subscribe to. They are seeking reconciliation as blinders are being removed from their eyes and they transition from a childlike faith, to a tested faith. Again, this will take time and a lot of direct pointed discussions without judgement. They need honest answers, even if those answers are, ” I dont know”. They will easily see through cliches, religious myths, and cover-ups. Making apologies and proving reconciliation where appropriate for mistakes made at their expense will probably gain back their trust and forgiveness the quickest, if it is at all possible. But their trauma also gives them an increased capacity to understand and be compassionate to human error. They already know their ecclesiastic leaders don’t have all, if any, of the answers and they are searching for. They are more likely to resume activity in church if they are not pushed to accept it unquestioningly, and in totality. They have learned from experience that their faith and adherence to their value system does not protect them from tragedy and pain. Reciting incidents of miraculous protection and healing does not promote their faith. Such stories will either drive them to wonder what was so bad about them that they weren’t spared, or drive them further from what they will perceive as inferred accusation of non-faithfulness. Neither of these will facilitate healing. Present them the facts, the good and the bad, the miracles and tragedies (most likely they are already painfully aware of the tragedies and injustices in their religion), as these have been presented to them while they sought out answers to their particular challenges. However, diminishing their belief system is also very damaging, removing a vital support and comfort they have enjoyed and counted in all their lives. It is one of the few supports that has not fully crumbled under the weight of their trials. Forcing the remaining threads to be cut could also have catastrophic results for the entire family. All the Watsons enjoy discussing spiritual matters. Encourage their questions and research, exchange inspired and well researched articles, encourage prayer, music and mediation, and give them the time to do it. Believe and reiterate that they are capable of finding the answers that will support them spiritually.
Finally, I believe the Watsons themselves know their needs best. Ruth has sent me the a list of needs that friends and extended family can accommodate and help with. You can find that list in the previous post titled “Needs”. I recommend that you choose a primary coordinator to regularly check in with the Watsons as tasks are accomplished and needs change. Like I mentioned, their schedule is already very full and having someone outside of the professional community checking in on their progress, facilitating needs, and helping them coordinate and better organize while they are in crisis would be a welcomed support in their recovery. Of course the Watsons do not expect or demand this service.
I have enjoyed working with this resilient family and aiding in educating their support systems. The Watsons are blessed to have so many who care for them. It is my experience, that similar supports, if compassionately and appropriately given, can and do facilitate recovery better than any professional rehabilitation or therapy.
If I Was My Therapist
Perhaps not everyone needs this sort of purposeful disassociation in order to feel the right to advocate for themselves. But for me, it helped to hide safely behind credentials, partially due to my feelings that I am not listened to seriously otherwise. Kinda sad, why do I need credentials to speak about issue my family is well acquainted with? At any rate, what would YOU write if you were your therapist? Or Pastor? Or Doctor? Or teacher? Or attorney? Any sort of credentialed authority? What would you say that without those credentials you would not be taken seriously? I promise, I’m only as crazy as I sound. Give it a try!