June 2nd, 2008
It was a sound I had not heard in months; a sound all too reminiscent of the difficult trials of that first month home. My daughter was loosing control. I could hear the hysteria creep into her voice. When I looked, her cheeks were flushed, tears filled her eyes, her fists were clenched. She began to strike herself.
This was a common routine for us a year ago. It was something that happened with such frequency that our days were defined by the all too rare calm moments in between. In those days, however, she struck not only herself, but anything and everything around her. In those days, our parenting skills were as unformed as our daughters skills at processing intense emotion. Many times we fed the hysteria through our inexperience.
Though the return of old behaviors was a surprise, we at least had a year behind us. In earlier days, I would have misinterpreted her refusal to respond to a simple request as defiance. But I have since learned. My daughter was afraid. Of what, I didn’t know. But something terrified her.
What I had asked her to do was write her name. For a few months, she has been able to write her first name. This time I asked her to write her first and last name. The moment I asked that, she started to tremble. And the more I tried to lead her away from the hysteria, the more hysterical she became. “I am NOT going to write my name! It’s STUPID to write my name! Awwwww, I can’t DO THIS! Go away paper!” she said as she threw the pen in one direction and the all the papers around in in the remaining directions.
Something terrified her, but I had no idea what it was. “It is ok to be upset Daschinka, but you —”, I started to say. “It’s NOT OK. You can’t say that!” And then she started screaming, kicking. She started hitting her shins, her arms, her head. She let go of all semblance of control. I picked her up, her paper, and her pen and carried her kicking to her room.
Something set her off. Was it the prospect of acknowledging her last name? Was it the structure of having to complete an assignment? Was it defiance after all? No, this was fear. I didn’t have a clue what that fear was and I had to make a decision: follow through on the task or accept that it was too much to confront whatever fear the writing of her name was causing.
She was trembling and gasping now. But when I looked into her eyes, I saw a pleading. She wanted me to force her to write her name. She was giving up, but she didn’t want me to give up. I walked back to the living room to the sounds of her pleading screams: “Papa, don’t leave me; you can’t leave me.”
I looked at the scattered papers and pens. How do I help my little girl find peace? I closed my eyes and let out a breath. I picked up some of the discarded paper, turned around and headed back to her room. I shut the door behind me, walked over to her, and sat on the floor in front of her. I placed a piece of paper on the floor and said to her sternly “Dascha, you are going to write your name. You can scream all you want, but I won’t go away until we do this together.”
She stopped shaking and slowly looked up at me. Her eyes locked on mine. For a moment she fell silent and then she opened her mouth and screamed. It was that piercing pitch that vibrates the core of your brain. I pulled my eyes from her and began instructing her on how to write her first and last name. I hadn’t thought it possible, but she managed to scream louder.
I passed a blank piece of paper to her and told her to write a ‘D’. She continued to scream, but she picked up the pen and wrote the letter D. “Dascha!” I said with a thought. “You want to watch a DVD, don’t you.” That got her quiet fast. She gave me a slight nod. “Well, to see a movie, you need a ticket. To make a ticket, all you have to do is write your name.” That got her loud again. “I CAN’T WRITE MY NAME. I DON’T KNOW HOW TO DO IT. I DON’T KNOW HOW TO CALM DOWN. I CAN’T, I CAN’T, I CAN’T, I CAN’T” she said escalating the volume into a scream until eventually she threw the pen and paper again. Once again she began hitting herself.
“DASCHA!”, I yelled. Then paused to remind myself not to get angry. “The next letter is ‘A’.” I said softly. “Write the ‘A’.” I handed her back the paper and the pen. Five minutes later after a repeated cycle of her screaming, throwing, and me giving her the paper she wrote the letter ‘A’. I had had enough. I got up and then real terror entered her eyes. She began flapping her arms and pleaded with me not to leave. There it was again. She was asking me to force her to finish.
I didn’t want to reward her over the top behavior, but my gut told me she wasn’t doing this for attention. She was really afraid of something. She wanted to confront it, but didn’t know how. I sat back down and told her to write the letter ‘R’. What came next was far beyond anything that had yet happened. After about ten minutes, she calmed enough for me to show her how to write an ‘R’. “IT WON’T LOOK GOOD! I can’t do this. I am no good. Every time I try it looks wrong and peoples at school looks right, they do it ri–” she cut her self off as if she revealed too much. She was heaving as she spoke. And I looked at her and understood. I heard the voice in her head that drove her panic. “I am garbage,” it said. “I am something that is thrown away. I am something that HAS been thrown away.”
It came down to the fact that she didn’t know how to write the letters ‘R’, ‘T’, and ‘N’ and that when she tried to do that, when it wasn’t perfect, it validated that deepest fear inside her.
There was not going to be any rationalizing with her. There was not going to be any consoling her. This fear was too strong, and had such a grip on her. But I also understood why it was so important to stick with it. She had to be shown that this was something that she could do. That that voice inside her was wrong. SHE wanted to show herself that that voice was wrong. So letter by letter, scream by scream, she wrote her name. She had her movie ticket and she proudly presented it to Tanya so she could watch her DVD.
I now I finish this story by writing directly to you, my sweet Daschinka. For the next day you made me so very proud. Proud and awed by your determination. You woke me, that next morning. The first thing you said was “Papa, I want to write my name. I am going to get back in the race.” (This was a reference to the Frank Sinatra song , ‘That’s Life’, that we always listen to). “I want to write my name.” I could see the fear was still there, sitting just behind your eyes. But somehow, it could not get a grip on you. You stood your ground. Not even five, you were willing to face your greatest fear. And perhaps, just perhaps, you began to see in yourself the treasure that you are.
That morning you wrote your name twice.