I still don’t know much of her story. But I learned more on a park bench.
Water balloons were being launched nearby, and I could hear the music of carnival games and the laughter of the bounce house. But I was on a park bench. With Amanda. The girl who had come back.
She was sullen today – a thing I’d come to expect since meeting her last summer at camp, though this year her scowl had been notably less prevalent. In fact, I’d seen such change in her that without her floppy curly hair it would be tempting to think it was a different child at camp this year. I saw her dance during the silly songs. I saw her play with other kids. I saw her control her temper. I saw her literally bite her tongue on mean and nasty words, swallow them, and extend a hand of friendship to another girl.
All week long, Amanda had shocked me. Amazed me. She’d been … nice.
But today, across the park bench from me, her shoulders slumped and her face was hard. She didn’t want to talk, which I had learned to be okay with. I heard her softly humming the Royal Family Kids Camp song under her breath, and I quietly sung along to the tune. Like a quiet tribute to another year of camp coming to an end. She would come back – we both knew that now – but there would be 51 weeks of non-camp in between.
Oh how I wondered what those 51 weeks would look like, though I’d learned enough to not ask. Camp is about taking a break from home-life, not being pelted with questions about it.
So we sat. And hummed.
With her head still bowed low, she puffed out a deep breath to blow her bangs away from her eyes, and mumbled a question about why she doesn’t have any friends and no one likes her. Oh Amanda, you have friends. I’m your friend, and I’ve watched you make so many amazing choices this week to be a good friend to the other kids.
She then told me how much she wanted to be a good friend, but found it so hard. Because she’d get angry. And hit. Because she’d get frustrated. And cuss.
I know, I’ve seen you do all of that. But I’ve also seen you choose not to.
She told me about the adults in her life who would sentence her to various forms of punishment when she’d lash out, making her feel more stuck and more angry. I can’t blame them, but I also have a hard time blaming her. Ten year olds aren’t supposed to know that kind of violence or language.
As we talked, I noticed something. A repeated motion. A nervous move. A thumbnail repeatedly pushed into her cuticle on the opposite hand.
Why are you doing that with your hands, Amanda?
Because I cut when I’m nervous.
Like you’re doing now, with your nails? (Asked in a breathy, hopeful, please-God-let-her-not-know-what-“real”-cutting-even-means tone)
No, usually with a knife.
My insides crumbled. Dear Jesus, she’s ten. And she cuts herself. With knives. I learned later that she had brought a knife to Camp, but on the very first day she had voluntarily turned it over to her counselor with the words “I don’t need this here.”
I don’t need this here. Not here where I’m safe. Not here where I’m not nervous. Not here where I can be my absolute worst and still be loved. Not here where I am seeing glimpses of my best. Not here where I have friends and super-heroes. But today, on the last day of this week in this safe place, I’m getting nervous. I’m returning to old habits.
Having zero training in psychology, I took a risk. I decided to give her some very direct, grown-up information, knowing that she can call an adult’s BS like no one’s business, so sugar coating wasn’t going to work.
Do you know that when you cut yourself, it’s because your body wants something called serotonin?
A shy glance my way. What’s that?
It’s a chemical that your body makes. It makes you feel better. It makes you feel safe and happy for a little while. And when you cut yourself, your body makes a little bit of serotonin.
Silence. I plunge ahead.
But there’s actually another way you can get serotonin without cutting yourself.
Still dubious, but I have her full attention now. Her eyes are full of defiance, warning me not to offer her any stupid fluffy information or one more lie in her life.
I promise I’m telling you the truth, Amanda – you can ask your therapist or any of the other Counselors here.
You can get serotonin through hugs.
Head bowed, I think I’ve lost her for now. Dang, I went too far, used too many big, technical words and made her feel like a patient instead of a kid. But then, as quiet as a whisper, with head still bowed low …
I like hugs.
Can I give you a hug right now?
A tiny head nod, and I stood. This fierce, strong ten year old, whose “hugs” had previously consisted of squeezing competitions, stood in my embrace for what seemed like hours, though it was really only minutes.
Amanda, any time that you want to cut, I want you to find a safe person for a safe hug instead.
Safe hugs from safe people. Words you learn to use when you spend a week among children who have been exposed to the opposite.
While there’s a lot more to the psychology of Amanda’s cutting – and healing – than hugs, I saw this knowledge empower her. Over the remaining twenty-four hours of Camp, I saw Amanda reach out for many a safe hug. Quick, short little bursts of “I need a hug!”, a quick side squeeze from one of the safe adults at Camp, and each time I saw one, my heart squeezed a little more.
Amanda lives in a world that we can’t enter throughout the year. The adult who is responsible for her doesn’t want to allow the Christian-Camp-people to influence her upbringing all 52 weeks of the year. But for some reason, we get that one. That one week of Camp that she comes back for every year.
Camp isn’t the only healthy part of Amanda’s life – she has counselors and others who are diligently working to improve her mental and emotional health. And sometimes, it’s easy to wonder how much good can truly be done in just one week a year. It’s easy to feel like it’s not enough.
But then there are moments on a park bench, when you know that you wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else. When you can see the power of a week. When you get a front row seat to a life changing before your eyes. And when you get to play the ittiest bittiest of parts.
I’ll never again question the value of one short week or one simple hug. It can change a life – it’s certainly changed mine.
Applications to the Royal Family Kids Camp we work at each summer can be found here.
Or find a camp near YOU.