The Case I Can’t Forget is a weekly series that hears from the people working at the coalface of public service about the cases they have carried with them throughout their careers.
This week, Lorraine Bustard, counsellor for Addaction South Lanarkshire writes. She works for the public health commissioned substance misuse service. It was there that she met Emma*, a 17-year-old who had been homeless and was struggling with substance abuse.
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The first time Emma* walked into my therapy room I immediately felt drawn to her. She was 17 years old, with a hesitant but genuine half-smile, hunched shoulders and a nervous, fitful gaze. Her body would tense at the bang of a door yet there was an elegance and dignity in the way she sat on the edge of the chair and a palpable sense of strength in the room when she spoke.
A homeless unit referred Emma into Addaction South Lanarkshire’s substance misuse service. When she told her key worker about her traumatic upbringing they referred her onto me, a counsellor for people with a history of childhood trauma. At first, due to years of being moved from service to service, she was wary of me and my intentions. But over time we forged a rare and precious relationship. When the pain of her past meant she struggled to breathe we would blow bubbles together. On other days, when words were of no use, we would sit colouring inside a fort of soft cushions on the floor, or just listen to the Scottish rain peppering the roof. When rage consumed her we would furiously throw a ball at the wall. But amongst all this pain, we laughed. She could still find moments of joy and happiness in the simplest and silliest of places. I loved that about her.
One day, many months into our work together, Emma quietly told me that she wanted to tell me her story. She asked me to turn my chair around because her misplaced sense of shame was so strong that she couldn’t bear to have me look at her. In the quiet stillness of our therapy room she spoke of horrendously violent sexual abuse, neglectful foster carers and terrifying homeless units. She spoke of teenage rape and of the desperate sadness of being completely alone in the world. I was with her for every word of it. I matched every one of her tears and in every faltering silence, I reassured her that I was right there with her. When I turned to face her she was bewildered that I had been crying. I told her: “I am crying because I care deeply for you and it really pains me that you were so badly hurt.” She laughed, saying: “It’s ok, lots of people have had it worse” to which I replied: “It’s not ok.” Her eyes filled with tears and she shook her head. Choking with my own tears I too shook mine: our silent, mutual acknowledgement that what happened to her was not OK and never will be.
I made no attempt to be stoic when Emma shared her story with me, wanting to honour her suffering by allowing her to see that I was affected by it. Clients often seem to think of their therapist as a mythical, serene creature who’s unfazed by life’s struggles but I see myself as no different to the people that I work with. While her experiences were very different to mine, her feeling of being all alone struck a chord with me. I was a similar age to Emma when I left Ireland to move alone to the UK following my mother’s death. I connected with the scattered and shattered sense of self and my own unhealed wound of the motherless child. Her story allowed me to touch my own pain, to tend to parts of myself that are still healing. Yes, I am a counsellor to my clients but more importantly I am connecting with them as a human being and this means that I strive to offer them my most genuine self. This helps to equalise the power in our relationship, paving the way for an open and honest connection.
Sometimes after we met I would have to leave the office to go for a walk to help process the rage I felt at the abuse she was subjected to. Other times I was so moved by her courage and hope that my heart was fit to burst with pride for her. Often I felt profound sadness. Yet, through her I saw the very best of humanity: our capacity for strength and resilience, for hope and love.
Emma’s experience also shines a light on the punitive way we often treat people who use substances to cope with the pain of childhood trauma. She spoke of being arrested by police and evicted from housing units. She told me how she used drugs and alcohol to help block out the pain, and that without them she feared she would kill herself. Yet mental health services told her they couldn’t help until she stopped using the very things she felt were keeping her alive. She remained trapped in this awful cycle of trauma – behaviours which were her best attempt to keep living – punishment, shame and powerlessness. No wonder she was crippled by flashbacks and haunted by nightmares. I feel no need to apportion blame. I believe that we’re all doing our best under extremely challenging circumstances. But I recognise that as services, as a society, as people, we must do better.
After almost a year of working together, Emma suddenly stopped coming to our sessions. The sense of loss I felt was astonishing. I was so fond of her and so utterly invested in her healing that it felt desperately sad when we didn’t get to say goodbye. I wish I’d told her what an honour and humbling experience it had been to know her. I still think about her often and cry for her sometimes. But I take great comfort in the knowledge that she is fiercely brave, resilient and capable of surviving in this world. After all, Emma was surviving long before she met me.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity
The Case I Can’t Forget is a weekly series from HuffPost UK that hears from those on the frontline of public service about the cases they have carried with them throughout their careers. If you have a story you’d like to tell, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- Addaction if you or someone you love needs help or support, reach out. You can chat to a trained advisor
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: email@example.com
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.