This past few weeks I have been working with a client who hoards items and in some regards, people. He tries to carry everything from empty cereal boxes to toys in his backpack and his tiny, overflowing arms. When forced to leave these items behind some pretty nasty behaviors ensue, some that hurt others, some that hurt himself, and some that serve no purpose other than to draw attention to himself. He displays the same behaviors when forced to leave people he cares for, and will start repeating “bye-bye Kendall” if he thinks someone else is leaving because I came, or even if I am taking up too much of his loved one’s attention.
I have been practicing leaving preferred items and people with this child for a while. We use lots of different strategies to get him through very short-term transitions where, once he has successfully transitioned away, he is immediately returned to his hoard of items or his preferred person. The idea is that through high repetition of very short intervals he will start to realize that these items and people are always returned. After a certain number of successful trials we will start slowly lengthening the amount of time before these things are returned in hopes that he will start making the connection that if his movies were returned after 10 seconds, they will also be returned after 15, 20, etc… We also have to practice these short transitions with many items and in many locations. That’s because individuals with Autism generally have trouble generalizing. In other words, my client does not realize that I will consistently return his items whether at home, in the office, or in a car. If it only happens at the office, he does not assume that things will also be returned in the car; if movies are always returned, he does not assume that books will be also.
Essentially, I am teaching my client to trust.
At a painstakingly slow rate, I am putting my client in uncomfortable situations - situations that are scary and even painful to him - in order to teach him that I am trustworthy. If I were to just tell him, “you can trust me,” it would not be something he could understand, because he is learning what trust is and how to experience it.
Recently in church I was struck by the parallels of this child’s behavior with my own.
I have been challenged by some trust issues lately. Sitting in church I listened to the pastor talk about some people who have not had reason to trust the church. I watched a young family dedicate their baby boy to a God who has allowed them to find themselves both unemployed and fighting the wife’s cancer just before their child was born. For most people that situation is one that proves such a God untrustworthy.
All of a sudden during the sermon, I remembered my client. How much fear he exhibits during our short trials. How much pain he is in when he engages in self-destructive behaviors during the trials and how much pain he can cause to me and to others…this week was one where he and I both came away with marks that bore witness to the pain he was experiencing. In addition to feeling the pain he had caused me, my heart was also breaking for this small child. His family member asked me, “how can you keep doing this?” She wasn’t telling me I was being mean, she was asking me how I could keep going without giving in or even changing jobs.
And I told her. “Because I know this works. I have seen it work with him in the past. I know that if I stick to my guns and am consistent, he will keep improving. I have seen the same growth in other children from the same exact procedure. And most importantly, no matter how hard it is to keep consistent, I know that he needs to learn now while he is small, rather than when he is 6 feet tall and 18.”
I know that this therapy is good for my client and he needs it right now, not later.
Even if it hurts me or is difficult for me.
Even if it hurts him.
Thinking about trust in God, I think I am the same way. I say that I trust God, but my heart doesn’t actually. When things in my life are damaged or destroyed, when people die or go away, I am not just hurt. I throw a fit, I try to find someone to blame even if it means hurting someone. I post on facebook and talk about it and yell about it. I get angry at God and engage in self-destructive behavior, gorging on sweets, allowing myself to stop housework or exercise or community with others because I “need a break.” I hurt myself and my God by ignoring Him and trying to fix it myself because I don’t actually trust Him to give me what I need, and I don’t trust Him to bring back the good things, or that I will see the people I loved again.
All the while through my fit God is trying to keep me from hurting myself as much as He is able without interfering with my ability to make free-will decisions. The same way that I try to block my client’s headbanging without ever restraining him or giving him any tranquilizing meds to gork him out.
The same way that I take a deep breath and say “are you ready?” to my client, and seemingly keep coming back for more, God waits until I am done throwing my tantrum and then I feel a small whisper enter my heart…. “Are you ready? Are you ready to let me help you now?”
Not to say that these trials wouldn’t still be uncomfortable. My client would rather have his toys in hand. He would rather not see a loved one walk out the door. I would rather not see an empty pantry. I would rather still be able to call my grandfather on the phone or hug Phil on visits up north.
But the worse fit I throw, the more I only hurt myself because I’m not allowing the strength and grace of the father to sustain me. And God will not remove these difficult trials from my life just because they hurt me. He knows they are essential to my function in the Kingdom, my function as a Christian able to let go of things and people around me in order to make others’ lives easier. They are essential to our relationship, to developing a lasting intimate trust, not some arm’s-length mirage built on the lip service I try to give Christian buzzwords just to keep me out of trouble and looking good. Because they are not just good for me but necessary He will allow them to continue; but only while protecting me as much as I allow and always continuing to ask “are you ready?”
Lord, grant me a willing and trusting heart. Give me the spirit of a child. And if you need to use painful trials to do it, Lord I trust you. Put my words and my heart to the test.