I recently met a young girl, once an orphan, now living with her adoptive family for the past six years or so. As a favor, I would sit with her a few hours each day while her mother went to work. My only duty was to distract her from the need to self-inflict wounds to mentally block her depression and anxiety.
But as soon as I got there I felt a gravitational pull from this autistic, yet engaging nearly 13-year-old, whose is wide-eyed and childlike at first glance. She bluntly asks innocent but arresting questions, and then in the next moment speaks with extreme maturity. I knew I couldn’t sit there and do my work without talking to her. My curiosity and profound empathy combined with her need to help fill considerably large holes in her life was a recipe for almost instant friendship.
Children instinctively know whom they can trust and this child seemed to want to unload almost immediately. She told me about her time at the orphanage in Morocco. She was 5 at the time and only spoke a little bit of Arabic and no English when she met her new family, who would take her to the U.S. and care for her like their own. I imagined the sweet little girl half her current size, being abused and starved for every kind of nourishment. She matter-of-factly says she was awakened from her sleeping bag on the floor to be beaten with a broom, and forced to beg forgiveness for little more than breathing too loudly. For that reason, sleep doesn’t come easily.
Anxiety is the common denominator in other things as well, like eating. Close tabs must be kept on the food in the house because she tends to want to devour all the food she can. She’s been known to do unthinkable things like downing an entire bottle of ketchup in one sitting. “I never knew it they were going to feed me or not in the orphanage when I was little,” she says, and although it hasn’t been the case in her new nurturing surroundings, she still wonders if at some point she’ll have to go hungry.
Any innocence she once had has been replaced with scars of emotional trauma that will require many more years to heal. I envision the adult version of her at Brookhaven Retreat, one of the nation’s most innovative mental health facilities for women, learning how to create a life worth living. That is my wish for her. I would like to see her engaged in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) for her tendency to inflict self-harm.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information’s (NCBI) website, “Nonsuicidal self injury (NSSI) is more common in adolescent and young adult populations than previously thought. Although it is important to assess the associated risk of suicidal behavior, NSSI is generally used to cope with distressing negative affective states, especially anger and depression, and mixed emotional states.”
Knowing my new friend hurts herself as a form of self-soothing is what makes me put my arms around her, not only physically, but psychically, to show her there is another person in the world who has time to listen and connect with her.
If you or someone you really care for is struggling with emotional breakage and unexplainable behaviors and decisions, get some professionals on your side.