Many years ago, when I was a child psychiatry resident in training, I spent six months working on an adolescent inpatient psychiatry unit. While I learned a lot about child and adolescent psychiatry during this experience, I also learned a lot about myself and about life. I learned a lot that seems to have slipped in and out of my mind over the years, and as my psychiatric work has grown more administrative in nature as it is embedded in the context of a resource-scarce public sector environment, it can be easy to begin to lose sight of my original hopes of becoming a healer.
But these are some of the lessons I remember from my work with the kids on that unit all those years ago:
- Be yourself. Kids know right away when you are trying to be someone else and it really gets in the way of just about everything.
- Show up and pay attention. Those around you may not tell you, but it makes a big difference if you don’t show up. It also makes a big difference if you do show up but are not really present.
- Be ready to be surprised. We don’t know everything that will happen and we can never really know what someone is experiencing inside, so it is a good idea to be open to life as it happens and to practice compassion for everyone.
- Don’t take anything too personally. Sometimes when others are grumpy, they are just trying to clarify their boundaries or become themselves a little more fully. Some folks precipitate conflict because it is easier than to face sadness or separation or loss. Usually it has little to do with anyone else.
- Music really is the universal language. If you want to know someone, listen to their music. Listen to your own music. Sing, play an instrument, bang a drum. Music evokes memories and brings us together. It even helps with math, so they say.
I had wise teachers in those early days of becoming a fledgling psychiatrist–wise supervisors (whose shoulders I do my best to continue to stand on), wise colleagues (from whom I continue to learn), and most of all, very wise young patients, who so many years later still guide my conscience, reminding me that helping any child is helping all children–indeed is helping us all.
May we always honor and love and care for all the children and adolescents among us, for they are in truth the future and they are in truth the harbors of grace.