Friday, January 16, 2015

you might need someone to hold onto when the answers don't amount to much

The past two evenings have been my final worknights as a chaplain for kids at connected residential treatment facilities, one for teen boys and one for girls. I only began there in May but I feel as if I've been there for years. And in a good way, because while the kids change, each one discharging either positively or negatively, so that only three boys remain of the large group I began with, I have shifted in the ways both that I see them and work with them. Improving, I like to think.

Perhaps the greatest change I've experienced is my belief in the necessity of touch in their treatment lives. There is, of course, great potential for abuse by both staff and other kids in this, which is why it's so strenuously forbidden by policy. But these programs are six to nine months long. If a kid is having a particularly bad experience with his treatment and isn't allowed home visits for the course of treatment, or worse, has no home or family to visit st all, she can go through the entire program without a single hug. Can anyone feature how that feels, to go through the better part of a year not experiencing human contact? Two kids who had both had rough but separate experiences that day flaunted the major consequences staff told them they'd receive, including loss of privileges, in order to hug each other for comfort in the hallway. We expert somehow that a kid will become more humane in that period.

The girls especially are so starved for contact they developed "boundary hugs," folding their arms across their chest and bumping elbows together, for congratulating each other or for expressing grief. Last night one girl returned from a home visit during which she attended her grandmother's funeral, and sat on the floor and cried. Girls walked around her and surreptitiously brushed the top of her head or shoulders, an act of community, of concern, and of desperation.

For my part, I hugged freely for my last nights, hoping to make up in some way for not having done so the previous eight months. My position, as chaplain, allows for some leeway, for one-on-one conversations, for sitting quietly beside the kid (as I did with the girl last night), and for full-body hugs when a kid discharges. Every child the past two nights who requested a hug goodbye snuggled against me like the kids, below the fronting and the anger and the trauma, they still are.

My position is simple: in treatment programs there is the need for human touch. Between staff and residents, between residents, even between staff. We are so afraid of how our actions might be misinterpreted we withhold something important and life-giving. This isn't to say touch shouldn't be regulated. Too much abuse is possible. But it should be consensual, open (in full view of others and the ubiquitous cameras), and healthy in the best sense. There's a reason touch is a part of all religions, from the laying on of hands to pranam. Skin is the largest organ of our bodies, the method by which we make the most contact with the world. It makes no more sense to shut it down while in treatment than it would to be blindfolded or wear earplugs.

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