Sometimes I am careless. And sometimes people get hurt.
In my classes, sometimes we role play different scenarios. It’s a way to practice language and reactions in a safe space. At least, I want it to be safe. We were practicing dismissing a client. Someone who we knew we were not qualified to serve. We spent an hour brainstorming different scenarios and deciding what to choose. Each one of the students self-selected the situation they felt most unsure about so we could practice it in a safe space.
Safe. Or so I thought.
My student, call her Darla, told us a few days ago that she had suffered from postpartum depression. She talked about not know what it was at the time and seemed content to share her experience with us all so we could learn. Her children were both in middle school, and she talked about it as if it was something long resolved. Here is one spot where I should have payed closer attention.
Our list of challenges included referring out a client with high anxiety issues. Darla identified this as the scenario she felt most uncomfortable with. Again, more attention needed, and I didn’t give it.
Darla went last in our practice role plays. The set up was this: Darla and I acted out the client dismissal while the rest of the class observed, silently. At the end we would go over what she did well, what needs more practice, and what was missing. Darla paid close attention to everyone else in the class as they practiced and gave thoughtful feedback, as she always did.
Darla and I sat down face to face. As someone who has occasional anxiety, and has lots of close friends who suffer from anxiety, it was not hard to inhabit the character of a person with high anxiety. As we continued our conversation, Darla started bouncing in her chair and glancing all around her like she was looking for the exits.
We continued talking, and her neck started to flush red. She stammered, started losing her words. Finally she clenched her hands together, said, “I . .I . .I . .I. .” and just stopped, looking all around her. I said, “Do you need to stop?” And she nodded, then burst into tears. She shook and sobbed in her chair, unable to respond to any questions. I suggested the whole class take a break.
Darla got up from the chair and took a walk, still shaking and sobbing. Her hands shook and she could barely speak. She came back after about five minutes and sat down, quietly said that she was fine, she was ready to continue with class. She was not ready to continue with class. I apologized to her, she waved her and at me and said, “No, it’s not your fault.”
But it was my fault. Something in the exercise triggered a clear and very present trauma for her. There were places where I could have paid more attention and I did not. My classroom, the place I try to keep safe for students, was the least safe place for her that day.
As we talked about it later, I learned that some of the mannerisms I used in our scenario, drawn directly from my life experience, were also mirrors of her own postpartum experience. “I guess I haven’t really dealt with it,” she said.
We came back to a place of trust and mutual learning in that class, but the echoes of her distress still haunt me sometimes. Any day I am feeling not quite present, or inclined to be a bit lazy with my attention to the people in my class, I am reminded of Darla. The distress that didn’t need to be. And I remember how important it is to recognize, understand and clear my resistance so I can have my attention were it needs to be. On the people I serve. With loving and compassionate focus.