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Saluting at a Psych Hospital

I teach creative writing to a group of suicidal adolescents in a psych hospital. Every morning we sit down and write stories and discuss these stories.

Their stories are veiled narratives about their inner thoughts and beliefs. Most of them have a strong desire to love and be loved, and for over an hour each morning, they write and discuss fiction with enthusiasm. It releases the creative imagination and calms them. It becomes a place where anything is possible, a place where they can be themselves—free of judgment, a place where they belong, where they can feel like part of a group, a place that reminds them that they are alive and things will get better.

So listening to their stories means that I must be willing to follow where they lead me. Sometimes they lead me to the Seven Wonders of the World, and tell me they would be a great candidate for the eighth wonder, if the world ever decided to add another one. Sometimes they lead me into the depths of their suffering—a father or mother has died, a father or mother is an addict, a father or mother is in prison. Sometimes they lead me into a world of abuse that happened between the ages of five and eleven. Sometimes they lead me to a noose, to a razor, to an overdose, and I refuse to go. I make them rewrite them, because there must be a step away from this abyss.

Then there are times when they lead me into the wonderful mind of their imaginations, and I never want to leave. But it all begins with a willingness to go, to listen, to hear, to follow.

This past week I took my students to the large plate glass window in my classroom that overlooks the parking lot and a field beyond. I said, “Do you see that?”

Standing there with me was a chubby, short boy with big cheeks. He gets bullied and called, “squirrel,” because his cheeks look like he has a few nuts off in there.

He writes songs about God.

Oh Lord Loves Us

Love us oh lord love us all mighty. You are our savior of all that you've done for me. Love us Lord love us god love us you love us lord I love you lord. Lord you set us free. You set us free to wash away the sins you are faithful to us and we are faithful to you lord.

Then there's a girl who thinks she's fat when she only weighs 80lbs. She has to be watched constantly for purging. The doctor has her on I/O. She never talks. I joke with her and do my best to make her laugh. She writes stories about mirrors.

Somewhere Deep Down

Every day I wake up, I look in the mirror.

I look in the mirror and see something that isn't me.

I can see myself through this thick layer of something I'm not.

I wish I could be normal, or at least better than what I am now.

This person that I see in this mirror isn't the true me.

I can feel a break through, but something is still holding me back, something that is barred so deep down inside. Sometimes I just look past it to have a smile so no one has to carry the weight of pain that I saw when I looked in the mirror this morning.

Then there's another girl who refused to talk to me her first day at my table. Every question I asked was met with. Cold, “I don't know.”

The tension could be felt in the room. Two or three of the teens begged me to move on. Maybe the tension was the same kind of tension they felt at home, and to feel it there was too close to home. For their sake I moved on.

And there were others that stood at the window with me.

Finally one of them said, “What are we supposed to see?”

I said, “Can't you see it?”

They were silent again.

I said, “The snow. Can't you see the snow?”

One of them said, “Uh, yeah.”

I said, “This will be the last time we see it. Tomorrow the snow will melt. The sun is coming out. The weather is changing. It will be sixty next week. No more snow. And your life will change like the weather. The sun will shine upon you. The winter of your life will be over. It will be a distant, but not so painful memory. You have survived winter, and if winter should ever come into your life again, you will know that winter never lasts forever. You will know how to get through it, because you navigated this one.”

I turned and looked at each of them and said, "Now we are going to salute our old foe--the one you defeated this week, the one that you defeated this week by putting it behind you. And we salute it out of respect, not because the past deserves special reverence, but because the past was real and it was painful, and it will raise its ugly head from time-to-time. Each time it does, you will salute it again and remind the past that the victory has already been won."

I think this is what the Apostle Paul meant when he said, "Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:13-14).

Give your past the salute today. Bid it farewell, then strain toward a new future.

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