June 13, 2009

Claire 7: Fossil

When Claire had her first lesson in self-hypnosis, the goal was for her to learn how to concentrate on relaxation, and push her anxieties aside for the moment. I gave her a homework assignment—to practice this at night when she was having trouble falling asleep because of her rushing thoughts.

But I wanted to help her find a way to use this to help her with the anxiety-provoking situations that she confronts many times during an average day. With me guiding her, and her mother in the room, and it’s quiet and comfortable, the task of concentrating and walking herself through the relaxation protocol is much easier. For someone who is generally distractible, going through these same steps in a noisy busy environment can be much more difficult.

I went to an unusual store that sells skeletons and fossils and crickets to feed your lizard. The crickets are loud! I bought her a small polished rock with a little ammonite fossil, pictured above. It’s very smooth. I gave it to her.

We went through the same process, starting with tensing her toes then relaxing them. Then did this ascending through the muscles of her body. Then the warm pool from the sole of her feet to her neck. I suggested that she feel the smooth stone, rub it in her fingers. I suggested that it would remind her of her feeling of relaxation and of the things that made her confident: the studying that she did, the many people who love her. This feeling right now of comfort and freedom from worry could come to her when she holds this stone.

I’ve used a little fossil stone several times with children, and I always have one or two on hand for just this use. It’s smooth and not dangerous to handle or keep in your pocket. It’s not loaded with other potential issues like a religious symbol—though these can be used for the same purpose if the child is into it and if the thing is new to them. And it isn’t going to be a trigger for other kids to make fun of. Worry beads, good luck charms of all kinds, even rosaries may have powerful influences, but for a particularly anxious child to whom fitting in is so important, having something that doesn’t draw unusual attention is good. Besides, who doesn’t like fossils? If a classmate sees it, my patient doesn’t have to hesitate to show it off to others. It’s a cool thing.

The plan is for her to have it in her pocket, where she can touch it whenever she needs to, during a test or when talking to friends or even boys. It's just a reminder, something tangible, of a different state of mind.

What does it really do? A sensory experience such as a smell or a few notes of music can trigger an involuntary memory, and those memories can bring with them the feelings associated with those experiences. What I've tried to do is create a carefully designed memory of a new, relaxing experience without being tainted by anxiety. Then the stone can, on demand, be a trigger for a memory that brings with it the feeling of comfort and confidence.

I wonder if she really needs the rock. If she deeply responds to the rock, does she need it? Maybe all she will need is to picture the rock in her mind, rub her fingers together and imagine the feeling of the stone, feel its cool temperature and recall the feelings associated with it. Maybe we'll get there. For now, I like that she has a physical thing to take with her everywhere she goes.

This guy is Marcel Proust, who wrote 7 long volumes of a novel triggered by the memories set off by a cookie: “She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called petites madeleines, which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…”— Remembrance of Things Past, Volume 1: Swann's Way.

The photograph at the top is from my collection and is by Edward Steichen, taken in the early 1930's at the very peak of Shirley Temple's fame. At the time, she was the most powerful star in Hollywood. How old is she in the photograph? 8? 9? Steichen captures her in a way that says she's willing and able to negotiate with any studio executive. This is a potential power in every child, and something I would look for in the photographs I acquired.

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