I once worked with a boy who had a habit, despite lactose intolerance, of being sure to drink a big glass of milk before our sessions. He would sit on my sorry plaid couch in a decrepit, sometimes leaky, trailer on the edge of the property that held assorted special needs schools and administrative buildings huddling around a cracked blacktop and fart enormously.
This boy had been severely abandoned and had been in the system for six of his fourteen years, bleaks times in which he’d seen a lot of damaging things. He was quite smart and also quite funny. He was also more used to the sad reality of his circumstances than I was used to them on his behalf, and he would often challenge me to maintain my empathy—drawing me in with heartbreaking stories of sorrow, and then sending me reeling with his secret weapon.
He also had rather spotty hygiene and would relish in kicking off his sneakers or boots and airing out his acrid sock-clad feet in the vicinity of my face. My first focus was on helping this boy be more aware of his body, encouraging improved hygiene, letting him have shoes off, provided that he had reasonably clean feet and socks, not to mention encouraging him not to drink milk if it upset his stomach. I also thought about his hunger for a mother, and his problems taking in the symbolic mother (i.e. milk) without adverse effects.
Eyes watering, I would try to be graceful about needing to open the window, letting the wafting smell of weeds between the trailers counter-act the human smells. I initially tried to maintain a compassionate, “good mommy,” stance in the face of his paint-peeling flatulence and stinky feet, but over weeks it became clear that he was deliberately trying to smoke me out. I began to realize that this boy was paradoxically defending himself against rejection—by provoking me to reject him.
I had seen this pattern with some of my more obviously “bad” boy clients who would be oppositional, defiant, furniture-smashing and chronically rule-breaking—the kids who got teacher after teacher to quit over at the school, rather than allow themselves to attach to anyone and risk the feelings of being abandoned yet again.
As weeks drifted by, I remember spring sessions where my farting client might be reclined on the couch with feet dangling out the window—us having reached the level of honesty and intimacy where I could just tell him to put his shoes back on or else stick ‘em out the friggin’ window.
I learned a lot from that kid, and we formed a strong attachment—all the kids would push your buttons, but this kid, despite a penchant for drama, could really get to you and make you feel like crying (which was very much what he, all too understandably, felt underneath his stinky defenses). Sometimes I think he wanted me to smell him and be disgusted as a way of using my reactions to know that he was real enough to have an impact on someone else. Sometimes I think he just wanted me to viscerally understand how life can stink.
After two years with my tender-tummied client, I had to say good-bye to him, along with my role as group home therapist in order to take on more responsibilities as a clinical supervisor. I justified this by telling myself that I was modeling working hard and growing into more responsibility, but I’ll not soon forget this boy’s incendiary rage when I told him that although I would still see him around the grounds, I would no longer be his group home’s therapist. Yet he let it out, cussed me up and down, and then we were cool after a few days. Even though he could be a stinker, he was also someone you came to have a lot of affection for.
I share this story in the off chance that some readers might detect some subtler version of the stink-bug defense in their own kids; the messy room, the missed shower, the forgotten plates of food perhaps emblems of the defiant need for us not to be repelled, repulsed or give up in the face of patently irritating and seemingly disrespectful behaviors. We bear witness, and sometimes smell witness—helping attest that our kids exist, helping mirror them and, in noticing them in their myriad states and scents, aiding them in the formation of the solid bowl of the Self.
So, let’s dedicate today to another sniff, a mindful whiff, of the trials and tribulations of development that pulse in the hamper piles and farting styles of all our collective children.