There Are No Bad People, Just Bad Circumstances
The Story of the Girl I Thought I Could Save
When I was studying Psychology abroad, all students were obliged to participate in an internship for one full year.
We had our pick: A mental hospital, a psychiatrist’s office, kids with autism, or art therapy.
I had chosen art therapy, though I was competing with all the rest.
The psychologist who focused on this specific domain was offering only four spots — We had one email to convince her that we were the ones she would benefit from most.
So I wrote about my connection with art growing up —
How I’ve been painting since I was nine.
Or how every time I was scared to get bullied for my heavy accent and incomplete English, I painted.
I painted to breathe.
I painted because sometimes art was able to explain what words couldn’t.
Not much after, I was in.
On the first day of the internship, we were given an important decision to make:
We had to choose what child we wanted to work with from various profiles:
Autism, death in the family, abuse, alcoholism.
I chose a girl named Ray.
She was a beautiful blonde 8-year old with hair that reminded me of Rapunzel.
She had just lost her front tooth, and constantly tried to hide it while sucking on her thumb.
The first time I met her she laughed hysterically and later explained that she was scared I would be ugly.
I started laughing too, and our relationship finally began.
Starting therapy with Ray was probably one of the biggest challenges I’ve had to face.
She taught me what it means to live without a father and to have a drunk mother as a role model.
She sometimes had fits, too. Quite wild ones.
She would throw a chair across the room, and pull her mother’s long thin hair, until a few hairs caught through her fingers.
She would scream and shout that she wanted her blue crayons and if she wouldn’t have them now, she wouldn’t stop.
She threatened her mother, and even pushed her two-year-old sister down the stairs when I wasn’t paying attention.
Taming Ray was hard.
One day, I found a journal hiding in her drawer. She saw I was staring at it, and took the liberty to show it to me.
Phew. I’m finally getting her to trust me. Stage I of therapy.
She gently opened the journal, and the name “Adam” was written all over it.
I asked her who Adam was.
She looked at me with dark blue eyes and crossed his name out.
A reply was absent.
I asked her why she was crossing his name out, and she said it was because he wasn’t there anymore.
“Why is Adam not there for you anymore?” I gently asked.
“Because he left me”, she replied quietly.
Those blue eyes pierced through my bones.
“Are you going to leave me, too?” she asked, afraid of the answer.
I sat there frozen, thinking of the one simple answer that I wished I could change:
I won’t be here forever, Ray.
She wrote my name next to the fading “Adam”, and shut the book closed.
Some days were uplifting, and I felt like I made a big difference in Ray’s life.
But I realized, it was the calm before the storm.
Because then, the storm came and it wasn’t pretty.
Two knocks on the door were all it took for Ray’s mother to show up, pressing her hand on the nearby wall, so she wouldn’t fall.
She’s drunk again.
I mumbled a weak hello and gently walked past her to look for Ray.
Ray’s two-year-old sister greeted me, with a dirty shirt and a growling stomach.
She didn’t make dinner again, either.
Ray was nowhere to be found.
I went upstairs calling her name (it literally felt like a horror movie).
I opened the door and saw a giant carton box in the middle of the room with a small cut-out window.
Ray was hiding from me.
I pretended to play hide and seek and searched the room.
I finally addressed her presence and walked toward the box. She peeked through the window, but she wouldn’t come out.
I asked her why she was hiding from me.
She said she wasn’t hiding from me — She was hiding from the world.
I asked her a few more questions to break the ice.
She mentioned she saw her father, Adam, resting on the couch in the middle of the night and that now she couldn’t find him.
Stage II of Therapy — Denial.
She needed Adam for protection.
How do you tell an 8-year old that Daddy’s never coming back?
I tried to change the subject (a bad move for a developing psychologist), and we played a board game.
Another night, Ray was having a new tantrum.
I’ve never seen a child cry so much because their sibling stole their pink pen.
And I have siblings.
Ray cried for two hours without a break.
My time with Ray was almost up, and I ran out of ideas.
There was no calming her down this time.
At one point, Ray pulled her mother’s hair very hard while she was sitting on a tall bar chair near a marble table.
I tried to untangle Ray’s hands from the aggressive mess on her mother’s hair, but she was persistent.
Her now-tipsy mother grabbed her daughter’s shoulder and pushed her off the chair.
If I wasn’t there to catch her, Ray would have probably gotten stitches laced across her face.
Ray cried even more, while her mother went upstairs and shut the door.
Horrified and shaken up, I said my goodbyes and quickly left the house. I didn’t want to leave Ray in that state, but it was simply all too much.
I called my supervisor that evening and explained what I had experienced. They claimed this was a major situation and that I needed to contact the police right away to report child abuse.
I didn’t want to do it, because that would possibly mean breaking up an entire family. They would take the mother away from her children, and it would all be my fault.
I couldn’t do it.
A week later, my supervisor followed up with me. He seemed very upset that I never reported the incident. I was then forced into contacting child services and to report the incident as a direct witness.
I convinced myself that this was the best thing to do and that, one day, Ray might even thank me.
She might even be the intelligent, witty, and passionate girl she was set out to be.
Maybe her mother just needed some help.
A few weeks later, I was finished with my internship and didn’t show up to my last meeting with Ray.
I couldn’t get myself to say goodbye to the little girl whom I thought I could save.
The crazy thought of adopting her ran through my mind quite a few times.
I couldn’t watch her potential be wasted, and I played the blame-game for a while.
I could have easily hated Ray’s mother for what she’d done to her two kids.
Some days, these kids wouldn’t eat. Some days, they wouldn’t even shower. She also wouldn’t even let me do it myself.
She was big on showing that she could do everything on her own and that everything was under control (even when it really wasn’t).
Some days, Ray’s mother would sit in the corner, forgetting she existed, while sipping on an orange juice vodka.
You see, it’s way too easy to judge others when we’re not in their shoes.
I could have said the things everyone else was saying:
How could she do that to her kids?
Did you see how she hit her daughter?
But I felt empathy, not anger.
Ray’s mother was a fighter. She lost her husband to a heart attack, while he was on a business trip.
She was pregnant with her second child, and was left to take care of two kids all by herself.
Ray’s mother was once a good mother, and circumstances can change us all.
I finally understood the famous quote:
“To know all, is to forgive all.”
From that day forward, I vouched to judge less and to understand more.
I realized that it’s not always about being right or wrong about someone, but it’s more about understanding why people do what they do.
Ray’s mother was not right about what she did. Many of the things she did were terrifying and simply wrong.
But who says anyone could have handled that better or found a better way to cope?
Death is hard, and we never know what we’re truly capable of when life tests us.
Sometimes desperate times do call for desperate measures.
Once the internship was over, I was not to have any contact with Ray. No matter what happens.
Those were the rules of the game.
Not being able to contact Ray or knowing what happened to her can still challenge me on rainy days.
And for now, all I know is that there are no bad people, there are bad circumstances. Sometimes we need to embrace this a little bit more.
Perhaps stage III of therapy applies to us all — Forgiveness.