sometimes we fail…
In a perfect world, everyone would experience failure, and learn from it. The negative spin of things not turning out the way we hoped would quickly turn into a positive plan for improving the outcome the next time. We would all accept failure as just another necessary step, and move on. If only the world were perfect.
My latest challenge with a patient has been understanding failure. My patient, who I will call “Jimmy”, is a 13 year old young man who will be repeating 7th grade. He came to our office on the recommendation of another patient, and after hearing the results of his exam and testing, mom and dad were sold. Jimmy wasn’t. In fact he has made it very clear several times that he “hates it here”. With the multiple news stories lately of angry teenagers going to extreme measures, his parents are concerned for him. Jimmy is a very angry child and has reached an age where he has greater access to potentially harmful things in life, so his parents are hoping Vision Therapy can help turn his life around.
No pressure, Robert. No pressure at all.
My latest session with Jimmy started like the previous three, with his long list of activities he “is not going to do”. In fact, we have battled over Jimmy’s level of cooperation the last three weeks and my usual tactics for diffusing this type of resistance were not working. Our “battle” has been interrupted all three times by his mother rushing in from the reception area and trying to coddle him, which just infuriates him further. Since I deliberately left his parents in the reception area and closed the door after entering the VT Room – plus I was feeling a little feisty – I chose not to concede to his demands this time. Instead, I took a different route and asked “why not?. Most of what you’ve listed are things that you’ve never even tried, but you’re telling me you’re not interested. How can you make a statement like that about something you’ve never experienced?” Jimmy’s response was “I just know”. I told Jimmy that his answer wasn’t going to work for me and I wasn’t interested in arguing with him today. If he wasn’t willing to try, neither was I. I told him to “come and get me when you’re ready to work”, I walked out of the room and shut the door.
I’m not always a proponent of tough love, but I understand that it has a time and a place. This was a gamble, a big one actually, but given the environment and circumstances of our last three visits, the risk was worth the reward. Battling with him through another 24 sessions was not going to guarantee any progress, and the shock value may just change his tune. Hopefully.
My desk sits in direct line of sight with the door I had just come out of. If and when Jimmy came out of the room, we would see each other. No sooner did I sit down and begin to note what had happened did Jimmy appear. He walked over to my desk and stated “this place sucks”. The implication from Jimmy’s tone and body language was although playing my way was not desirable, sitting alone in that room was even less desirable, so trying something new was now an option. I thanked him for that, and we got back to work. After our first activity, I asked him what changed his mind about a new activity (which he did very well with) and he told me that he just realized that he would probably “suck at it” and figured he would just do it. He went on to explain that he has experienced so much failure in the last two years of school, and now is repeating 7th grade facing more of the same, that giving up is easier. He explained that “if I expect to fail, and then it happens, it makes it easier. But I hate it”. It was a sobering bit of reality coming from his young mind. I complimented him on the profound thought he had just shared and tried to move on.
So many of us in the Vision Therapy room quickly become big brothers, big sisters, counselors, and confidants. It’s a side of my job that I embrace very carefully, especially with teenagers. Jimmy spent the next 30 minutes sharing more about his home and school life than I was expecting, but rapport was forming and we weren’t battling, so I rolled with it. Since time was running short, I thanked him for sharing his story with me and tried to coach him to a soft landing, before saying goodbye. Before I could get there, he asked “have you ever failed?”
Oh boy. Where do I begin?
As quickly as I could, I told Jimmy of my failed marriage, my personal recovery, and my continued effort to be a positive and strong figure for my children. It’s not something that I enjoy discussing, especially with patients, but in the moment it was the strongest example I had. I tried to explain that after failure, my focus was and still is on the positive pieces, which of course are my kids. “It’s not always going to work out the way we hope”, I said. “But you have to make the choice of which perspective to take. Repeating 7th grade is not a fantastic thing, but it could always be worse. Maybe you could look at it as another opportunity to show the world how smart you are? Maybe Vision Therapy will help with that?”.
Almost as if it was planned, we were interrupted by my next patient and the conversation was over. Jimmy shook my hand and said “I think you’re pretty cool for what you do”, and walked out.
To be continued…