He lowered his eyes. This boy had endured a vicious spanking and was at a loss for any words to say to me. I kept asking him what he wanted me to know and see.
“No one will play” he said. “My brother will play, but he is so small. I have to do all the playing.”
This wasn’t the answer I expected. I was the therapist, the helper.
The boy was me at 4 years old.
In the therapy I practice–Internal Family Systems, or IFS–we refer to wounded and traumatized younger versions of ourselves as Exiles. We call them that because we have created an internal system for ignoring their pain and shutting it off from our conscious minds.
When I just turned four, my mother was placed in a mental institution. My brother was 2 1/2 and our father decided he couldn’t care for us. We were placed in a group foster care home for six months. After that, we went to a few other homes for several weeks at a time. Finally, my dad’s older brother took us in. We stayed with him for several months. At the end of that time, my mother was released from hospital and we were reunited with our parents.
I was reprocessing one of the memories from my days with my uncle and aunt. He was a police officer and she worked as a legal secretary. During the day, we were cared for by a babysitter. My uncle and aunt never played with us. They had no children and didn’t want any. They felt badly for us and took us in. As an adult, I am thankful they rescued us from some bad foster care homes.
But the lack of play was constant. It ate away at my 4 year old self. I wanted to have some joy in my life. In my desperation for something to do during the day, I discovered the basement of the house my uncle and aunt had rented. In that basement, there were many pieces of furniture covered with white sheets. This was the storage area for the owners of the house.
Every day, in search for meaning and needing to recreate, we went down there and explored. One day, I found a pan of crankcase oil. I had no idea what it was, but it felt deliciously squishy in my hands. I played with it for awhile and invited my brother to join me.
That’s when I noticed the pristinely white sheets covering the furniture. To my four-year old self, they looked like canvases in need of some art drawn on them.
I started to finger paint on the sheets with the crankcase oil. The oil was perfect. The sheets were perfect. We made grandiose designs. Here was the fun we sought so desperately.
When my aunt and uncle came home, they had no idea how artistic my brother and I had been. So 4 year old Michael showed them. He wanted them to know that he and his brother could find something to play with on their own. He was quite enamored of the design on the sheet covering the sofa.
His uncle erupted with fury. This 6’4″ police officer blew his stack. He beat the four year old and left him sobbing in the bedroom for hours. Not once did either of them come and check on how Michael was doing. Years later, they admitted to me they were considering sending me and my brother back into foster care.
When I began to unburden Michael, I started by letting him know I witnessed what he had gone through. I affirmed his absolute right to play and to find meaning in such things. I told him I understood how hard that year had been and how absolutely lonely he felt. I assured him that I would never leave him and I would play with him any time he wanted.
He cried for awhile and then stopped. He seemed to have some peace settling on him.
So I asked him if there was anything he wanted me to do for him. He looked up. “Can you tell aunt and uncle that I’m a good boy and they need to play with me from now on.”
I responded by marching him upstairs with me. I sat my aunt and uncle down and explained what Michael had gone through. They were horrified. I also told them that from now on, they would play with Michael and his brother and not leave them so unloved and unwanted. They reluctantly agreed to this.
In IFS, the current version of who we are can create new realities for our exiles. After all, the only place they still exist is in our midbrain.
I then asked Michael how he was feeling. He still looked a little despondent. He told me that he didn’t think he was worth playing with. So I assured him this idea was preposterous and we needed to destroy that idea. We created a balloon, and we put the words “I am not worth playing with” on it. Then, we let the balloon go and a huge wind came and took it away.
That second, I felt a loosening inside of me. I realized that for years I had carried an idea that I was not worth having fun with. People didn’t mind doing serious things with me. But they refused to play with me. That idea now felt gone.
Young Michael is now playing inside of me. He feels free.