The invisible suitcase.
I recently watched a short video about an invisible suitcase that everybody gets at birth. The idea spoke to me relating to an incident we had during one of our sessions. Even though the video gears towards grief, I think it can be helpful with other traumatic experiences as well.
Over time the suitcase fills up with facts, facts attached to feelings and emotions. You cannot choose how yours gets packed, and when it is too full, it pops open out of the blue. For example, when you hear a song on the radio reminding you of your dad who passed away or the smell of freshly baked bread brings back memories of your granny, you feel emotional or sad all of a sudden.
These triggers appear unexpectedly, are seemingly random, and can be anything, music, a particular smell, or even a word. Especially for young children, it is tough to manage their suitcase. Seemingly out of the blue, a trigger can cause anger, frustration, sadness, all sorts of emotions can emerge.
Please note I am not an expert, and this Blog is not the place to go into it too deep. I just loved the image of the suitcase as a visual metaphor.
Being creative prevented me from falling apart.
The idea behind our ‘Tell your stories’ program is to prevent the children’s suitcases from becoming too full and open unexpectedly. We encourage them to tell their stories and express their emotions with the help of creativity. Often words are hard to find, or the child does not feel safe enough to talk about what they are going through because there could be repercussions, or they are still in the middle of it.
In a challenging time in my personal life, creativity helped me to keep going and prevented me from falling apart completely. It was a time when I felt I could not talk to anyone because, in my mind, nobody would understand. And even though my artwork was flat-out horrible, it helped me venting my emotions and stopped them from piling up inside. In other words, I was able to prevent my suitcase from becoming too full. I know creativity works as an outlet and a way to cope, even though the circumstances do not change. I will share more on my journey in my upcoming book UNBOXABLE; you can read the back flap of my book here.
And sometimes, it is just too much to handle.
We do not always have much information about the children’s background, only that they are in our program for a reason. And that can be anything from neglect to abuse or domestic violence. Or any other traumatic event like the loss of a parent, grandparent, or sibling. In Dominica, the tragic experience of a category five hurricane still triggers emotions and flashbacks.
Once the children are used to me, this white lady with the complicated first name, they feel free to be who they are. Some remain quiet and introverted, others are bubbly, and some ask for a lot of negative attention; it’s all fine. I am used to that by now, or so I thought.
I was not prepared for what happened during one of the sessions earlier this year. Let me describe what went down. All the children were ready to start when one of them kept walking on tables and chairs and interrupted me every time I wanted to talk about the theme for that day. I don’t believe in raising my voice, so I tried staying quiet for a little bit, but I could see the eagerness to begin in the other children. After a few minutes, the child seemed to have calmed down a bit, and we got started.
The calm atmosphere did not last long, and I saw how the little one started to feel frustrated. In hindsight, the moment he began to have fun, something inside him changed, like he did not allow himself to enjoy what he was doing. His frustration started building up and evolved to anger. At first, it looked like he was angry at everything; I believe he was primarily angry with himself. Like he was fighting a battle on the inside, and frustration won.
Other children got bitten, projects destroyed, and he defied me to chase him. To help me, one of the other children handed me a ruler, which I kindly declined to use. And eventually, the principal intervened and took him out of the classroom. What broke my heart is the fact that he cried when he left the classroom. I never left the classroom myself, because it did not feel safe to leave the other children alone.
It affected me in an unexpected way.
After the principal took the little one out of the classroom, we continued. The atmosphere had changed though, I could feel it. I decided to discuss what just happened. None of the children were angry, some felt sad, and one girl asked me how I felt. I told her that I felt sad that he had to leave because I want everyone to enjoy our sessions.
To change the mood a little, we did a simple breathing exercise. That day all the children wanted to go home early, which had never happened before. Usually, they try to stay as long as possible.
While I was in class with the children, I was very aware that I needed to ensure that all the children were and felt safe. I was able to keep it together and remain calm, even though the whole situation felt almost unreal to me. That changed once I left school; I noticed that my suitcase was too full. And the moment I was at home, it popped open, and a wave of emotions washed over me. The whole incident brought me right back to the time when creativity saved my sanity.
All is well that ends well.
If nothing else, the whole incident validates our program even more. In the end, it can happen to anyone at any given moment in time. It makes it even more important to take time to try and take some of the load out of your suitcase. And creative expression is an easy and accessible way to do so.
Reflecting on that day and discussing it with my coach and dear friend, I could see that this little boy showed me he felt safe enough in my class to show me he was struggling. That makes me proud because that is what it is all about—feeling safe to express yourself. I wish though I could have done more for him, because his behavior is just his way to express himself, it is not the problem.
All this happened a few weeks before graduation. Read my Blog on why graduation is bittersweet here. I was so happy to see him come up to me in school on graduation day and ask me if he could participate in the ceremony. My answer was, of course, yes, you are welcome. We are so happy to have you.
See you on my next Blog,
from the Nature Island,