One child I fostered was two years old when he arrived on our doorstep. Tiny, fragile, vulnerable, terrified. He clearly expected only the worst from adult caregivers. He screamed when I or my husband went near him. He constantly chewed his fists and hid behind doors and sofas. He tried to make himself invisible.
Then, a few weeks after he had come to live with us, he decided to trust me with an enormous, overwhelming secret. It was a secret which left me reeling. The trust and courage it took for that little boy to speak those words – I can’t convey how much it took out of him, or how much admiration i felt for him afterwards.
As time went on, this amazing child found different ways to work out the anger, the fear and the deep confusion which the abuse had left him with. He often dressed as a woman, and obviously felt safer in those pretty clothes, escaping his identity as a boy. The most incredible thing he did, and he only did it for a short period of time, was to take on the role of an adult social worker – someone he knew and felt very fond of. While he was ‘Bridget’, he would ask me to be him – ‘Alfie’. He would then ask ‘Alfie’ why he was sad and what had happened to him. I would talk about the abuse he had suffered, using his own words. As ‘Bridget’ – complete with her accent, mannerisms, a set of fake car keys and a handbag – he would then reassure me that what my parents had done was wrong and that he felt very sad for me. He would finish the chat by telling me that i didn’t have to go back and live with those ‘horrible people.’
I was left breathless by the simple, powerful effectiveness of these role playing sessions. How clever this child was. Not only was he able to feed his need for escapism by becoming Bridget; he was also able to talk through his feelings of anger and fear. Despite his parents best efforts to normalise the abuse he experienced, he knew, already, that it was wrong.
Therapists told me Alfie had Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder) and that these escapist behaviours should be discouraged, or they would start to take over his life. I didn’t agree. I could see how calm and happy Alfie was after them. I’m afraid I didn’t listen to the advice. Even if I had, I think Alfie would have carried on being ‘Bridget’ or whoever fitted the bill, but behind closed doors. Would that have been any healthier?
Alfie is now a young adult, and still amazing. He is colourful, theatrical and charismatic. He still likes to dress as a woman sometimes. He is still angry with his parents, as he has a right to be. But that ability to construct his own therapy has stuck with him.
We worry about him and his future, but we know he has that fantastic ingenuity to fall back on.