In a recent article for The Therapeutic Care Journal I wrote at some depth and with more feeling than I had envisaged at the outset, about children who were “un-held in a healthy mind”. Unsurprisingly, it was a worrying and rather distressing scenario. Since then I have, of course continued to hold the matter, and the children concerned in my own mind. This time around I would like to chart some of the modest progress that has been made in relation to one such child. As always, I will anonymise the young person, and call him Jim.
He is an intelligent boy of junior school age, and over time his parents and teachers have been aware that he has had difficulties relating to members of his family, and to other children at school. Worryingly, he finds it hard to distinguish between reality, and his own imagined view of stories of events. This means that anyone with whom he is in conversation is unsure how to understand and interpret the truth and meaning of what he is saying.
Ruth and I have been alongside him on a regular weekly basis (at least) for several years, and this is a note of some of the positive changes we have witnessed during and since the summer holiday of 2018, when he spent a week with us in North Wales. This was his first time with us in Snowdonia, an area which everyone else knows very well, and where we feel safe.
During that period, we and the rest of the Mill Grove family, provided him with secure boundaries and structures. There was a predictable and reliable pattern of life from the time that he woke up until bedtime. This involved mealtimes, behaviour at the meal-table, expectations of him being part of a small team (“squad”) that prepared breakfast on two or three occasions, daily preparation of his picnic, engagement in a planning and sharing meeting each morning. There were also clear explanations of what was expected of him and others during the day’s activities on hills, trains, boats and beaches. He revelled in this and wanted to be fully involved in everything. This meant that he quickly learned new skills (such a swimming, kayaking, crabbing, sailing, shrimping and scrambling). He has good hand-eye co-ordination and was confident whether joining in games such as cricket and football, or informal fun such as throwing and catching balls and frisbees.
Once he had got the daily pattern or rhythm of life clear in his own mind, he surprised us all one morning by laying the tables from breakfast by himself although it was not his turn on squad. Worth pausing to consider what this meant, but obviously a desire to get involved, to do something positive, and to play his part as a member of the group or team.
By common consent, and certainly according to his view of the holiday, he enjoyed every minute of it. So, the next question was whether, and if so, how, this experience might affect his life and relationships back at home and school. One of the great positives of course was that we had shared the time with him and so could reinforce the truth of what he said, and where necessary gently ensure our mutual recollections of events and happenings tallied. And that underlines the potential significance of a concentrated time away together in a new context full of varied, shared experiences. You might call it “quality time” together, but it also provides a secure base for conversation and relationships after the event.
On return home and to a new school term we noticed that some of the changes were becoming so pronounced that they were visible and/or noticed by most around him. Here are a few that stood out for me. Conversations at meal-times were now more relaxed because when we talked of North Wales, we had something reliable to reflect upon, and to do normal things like give our different experiences of the same events. This is, of course, the stuff of ordinary relationships in families and among friends.
He was keen to take part in shared tasks such as food preparation or putting out the rubbish and recycling. And he used his initiative rather than awaiting instructions. I don’t mean by this that he had ceased to be a reasonably normal boy, who would prefer playing to doing jobs. But he did get a lot out of being part of a team.
On Founders’ Day, the anniversary of the beginning of Mill Grove on 20th November 1899, he was relaxed and at home with lots of those present (many of whom had been in North Wales with him), and he was given the honour of asking the key question of the event: “Could you tell me what this celebration means?” Four adults, spread around the dining room, responded to him by name with their own heartfelt reflections on what the place meant to them as family and friends.
Then it was time for the first showing of the slides of the North Wales holiday. He featured in several of them and, watched by his family, proudly stepped forward to receive his “Milk Bottle Top Award” given for feats of bravery, adventure or creativity. This moment brought together everything and everyone in palpable solidarity. This is where he was, and this is what he had done and achieved. The fact that he was “Man of the Match” for the beach cricket contest did not pass without notice!
A month later, Christmas provided opportunities for him to be with us engaged in several very enjoyable activities.
He joined the annual evening trip to London where we explored the pre-Christmas atmosphere along with hundreds of other families. Again, he was the youngest of the group but revelled in the informal, spontaneity of our walk between the Embankment, Covent Garden and Leicester Square. Once again, there were shared experiences that could be discussed on subsequent occasions.
He was the youngest in the cast of the annual Boxing Day pantomime. In 2018 it was Dick Whittington and he played the part of the captain of the boat that took Dick to North Africa: memorably trying to keep the wheel steady as a storm intensified.
Just one other moment. On Boxing Day there is a football match in the playground at Mill Grove. It is a friendly game between teams of mixed age and ability, but over the decades it has achieved something like legendary status. Stories of great goals and saves have been handed down the generations. For some time before the game Jim would bring his own ball on to the pitch and practice scoring goals. On the weekend before Boxing Day he confided in me that the previous year no one passed the ball to him, so he wasn’t expecting to enjoy the forthcoming game. I sympathised as one who had played at his age, and who knew how it felt to be seemingly invisible to bigger members of your team.
I needn’t have worried. This year, he scored five of his team’s goals, all from passes! He chose to locate himself near the opponents’ goal and people soon cottoned on to the fact that he had a nifty left foot! A few days later, in the gloaming he and I walked to the very spot where he stood and relived his triumph.
Life carries on, and there are difficulties and challenges in abundance for him and his family, but it is becoming apparent that he is being held in some healthy minds, and more importantly that something of this is recognised and relished by him. Nothing I have described is rocket science, but therapeutic communities like Mill Grove, and places like Snowdonia, are comparatively rare. Where else and how can we replicate some of the elements that are making the difference in his life, I wonder?