The Healing Power of Hide and Seek

Back in March, I wrote about the experience of being lost and found—how a cardinal had reminded me of the hope it can take to tolerate the experience of being lost and found.  And over the past few weeks I have found myself thinking again about the phrase—lost and found--partly because I have been struggling with ‘lost’ but also because I realized that it was something I had actually been playing with for a long time. For all of these many years I had had the perfect teacher.

I first met Katrina as a client. She was 10 and came to see me at the clinic I worked in when I was an intern. Lost and Found. Hide and Seek. This is where we started. There weren’t a lot of toys in the clinic, but I had two hand puppets: one was a salmon, and the other was a rooster. Katrina created the game. She would hide the puppets and I would have to find them. And then I would hide the puppets and she would find them. This was the only game we really played.

Eventually I expanded on this and created a sand tray out of a giant plastic storage bin. It held sand and a bag of plastic toys. Katrina created a similar game. She would hide the toys and I would find them. Then I would hide the toys and she would find them.

There was always a lot of anticipation: Would I be found? And always a bit of squealing or smiling and a look of triumph when it happened. Found!

There are many reasons that this game got created, but one I have grown to appreciate most over the years was that she was training me to be really good at hide and seek—to have the relational endurance I was going to need, with her. She couldn’t have known the future, and neither could I, but this game that we played for nearly a year was exactly the training that we both needed: we would play hide and seek with each other for another decade.

The first time I lost her she was hit by a van. It was a year after we started meeting and she had just turned 11. The trauma of the accident caused her to be in a coma. Visiting her in the hospital ICU, the energetic girl I knew had disappeared. I sat with her and talked and hoped she would come back. Eventually after many weeks she woke, and she was stepped down to another hospital for rehab. I found her room, and she was up and walking around –it was such a relief. But would Katrina be there? Would the head injury have taken her memory? Would she remember me?

I had made a small ‘travel version’ of her favorite sand tray: I used a Tupperware container and she recognized it instantly, “You know the rules!” She said. Which meant I had to turn around when she hid the toys in the sand. And I found them, as I had found her, this time.

Most people think of helping relationships as being helpful to the client. And they are. But they aren’t just healing for the client, they are also often healing for the helper. I have found that in order to help someone heal or grow, I usually have to heal or grow something in myself—and each client brings whatever that it is-- out of me. Katrina needed to learn that people stayed—and so did I. From the very beginning she asked me to play with this experience—and stretch the muscles that this kind of trust requires.

The next time that I lost her was about six months later when she was placed in foster care. Her placement was far away from the town where she lived and came to the clinic, so technically I would have to close her case and she would get another therapist. But I knew that she had just had such a tragic accident and the loss of her family and I didn’t think it would be helpful to have her be lost in a system where she was alone. I spent the early years of my career in residential treatment and so often in reading a kid’s chronology of events—they went into foster care and then it was years and years of moving around. I wanted to spare her that. I wouldn’t be able to.

I tried calling clinics nearby to see her there, but that didn’t work, so I convinced DSS to let me become a visiting resource. They said sure. So, my role permanently shifted, I drove to her foster home that Saturday and found her there.

She was sad, crying and lost. She had started school there, but was struggling. As she hid underneath a Tigger blanket she talked about how after the accident she had lost the ability to read. She felt stupid and she wasn’t sure what to do. I’ll never forget how bravely she was able to talk about the things that scared her most. How hard it must have been for her. We got her workbooks starting all the way back in first grade and she dutifully did them all. She hid in her closet and practiced reading—starting over with Harry Potter. She came all the way back to grade level. She lost her ability to be a student. And she found it again.

And then the lost, and found, continued. From foster home to foster home. I saw her in most foster homes and group homes she was in, but not all of them. She was moved from the DSS system into the DYS system and I lost her for a couple of years. Then I found her again. And then lost her again. And then much later, I looked for her on Facebook and found her. Shortly after that she actually moved in with me for a bit, with her daughter and then we went through another round of lost and found.

Recently it was my turn. I decided to move from my house and posted a picture of the ‘For Sale’ sign on Facebook. She called right away. “You’re moving!” she said. I reassured her that I wasn’t moving far away, but it wasn’t until this weekend I understood her concern. I had forgotten about our game, you see. I forgotten the rules—it was she who hid things first, not me.

We met for breakfast this weekend, Katrina, her daughter, and I. And she bravely told me, through tears, how hard it was that I was selling the house. That all these many years she knew where I lived, and knew if she could get to me, she would be safe. And now she didn’t know where I lived. After breakfast we drove out to the old house to say goodbye, and to the new house so she would know where it was. She had lost me and now she found me again.

You never know where healing is going to come from—and you never know when it will finally sink in. Some lessons take a really long time to understand and absorb.  All those many years ago with the salmon puppet and the sand tray, I didn’t know how much I would need to understand and really believe in the power of lost and found. I didn’t yet understand my lost parts—and I can’t say anymore whether I really understood them in others, but I recognized them.

When I first met Katrina, it was I who felt lost. My clinical internship had actually just ended tragically with a hospital closing down—I had to say goodbye to all thirty of my clients in three days. I had lost my colleagues, my clients and my sense of security, not to mention my paycheck. I had just started up in the clinic in the housing projects when Katrina first came in.  Her game of hide and seek was probably as healing for me as it was for her. She taught me how to hang on. Her situation demanded that I keep searching, keep finding. And it was helpful to her.

But it was also helpful to me. I learned that I was someone who didn’t give up, who will keep searching, keep waiting. I learned that lost was temporary. Maybe even necessary at times. I used all these muscles to learn how to find Katrina. But through this I believe she taught me to find myself. To not give up. To be patient through lost, all the way to found.

© 2015 Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD