Wheat therapy

Children’s suffering and attempts to anesthetize their pain. But what happens when you take your questions seriously? Giovanna Moretto, a developmental psychologist, talks about her work. “An ongoing education for me.”
Maria Acqua Simi

Giovanna Moretto lives in Chester, UK, with her husband Luca and their two daughters, and works as a developmental psychologist for the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) in Liverpool. Every year she deals with young men and women in great difficulty: self-harm, suicide attempts, violence, psychological disorders. But time spent with them, she explains, is an ongoing education because it forces one to trace goodness even in the most hidden corners and seemingly insignificant gestures. “My first need,” she recounts, “is for my life to be united. I am a mom, a wife, a psychologist, and I am a Christian. But how do these things hold together? Here in England, especially in work, it is impossible to talk about faith, because there are people who might be offended, and you risk being investigated. But in the face of certain things one cannot back down.”

Faced with what can one not back down?
In November last year I was assigned to a new department and immediately I was assigned a complicated case. It involved a 14-year-old girl with frequent and very serious episodes of self-harm and with a difficult family history that led her to attempt to take her own life several times. The situation was so severe that everyone who had to deal with her was scared and defensive. No one wanted to work on this case. I got angry. I knew that they had “given” her to me knowing that because I was a newcomer I couldn’t refuse or complain. Instead, starting to work with her–and the team behind her–was the best thing that could have happened to me.

Because she forced us, with her pain, to look at our own need. When I met her, I was faced with a teenager living in special accommodations, a kind of “home clinic” that was totally antiseptic and had no furniture so that she could not hurt herself. About twenty caregivers were caring for her twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, taking a thousand steps and following protocols and procedures to prevent the worst. But the problem remained. She kept hurting herself, and the team caring for her lived in fear of failure. Everyone wanted me to quickly prescribe therapy for her, but I had no magic recipe. I then asked to work together with those who were with her day and night, those who were called to love her. It was necessary to get creative, to start looking at the good that this girl is, not just at what is wrong.

What does it mean to “look at the good”?
The evil she inflicts on herself is a language, the only way she knows how to express herself. Up to that point, we had tried to take this away completely without giving her an alternative. It was then that, in talking with the rest of the team, words came to mind to share with them–people who are totally atheistic and disinterested in God–the Gospel parable about the weeds. That girl is just like a field where so many weeds have grown because of all of the evil that has been done to her, but where there is still wheat. So even the house where she was hospitalized could be an opportunity to sow good seeds. If we, on the other hand, in order to get rid of the weeds, anesthetize everything, we rip out even the good that is there. I said to them: we must make the wheat grow, which will one day be so beautiful and shining that the weeds, even though they may never disappear, cannot take away the light.

This is beautiful, even poetic, but what does it mean concretely?
We began to build a relationship with her made up of small gestures, dialogues, and even silences. Every step between me and my colleagues was dictated by what was happening and not just by protocols. After four months she stopped cutting herself. It’s not that she won’t fall again–it will happen–but she began to look at herself for the first time with new eyes. And my colleagues and I also looked at each other with new eyes. All this has changed me.

My last resort, when cornered, was to bring to the table what I held most dear, which was my experience of faith, in a way I had never been able to do at work. And the most wonderful surprise was to see how my colleagues were so impressed that they wanted to reverse all of the procedures and start over with this teenager. We really started working together.

From the Christian experience, a method…
Yes. A unity was born between me, the social worker, and the head of the institution that became a working method: we shared the steps to be taken and we discussed issues with each other. We didn’t work autonomously in solitude or, worse, rigidly follow manuals and protocols. Even the girl’s dad, who had remained on the sidelines up to that point, was amazed at this new way we were going about things and began to dialogue with us about how to be close to his daughter. A colleague said to me, “I never thought that working on this case could become such a great experience.” I learned that I don’t have to be afraid of anything. What I encountered in Christianity is really for everyone, even in the most difficult circumstance.

What made you take this risk?
What we are learning now in School of Community, reading The Religious Sense. I started looking at my elementary experience: I want to go to work to find beauty, justice, hope. I need to understand that I am wanted and loved. And this is possible within a companionship of friends, in my relationship with my husband and my daughters, in following the Movement. All of these questions are also asked by the young people I meet at work and by my colleagues. Why shouldn’t I take them seriously?

Help us understand one thing: Why do so many young people today turn to self-harm?
Here in England we have a very high percentage of cases: three out of ten young people deliberately hurt themselves. Self-harm is an expression of emotional distress, of a difficulty in accepting one’s emotions, of a lack of meaning. We could define it as “exasperated and desperate” language, the only language that young people are able to use when there are no longer words that make sense. It is, however, a language that should be listened to because it is still an attempt to communicate. Selfharm has several functions. The most common is to feel something. If a person is depressed or traumatized, his or her body turns off sensory perception because there is too much pain to bear. When you get hurt, the body releases endorphins that, for a few moments, make you feel alive, and so many young people use this method: they adopt a biological solution to deal with psychological pain.

You deal with them every day: What questions do they have, what do they ask?
Behind their every gesture is a demand for meaning. Why all this pain? Why all this struggle? Why all this heartbreak? Why me, and some go so far as to make it explicit: “What is the point of my life if I have no friends, if I am teased at school and my family is always fighting?” I have met many teenage girls, for example, who started self-harming because they felt used and cast away by
their first great love. We adults, instead of being scandalized, need to look at this deep question of meaning that comes to mark our teens’ bodies.

You said they don’t feel anything anymore; however, it
seems to me that young people today are instead hyperstimulated: pornography from an early age, an inordinate use of social media and the internet. We let them have access to everything without the tools to understand what they are seeing…

It all stems from loneliness. They are overexposed, but they are lonely. From an early age they experience a kind of omnipotence over the things they can access, but there is no one to guide and protect them. So you can go from cooking videos to raunchy videos as if everything is the same. But it’s not all the same. That’s why the point is, first of all, to recover a meaningful relationship and dialogue with teens. If I think about the girl I was working with, for me the most important thing is not to point the finger at her mistakes, but to understand who the adults in her life are, who really supports her in a path of growth.

What if she answers that she has no one?
That’s what happened. But I told her that I was there with her. She did everything she could to send me away, and I stayed there anyway. My colleagues who were just afraid before stayed. This is what the Lord does with us: we can push Him away a thousand times a day, but He doesn’t leave. He stays.