STORIES OF HEALING
No, Kevin, You Don’t
Have a Disorder!
an IFS Story
Kevin, age 12, had 3 panic attacks on one August day. He’d never experienced anything like it before. All of a sudden he couldn’t catch his breath. He was scared to tears but didn’t know why. His chest felt tight and heavy. He couldn’t talk. And it happened two more times that day! The next day his mom took him to an Urgent Care Doctor who made sure his heart and body were ok. They were. The doctor told them Kevin had experienced panic attacks and gave them a pamphlet entitled Anxiety Disorders. The pamphlet recommended proper diagnosis, therapy, and possible medication. So mom brought Kevin to see me, an Internal Family System’s (IFS) therapist. (IFS is a non-pathologizing, insight and compassion based therapy model developed by Richard Schwartz, PhD).
As Kevin’s new therapist, I took some time to get to know Kevin and his mom. Then asked, “What happened? Tell me about it."
Kevin explained that he was swimming at Joe’s house. He’d never been to Joe’s house before. Joe’s mom dressed “gothic” and she spoke harshly to Joe about something trivial. Kevin didn’t like that. The first panic attack hit him in the pool. He felt foolish and embarrassed but hid it as best he could. The scary feeling passed and he knew he would see his mom soon. She was meeting him at Joe’s football practice after lunch. Most of Kevin’s friends still played tackle football. Kevin loves sports and is usually very good at them. He played tackle football one season when he was 10.
At Joe’s football practice Kevin’s former coach greeted Kevin with, “Are you too scared to play football anymore?” Kevin slunk away to wait for mom. Then he heard another coach yelling at a boy who was crying and hurt. On the drive home Kevin tried to tell mom about what happened in the pool, and about the coaches. That’s when the second panic attack hit him. Again he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t talk, his heart raced, and he shed tears of fear and confusion. Again this passed, and he was ok.
So after dinner his mom took Kevin back to Joe’s house to spend the night as planned. Joe was talking excitedly about the football team. Then the third panic attack hit. It was just like the others except this time he vomited. This was way too embarrassing and scary. He called mom and she brought him home.
I agreed that when we have a really intense feeling, like fear or panic, which just takes over our mind and body for a while, it’s always scary and confusing. (What most therapists call a symptom of illness we IFS therapists understand as a protective part becoming extreme. That part of us is reflexively protecting us in two ways; from re-experiencing old hurts and simultaneously trying to protect us from any new hurts). So I explained to Kevin that there’s always something important behind that really extreme feeling. I asked if he knew what that something might be? He didn’t. Most people don’t know at first. I asked if he would like some help finding out? He agreed to try.
I told Kevin I had noticed that he heard three different adults speak harshly to boys that day, including to him. How did he react to that inside, I wondered? Kevin said he wasn’t used to grownups talking mean to kids and he didn’t like it. It was scary. Then he started talking about the fall he played football when he was 10. He liked being with his friends. But he didn’t like the football coaches. “They yelled at us all the time,” he said. “If we made a mistake we had to run laps, real long ones.” The more he talked about what it was really like for him and his friends the more his eyes filled with tears. “They didn’t even care if somebody got hurt”, he said, his voice rising with anger. “We had to give away our special helmets to an older team so those boys wouldn’t get concussions.” His mom said: “I didn’t know it was that bad for you." Kevin said: “I didn’t tell you everything because I knew you’d make me stop. I didn’t want to be a quitter.”
I told Kevin and his mom that when hurts happen to us and it doesn’t seem safe to tell someone; then those hurts get buried inside us like invisible bruises that never heal. This helps us get on with our lives but leaves us vulnerable to becoming easily reinjured. It’s like a part of us holds the wound for us so the rest of our personality can forget. (We call these parts “exiles” in IFS therapy). Sometimes a minor event, or an unkind word, can wake up that emotional wound. Then all of its’ trapped painful energy wants to rush out. Then the protective part (aka symptom) gets extreme and tries to stop the pain and guard against re-injury. This gets us way out of emotional balance. So I asked: “When that mom and those coaches were critical and yelling at you boys, did it wake up those old football hurts? Is that what the fear and panic was about?”
Kevin said: “ Yes, he thought so. He didn’t realize he still had those feelings inside, but it felt good to get them out." Then Kevin asked: “Do I have an anxiety disorder?” I said: “No Kevin, you do not have a disorder. There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s just hurtful people that we have to watch out for. And when hurts happen, as they always do, it helps a lot if we can trust someone enough to tell them about those hurts. Then they don’t get buried inside but surprise us later."
So then Kevin wished he could play some other sport during the fall season while his friends were busy with football. I told Kevin about a man I knew (Jim) who also quit football when he was young, even though he was going to be the starting quarterback. Jim went out for cross-country. He and his new friends worked so hard at running that for two years their high school team never lost a race. And they were state champions two years in a row.
Well Kevin didn’t need any more appointments with me. But I heard from his mom that Kevin went out for cross-country at his Junior High School. He is very good at running and really likes his coach. In the last race of the season Kevin placed 70th out of 500 runners. Later the coach gave Kevin a plaque for “most hard working” runner.
In a different therapy session I told Jim (that two time Cross Country State Champion) about Kevin, his story, and how he was now running cross-country too. I wanted Jim to know that his story helped Kevin. You see; Jim is still healing many deep wounds from abuse by his father, bullying by his peers and coaches after he quit the football team, and racist insults from his peers and their parents. Kevin’s story brought tears to Jim’s eyes and he said: “I’m glad my story helped Kevin. I’m glad you helped Kevin. There was no one there to help me.” But that’s another story, about Jim, for another time.