It’s Tuesday at 4 p.m. I’m meeting a 14-year-old client for the first time. All I know about her is what her case worker had told me on the five-minute phone call we had to set up the appointment: “Her name’s Juliette. Her dad’s in jail. Her mom’s AWOL. Her foster mom is too busy to come to therapy. Juliette will take the bus to your office.”
I was used to these kinds of brusque calls by now. There was never any emotion involved, just a straight statement of facts. “Why is she being sent to therapy?” I’d asked the case worker.
“She’s disrespectful. Laughs in her foster parents’ faces when they ask her to do chores or try to discipline her. She isolates herself, won’t talk to them, doesn’t have friends.”
“What’s her permanency plan? Is she going back home? Will she be adopted by this foster family? A different one?”
“No, no, no. Juliette will stay in this foster home until she’s emancipated from the child welfare system.”
When I walk into the waiting room to meet Juliette, the receptionist widens her eyes in warning and nods in her direction. I look over to see a big girl dressed in black jeans, black boots, and black sweatshirt with a hood she wears low over her eyes, so you can’t see them. Her black backpack is stuffed so full, it extends a full foot behind her.
“Juliette, hi. I’m Dafna.” I reach out my hand. She raises her head for just a flash, barely allowing me a glimpse of her eyes. She says nothing. She’s intimidating. I pull back my hand.
In my office, Juliette pounds herself down on the couch. Thud. The table lamp shakes in response. “Hey, it’s nice to meet you,” I say. “How was the bus ride here?” Silence. “Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself? Who do you live with?” More silence.
We sit like this for a while, no crack in the darkness of that hood. Then finally, she talks: “I live with my bitch-ass foster mom and her bitch-ass husband and my idiot foster sister.”
“Okay. Cool,” I say. “How do you like school? It sure looks like you get a lot of homework.” I gesture toward the giant backpack.
“Naw,” she says, “that’s not what that’s about.”
“What do you mean? Those aren’t books for homework?”
She maintains a wry smile but says nothing. I look at her, but she won’t look back. I notice how long and thin her fingers are, how her brown hair curls above that dark hood in little tendrils, how her lips are so dry they’re cracked. Even though I can’t see her face, I recognize her. “What’s your favorite snack?” I try.
She looks up at me for the first time since the waiting room. “Hot chips,” she replies. No hesitation.
It’s the following Tuesday and Juliette is about to arrive. I run across the street to the convenience store to buy hot chips and an orange soda, making it back just in time to see her walk through the door in her black jeans, black boots, black hoodie, and huge overstuffed backpack.
“Hi, Juliette, come on back,” I say, still out of breath. She stomps behind me and slams herself into the couch, hood like a shield, yet again. “I brought you chips and soda,” I chirp. She doesn’t move. Her hands are in the pouch of her hoodie. She won’t look up. “Here,” I say, opening the bag and placing it next to her. I twist off the soda cap and set it on the table. She pauses for a second, stiffens, then picks up the chips and slowly starts eating. Every once in a while she takes a sip of her soda. She doesn’t look at me at all.
I watch the artificial red coating from the hot chips seep into her cracked lips. I wonder if it hurts. We say nothing until she finishes. She seems far away. “Do you want to play cards?” I ask casually. Juliette shrugs. We play Go Fish for the rest of the session. At the end, she looks up at me and says, “My daddy used to play cards.”
The next Saturday, I’m at the store and see sparkly candy cane ChapStick by the register. I think of Juliette’s chapped lips and grab one for her. I also buy a 12-pack of hot chips and orange soda. Carrying these items home, I wonder if the peppermint in the ChapStick will soothe her lips or make them sting more. Why am I so worried about this girl?
On Tuesday, I hear Juliette’s stomp, stomp, stomp down the hall, then her thwap onto the couch. Her hood remains over her eyes, big backpack on the floor by her boots. She grabs the hot chips and soda on the table. When she finishes eating, I say, “Hey, I noticed your lips are chapped, so I brought some ChapStick—just for you. I put your name on it.”
I reach my hand out to give it to her, but she doesn’t move. I wheel my chair closer and say, “Look, do you like this flavor? It’s brand new. See the seal?” She’s still looking down. I lean forward. I take a risk. I break the seal, take off the cap, reach under her hood toward her lips, and apply the sparkly ChapStick. She doesn’t move, but she doesn’t flinch either. She licks her lips after a minute. She picks up the tube and inspects it. “I’ll keep it here for you, and you can use it every time,” I tell her. “It’ll be here just for you.”
The next session starts the same: stomp, stomp, stomp, slam onto the couch, eyes hidden—except now, after slamming down on the couch, Juliette juts out her lips from under the hood, waiting for me to apply the glittery peppermint ChapStick. I do, carefully, making sure to stay within the lines of her overpronounced pout. Somehow, it feels high stakes. I’m pretty sure that if anyone had seen me in that moment, it would’ve come up in supervision. Boundaries! But it works—the hood comes off.
Juliette reaches for the deck of cards and wordlessly starts to deal. She eats her hot chips, drinks her soda. We say nothing; she doesn’t even look at me most of the time. Slap, I put a card down; slap, she puts her card down. Tap, I put my card down; tap, she puts her card down. The Queen song goes through my head. “Is this attunement, or just a fantasy? Mirror neurons fire . . . this is reality!”
When she comes to my room the following week, she immediately looks for her hot chips. “Oh, my hot chips,” she says breathlessly, as if her life depends on that bag. She offers me a chip. I can’t tolerate spicy food, but I accept and take a few bites. Instantly, my mouth is on fire. She cackles with pleasure as I fan my lips and reach for water. Then, as she chomps away, she tells me about her day: mostly, how stupid her foster parents are, what an idiot her foster sister is, how she wishes she could live with her mom. I’m trying to act casual, but I keep thinking in disbelief, She’s chatting with me now? When I ask where she thinks her mom is, she says, “I dunno. She used to stay with my uncle, but she’s not there anymore. Where’s your dad? My dad’s in jail.”
I try not to relay too much emotion, nothing that would cause her to withdraw back into the recess of that dark hood. “Do you ever talk to him?”
“Nope,” she snaps, “because every time he calls from jail, my nosey-ass foster parents make me put it on speaker.”
What?! I’m thinking, That’s not right. I’m indignant on her behalf. “Do you want to call him from here?” I blurt out.
Juliette looks at me with big eyes. “Okay.”
We send a letter to her father asking him to call during her next appointment time—and he does. “Daddy,” her voices glistens with devotion—a very young, sweet voice, one I don’t recognize. “Yes, I’m doing good at school. Yes, I’m being good at home. Yes, I like to read and stuff. Okay, Daddy. Okay. I love you, Daddy.” She hangs up. Now she’s silent. We play cards for the rest of the session. She doesn’t say a word, doesn’t even let out a gloating smile when she wins. I try to engage by moaning and groaning about losing, but she doesn’t respond. I try to snap my card on the table for her to match, but her card doesn’t snap back.
The next session I have a “nail salon station” set up in my office. I got this idea from my Theraplay mentor, Phyllis Booth, as a fun way to address a child’s attachment needs with nurturing and caregiving. So I have a tub of warm sudsy water for soaking, cuticle cream, hand lotion, a nail file, and a variety of colored polish I’d brought from home. When she sees the supplies, a questioning look crosses her face. She plops on the couch and begins to inspect the colors. I start cleaning her hand, then drying it, lotioning it. She wants alternating green and blue polish, which I willingly go along with. And to my surprise, the further along we go in the manicure, the more gregarious she becomes.
Pretty soon, she’s giggling and squealing as she tells me stories about her foster sister being stupid enough to get caught keeping food under the bed, and then to cry when she got yelled at.
“How did you learn not to cry when your foster parents yell at you?” I ask.
“Me, I don’t cry.”
“Did you ever cry?”
Shrug. Long pause. Then she leans in and says, “You know why my bookbag is so full?”
“Why?” I ask.
“Because,” she whispers, “it’s my weapon.”
“Your weapon? You mean you have a gun in there?”
“No, my bookbag is my weapon. When I’m getting off the bus, I swing it! I swing it real hard so I get somebody with it. They’re like, ‘Hey, watch it!’ And I’m like, ‘Ha, ha. Sorry, it’s just my bookbag! I got a lot of homework, asshole!’”
“Oh,” I say, “so it kind of protects you on the bus?”
“Yeah,” she says, pausing. “You do nails really pretty.” I fan her nails until they’re dry. Juliette admires them and beams. I escort her down the hall to the door. The same girl who walked in with a hood over her eyes now walks out with her hands waving high in the air, like she’s royalty. “Goodbye, bye, bye.”
This goes on for a year. Her caseworker and foster mom are annoyed with me because Juliette’s rude behaviors at home are getting worse, not better. I can’t get Juliette to talk about her foster family beyond how stupid she thinks they are, or to say much of anything about her family of origin; I can’t get her to do worksheets on identifying anxieties, worries, or hopes; I can’t get her to practice the coping skills I try to teach her. What I can do is paint her nails, have her beat me at cards, create elaborate 10-part handshakes with her, and give her hot chips to eat. Every time, hot chips. Whenever she walks into my room, she acts panicked: “Do you have my hot chips?” But what I hear is, Did you remember me? Do I matter? Do you care?
The hot chips are always on the table. Yes, you matter. Yes, I care. We’re here together. Despite the lack of measurable progress in her case file, I know what I’m doing with Juliette. I’m not just flying in the dark without instruments. I’m letting her feel safe and seen. I’m giving her a secure base. But sharing hot chips and doing nails with Juliette isn’t congruent with the practices of the rest of the therapy world.
“You’re trying to be her friend, not her therapist,” her caseworker tells me on the phone one day.
“Okay,” I say, “but have you asked Juliette if therapy is helping her?”
“Yes, I did,” she replies, disdain in her voice. “Juliette told me the only reason she goes to therapy is because you give her hot chips. I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but we don’t think you’re the right therapist for her. We’re switching her to someone new. Next week is your last session.”
I’m incensed. I immediately walk down the hall to my boss. “This is so unfair,” I say. “This kid is so alone! She doesn’t respond to anything else! I have to play with her and take care of her. It’s the only time she opens up!”
My boss puts down the papers he’s holding and looks at me. “Dafna,” he says, “the caseworker called me up, too. They think you have boundary issues with Juliette. They really questioned your professional conduct. I suggest you just drop it.”
Just drop it?! Drop her? Drop what we have together? I’m devastated.
Juliette and I have our last session. We play all our usual games. We eat hot chips. The last thing we do before she gets in the elevator is practice our 10-part handshake. It’s an elaborate dance of clapping, fist pumps, hip bumps, spins, and shakes. I tell her that I won’t forget our special handshake. She laughs. She’s almost giddy, like on that first day we did her nails. The elevator door opens. She walks in and doesn’t look back. The doors shut.
I walk back to my office, feeling profoundly sad. She seemed so happy. What does that mean? Was I a fool to think I mattered to her, that I helped her in any way? I never hear or see Juliette again.
Four years later, I’m in a child and family services meeting, planning a boy’s return to his biological mom after living in foster care. Nine of us are sitting at a long, sterile table. We go around introducing ourselves. “I’m Dafna Lender, family therapist,” I say.
To my right, a caseworker I’ve never met before backs her chair up suddenly and touches my arm. “Dafna?! You’re Dafna? The hot chips lady? I have a kid on my caseload who talks about you all the time!
Uh oh! Here it comes, I think, readying myself for a reminder of my failure.“She freakin’ loves you!” the caseworker exclaims. “And she’s one tough cookie. How did you do that with her? You are the hot chips lady, right?”
From deep inside, a comforting feeling bathes my body in warmth—a deep recognition of having mattered in her life. And I respond proudly, “Why, yes. Yes, I am. I am the hot chips lady.”
The covid-19 pandemic meant our storytellers didn't get a chance to perform on the big Symposium stage in 2020, so they recorded their stories at home. Here's what happened:
ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM NIKLEWICZ
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