This story is based on true events. Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
One day I was paying a visit to a client of mine called Eva, after she had kindly invited me over to her place. The thirty-year-old Eva was in the kitchen peeling potatoes, while the water on the stove was boiling. I was sitting on her couch sipping tea, while keenly waiting for what Eva was so eager to tell me. She had previously mentioned that she wanted to reveal something to me that was important for her. When the cooking was done, Eva sat opposite me. She seemed to be pondering something as she seemed lost in thought. Finally, she started telling me her story:
“When I was seven years old, my father found out that my mother was cheating on him. From that moment onwards our lives changed drastically. My resentful mother started venting out her frustrations on me. She would beat me and yell at me. She used me as her emotional punching bag. I could not tell my father out of fear that he would not believe me. I also couldn’t confide in my teachers as I was scared that I would be removed from my home, away from my parents. I was an only child. I felt devastated, broken and isolated. As a result of this domestic turmoil, I believed that I started losing my mind.
One day, I heard my mother storming up the staircase while I was upstairs. She was in one of her foul moods. When she violently yelled my name, my heart sank. I hurriedly entered my room. I fidgeted with panic, while desperately looking for a place to hide. I impulsively opened the two heavy, wooden doors of my wardrobe and peeped inside. For the first time I noticed that the rear wall was made of two wide wooden planks. Right between them in the middle there was a knob. I was baffled and momentarily stared at it. The urgency of the situation, however, made me snap out of it. My mother had finished climbing the stairs. Where was I going to hide? I decided to try my luck. I forcefully pulled the knob but to no avail. I could hear her getting closer and closer. I was terrified of her. I then decided to push the knob instead. I pushed hard for dear life, while leaning all of my petite weight against the panel.
Suddenly, the wall behind the wardrobe plunged inward. I lost my balance and was sucked into a black gaping hole. I finally landed on a soft surface. Trembling with fright, I covered my face with the palms of my hands and squeezed my eyes shut as hard as I could. When my panting finally subsided I slowly opened my eyes. At that moment, I realised that I had found a secret passageway into an unknown place. I stood up and looked around me in awe. I was surrounded by high trees. I plucked up some courage and started wandering into those woods, until I came across a strange, little creature, the size of a tennis ball. It was a red dragon without wings!
He turned around and looked at me. I took a step back. The pint-sized creature introduced himself. Puffer was his name. I hesitatingly reciprocated the gesture. He asked me what I was doing there. I replied and told him about my misadventure. I confessed to him my fear of going back home to my mother. He reassured me that everything was going to be fine and instructed me to follow him. As we walked through the woods I huddled close to Puffer. His company provided me comfort in this new, strange place. In the distance I could see tiny, winged creatures on tree branches peering at us. They were fairies! Their eyes glowed like car lamps and their teeth seemed sharp like razors. I was reluctant to get any closer. I was fearful that these other-worldly beings might attack us. Once again I squeezed closer to Puffer.
With eerie voices the fairies called me. They wondered why I, a human, was visiting their world. I got flustered and looked at Puffer for reassurance. He nodded at me as if to tell me to go ahead and answer without fear. After having a conversation with them, where I explained my difficult situation at home, I realised that the fairies meant no harm. On the contrary, they were fascinated by what I had told them. My initial agitation faded away completely. Puffer walked towards a colourful patch of magical flowers and invited me to play with him.
Some time later, while we were lying on the grass trying to catch our breaths, I asked Puffer about his story. He explained to me that he had an important role in this world. He identified children that were in danger in their own homes. His responsibility was to create a portal between his magical world and ours, to give mistreated children a safe place to hide. I was mystified and couldn’t believe my ears. Puffer went on to reveal that even he was in trouble, as both his parents had no desire to care for him. He also had been hiding for years in this faraway land, until it became his permanent home.
When it got dark, Puffer told me that it was now time to go back home. I wasn’t keen on doing that though. Before I left he gave me a secret password that I could use whenever I found myself in danger. I was overjoyed! After exchanging goodbyes, Puffer magically transported me back to my world. Sadly, my mother’s cruel ways continued relentlessly throughout the years. Nonetheless, my secret, faraway place which I could escape to via my magic wardrobe, helped me endure the pain.
One day, my worst nightmare happened. My mother was about to discover my secret. She was chasing me upstairs and just when I was about to jump into the magic wardrobe, she forcefully grabbed me by my shirt and viciously pulled me away. She had long been suspecting that I was hiding something, She shoved her head inside the wardrobe, while cursing at the top of her lungs. She was determined to find out what was going on behind her back. She forcibly shuffled through my clothes that were hanging. I held my breath and covered my mouth with both palms, with a look of horror on my face. She searched thoroughly behind the clothes, but luckily to no avail. She found nothing. I breathed a sigh of relief.
My mother still wasn’t satisfied. She was determined to make a thorough inspection of all the possible hiding places. She angrily proceeded from one room to another, opening every wardrobe and peeping under every bed. She still couldn’t find whatever she was looking for though. Behind her Puffer the magic dragon suddenly appeared out of nowhere. He smiled and winked at me as if to reassure me that my safe place was secured away from my mother’s sight. I couldn’t help but grin. I felt a great sense of relief. The faraway magic land was my happy place and no one was going to take it away from me. My magic wardrobe was my salvation.”
When Eva finished narrating her story, teardrops were running down her cheeks. At that moment it dawned on me what really was that helped her overcome all the abuse she had to endure as a child. I was aware of how resilient a person Eva was when faced with hardships. During my experience as a family therapist, I have encountered resilient children whose fertile imagination provided them with a safe refuge and helped them rearrange their lives according to their wants and needs. Children use their imagination as an escape into a world that adults may dismiss as doomed childhood fantasy, but this world provides assurance and optimism for the child. In this world that they have created for themselves, children can be in control, loved and valued as they choose to be.
As adults who take care of children and have their welfare and best interests at heart, what can we learn from this? What can we do to protect or help such children?
- Speak up. If you know that a child is in an abusive environment, take action. Children need adults to protect them;
- Be available. Set time aside to spend with your child where they can have your undivided attention as a caregiver. Let your child know that they can come to you if they have questions or queries;
- Let children know that they won’t get in trouble if they reach out. Sometimes children don’t speak up out of fear that either they or their loved one would get in trouble. Reassure the child;
- Show interest in their day-to-day lives. It is important that children feel valued in their family;
- Be physically and emotionally available to your child. Due to the busy lives that caregivers and parents lead, sometimes there is no time left for children;
- Validate the child’s emotions. When their emotions are validated, it will show that it is alright to feel and express how they are feeling, no matter what.