The day was hot, the day was humid, the day was ignited by summer sun, which turned treetops into blazing emerald canopies and jeweled the surface of the creek...

For me, a 10-year-old boy racing toward his favorite fishing spot, this day was a dream come true: school was out, summer had just begun, and I was where I had yearned to be.

Cane pole in my left hand, tackle box and bait in my right, feet thumping and kicking up rooster tails of dust on a dirt path pointed due north and parallel to the creek. I knew this land. I knew this creek. They were as intimate to me as the tones and textures of a prized musical instrument are to a professional musician. But it went beyond knowing or intimacy. It was as if nature had been re-designed or re-crafted into one huge musical instrument – like a living, breathing violin. A violin whose former metal strings had been replaced with new strings, strings composed of sky, water, trees and earth, a place where I was allowed – no, encouraged – to play. I was to play, pluck or, like using a bow on a violin, to gently rub the strings, thereby releasing a million molecules of music, which, now set free, danced, pranced, flirted, and merged to bear beautiful offspring of song.

This territory – my summer playground – was rectangular shaped, roughly three miles long and two miles wide. My parent’s home, perched on high ground, overlooked the creek’s vast and ancient flood plain. On rare occasions, flash floods would restore the creek to its former glory: a river as majestic as the Wabash River.

These square miles contained small ponds, high cliffs, and large swaths of forest. But it was the creek that ruled the kingdom. It was the creek that supplied the abundance of water that had created a riparian ecosystem teeming with life: deer, foxes, raccoons, possums, beaver, hawks, herons, owls, turtles, snakes and fish like bluegill, bass and catfish.

It was the fish that drew me – like metal to a magnet – to the spot now coming up as I spied the 100-foot sycamore tree, towering over and hugging the left bank of the creek. I sat down on my throne, located at the base of the tree. This smooth, scooped out place allowed me to sit with my back resting against the trunk of the tree and my legs dangled over the water. I was hidden. I knew that the high 90’s temperature, plus the 90% humidity would drive the bigger fish into deeper waters. It was this knowledge that sparked the electricity shooting down my spine, because the deepest and coolest fishing hole lay directly under my dangling feet. I put a night crawler on my hook and with a plop, my line settled into the abyss.

As I listened to the rush of water cascading over rocks and rapids, I felt a sense of peace, and I slipped into another realm. A soft melody, swirling on the surface of the water, rose and spoke to me: “Don’t lose hope, you’ll make it through these tough times.” You see, my family, like most families, was going through a bad time. To protect their children from the harsh realities of life, my parents insulated us by not discussing life’s hardships. It was this tension I felt, at home, which had made me seek refuge at the creek.

Looking back, I understand my parent’s position. But I also see another side: Children, like sponges, soak up every drop of family tension. Having sensed it, the child next explains it to themselves in a highly personal and distorted way. They falsely believe that they are the problem; that they have caused the stress to fall upon their family. For example, as a 10-year-old, I felt tension “so thick you could cut it with a knife” at home. Here is how I explained it: “Since I had just finished a bad school year (low grades), my parents were upset with me, I had disappointed them, and I deserved blame.”

As a psychologist, I teach parenting skills so that family stressors (divorce, separation, illness, death, psychiatric problems) can be explained, to the child, in a healthy way. However, there is a delicate balance between telling your child too much and telling them too little. The former can rip off a layer of childhood innocence, and the latter can cause a child to carry the burden of unhealthy guilt.

Let’s return to the creek.... A sudden strong tug on my pole caused me to set the hook. A huge fish bent my pole, way too far down, and I knew my tackle was no match for the power of the fish. A “twang” signaled that my line had snapped. I had just lost a really big fish, but something much, much bigger had caught my heart. This place, my childhood sanctuary which helped to heal my wounds, had also nourished a spiritual connection, a connection that would grow as I grew older. (The content of this article is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for treatment by a professional.)

Dr. Richard Elghammer is a clinical psychologist in Danville and practices at the Elghammer Family Center. He received specialty training in child, adolescent and family psychology at Riley’s Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, and completed his clinical internship at Indiana University School of Medicine.

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