Thursday, July 14, 2016

One Less Than Four

Next week is E's birthday. He would be 20 years old. It's been ten months since he died.

Perhaps fittingly, just this week I started a new job. I left a good career and a very good salary and pension to work in a large organization that does policy and advocacy for kids in foster care. My former boss thinks I'm crazy but my closest friends think the move makes perfect sense - the job requires the same skills I've built up over the decades in my career, in the service of the cause that is obviously nearest my heart. As I do my new job, I call on the struggles and confusion and pain and good humor that E shared so openly, and I like to think that E is there each of my efforts. I like everything about the job, although I only just started. I even like my office. It's quiet, with a pretty view of the hills.

Meanwhile, T has been thinking for months about how to mark E's birthday this year. He craves appropriate opportunities to publicly express his grief, as he wants, understandably, to be seen as a good brother, one who took responsibility for his younger sibling through all of his struggles. (T has actually lost two brothers; a year before E died, the eldest of his siblings was murdered. They had only known one another for a couple years but the loss was stunning. Now he has two deaths to mourn at the same time.)

And yet T has not been self-destructive lately, which is a mark of how much he has grown up. He still lives with us, which is largely a very joyful thing. This morning he bit me on the shoulder while I was getting ready for work. We pick him up every night from his job in healthcare, and if we go more than a couple days without talking, he usually comes up with some clever scheme to spend an hour or two together (and get us to feed him at the same time).  He's old enough to go to bars, rent a car, and do all sorts of other adult things; I find that I'm able to treat him as a friend as well as a son.

The three of us decided to get a tattoo on E's birthday. We chose a three-legged crow, a mythical creature in various Asian cultures that symbolizes divine intervention in human affairs and "a great master in nothing to fear" as one source says it. To us, it also represents our family: one unusual being that rests on the strength of its three parts that has come through something extraordinary. Three is a meaningful number - both one more than two, and one less than four, which is what we used to be.

Monday, May 9, 2016


It's been eight months since E passed away, and Tim and T and I are emerging from a fog of grief. We won't ever be the same without E, but we are no longer bumbling around like zombies divorced from our own lives.

T lives at home now and has since the day we got the news. He finished his nurse assistant training this winter and started working, caring for older people, which has been his dream since high school. He loves wearing his scrubs, and takes his obligations to his patients very seriously. He has grown up so much, we often feel like we are living with a friend, whose wisdom and humor have both reached adult proportions. I always told him that someday, when he was no longer in school, he'd look around and find himself surrounded by adults, and he would no longer feel like the unfortunate "foster kid." That day has finally come. He can mostly be trusted to make sound decisions on his own behalf, and isn't that the ultimate goal?

It's great having him at home. I've tried to avoid leaning on him in my grief and it's important to me that he not feel that the tragedy of losing E has made us fearful and over-protective of him in a way that would burden him. Nevertheless, getting through these last several months was difficult for all three of us, with intermittent period of pain, confusion, forgetting, ruminating, and alienation from other people, and I can't really imagine going through that without him close at hand.

Frankly, it's been a very lonely time, the loneliest I've ever experienced. Losing a child is excruciating, and losing an older child who is yours through foster care is doubly alienating because many people have a poor understanding of that sort of parenting to begin with so they aren't sure how to regard you.  I sometimes wonder if people thought we were foolish, to open our hearts to a kid like E, and felt we had somehow set ourselves up for tragedy. The fact was, he was T's brother, how could we deny that he was also our family? Anyway, it would require a cold heart indeed to refuse to respond to a kid like E. and fate just happened to put us within his reach, too late to prevent his pain, but just in time to love him as deeply and instinctively as any parent loves a child.

Friends wanted to be there, but after the initial expressions of sympathy, they didn't know what to say and so stayed silent. For months, nobody came over and nobody invited us anywhere. After years of entanglement with the social service system to try to support E's needs, everything in our world went quiet, as if all lines had been severed. At work, my boss stopped coming to me with assignments until I was able to convince him that I am just fine, unaltered. Even my own parents declined to show up for us when E died, saying they hadn't understood how close our bond was. They didn't attend the funeral and spent the subsequent holidays with my brother's family without inviting us to join them. Through all of this, Tim and T and I relied on each other, reflecting one another's sadness and sharing the daily discipline of just getting by.

I can't really write much more about losing E. Any attempt to capture feelings in words seems to do his memory a disservice. He's still there in nearly ever moment. Every Sunday afternoon, I feel his absence around the time we used to have dinner and say our prayers. On Mother's Day it hardly seemed like a year since he rushed into my bedroom last spring to hand me a carefully-chosen card that said simply "I love you with all my heart." Our weekends seem long after two years of carefully supervising him, visiting him when he was locked up, and arranging our home life to accommodate his needs when he was free to be with us.

I miss his astounding honesty, and his gentleness, and his trust. I will always miss him, and Tim may miss him even more, because they were each other's best friend. E was like someone from a dream, a personality loosely tethered to the world, saddled with more misfortune than one person can bear, and yet he was so loving and lovable. Our time with him always felt as if the clock had stopped and the needle had been lifted from the turntable and we had stepped into a private dimension. We can't go there anymore without him, but I'll never lose my sensation of that special extra dimension that existed solely through the magic of him.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Putting it in Words

When E. was alive (I force myself to write that to test whether I can stand to say it), I rarely felt like writing and so I let this blog linger. It was a happy time, and I didn’t have many complexities to unravel. Parenting him was easy. His illness made his needs very obvious, and his blissful compatibility with Tim made me secondary. The three of us acquired an uncomplicated rhythm, though that would seem most unlikely to an outsider, who would surely overestimate the impact of his near-constant state of crisis. Being with him was like driving on a very bumpy dirt road in a very beautiful part of the world. Once you learned to settle your stomach and stopped wishing the pavement were smooth, you learned to move with the rough motion of the road and enjoy the sun. Which is to say: we were merry together, through psychiatric group homes and hospitals, through two stints in jail, and one period where he insisted he preferred to be homeless and sleep in the park in a rainstorm. I am not being flip or ironic when I say that life with him was fun. 

I’ve rarely been secondary in our house; I have a dominant personality and a forcefulness that Tim has kindly allowed to govern many of our life choices, though he’s the one who carries the dares through most of the time. Being second-in-command during our time with E was relaxing for me, like a long vacation of the will. I had developed the habit of playing basketball on Sunday mornings then visiting the car wash and the nail salon in the afternoon because I wasn’t needed at home. When E began living with us part-time, I hadn’t been superfluous in years; to the contrary, when T was in high school, and then later in rehab, it was hard for me to find time to go to the bathroom, much less a nail salon. But E was different and though he loved me, he didn’t need me. 

Starting just a few months ago, I embellished my Sunday habit by not going right inside the house when I came home. I’d go out to the garden instead, and if I found Tim and E together there, we’d hang out, but if they were inside, I would watch them through the windows. On one such occasion a few months ago, I peeked over the kitchen ledge and caught them brewing beer together in the kitchen. E was sitting on the floor, sprawled out, leaning up against the wall and Tim was leaning on the counter and there were hops boiling in water on the stove and they were both laughing, probably about nothing, or at least not anything they could explain to me. They saw me and waved, but they didn’t stop what they were doing or come outside because they were engrossed in each other and they were accustomed to me dancing around the fringes. Standing there looking at them was like seeing a movie that I would love to watch over and over every day for the rest of my life, and even at the time, I knew that I was recording it to memory on purpose.

It’s my nature to be an observer, so I felt very much myself at home during this interlude in our lives. At work, I have a public self that is outgoing and organized and I am often the one who ends up in charge of things, because for whatever reason, I’ve always been that obnoxious kind of person. Even in my friendships, I find it hard to relax and I feel pressured to buoy other people. But in my private life, I’m much looser, introverted and introspective, and I like to entertain ambiguities. I prefer not to talk, unless it’s to Tim, but I do like to write. And my private self needs a lot more prime time right now than it used to.

For the last two months as we absorb the shock of losing E, I wanted to write about it at various times but I felt it would be unseemly. There is nothing I can say that can capture our feeling for him or the depth of his spirit. But I crave writing anyway, even when it’s cheap comfort, because I am cast out of the happiness I had when I was quite willingly the third wheel and I feel thrown back into a sea of need which includes my own, but also Tim’s and T’s. Everyone in my house is grieving hard. Even the dog is looking for E. 

My public self is disturbingly intact and appears to bear less relation to my inner self than usual; I went back to work after one week, and after about three, people stopped acting awkward and making crude expressions of condolence tinged with misunderstanding, and I just got on with the routine of running things. I even took a business trip, though I took T with me because I couldn’t stand to have him out of my sight, and I suspect he felt the same about me, and anyway, it was an excuse to visit my favorite uncle. 

But within my family and my household, everything has changed, as if someone came into our home in the night and moved all our furniture, took all our clothes, and replaced everything familiar. Or, more to the point, as if our minds and our bodies inhabit two different worlds, as if we move among familiar objects but when we touch them there is only nothing, while by contrast, we are wracked by sensations the cause of which we cannot see. A few days ago T texted Tim in agony, saying he couldn’t believe that E is gone because “he wouldn’t leave me like this.” We don’t cry often, and we don’t stop living, but all three of us individually are pointing in two directions at once, toward the ordinariness of today and toward exquisite infinity of death. 

I am sure we grieve as a consequence of loving and in proportion to the attachment and intimacy we have with the lost person. For that reason, I don’t find grief ugly. I don’t even wish that it would end quickly. But I do, for the first time in my life, find myself deliberately refusing to think about him. Every morning for the last eight weeks, I wake up happy and relaxed with a sense that something is eluding me, and then over the course of several seconds I remember what it is that I forgot, which is that he died. In that moment I feel the superficial animal consciousness that drives me to pursue food and shelter and shiny objects come face-to-face with my soul and step politely aside to let it pass, hoping that it stays mostly quiet for the rest of the day.

I don’t want to talk to anyone right now. Once the workday ends, I go straight home. I am avoiding both of my book clubs; I don’t have the endurance for lengthy discussions about other people’s plots and problems, and the most casual comment can suddenly inflict great pain and slam me up against the limit of my tolerance. I want to be alone with my thoughts or those of the only two people whom I trust loved E even more than I did. I don’t want my head filled with other people’s words. I don’t want to watch their faces when I can still very easily replay the expressiveness of his in my mind’s eye. And so I’m back to writing, private conversations with myself. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

E Ending

This is an incredibly hard post to write, but it would be wrong to leave this blog up without including this chapter, which shuts the door on an entire period of our lives: seven weeks ago, we lost E when he ended his life with a drug overdose.

It may have been an accident and it may have been intentional. Most likely, it was an accident that happened because he was not fully committed to surviving, and so it is a blend of both possibilities. In any event, we'll never know, because we weren't there when it happened.

There is no wisdom to share from this, and no pithy story to tell. There is only emptiness where for a time we had one of the great loves of our lives, and certainly the most unexpected.

In the last conversation I had with him, he complained that I wanted to wash all of his clothes before I let him wear them, as he'd had bedbugs recently. I started to lose my patience. Then I remembered that I had often told T that we might one day lose his brother, and so we should be sure to never end a day on an argument, and to tell him how much we loved him at every opportunity. Taking my own advice, I pulled back from the knife's edge of frustration and said simply, "I explained why I need to wash your clothes. I can see that you don't agree. But I love you and I want you to have a comfortable bed to sleep in when you're here at home. So you're just going to have to trust me." He gave me a wild look, threw his head back, laughed loudly, and scampered away. And shortly thereafter, he was gone forever.

I have no taste for discussing the various injustices that contributed to E's suffering and eventual demise. If you read blogs like this one, chances are you already know and care about the realities of life for youth in foster care, the wreckage and debilitating insults delivered by the child welfare system, the poverty of services for traumatized and mentally ill young adults, and the disheartening odds for children born drug and alcohol exposed and suffering related disabilities. I can't think about those things anymore. I could make myself quite insane thinking about all of the inadequacies in the care he received and all of the dead ends and disappointments we encountered trying to help him. But it doesn't matter anymore. I can't let generalities replace the particulars of E that I treasured so much, and even righteous anger can't quell my grief. There isn't room for both.

We held a beautiful service for him, modest, with his relatives and some of his previous caregivers. We sang his favorite songs, and his brother T gave the eulogy. Their birth mother whom I've never met came for the viewing though not for the service, although she was invited. While she was there, she and I held T as he sobbed over E's body and then we held each other. She said she was sorry she hadn't been able to mother E; I told her I was sorry I hadn't been able to keep him alive.

It was hard to be with his body, an empty shell that once held his most animated spirit. His ashes are at home with us. T and his birth mom asked me to be the one to decide what to do with them, and after a lifetime of being tossed from one foster home to another, and later, from one mental health facility to another, I couldn't stand to deposit his ashes anywhere other than at home with us, where he was, briefly, happy and so loved. So with us his remains will stay until one day they are buried with ours.

Obviously he was ill, and suffered greatly. He was also the funniest person I ever knew, and we loved him as our own son. He and Tim were true soulmates, everyone who saw them together remarked on it. E showed us things about ourselves that we didn't know, good things, patient, loving, tender things. The time we had with him often seemed other-worldly. It's impossible to imagine that he's gone forever, because he was so deeply a part of us. In the first several weeks, we felt as if we'd been left behind, as if we were meant to follow him. We followed him through so many harrowing events--including hospitalizations and incarcerations--and so many triumphs--his first road trip last Christmas with Tim, his first day of college last month--that it seems impossible that we can't follow him wherever he's gone now. But days pass and he's still gone, and the hard fact of it sinks in slowly with a terrible weight.

There is almost nothing to say about this, no way to interpret in words the unrelenting fact of death. But it is important to me to say that we would do it all over again. We aren't angry with him, we don't regret anything about our time together, and we wouldn't hesitate to embrace the opportunity to be his family again; quite the opposite.

T moved back home the day that we lost E, and the three of us are grieving together and will be for the rest of our lives. Grief brings us closer, clarifying the bonds of family. There are things only the three of us will ever know, including how brilliant a light has been extinguished and how very much has been lost.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Beyond Behavior

I am not an expert by any means, but I have had a lot of occasion to think lately about parenting an older child who was prenatally drug exposed. As we have spent more time focused exclusively on E and understanding how to nurture our relationship with him, I find that his disabilities pose mysteries that I hadn't considered before. (Though both boys were born severely premature and exposed to cocaine, for whatever reason, E shows long term signs of resulting disability, while T does not.)

I feel like you can learn a lot about traumatized kids by observing how they respond to stress and change, and we've had the occasion to see both boys react to big life events over the years. T tends to take over. He activates his natural leadership skills and uses his cognitive abilities to get his situation organized, even in the most difficult of circumstances. He is formal and reserve when he is uncertain, but even then, he can be extremely charming, even manipulative, trading on his good-looks, mature point of view, and winning ways to forge useful alliances. He likes to keep his clothes tidy, his papers in order, and his schedule predictable. Even at his worst times, he always had the coming week's schedule committed to memory, in detail. Even in his moments of greatest anger with me, he would pause to tell me that the color of my shoes clashed with my purse, or that I should remember to get dog food. He is capable of mastering many trying situations, and if he cannot get what he needs, he exercises a powerful denial to push the thing that is making him anxious far from his mind; if that fails, he uses drugs to go the extra mile, numbing himself to what he cannot control. Dysfunctional and damaging, yes, but it follows a certain rational progression.

E is quite the opposite. He responds to stress or disruption by getting severely emotionally upset, almost immediately. His changes of mood happen extremely quickly. Under duress, he quickly begins to whine, sigh, pout, and otherwise express a great deal of self-pity. He regresses to total dependency, asking others to decide and do things for him even when he is capable of doing them himself - things as simple as, say, opening a milk carton or adjusting the stereo speakers. He tends to become self-involved and pessimistic, to cling to whatever authority figure is present. If that's us, we minimize all stimulation and he gradually recovers. But if there is no authority figure at hand whom he can trust when he is upset, he can quickly spin out of control, having tantrums, running away, or--if severely taxed--becoming self-destructive. I know from my gut that what plagues him is not just the aftermath of a deeply traumatic childhood that he shared with his brother (as if that weren't enough), but the frustration and confusion that result from disabilities that he's had since birth. His wiring is off, in layperson terms.

What I mean to describe is his behavior, and some of the challenges of parenting a young adult who is disabled as a result of prenatal drug and alcohol exposure. What that leaves out is that he is very much an individual, with spiritual and emotional depth and highly original gifts. We've drawn naturally closer until we are indisputably his parents. He calls us mom and dad, and recently asked to change his name, entirely unprompted by us, because he wants to take the same last name as Tim. With great effort, he has become less actively self-destructive over the last several months. We helped him get from the department of child services to a department of mental health services program where he gets better care and has freedoms appropriate to his age, and that means we have been able to better integrate him into our daily life. He uses public transportation to go places he'd like to go, he spends time not only with us but with our friends and family. He walks the dog, he cooks meals alongside Tim, we take little trips. He is as close as he has ever been in the last ten years to having a normal life.

Recently we had such a small triumph, nobody else would have noticed or recognized it as an accomplishment at all: we had adult friends to our house for a game night, and E included himself, sitting with us for over two hours, playing board games of great complexity. He smiled, laughed, competed, and even won. He is intelligent, sensitive and capable, when he is operating within a safe environment in a very familiar setting with people he trusts. After this magical evening, I wondered at how "normal" he had seemed, and questioned (as I often do) whether I was underestimating is abilities.
It occurred to me that we were playing board games - there were rules, visible indicators of progress, and a routine governing who got to take their turn as the main actor at any given moment. The environment of the game brought us all into a small, controlled microcosm where it was easy to see what was happening and what would happen next. Under those circumstances, he was very nearly indistinguishable from someone with no impairments at all.

But the world is not such an environment. I think of what it must be like for him. I imagine that in school or even now in some of his programs, he must feel people are functioning at an intellectual level above his. He has so often been excluded, for example from conversations between social workers, judges and service providers. He has real limitations in his inability to keep up with fast-paced or unanticipated activity, and reacts with uncontrollable emotion.

It is rarely E's disabilities or cognitive limitations that get in the way in his daily life; rather, the problem tends to be people who expect or demand a level of function that he is not capable of. Over the years, I have seen him expelled from so-called therapeutic foster homes, arrested, incarcerated, put on probation, and more, for "crimes" that are a direct and obvious behavioral result of circumstances that are deeply provocative to him because of his disabilities. No wonder he is sometimes overwhelmed by despair!

He also has very severe limitations in his social interactions with peers and his ability to make and keep friends, and so he gets terribly lonely. We are not just his parents - we are his best friends. For long stretches, we are sometimes the only people who play with him, go to the movies or the mall with him, laugh, sing or dance with him. We structure our weekends with him to maximize those experiences and minimize stress and intrusion. He gets enough of that during the week, when he is navigating the network of service providers and others who are part of his web of support, or (as in the case of his probation officer) the consequence of his mistakes.

Sometimes we'll go for several weeks feeling that he is very easy to be with, easy to love, and loads of fun. Then come abrupt interruptions during which he can be much harder to be around, and at those times, his pessimism can be contagious if you aren't careful. Occasionally, though it happens less often now, we feel some measure of despair and anxiety that we aren't able to help him and don't know what is going to happen to him. I am not religious, but at those times, we turn it over to God, for wont of any other workable strategy, which is to say, we stop trying to have all the answers. And so far, right when I'm about to feel like I have no idea what I can do to help him, he snaps out of it and shows us the way.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Hand-Me-Down Parenting

I'm having a great time lately being one of E's parents. After his recent struggles we've settled back into an easy rhythm of weekends at our house, while he spends weekdays in his program nearby, punctuated by mid-week visits from us. Throughout the week, we have facetime video calls and a volley of text messages, very much the way one might with a child his age away at college, except that he's in a transition-aged youth program for young adults with mental illness. He's doing great.

I think we're still in a honeymoon phase. I jokingly think of us as his hand-me-down parents; it was only when T grew up that E decided he had the right to have us all to himself. He finally trusted us, because we had "belonged" to his older brother already. So now he wears us around proudly, his older brother's hand-me-down parents.

Being E's parent is so very different than being T's parent! He's a more casual, more loving, more emotional kid. He expresses himself freely; there are few surprises. He is very aware that he needs support to get by in life, and so he accepts help readily and doesn't resist interdependence.

I'm not a good compartmentalizer. When T was living at home, it often felt all-absorbing. After T moved out, I focused more on my career, and had the chance to quiet the emotional part of me and indulge the analytical. But as E became more and more dependent on us, I've found myself distracted from my job much more. Dormant emotional instincts have reengaged. This unexpected chapter of my life in which we are hand-me-down parents to E has me riding a wave of profound feeling.

There is something about parenting traumatized older kids that highlights the highs and lows, the beauty and injustice in the world. This is part of why I hate it when people tell me that what we're doing is "good" and "wonderful" - it's not charity work, and we don't sit at a comfortable distance bestowing benefits on our kids. We are right down there in the shit with them, trying to figure life out, and it's hard, and we're not always good at it, and a lot of what we see makes us mad or sad. The kids are so innocent, and we are so imperfect.

When someone tells me that we are "such good people" for foster parenting older kids, I get mad, because I feel like they are telling me I'm not REALLY a parent - I'm just a nice person, a selfless volunteer. And I know that's wrong; foster parenting isn't charity work, it's just an alternative way to build a family. However, foster/adoptive parenting IS different than other kinds of parenting; among other things, the daily contact you have with pain makes it different. No kid enters the foster care system without enduring tremendous loss, often over a long period of time. So to be fully present in the lives of foster youth is to be fully present with suffering and its aftermath. And that makes it life-changing and mind-altering.

That doesn't mean that kids like E are sad and depressing. In fact, E is by nature a tremendously joyful person. He sings constantly and he lives to crack people up. But his reference points are painful. Just passed a Raleigh's burger joint? He went there once when he was living with a relative, for the only meal he ever remembers eating in a restaurant, and he really loved it, but he never went back because he was removed from her home shortly thereafter because she beat him. Want to know what his favorite color is? It's grey, because the group homes he grew up in had to give him $40 a month for clothes, which isn't much, and he found that if he bought everything in one color, whatever he had always matched. He's not trying to make anyone feel sorry for him when he says these things. He's just referring to what he has experienced, and a lot of his memories will make you really feel things.

Over time, loving and living with a young person with so much wisdom and experience makes me tender, although by nature I tend to be tough. At work lately I get jumpy. Casual banter and petty problems and office politics seem particularly soul-less. Dinner parties or book clubs feel hopelessly superficial. I get impatient more quickly. I covet and hoard the time I spend alone with my family.

I've been in this state before, when T was younger and new to us, so it feels familiar, and I know now that it's temporary. It's my way of being a mom, going a bit feral to better leverage my instincts to connect with and care for my kids. I treasure it. Such times suspend me in a state of emotional awareness and heightened consciousness, clear the bullshit and highlight my priorities. They wear me out, but they lift me up, high enough to catch a glimpse of life from beginning to end.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Stitched Together

These days, our time is more focused on E than on T, who, at 21, is living on his own and working full-time, not always doing what we wish he were doing, but doing it his way nonetheless. E, as I've described before, is very different than T and has never lived with us full time. In fact, he's lived in institutional settings for as long as we've known him, ranging from psychiatric group homes to juvenile detention facilities. In our early years with T, it was hard to get to know E; the boys had been separated by the foster care system many years before, and E moved so frequently and was so often in crisis, it was hard to even get permission to see him.

Eventually, he settled in a highly structured residential facility near our home. T no longer required daily parenting by this time, and we were able to work with the facility to establish a relationship. We started visiting E there every weekend, which led to eventually having him with us every weekend at our house.

E has suffered unimaginable trauma, abuse and neglect for his entire life. As a teenager, he's had many bouts of suicidal behavior, and it's not hard to imagine the desperation and rage he must feel and why. But he also has a rich, deep personality, a fantastic sense of humor, a real gift for music, and a lovely capacity for spontaneous affection. He and his brother couldn't be more different in nearly every aspect of their personalities and points of view. Very little that I learned in parenting T applied at all with E. I had long been intimidated by E's needs, and yet, when he started spending every weekend with us, we fell in love. He and Tim have a magical connection. They write music together, sing, laugh and even take little trips. Weekends with him came to feel like a totally normal part of our life, and the part we looked forward to the most.

And yet, however you want to describe it, E has formidable special needs. He is developmentally disabled, having suffered significant effects of prenatal drug and alcohol exposure, and he has had symptoms of mental illness throughout his adolescence. Since the age of 5, when he was removed from a relative's home, he has almost never lived or even spent much time in a regular home. In many ways, the environment of a regular family home, with its casual intimacy, lack of structure, and relative chaos is disorienting for him. I think being with us on the weekends and returning to his group home during the week was a good solution for him during this time. He could dip a toe in the water without having to fully rearrange how he is accustomed to navigating the world.

That sounds convincing, I'm sure, but I've had to work hard to convince myself to accept what feels like a partial commitment to him. Emotionally, I want him with us. His life often seems difficult and lonely. I struggle to trust the various professionals who help care for him, and often believe that Tim and I (and to some extent, his brother) know better. And recently, those feelings of mistrust intensified dramatically.

Over the summer, E turned 18. He elected to remain under extended foster care available until the age of 21, because he knew he still needed a lot of support. But the department of child and family services struggled to find appropriate services for him. His social worker was overworked and didn't know him well. The group homes that were appropriate to his needs only housed kids 18 and under. The  transition-aged-youth programs are all full, and transitional housing available to only 4% of the transition-aged-youth who need it in our county.

One day, during an outburst, E kicked a worker at his group home and they called the police and he spent a weekend in jail before pleading to a misdemeanor. We were all shocked at this turn of events, and realized that the world for a mentally ill young adult over the age of 18 is a place none of us were ready for. When he was released, he was forced to leave the group home, and his social worker moved him through two totally unsuitable environments, where he destabilized terribly. We spent part of every week managing various crises, including having him hospitalized on an involuntary psychiatric hold on one occasion. During this time his social worker never returned our calls.

Then, two months ago, the worst happened: he got in a fight in a group home, broke a window, threatened someone, and was charged with a felony. He was put in county jail in the ward for the mentally ill. It was awful. We visited him every weekend, and longed to "fix it", but bailing him out would extend the resolution of the charges against him, during which time he would be vulnerable to extra legal consequences should he be picked up again. It's a scenario that I've learned is all too familiar to many parents and families of mentally ill young adults.

Finally this week, it seemed we had reached an agreement with DCFS that he could live with us full time. We sent what we thought was a reasonable list of services we would require to meet his needs in our home: wrap-around services, independent living classes for him, help getting him medical and psychiatric care. We were shocked when we were told hat he would have to emancipate from foster care in order to live with us, and that would effectively cut him off from various social services that are vital to his well being, including independent living programs, job training programs, access to psychiatric care, and more. Then the criminal court revealed that because of his mental health status, they would only release him if, as a term of his deal, he went into some kind of mental health care facility, rendering our whole fight with DCFS a moot point.

In the end, the court transferred his case from DCFS to the department of mental health. If I look at the situation objectively, I'm hopeful. DMH workers have an average of seven simultaneous cases, we're told, whereas DCFS workers in our county can have as many as 50. DMH and their programs serve adults, so he will no longer be subject to the chaos of being a legal adult in a world organized around the custody of children.

And yet on a personal, emotional level, I'm sad. I'm sad that in his case love is not enough. I'm sad that our home, where, everyone admits, he is happiest and most stable, is nevertheless not structured or safe enough to protect him. I'm sad that Tim and I have to work during the day and can't attend to his needs. I'm scared that he'll be misunderstood and treated badly again by the people charged with helping him. I know that in order to have the greatest chance to survive and thrive, he needs more support that we can give him without the involvement of social services. Not even all the money in the world would change that - in my limited experience, the kind of support he needs isn't even available at a price. You have to jump into the cumbersome social services bureaucracy and just piece it together bit by bit and the process is sometimes rough and humiliating, no only for the recipient of the services, but also for the people who love him.

I wish I could get all of them to see the person we see in E: the funny, easy-going, double-jointed, artistic, warm-hearted, playful person he is. He stole my heart when I was, frankly, reluctant to give it because I was intimidated by his needs. If we could carry him with us and keep him safe, we gladly would. I hope that as he tries to find solace and safety with the cobbled-together network we've tried to help assemble for him, he carries with him the knowledge that we love him deeply and that he is much, much more than the sum of his circumstances to us.
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