Saturday, February 26, 2011


Well, it’s been quite a week.

As T unravels these past few months, we’ve experienced dramatic truancy, daily marijuana use (before and after school most days), and stealing, culminating with an arrest, for petty theft, on his birthday no less.

This week, we hit the wall. He was accused for the second time of stealing (from a teacher!), disrupting the classroom, and expelled from school. At home he was vengeful and full of rage, or withdrawn and disconnected. It’s hard to encapsulate in words, but the most alarming thing is that T is not a kid who is routinely delinquent – his nature is to be sensitive and soulful. His misbehavior has an aspect that hits you right in the gut – it feels wrong on an instinctive, animal level. Something is wrong! it screams. I suppose that’s a distinguishing quality of crisis.

Yesterday, in a tizzy, and with the help of a friend who happens to be an LCSW, I wrote a letter and emailed it to his past and present therapists and social workers. “I need help getting an elevated level of care for T” I said. It ended “We are committed to T but we urgently need help meeting his needs.”

By evening, we had an emergency psychiatric team on our doorstep. (Thanks, by the way, to his FORMER social worker, who was the only one who responded in a helpful way—we have yet to even hear back from his primary caseworker.)

I thought the problem was addiction and substance abuse. But last night I learned that I might be wrong.

They spent four hours here, talking to T, talking to us, searching his room, and formulating an opinion. Then they called us all together. It wasn’t what I expected. They said they considered hospitalizing him, because it’s clear he’s in crisis, but decided it wouldn’t help. He has PTSD and a hospital environment is likely to be overwhelming and frightening for him. They said that we are dealing with serious confusion stemming from sexual abuse, combined with puberty, and that kids like T often have their first major mental health crisis right about now. They said that his emerging sexuality combined with his abuse history lead T to fear he may hurt people and become a bad person. And so he is acting like a monster to try to save people from the harm he imagines he might do—and to try to get us to pay attention to what he can’t put in words.

I did not see that coming, though of course, as soon as they said it, it made perfect sense. They walked in and put their finger right on the raw nerve that is causing daily convulsions right now. Their skill and clarity were truly awe-inspiring. He has never discussed sexual abuse with a therapist before, and I'm the first adult he confided in about it. And yet it took these two doctors less than half an hour to identify the problem and open it up.

They had spare, direct advice for us. First, they said he feels safe with us and our home is the right place for him. He feels loved and secure here, they said, and that is part of why he is confronting his demons now. Second, they told me to adjust my expectations. “But he’s facing criminal charges!” I protested. They said yes, and there’s very little you can do about that. This is who he is and where you are right now. Deal with it.

They told us to let go of our desire to have him graduate from mainstream school. They said not to worry about the fact that his friends are dropouts and delinquents. “Those are the people he feels safe with, because he feels like he can’t hurt them or freak them out,” they said. They told us to let go of our attempts to treat the substance abuse, because it’s a symptom, not a cause. They told us to learn with him about the aftermath of sexual abuse and let him show his ugly bits. They said we must find ways to talk about what happened, and about sexuality, and help him do the same. They told us that “the human condition is to have both good and ugly feelings and thoughts” and to teach T that we are all complex in that way.

I learned so much last night. I learned that he wants help and he will comply. I learned that he trusts us. I learned that my expectations and sense of “normal” are getting in the way of recognizing his needs. We talked this morning, and he was calm, receptive and even grateful—I explained that the doctor talked to us about PTSD, that abused kids and soldiers who’ve been in wars often have PTSD, and that for now we need to make sure we reduce stress and avoid situations that are chaotic and noisy. He felt understood. He said he felt it might be best for him to be in a different school.

(As a side note, I have also learned this week that there is a HUGE difference in Los Angeles between Department of Mental Health programs and DCFS. That sounds like a bureaucratic distinction, but when you need somebody to help your troubled kid on a very bad day when the shit is raining down on your head, it’s a visceral thing. By using the right language, thanks to my friend, we got tapped into DMH, and to these two superhero ninja therapists in the middle of the night, after months of struggling with inadequate therapy and inattentive social workers.)

I don’t regret one moment I’ve spent with T. This week was horrible. I don’t know how we’ll find him a new school and a new therapist next week. I’m not sure I can stomach the external consequences that are being levied on him by people who know nothing of his story. But I understand that this is where we are, and I know that our job is to be his family. We are honest and we stand by each other in ways that I didn’t know were possible before. I am much stronger than I thought, and he is much more vulnerable than he realized. This kind of extreme parenting is exhausting, but I also find it to be soul-satisfying in its honesty, unpredictability and brutal acknowledgement of humanity in all its frailty and resilience. I find that happiness, for us, is not the avoidance of pain, but the acknowledgement of truth.


Susan said...

Wow, so glad that you were able to get the help that your family needed. I regularly read your blog as I am in the process of becoming a therapeutic foster parent. I find you to be honest and insightful, and I appreciate your perspective.

Julia said...

I am so grateful that you are involved in T's life. as much as he adds to yours, you are saving his. You are helping him become the person he was meant to be. that would not have happened without your unfailing love for him. you are changing his future.

Thorn said...

This resonated so strongly with me. I've pushed like crazy for Rowan to get treatment for PTSD for similar though different reasons, but he doesn't live with us and no one with the power to push is doing so. It really strikes me that you're doing the right thing here and I'm so glad you've found good mental health resources!

semiferalmama said...

I can never find the right words to respond to your posts. You are so strong. And T is amazing. I have a very good male friend who was sexually abused as a child in three totally independent incidents including a violent rape. One of the tools that has really helped him is "Tapping." It sounds so strange and I was completely skeptical, but I have watched the difference it made in his life (and that of his wife and child). I know you have your hands full, but it might be worth it at some point to find a good therapist who embraces this technique. And can I just say I feel TOTALLY stupid giving advice to you. (Oh well, I can live with that.)

rebekah said...

I don't think I've commented before, but I've been reading for awhile.

As much emotional support as I can throw at your family from across the country as a stranger, well, I'm doing it now.

And I am struck deeply by the power of emotional health, and if only we all had access to superhero ninja therapists, how different would the world be?

Anonymous said...

I wish I could post with my ID, but then I would have to comment very obliquely for my kids' privacy. We have two older kids adopted from abusive backgrounds, plus two younger ones in similar backgrounds. The two oldest diverged hugely - I am so grateful that we have had the experience of learning, though it was very raw and difficult, how individual kids are to parenting and abuse. One of them is a 'model' student, although she has issues, while the other on paper seems so much worse. We had her in respite for a while which felt like a failure but was instead one rough stage towards her gaining ground. There's no magical cure date, but they get healthier and more resilient and just better equipped for life. She was perfectly behaved in some circumstances, then raging and grieving in others, constant lying and unable and unwilling to connect or trust - and at times, I thought just a tiny sociopath. But it came down to near constant nightmares and fear that she had bottled up and was terrified of leaking over, all this pain she was desperately trying to soothe and people who had hurt her repeatedly while pretending to help. It was terrifying. We had random sex with strangers, running away, suicide attempts, eating disorders etc. But it does get better. She's now working part-time, top of her non-standard school class, and making actual friends and closer to family than ever. And sleeping better at night. Hey, it only took a decade of work! Still worth it, but it does get dark during the journey. And ditto the academics - it was really hard for us as bookish parents to let go of school achievements. We came down to: would we rather have her energy on recovering and becoming stable and happy, or on schoolwork? And I'll take a happy and stable checkout girl over a suicidal destructive doctor anyday. I really appreciate your blog. We're thinking of fostering/adopting more kids once these are a little bit older because, like learning which departments and what to say, these are hard-earned skills! And there are kids who need them, kids that can thrive again.

Gab said...

What a wonder that you were able to reach out for help, T was able to be open to it, and the help was actually helpful. I would have been so worried that the "help" would have been more damaging. It is a long road, but to feel like you are on the right road is so good. I'm so relieved for you all.

mikeco said...

I just wanted to say that your honesty, love and hope is inspiring. I am grateful to you for sharing all of this so openly. Please know that you are not alone. There are quite a few of us reading your blog and sending good wishes/support to you and your family and I am sending mine from across town :)

Lulu McCabe said...

Thank you all so much for commenting and for sending your support and your empathy. There are precious few people in our day to day life who are knowledgeable about traumatized kids and the dialogue we have here is enormously valuable--to me, and hope, to others. I am so welcoming of your advice. Anonymous: thanks for your complete understanding. As you felt about respite, I felt about calling the crisis team this weekend. I thought it meant our time with T was over, but in fact, it was just another turn in the road. Susan: do it! Being a foster parent probably sounds terrible from my blog, but it's by far the most meaningful and profound thing I've ever done and I will die content knowing that I tried. Thorn: I'm glad to see you comment. I love your blog, and I love what you guys stand for. Semiferalmama: your moniker cracks me up every time, and your advice is MOST WELCOME. I ran off and Googled "tapping" as fast as my fingers could carry me. It's so important to T that there are KNOWN ways to address his needs and I was able to explain to him that trauma specialists have techniques - he doesn't just have to sit there and talk about his feelings in an unstructured way for months on end. Julia, Rebekah, Gab and Mikeco: thanks for the shout out during a really hard week. In my day to day life, I know precious few people who think parenting a kid like T is a sane thing to do -- your kindness means a lot to me and to our family.
In case anyone wants an update: today was a sunbeam after a thunderstorm. The school decided to drop criminal charges. The dean decided to recommend T to an alternative school with a 10:1 student/teacher ratio, and to remove "expulsion" from his record and let him stay at his present school until we get him settled elsewhere. And the community organization where we go for therapy is getting him into their trauma care program for kids and families. It's a steep, steep hill we climb, but today we feel like we're out of the woods for the moment and back on the path.

Jen said...

Thank you for your honesty and clarity in sharing your family's journey. I strongly believe that T will come out the other side as an amazing, success human being, but it sounds like it will be a rocky road.

marythemom said...

I was so glad to hear the school is helping you find a better school for T! We lucked into a program that is designed specially for kids with emotional special needs like our son.

I was going to suggest that there was a traumaversary triggering this behavior. I'm so glad that you found some competent people who were willing to do the investigative work and who had the skills to recognize what was going on before T escalated.

In looking for a therapist, can I suggest trying to find one who specializes in EMDR and trauma. It is really helpful with PTSD and while it was even harder to live with my kids at first, it's really helping. Tapping is good too if T is willing.

Mary in TX

beauty obscure said...

I'm so sorry to hear that you are in crisis. Wow, what a hard week!

On the other hand your story of the mental health team makes me want to weep with happiness. People who cared and knew what they were doing and actually did their job... wow.

So glad that T. was able to talk to them.

Good for you for fighting for help the way you did. You are amazing!

A book you might find helpful is this one Which talks about some of the links between addiction and abuse histories - and evidence that compassion and empathy is what is needed to heal those who are addicted. (One caution is that some of the stories are pretty heart breaking - especially those of his patients who didn't have happy endings - so it might be a hard read if you are struggling to feel hopeful about T's future).

Susan said...


I actually find your blog to an insightful (I said that already) and hopeful look at foster care!

Aside from the agency I am working with, you are the first person I 'told' that I am in this process. I am nearly finished with the classes and just need the home study etc to get my license, then it is just a matter of time.

As a side note, to be a therapeutic foster parent, you must have extra training in my state or have more than 5 years of parenting experience. Did you have to do this as well?

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