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 At home he was vengeful and full of rage, or withdrawn and disconnected.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.