Recently we have been working on a theory that there are two T's. The first we call "T Number One." He is generally balanced, perhaps a bit mischievous, mostly compliant, and approaches life with reasonable moderation. He accurately perceives the world, and has the capacity for judgment. He is generally optimistic, or at least practical.
The second, "T Number Two", is self-destructive, angry, defiant, and extreme. He damages friendships and other relationships, and makes dangerous decisions. He has distorted, negative perceptions of the world.
This week, unfortunately, we started strong with T Number One, and then by Wednesday, we were living with T Number Two. That pattern isn't unusual - his number one trigger is school, and he rarely holds it together for an entire school week. I think often of the wisdom of something Foster Cline says: assume that the child is doing the best he can. T tries hard every week. It is agony for him to be unable to modify his self-destructive behavior. And this is the best he can do right now. We try to stretch the capacity of T Number One to hold it together, and right now we can't get past Wednesdays. If we get to Thursdays or - one can only hope! - Fridays by the end of his junior year, it will be a monumental achievement.
I don't mean that T literally has a split personality. In the professional writing on such subjects, I guess you'd say that T number one is "regulated" and T Number Two is "dysregulated." His periods of dysregulation come on like bad weather - you can see them approach, they are intense and disruptive, and they pass.
I love him so much and feel so much wonder at the progress he's made and the meaning he's brought to my life that I probably do not always state clearly how difficult it is to be his parent. I'd hate for any parent of a traumatized kid out there to feel like I'm having an easy time of it while they struggle. I am as vulnerable as anyone else and I feel beat up and victimized by his behavior sometimes. He is intensely angry for many very sound reasons, and that anger has festered in him for many years until he doesn't even know it's name and when it takes hold of him, he is formidably difficult and frankly abusive. I am a strong personality myself, an "alpha" as I have said before. And yet when he takes revenge because we've withheld his allowance because he's using it to buy drugs, or when he rages at me that he is going to tell the social worker on me because I have restricted his privileges after he was picked up by a truancy officer, I feel despondent and exhausted.
At those times, I do sometimes withdraw from him. I cannot always maintain the authoritative parental stance of being strong, wise and compassionate. I get rigid and angry. I want him to just go to school, to hold it together just for five days on end without getting high, cutting class, interrupting my workday with calls from the dean's office. I lose my ability to communicate compassionately.
When that happens, I wait. T Number Two is not reachable, but he also doesn't stick around for long. He is a construct, a puffed up angry false self, perhaps produced by extreme duress to protect a tender T Number One when he was younger and constantly under siege. Indeed, when the storm moves on, T is often unusually tender and communicative afterward. He is apologetic, but he's also very receptive. He reaches out with many little tendrils of attachment to make sure you are still there, and upon finding that you are, grows very soft.
I worry over how little time we have to try to help him learn to regulate his feelings and modify his behavior so that he can hold it together in the grown up world. He is okay when he is with us - weekends and holidays are invariably peaceful. But a child who cannot make it more than three days at school without a meltdown is likely to have similar difficulty holding a job, or getting through college. Someday soon, he will be out of high school, out of the foster care system, and (eventually) out of our home. He will have to make his way in a world that takes him at face value, doesn't know or much care about his history, and delivers harsh and sometimes long-lasting consequences. Preparing him for that world is a daunting challenge.