Tuesday, March 22, 2011


We are making the rounds of mental health professionals at the moment. We have a great substance abuse counselor whom we love and who has proven a good match for T. We had a family therapist who wasn't a good fit for us, with whom we recently ended our relationship, and a psychiatrist who has seen T intermittently and still oversees his prescription. Since hitting a really rough patch a couple months ago, we've been looking for a trauma specialist to do some cognitive behavioral therapy, in addition to the substance abuse counseling. And coming up a bit short.

I value therapy and I've been impressed by providers who really know what they're doing with traumatized kids. But those providers seem pretty few and far between. I'm a little exhausted by the convoluted mental health bureaucracy and the general difficulty in finding experienced providers who are comfortable with a child of T's age and experience. At the same time, I find myself grappling with what, for me, feels like a very personal, very maternal instinct, to protect my kid, and make sure he is surrounded by people who love and "get" him. This instinct is almost feral, it's so strong and instinctive. I didn't expect to feel this fiercely protective, and it's exhilarating and exhausting. T is very smart and self-aware, perhaps painfully so, which makes it all the more difficult to endure the awkwardness of finding him the right therapist. Sometimes I wonder if I'm doing the right thing in promoting therapy at all - he has a very strong spirit, and occasionally I wonder if I ought to just focus on cultivating his relationship with me and Tim, and providing him with the time and peace to heal on his own.

I've written before about how I sometimes feel intimidated or just undermined by mental health professionals and social workers who seem to me to treat me like a paid babysitter, rather than a parent. When Tim and I are really overwhelmed, I've found it useful to ask "What would we do if T were our biological child?" just to be sure that we aren't being swayed by the system into anything less than parental authority and judgement.

I think what I'd say today is that I'm conscious right now of a certain toll that T's pain takes on me. At times I even follow his lead, taking his advice on when we "don't need to talk about it right now." I don't generally focus much on my own discomfort. The role of advocate parent suits me well and I enjoy it. But at the moment, perhaps because T is stable and calm and introspective and therefore doesn't need me so much, I feel bruised. I feel very aware that I feel some level of grief for the times I could not be there for him - for the things that happened before I met him, and for the suffering he endured when he didn't have any parent advocating for him. I respect him tremendously for the hard work he did to survive and raise himself in those circumstances, and deep compassion for the symptomatic behaviors that plague him to this day. I love him the same or more than I would if I had given birth to him myself, so the blunt fact that I didn't arrive in his life until it was too late to help him with his many traumas pains me greatly. It pains me all the more because he trusts me now and has recently started to refer more freely to what came before. I want so much to be worthy of his trust. It's a tremendous responsibility. My career, my relationship with Tim, my health, all struggle to compete with the obligation I feel to be available and worthy of providing stability for T. But I also know that it's extremely idealistic to subject oneself to that sense of obligation, and that if I fail to take care of myself and Tim, I'm sure to fall short.

Tim calls this vicarious PTSD and I think he's right. I am sure that if you bond strongly to an older, traumatized child, when you bond with them, you open yourself up to absorbing some part of their pain and some part of their difficulty navigating the aftermath of what they've endured. I like to think that in absorbing some of their suffering, you are lessening their burden, but I'm not sure that's really true.

It's a juggling act, with a whole bunch of needs and sensitivities up in the air, all of the time. I suppose that's how any parent feels.


Anonymous said...

I believe it's true. I believe it lessens it. I struggle with this too, and maybe I'm naive, maybe I'm believing what I want to believe, but it only helps, it only encourages me and helps me turn toward them, so how can it be bad? More than anything, I think what I've learned in adopting children out of foster care is that we're much more capable in an instinctual, albeit messy, kind of way than we thought. Your parenting is beautiful. Your family is beautiful. It honestly could not be better than it is, considering everything.

rebekah said...

Absorbing the pain allows a true empathy. And that helps your son in his quest to heal himself. It does matter.

Anonymous said...

First: I admire your strength to look for the right combination of therapists. Once I realized that many therapists suck, I just kind of gave up. I know, nice coping mechanism. But if it was for my kid, I would fight the good fight, just like you are doing.
Second: From your second paragraph on I was thinking, "Wow, they are really at risk for Compassion Fatigue." I was really relieved when in the fifth paragraph you, actually Tim, named it: Vicarious PTSD. It is often called Secondary PTSD but I always think of it as Compassion Fatigue because my exposure to it comes through the field of animal welfare. And, as far as I know, no one has yet claimed that animals suffer from PTSD.
I have to disagree with the concept that absorbing another person's pain, lessens it. That sounds awfully close to co-dependency and clearly unsustainable. Plus, pain is probably more like love. Absorbing love increases it, rather than diminishing it.
I think the key is finding a way to help your loved one release the pain without you taking it on.
This reminds me of a yoga class I was in once where a teacher talked about crushing negativity on your exhaled breath rather than just releasing negativity on your exhale (what many teacher reference). With the idea that if you release it and someone else absorbs it, you haven't really made the world a better place.
So, now that I have lost all credibility because of that last comment, I just want to add, I love your use of the word feral.
Is my comment longer than your post? Okay, then I am done.
Your blog will not let me comment as myself - I am not anonymous. I am Semi-Feral Mama (hear me roar).

rebekah said...

Yes. Love semiferalmom's comment. Yes. That makes a lot of sense.

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