Sunday, May 29, 2011

It's Okay that It's Not Okay

Living with the nasty trauma monster is...exhausting. I have no coherent narrative for what we're going through right now. As I often do when I'm trying to reconcile complicated facts, I can only think in bullet points.

- We are beyond the place where we can get by with the anemic services we've had thus far. We need more robust mental health care for T.

- I am not sure we can get it. Because our adoption is not final yet, he is still a legal ward of the court, via DCFS. Particularly in Los Angeles, that is a fate I would not wish on my worst enemy. His caseworker has long depended on the ritual dynamic of placement/disruption/7-day notice/replacement, and does not understand foster/adoptive parents who wish to locate intensive mental health services whilst remaining committed to a child.

- DCFS is clearly waiting now for the juvenile justice system to take over. T. recently received one-year probation, and T's DCFS caseworker continually defers now to the potential for services via the probation department. I understand where she's coming from; the probation department certainly seems to have more expertise and a broader range of programs and services for kids T's age. At the same time, I sense him passing from a situation where he is treated as a child requiring guidance to a situation where he is treated as a young adult deserving punishment. I am not sure the punitive orientation of probation is likely to benefit him.

- Lately I feel misunderstood and mischaracterized in almost all my dealings regarding T. His behavior has brought a host of consequences down on him and our household, and that means nearly daily conversations with caseworkers, DCFS supervisors, probation officers and judges. They are eager to tell me I'm too nice, too naive, to easy on him, too inexperienced, etc. I'm not really any of those things. I can't stop him from doing what he does, but that doesn't make me weak, dumb, or indulgent.

- I'm more aware than ever that sometimes there is no answer, no fix, no known solution to life's difficulty. I had cause to really meditate on this one recently while I was sorting out my health issues. It's even more starkly apparent in T's case. We human beings tend to dislike that ambiguity. It makes us uncomfortable. Currently, I am forced to entertain a constant stream of opinions from well-meaning, peripherally involved outsiders - I should get him into sports, I should find him a mentor, I should home school him, I should be harder on him. I no longer argue. He's a severely traumatized young adult, and I'm not going to succeed in MAKING him do any one of these things. There is almost nothing I have not tried. If you think you have the answer, spend a week at my house.

- At the same time, I am truly not all that distraught about all this. I am sure there are some out there who won't believe me. Here's the thing: I knew this would be very, very hard. I knew it would not be like traditional parenting. I did not WANT to be a traditional parent. I wanted to foster/adopt older kids and I actually knew some older kids in foster care as a young adult, so I had some sense of what I was getting into. There are certainly days when it's harder than I expected, or simply different. Lately, there are days when I am not certain T can stay here at home with us. But I was prepared for that going into this. I still love him very, very much. I still feel tremendously lucky to have met him, and somewhat awed that I like him as much as I do. I still trust that we are deeply attached to one another. Through all of his current rage and confusion, he still reaches out to try to connect with me, and I know he is as confused by his behavior as I am. That does not EXCUSE the behavior, but it means I am still the one person on the planet who fully comprehends how complicated he really is and shares some sense of where his misbehavior comes from. I am still his advocate. He is still precious to me. I would like to see him heal, but I do not NEED for him to heal right now. I can wait. I can take care of myself while I wait. I can accept that he may not be able to live at home with us and heal at the same time. That's painful to me in the immediate term, but it's okay with me on a deeper level, because it's just a fact.

Blessings to those of you parenting older traumatized kids. Your blogs have been a great sanity check for me lately. :)

Monday, May 16, 2011

We Were Not Always Like This

Right now, we've circled back to a really difficult struggle to deescalate T's behavior and get him some mental health support. With the brief and urgent distraction of my surgery behind us, I have a renewed ability to focus on his needs, and what I see startles me.

He is not doing okay lately. In layperson's terms, he seems "lit up". His energy isn't right. He is utterly defiant in an uncharacteristic way. He has always been a strong, stubborn, risk-taking guy, but he is frankly self-destructive right now. He writes us letters and makes speeches sweetly professing that everything is going to change and he's going to get it together. Then that same day, he'll get wasted, steal, skip school and refuse to come home when asked. This has happened several times in the last month. With two court cases pending against him, and his refusal to cooperate with the things he must do to appease the court, I feel really worried for him.

Last week, when he started waking up and leaving the house at 4 am on school days to get marijuana and money on the streets and bragging about it, a switch flipped for me. I knew I needed to get help to protect us and to help T. I wrote to DCFS and his therapists for the second time in a few months. I used the code words that I've learned triggers help (and funding, and access) from the Department of Mental Health. I said: "I believe he is a danger to himself" and "If you do not respond I will continue to elevate this concern because I believe you have been negligent in providing for his needs." I'm a squeaky wheel.

It is very painful to do this. T is not a hoodlum. He makes very poor, even dangerous decisions fairly often, and yet he doesn't do so with the casual chronic bad attitude of a juvenile delinquent. He vacillates wildly, between sweet, loving behavior and rage. I believe he is scared - I can see it in his face and in his habits. It is gut-wrenching to see him try so hard and descend into such disarray. I have seen him in recent months struggle to talk about the prolonged abuse that happened in his early childhood and why it has been on his mind recently. I know some of the detail of what happened to him and it cuts deep and cannot help but create psychological vulnerability. He got as far as he could in therapy in recent months, and then he quit, telling me that he just couldn't stand to talk about what happened to him, and his behavior went off the charts.

I'm not a perfect parent right now. Both Tim and I have trouble with this level of sustained drama. It's hard for us to understand the crime - we grew up with clear, consistent, non-negotiable morality. Try as we might to maintain limits and rational consequences and to communicate unconditional love, we get tired and our emotions take over. When T. cusses at me and tells me he doesn't have to do anything I ask and refuses to give me space when he is raging at me, I feel trapped. I want to punish him. I want to control him. His rage tends to fix on me, because I am the closest target and I'm female. When I set limits these days, he often replies that " it's my fucking house too" and "I'll do what the fuck I want." It's hard to take. The person I am in that moment is not the person I want to be when I calm down and get some space.

I know he is in there and I know he's in pain. I did not expect to "save" him and I was ready for difficulty and pretty tapped into compassion. But we've gone beyond what I'm able to flex to tolerate. I'm working right now on asking for/insisting on help and creating an environment where we are not exploited and he is not neglected. That is a very hard balance to strike. I think it will require a small army. If he is not able to stay at home right now, I hope he will leave knowing he is loved and that we are still his people. Please wish us luck.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


T. doesn't give Christmas presents and he doesn't receive them very well either. He's an insulting pain on other people's birthdays. And when I told him that it's polite take a gift when invited to someone else's house, he scoffed at me. But he LOVES Mother's Day. Besides his own birthday, which he regards as a national event, Mother's Day is the only other holiday he even acknowledges.

Last year I was touched and taken aback by his gravity about the holiday. This year, I found myself dawdling about my morning routine, waiting for him to wake up, half-hoping for a repeat performance. I didn't exactly expect one - just thought it might be nice.

And again! A big hug, a solemn "happy Mother's Day", and then he rushed Tim off to the store to make preparations and instructed me to "get ready for our day." We're going to the Korean spa to get salt scrubs after whatever else he has planned.

Who wouldda thunk? In my old age, I think the thing that will make me most happy is knowing that T loved and trusted me enough to think of me on Mother's Day. I'm also humbled to share it with his other mothers and touched by his respect and forgiveness for the women who have mothered him along his way. I've said to him more than a few times "You can never have too many mothers in your life," and I appreciate his even-handedness with all of us mothers. On Mother's Day, besides thanking me, he always calls his birth mom and his cousin who raised him for a few years. Each of those relationships was fraught with its own tragedy. But it's in his nature not to bear grudges, lament what he can't change or pine for the past, and his Mother's Day messages to each of us are sweet and to-the-point, surprisingly uncomplicated and uncompromised.

In celebration of mothers and other mothers, I got inspired to make a quick list. These are a few of the things I've realized about being a mother this year.

1. Mothering is very messy. The bond between me and T is full of veins and guts, not sugar and spice. It isn't nice or neat. There is nobody else who pays as much attention to him as I do and my scrutiny is both satisfying and annoying to him, both gratifying and exhausting to me. In the day to day, I experience the practice of mothering him as a very sloppy, intrusive process of getting in someone else's business, taking shots in the dark, snatching opportunities to connect on the fly. It's intense.

2. Kids really need moms and they're never too old to fill that need. I see through T's eyes that the absence of a mother in one's life is a deep tragedy. Early on, I overheard him on the phone once saying quietly to a friend who was complaining about her mom, "You don't know what you have. You should be grateful to your mom." He doesn't care that we're a mismatched set, nor that I arrived late in his life. I play a role he assigned me, driven by a keen awareness of his own need to have one person who puts him first above everything else in the world.

3. A mom can act a mom no matter what. When I was just home from the hospital after my surgery, I was dizzy, hoarse and in some amount of pain such that it was hard to hold my head up or sit up straight. But as soon as I saw T, I was myself. I had the sense that I could be missing half my limbs and still reach out to pick the pillow lint out of his hair. It comes from a place beyond me.

Happy Mother's Day to the mothers and other mothers out there.
Site Meter