Yesterday, we were in a requisite training class for parents of "severely emotionally disturbed children." It was a stormy, rainy day. The classroom was warm and bright and there were about ten other parents there, all of them parenting traumatized kids. When it came my turn to introduce myself, I cried. That's very rare. (As emotional self-expression goes, I specialize in righteous indignation.)
I said that we had been in T's life for two-and-a-half years, and that in that time, he had been arrested twice, expelled from two schools and a rehab facility, and that he had just hit his five-month sobriety mark. To my left sat a father of a 7 year-old girl who was in seven different foster homes before coming to him. Across the table sat a woman with two children who are receiving intensive in-home wrap-around services 6 days a week. To my right sat a couple who are parenting severely traumatized siblings with an emerging constellation of troubling and risky behavior.
In other words, I was in safe company. And I suppose that's why I cried. This year, I spend so much time explaining T to police, judges, therapists, social workers, teachers, administrators to try to stave off their anger and preconceived notions--but I didn't need to do that here. I didn't need to minimize his problems, insist on his personhood, or explain that I love him more than I even thought it was possible to love another person. Nobody thought I was an enabler, an apologist, or crazy. Every mom and dad in the room is living a variation on the same story. A lot of them cried as they introduced their circumstances, too.
The curriculum was relevant, a manual for navigating the aftermath of tragedy and trauma. After our time in the trenches, I find that some lessons hit me hard and others are familiar old friends (the section on appropriate discipline, for example, is old hat by now). I was particularly pained and enlightened by a section about prenatal drug exposure. The course material captured the straightforward observation that kids who have been drug-exposed in utero are at increased risk of abuse and neglect in later childhood. It explained that such children are usually born into already-fragile families or placed in infant foster care. Many struggle with impulse control, fine motor skills, executive function, anxiety, over-stimulation and self-soothing. The resultant behaviors then make them targets for adult frustration, impatience and anger, leading to a much higher incidence of abuse, neglect and abandonment. Alienated from peers and caregivers, they are also vulnerable to other forms of exploitation and manipulation, including sexual abuse, because they exist "on the fringe".
Reading that made me want to howl. T is one of those kids. Somehow I had never considered his story in quite that light. It was stark, and statistical. I felt shocked that such a narrative of misfortune could be so common as to have made it into a book in such plain terms.
Without minimizing that painful reality, I want to emphasize that the story has another part, one that is rarely understood: it is possible to make a difference, a huge and permanent difference. I want to add a paragraph to that section of the course material so the next parent or potential parent to read it will be reminded that you don't need a psych degree, a magic wand or a hazmat suit to be there for such a child. I want the course material to say: you'll never see the light of the human spirit burn so brightly as it does in a kid for whom everything conspired to extinguish that light, but who kept it alive in the hope that someone else would come along and recognize him. A child who infuriates one adult can delight another, and souls connect in a place beyond behavior. I know that's true, too.
When we got home from the class, we went out for dinner. I remember when T would only eat fast food, because he couldn't tolerate unfamiliar food, and he was too shy to order in a restaurant. But last night was relaxed and quiet. He ordered his food, choosing something from the menu that he had never tried before. He spoke directly to the waiter, and stated his preferences clearly and politely. He ate heartily. He appeared relaxed, and even chatted a bit in between sending text messages. It's a small change, probably invisible perhaps to anyone other than his parents. But beautiful.