In T's first year with us, we were puzzled by the difficulty of getting him to school. More specifically, being first-time parents, we were puzzled by the fact that he would set off, apparently calm and prepared for the day ahead, only to diverge from his path somewhere en route. I remember talking to my mom (he was a sophomore in high school), and her saying "Well, it's kind of like he's three years old, and you wouldn't put a three-year-old on the bus alone in the morning and expect him to arrive at school without a mishap."
That struck me then and now as exactly true. Intellectually, T has always been his chronological age or well beyond. But like other traumatized kids, his development stalled or circled back on itself at critical junctures.
And why wouldn't one put a three year-old on the bus to school alone? For one thing, of course, they would be physically vulnerable, which T is not. But you also wouldn't do it because they would be too easily distracted, readily exploited by others, incapable of independent judgement, and prone to wander off on some escapade of self-gratification and self-endangerment. Which is pretty much how one might have described the daily risks that pertained to T being out and about in the world.
Upon reflection, it strikes me that he has not yet learned to accept "no" as an answer. He won't accept it from himself and he won't accept it from others. "No", in almost any form, often makes him very angry, sometimes vindictive. With us, in good times, it made him confused. We once had a stunning conversation; he came to me puzzled, after some disciplinary discussion, and said this: "Having parents is hard for me, cuz I used to not care what anyone said, but now I do care what you guys think! That makes me feel controlled and that feels weird!" Wow. Yeah. He was doing okay with that struggle until his substance abuse worsened, and then it was as if he decided to hell with the discomfort of attachment and self-governance, and sank into a craven cycle of pursuing short-term sensations.
I watch my young nephew, and the toddler-aged children of friends. I see those little kids asserting their willpower, trying to get a "yes" - whether by charm, willpower, or force - to whatever they want in the moment. And I see their parents giving them calm redirection, and "no"s, for their own good.
Not only did T not attach to anyone in early childhood enough to accept their discipline; he also received very confusing attention from adults. He was in an extremely abusive environment, so much so that to this day, he still had very noticeable physical scars on most parts of his body, including his head. Over the last few years, I've come to understand a little better the wounds that abuse inflicted on the inside.
Whereas one might think that an abused child hears "no" all the time, that is not necessarily the case. I think he rarely heard "no" in any sensible way. Rather, it seems like he rode the rollercoaster of extreme ups and downs of the adults around him, hanging on by his fingernails.
In our foster parent training classes, we learned how a human being develops along a timeline that begins with intense dependency and therefore attachment, and that such attachment is vital in many ways. Beyond mere survival, attachment builds the basis of trust and dependence on which a parent can later construct discipline. Those raging toddlers of my friends hate hearing "no" and yet, they love and need their mom or dad, and so they begin to accept limits and, eventually, to set those limits themselves. A kid abused as T was lacks that vital attachment and trust, and therefore lacks the opportunity to move beyond a cycle of craving and self-gratification. It strikes me as a most pernicious form of neglect, to fail to teach a child how to delay gratification and accept appropriate "no"s. Abuse is not discipline, and is, in many ways, its opposite.
All of that is extremely fertile soil for the type of compulsions he has now as a young man. This is part of why I feel resolved that we have to hold strong to the loving "no" we've given him. He is raging against it, pulling out all the stops to try to persuade himself that he can continue to have what he wants, and that anyone who tells him "no" must not love him. That is, of course, the cycle of addiction. He's now beginning to hear a firm "no" from the handful of other people in his life who truly love him, people that he thought he could fool in order to continue to get what he wants.
Observing his struggle from a distance is like watching someone in a fun house full of mirrors trying to steady himself while surrounded by distorted reflections. He keeps looking for "yes", mistaking it for love, or at least love's cheap substitute, while all around him a chorus of voices of people who love him is getting louder, telling him the opposite.