Sunday, November 4, 2012


This is an embarrassing post, because it is about...spas. T loves spas.

I, actually, do not love spas. I didn't go to spas a lot before T.

It started one weekend when he was about 15 when we proposed that we all try out a Korean day spa near us. For those of you who have not been, Korean day spas are a family affair. You don matching gym outfits and go from sauna to sauna, laying around on mats on the floor and enjoying refreshments in between. There are people of all generations.

This was a BIG hit. T was solemn, as he often is, and then he wanted to do it again the next weekend. Solemn always equals trust, with him, and I don't always understand why it comes on when it does, but when he's solemn, I know we're in the zone, doing something right.

From that point on, the thing we did together most frequently as a family was to hit the Korean spa on Sunday afternoons. He would proudly announce this habit any time he got the chance - in family therapy, group therapy, with friends. I was often mortified. I found out that most people do not visit spas with their teenage sons. He invited people to join us - his friends, their parents. It became "our" thing.

We went to spas through thick and thin. Whether things were flowing between us, or not. During all the ups and downs of his substance abuse struggles. He loves spas. Now that he's home, one of the first things he wanted to go back to is our spa routine.

Just recently, we tried another spa option: a day spa in the desert in southeastern California with outdoor mud baths and mineral pools. It's not terribly expensive. This was also a major hit. He wanted us to stick right by him, figuring out how to participate, talking about his future while baking in the sun and soaking in the pools. He was solemn, serious and thorough in his exploration of the various options, then giddy and chatty in the car on the way home.

When we first started spending weekends with him oh-so-long-ago, I had not been the parent of a boy before, and being a bit of a jock, I had some ideas about how we'd spend our time. We went to the X Games. I got tickets to a season of college football. We hit went go-kart racing, rock climbing, and camping. Eventually I realized that I was totally stressing him out. None of these things were his idea of a good time. Spas are his idea of a good time.

He likes warmth, quiet, relaxation, and being tended to. I imagine (and one of the readers of this blog turned me on to the author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, who kind of confirmed this for me) that our kids tend toward substance abuse in part because of the craving for sensations of well-being they were denied during early childhood. Spas kind of fill that need. They are a realm of pure sensation, but safely modulated by rules and rituals that are easy to understand. They are about being warm, relaxed, and quiet. They are about the sanctity and primacy of physical well-being.

I also see that something here has to do with abuse and recovery. Adults took advantage of T's vulnerability, physicality, and trust, as is true of every child I know who spent an extended period in foster care. I see in T that it's very hard to relax. He is tense, hyper-vigilant, and used to being exploited. At a spa, he can be physical, vulnerable, and still in control. I imagine what it was like to be separated from your birth mom just a few days after being born, and to be withdrawing from drugs at the same time, as he was. I see that his whole life has been one of physical tension and un-ease. This is part of why drugs that relax him are such a draw, and probably always will be. This is why he loves spas. This is why he did NOT love x-games, college football, and camping as much as I do.

I'm glad he has spas. I'm glad he has the vanity and pride to feel that he deserves to relax, to feel good, to take care of himself. I'm glad he's found a sober, legal way to fulfill the need for physical well-being and relaxation that eluded him. I'm happy to set aside my macho sports-based idea of recreation to take better care of him. I'm in awe of his adaptive powers of self-preservation when I see how many needs are fulfilled for him by simple things.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


Well, T's back home. Perhaps to be expected. What's more surprising is his giddy glee. I might add another g-word: gratitude. I expected it to wear off after about 24 hours, but it's been a couple weeks already. It's partly relief. His whole experiment living with his brother was a little rough: sleeping on a pull-out sofa bed for months and buying his own food. And partly it's the warm feeling of familiarity: despite the kinship, he doesn't know his brother very well (they didn't grow up together or ever live together), so living with him these past few months required that he build and maintain a new and perhaps sometimes strained relationship. By contrast, at our house, he has undisputed insider status; he knows the rhythms, the in-jokes, the household routine.

But I also think something more profound and unique to kids who've spent time in the foster care system is at play; he's having the experience of leaving and then returning home, finding that home is still here, even when you are living elsewhere. That you can go away and come back. His experience, like that of too many kids in foster care, was that life is a series of leaving various "homes" (16 in his case), never to return; sometimes leaving family members, and being separated from them for years without any control of the situation.  I think he found it disorienting during his time with his brother that we were still connected to him, and that nobody forced OR forbid him to come home. He made a choice, and we let him.

He came home under somewhat amusing circumstances. We had been visiting him on weekends, down where his brother lives, doing regular family things like Sunday dinner and a movie. During these visits, he was alternately sheepish and confused and warm and self-absorbed. Gradually he started to talk about going to community college this winter, and to reflect on the dead-end that lay before him if he stayed on his present path. He seemed to be struggling to figure out what to do next. One day, I said something I often say to him: I asked him to sit up and look me in the eye and ask for what he needed with confidence. We thought he might ask for help in getting enrolled in school, paying tuition, etc. But he squirmed and fidgeted, and then looked at us like a little kid and said sheepishly "I want to come home! I need you guys to help me figure stuff out!" We were so convinced that he planned to continue staking out his independence that we were taken completely aback. We had to step outside for a parent conference, and we spent the first half minute staring at each other blankly. What about the romantic vacation we'd just planned? What about the fact that I have happily been storing all my extra clothes in his closet? How did he manage to surprise us? By the following evening, T was back at home in his own bed, my clothes were out of his closet, and we were negotiating a visit from grandma and grandpa to preserve our romantic vacation.

His substance abuse issues haven't gone away - this isn't a fairytale ending. They are less extreme right now, for sure, for whatever reason. But it is nice to see him in this happy state, and to witness the dramatic burst of maturity he recently underwent. I didn't really know before I was his parent that kids develop that way - not at all, for long periods of time, and then seemingly overnight.

Right now, he's in the car with Tim on his way to the northern part of the state to look at a college option. He left me a note. It says "Since being back home I learned that you have a bad habit of not locking the front door. That is not good. You should start locking it. Sincerely, love T." That is him, in a nutshell, and that is the bossy, loving behavior that means he feels the warmth of belonging. And that makes me feel good.
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