Friday, June 20, 2014

E is not T

When T came to live with us, it was unclear exactly which birth family relationships were important to him. But we knew that he had lived for several years with a younger sibling--whom I will call "E"-- from whom he had been separated about four years earlier. They were in separate group homes in separate counties when we met him. He also had three other siblings he had never met.

E had bouts of violent behavior, and was considered by his social workers to have an elevated level of need that we couldn't meet. To be honest, I didn't think we could meet his needs either, but as I came to understand the shared history between him and T, I felt increasingly guilty that we were adopting one boy and not both.

E spent holidays with us, or we visited him at the holidays, depending on his situation. These visits were usually tense - he wanted all of T's attention, and T found him exasperating. They triggered each other's agony.

Meanwhile, E was going through a period of chaos. He was thrown out of one foster home for breaking the windows and cutting himself, and in another he tore apart a kitchen. After one such bout, he was charged with a crime and went to juvenile hall. In juvenile hall, he sank into a deep suicidal depression, resulting in a placement in a high security probation department facility for emotionally distressed kids that was horrifying and heartbreaking. We visited him there. He had scars where he'd cut himself. It was a seemingly endless nightmare.

Fast forward. After nearly a year of that, and various placements, E was transferred back to child protective services and he was moved (after some lobbying by Tim) to a therapeutic group home near us. By then, we had been the only people to visit him and the only people to go to his court dates for many, many months.

During this time, T was living in another city, so we had time to spend exclusively with E. Seeing him apart from T was an eye-opener. We got him dusted off and reacclimated to the world. We went to the movies, and to his high school graduation. On his own, and with the benefit of a little more maturity, medication, and therapy, E was a different boy, more self-possessed. We were able to get to know him as an individual.

One day, he looked right at me and said "I am so afraid I'm going to do something to disappoint you." I realized that he thought our visits were a reward, or a privilege that might be taken away as punishment. We explained that wasn't the case, that we consider him family, that we visit him because we love him, not because he's been good or bad.

After that, there was a subtle shift. He was a little more relaxed, a little more honest. And then suddenly, there was a great leap forward! He started to refer to us as his adoptive parents. He started asking for things, reasonable things, things that kids need and want from their parents. He got permission to stay at our house on weekends. He sulked sometimes, and at other times, he was wildly entertaining. He started coming over every weekend, both days. He started taking long naps in the second bedroom, bringing his dirty laundry to be washed, and staying until late Sunday night.

And lo-and-behold, it turned out that his pain and rage and suffering had been masking something more nuanced: a fantastically funny, laid-back, honest personality. And an incredible gift for music. He is the polar opposite of T. Where T is refined and graceful and controlling and repressed, E is silly and sloppy and snuggly and uninhibited. Where T struggles to let go and express himself, E sings his heart out and spills the beans at the slightest provocation.

And what's even WEIRDER: it turned out that T and Tim have a magical chemistry. They fit together like puzzle pieces. I love him too, no less than Tim does. But just as T and I have a natural chemistry, an ability, based on a similar sensibility, to intuit each other's thoughts and feelings, Tim and E fit together in their own way. They even share certain body language that makes them look alike! I was behind them at the mall the other day and they had a way of walking side-by-side that made them look unmistakably connected.

You could bowl me over with a feather about all this. I always felt guilty and obligated to be there for E, and afraid that we couldn't provide what he needed. I totally missed the joy of being connected to him, the pleasure of his company and the brilliance of his personality.

He is with us every weekend now, and he calls frequently during the week. "Um, we have two kids...." Tim said to me one Sunday night.

Truth be told, a part of my heart tries to hold itself in reserve. I'm afraid of attaching even though it's too late, of failing to protect him (from himself, among other things), of losing him. I understand T a little bit better, I know where he's at on the scale of risk, and I trust my instincts with him. E is more elusive to me, and his history of self-harm makes me vigilant and fearful of what might happen if I misjudge. But I love him, in such an uncomplicated way.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Vicarious Grief

I haven't kept up on this blog for quite awhile, mostly because T was away (living in another city, with a friend of the family, and going to school) for the past year, and, while we were still involved in his life, parenting him wasn't a day-to-day activity.

He's back. His first foray into independence ended badly. He's staying with one of his older brothers in a neighboring city for a few weeks and we're helping him work through his options. Meanwhile, his younger brother, E, finally got out of juvenile detention and moved into a therapeutic group home near our house. We have him with us every weekend and he's proven to be an absolute joy. So right now, I have a lot to say! But the main thing that is on my mind is vicarious grief (I'll write more about E later, he is his own weird and wonderful story).

After T dropped out of college and ended up unemployed and deep into daily drug use, we decided to enforce strict boundaries with him. We would pay for therapy, medication, residential treatment, and job training, but until he got sober, he could not live in our house, and we would not give him money for any other purpose.

It hurts my heart to be strict with him. A part of me always wants to bundle him up and have him back at home, to give him time and love, and keep him safe under our wing.

Since he moved back to our area about four weeks ago, he's come to visit on two consecutive weekends. During those visits, he was withholding, angry, sullen, and occasionally verbally viscous. He's too thin, nervous and unsettled. He talked angrily about his birth mom, and, on two separate occasions, almost seemed to confuse me for her. He seemed to want to punish everyone around him.

Finally last weekend after he badly hurt the feelings of his younger brother, I was driving T home and I pulled the car over on the side of the road. I told him that he was hurting the people he loves, and that I would not move the car until I got a respectful, meaningful response from him. He admitted that he was really suffering, and that he knew he was taking out his rage on the people around him, pushing everyone away, and he didn't know what to do about it. He agreed to talk more, soon, when he was ready.

Four days went by, until he hit me up at work on instant message. He said he was signing up for the army. I asked him if he'd be interested in going to a 30 day residential treatment program near our house that accepts our insurance and told him that we thought it might be good if he took the time to get himself on steadier footing before he set off on his next life adventure.

He replied with apparent relief. He said he had only planned on joining the army "to run away" and that he would love to go to rehab. He said he needed help, he wanted to make positive change, and that he's be ready for us to pick him up whenever we decided to come get him. He wrote "I surrender myself completely" - a statement most unlike him. This is not a tone he's ever taken before.

It was a happy/sad moment. We've been supporting his efforts at sobriety for five years and this will be his third stay in residential rehab, so in many ways, we have worked out our thoughts and feelings about it. Tim and I both felt good about how we handled this moment, in that we were able to stay consistently loving while refusing to let his addiction draw us into chaos and confusion. But it is always harrowing to wait out his down times and hope that he'll be ready for a moment like this one. We always struggle with letting him feel the pain of his mistakes, and with the conflict between our desire to care for and protect him and the necessity of waiting it out until he is ready for help.

I found that I was temperamental and sad this week. I was happy that we found a loving option for T and relieved that he accepted. But I felt withdrawn and sad, too. When he is punishing, I'm protected by a certain measure of self-righteous self-protection. But when he is vulnerable and suffering, I feel a depth of vicarious grief that sneaks up on me.

I never experience grief as an entirely negative emotion. I experience it as a great openness to the truth of life, an awareness of risk and loss, the profound unfairness of fate, and the beautiful forbearance and fortitude of human beings under duress, and of these two boys in particular. I am humbled by their  endurance and unlikely optimism in the face of the cascade of loss and pain that life has handed them, so early on. It is both enlightening and excruciating.

When other people in my life are grieving, I feel empathetic. But when T's grief returns, I feel vicariously connected to it myself. I feel as if it is happening to me. I don't know why - perhaps it's evidence of some clever evolutionary trick to keep parents connected to their kids. Perhaps when he has a share of suffering greater than he can bear myself he transfers a bit of it to me in some uncanny way. I don't know. In any event, I hope the weeks ahead are a time for him to step away from the chaos and confusion of his present life and tend to his grief and treat himself with tenderness and compassion.

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