Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Good at Family, Part Two

Every family is good at something, and ours is good at therapy. Growing up, my mom and dad and my brother and I were good at tennis, tourism, and slipping into church late. Tim, T and I are good at therapy.

With foster/adoption of an older child, you don't have much choice. Inundated from the start with third-party "helpers" and various forms of therapeutic support and intervention, you gain a certain comfort in that climate. When T first came to us, we had a wrap-around service (read: intensive in-home case management) and out-patient services at a local university. Later, we had family therapy, social workers, and multiple court systems to contend with. As his substance abuse issues deepened, we also had out-patient and in-patient treatment programs with all that that entails. Suffice it to say, at times our life together was like living in a shoe box without a lid, with interested parties peering in at us all the time. What's more, as the white parent of an African American child, most everyone had an "opinion," spoken or not. Many, many people have been overt or covert with their skepticism, criticism, or bias. We've gotten used to navigating other people's intrusions, misapprehensions, and questions.

So family therapy, with its inevitable airing of the family laundry, isn't so startling to us as it is to some. We go into it like some families go into team sports: we're ready, we know our positions and our respective cues. We even have a bit of a schtick. Usually, T takes the lead. He's our "alpha" in family therapy.  I remember once, in a family group setting at an in-patient treatment program, when T announced to the room that our family likes to go to Korean spas together during happy times. All eyes were on us. I'm sure no other 17 year-old had ever announced a love of Korean spa-going with his parents. Knowing that he had command of the room, T went on and on about it, detailing how I enjoyed the salt scrub, while he preferred acupressure massage and Tim liked to read a book in the sauna. Even the group leader was at a loss for words. "It must be nice," the woman next to me muttered. I was both proud and red with embarrassment.

We also have our in-jokes. Witness: long ago, T and I thought it would be funny to flip each other off during family therapy. I'm sure you're appalled, but to us, it's terribly funny. When the therapist isn't looking, one of us subtly shows the other the finger. Maybe it's the rub of a nose, or the apparent scratching of an itch, but it's unmistakably the middle finger. This private signal has persisted for several years, through many rounds of chaos and recovery, through many different therapists and mental health providers; remarkably, none of them have ever noticed, or admitted to noticing. During our darkest moments, and our brightest, we've found the occasion to flip each other off. It's what my British colleague used to call "taking the piss": a way of deflating pretenses, having a laugh. Just the other day, T snuck in a raised middle finger in the midst of some serious family conversation. It's like we're aliens, as if the standard greeting on our home planet is to flip someone the bird, by way of signaling mutual membership in a private society.

So anyway, we're back in family therapy, this time as part of his Twelve Step program. We started our Saturday group last week. Personally, I don't like to call attention to myself in group settings, but sometimes we have to follow T's lead. He's not someone to hide his light under a bushel basket. First of all, he's very beautiful, with large eyes and long curly lashes, and extra long thin limbs. People stare at him wherever he goes, simply on the basis of the way he looks. Second of all, he doesn't care about other people's opinions of him, or of us. He's been through far too much to fret over a few uninformed assessments. He flies his freak flag high, and encourages us to do the same.

One of his favorite things to do is to make eloquent speeches describing the point of view of the parent, as he did last Saturday. He'll say things like "Sometimes the parent blames herself for the child's problems, but it's not her fault - she has to let the child learn things for himself, and that can be really hard, because she doesn't want to see him get hurt." Of course, the other parents in the room are usually somewhat taken aback. His eloquence, neutrality, and (occasionally condescending) compassion for the parental point-of-view are captivating, amusing, and odd.

Sometimes in family group, I cry. I rarely (very rarely!) cry at home, and I can see that my open display of vulnerability is gratifying for T, besides being a much-needed release of pressure for me. The presence of other people takes some of the pressure off that I might feel in private. We can "leave the emotions in the room", as T likes to say. We can allow each other a moment of candor and of raw feeling that would be too much to manage at home.

Tim has his role too. He is the patient, unconditionally supportive, less sensitive parent. He's the one who gets us to our family group on time, and takes everyone out for breakfast afterwards. He's the one who scratches his head and looks puzzled when too much emotion starts to fly, and the one who can sum up our meanderings and emotional emissions to arrive at some practical plan of action. The therapist usually looks relieved when Tim starts to talk. He's the straight man to T's clown, the much-needed gravity to balance the levity and the tragedy.

In T's current program, so far, we are the only two-parent family group participating.  We are the only bi-racial family, and T is also by far the youngest. But we've slipped right back into it. He is more eager to participate than ever before, and we are so glad to have him back.

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