Continued from Excruciating Ride
I often search Flickr for just the right photo, but I don’t always find what I want. In this case, the picture is worth about a million words.
The roller coaster we’re riding with our son right now isn’t any fun.
As I walked into the hall, my son whipped the pencil away from his chest.
“What are you doing?” Reaching for the pencil, I leaned over to see whether he’d progressed through his school work. I used the pencil to point, summoning as much nonchalance as I could.
“You need to fill in these blanks in pencil, please.” I handed the pencil back, adding, “Pencils are for paper; pencils are not for poking people.”
He nodded and took it.
After he finished his school work, I gave him a journal assignment. He wrote about suicide by a pencil stab.
An hour later, he growled in frustration when I wouldn’t believe an obvious lie. He left the house and headed down the driveway. The timing worked well, because we needed to head to an appointment, so I pretended to think he was going to get in the car.
Unlocking the vehicle, I called, “Hey, thanks for getting out of the house so quickly so we can be on time! Do you want me to meet you at the end of the driveway?”
He froze, then turned slowly and shuffled back to the car, muttering, “wearing the wrong shoes, anyway.”
His sister gave him a sharp look. “Were you trying to run away?”
“Yeah, but I need my other shoes.”
She shook her head. “Running away is stupid. What are you going to eat?”
In a cool, flat tone that gave me chills, he said, “Dead squirrels, probably.”
By late August, I was spending an average of seven hours per day closely monitoring our son. Completing tasks became almost impossible; he didn’t want to move, so he began a sabotage campaign. When we put the house on the market, we asked the kids to try to keep things neat for the showings. He thought buyers would refuse to purchase the house if he worked against us. He trashed his room, wrote on the walls in permanent marker, decimated a large planter…every time he wasn’t by my side, I looked for the next bit of destruction.
He did the opposite of whatever we asked and began doing things he’d never done in the past, like climbing out of his window to leave the house. Hubby and I did our best, but…have you ever tried to keep an 11 year-old in sight at all times? It’s even harder than it sounds.
Cameras and a newly-installed alarm system helped, but we still couldn’t supervise 100% of his day. Showers became especially problematic, because he’s really too old for one of us to stand there. He plugged the drain with toys and toilet paper, defecated in the tub and filled the curtain with water, letting it go when it became too heavy (all over the bathroom floor).
Because he is diagnosed as “on the edge” of the Autism spectrum, the in-home counselor suggested we apply for ABA therapy for help with behavior modification. Good ABA therapists have successfully helped non-verbal, low-functioning children learn to communicate and to perform self-care tasks. If his apparent inability to follow directions stemmed from the autism, the therapists would be able to help. And maybe, once he had a habit of doing the right things, he would feel better about himself.
While I sat outside with the supervisor, outlining the challenges of the last several months, another staff member sat with our son to evaluate him. I explained to the supervisor that he’s great one-on-one with an adult, so I expected the other therapist to find nothing. Sure enough, when she joined us, I saw The Look.
The Look, n., facial expression indicating the parent must be out of her mind, as this child is brimming with intelligence and compliance.
Thankful for backup from the in-home counselor, the supervisor and I explained there is more to this kid than becomes obvious in one meeting. We were approved for services, but staffing shortages meant ABA wouldn’t start for several weeks.
A week later, the threats of suicide came almost daily, sometimes several times a day. His moods swung between anger and depression. I couldn’t leave him alone with his sister for even a minute because he started lashing out at her.
ABA wasn’t going to be enough.
We began looking for residential treatment, this time for a program that lasted more than a few days.
Angela Duckworth, author of Grit, believes we reach “expert” level by practicing our craft for at least 10,000 hours; K. Anders Ericksson specifies those hours are spent in “deliberate practice.”
Therefore, I would like to announce that
I am an expert.
For at least thirty years, I have deliberately practiced…procrastination.
Don’t even have to try anymore; Hubby agrees my practical level of procrastination is unbelievable—even mind blowing.
Blog procrastination happens when I know it’s time to write but I’d rather pretend nothing is happening.
Writing about the last six months is painful, terrifying, discouraging.
I’ve been procrastinating.
As I mentioned earlier, the roller coaster with our girl has morphed into a super-fun ride most days. (And yes, I know that super-fun is technically not a word.)
The roller coaster ride with our boy…not so much.
Right now, his roller coaster is excruciating.
When we began our journey, people supported us in the best ways they knew. However, few had the experience to understand, so we stopped trying to share our angst, because conversations went something like this:
Me: “Our foster son won’t stop screaming. Anything sets him off. He won’t let me touch him until he’s out of his mind—then, still screaming, he clings to me like the earth is falling away and I’m the last thing standing. Sometimes it lasts for hours; I don’t know what to do.”
Friends my age: “Yeah, my kid does that, too. I just turn on the TV and he settles down,” or “Put him in his room, tell him he can come out when he’s done, and shut the door.”
Friend my mom’s age: “Tell him if he doesn’t stop crying, you’ll GIVE him something to cry about.”
Friend my grandmother’s age: “He probably has gas. Have you taken him to the doctor?”
Social worker: “If he’s too much for you, we’ll find another placement.”
The above suggestions didn’t help.
But those kinds of conversations prompted me to start this blog, because Hubby and I agreed no one should feel as alone as we did.
Have a troubled kid? You are not alone.
Terrified of the future? Wondering whether your child will have the ability to function in society? “Cautious optimism” is your motto?
You’ve come to the right place.
Everyone’s story line is a little different, but the internal conflict connects across all boundaries: parents want beautiful life to happen for their kids, but we don’t always know how to best assist.
We want them to thrive, be mentally healthy and happy, be successful, have a great future.
Three months ago, the main life plan for our eleven year-old son was
His roller coaster almost went off the tracks in August. The happy boy who lived with us during the summer of 2016 was long gone. He used his intelligence to charm and manipulate adults but could not stand his peers. Aggressive behavior caused his expulsion from two summer camps.
Several life alterations (loss of Hubby’s dad, job changes, selling our home, moving) or hormones may have something to do with the downward spiral that held a tenacious grip on his personality; we don’t really know the cause. Hindsight sometimes holds clues and answers, but in this case, we can’t find any triggers.
I once read that talking about suicide is “just” a cry for attention unless the person has a plan. (We can discuss “just” another time…if a person is reaching out, there’s a reason.)
Our son had a plan.
Several plans, actually.
When he was upset, I often sent him to write in his journal; after he finished, he allowed me to read it and we took time to discuss his thought processes. As he found that I would not give him a consequence for anything he wrote (he tested this with a list of swear words), his writing became darker and included plans to run away or harm himself.
His list of ways to die included throwing himself in front of a vehicle, drowning himself in the pond or stabbing himself in the heart with a pencil.
Because of his extreme behaviors and inability to function appropriately in most settings, he had an in-home counselor ten hours a week. She became an invaluable presence in our family, mostly for me. (I no longer had to wonder whether I might be overreacting.)
We monitored him closely, working with the in-home counselor with the goal of keeping him with us.
We were, in a word, Hypervigilant.
We installed an alarm on the house to alert us if he tried to leave in the middle of the night, and cameras so I could keep an eye on him when I had to be in another room. Most of the time, I slept only when he slept, woke before he did and kept him in my physical sight almost all day. If I needed to use the restroom, I took the monitor, and only took showers when another adult was in the house. Hubby took over when he got home from work so I could get a little rest.
We were exhausted but determined to do everything we could to prevent residential care.
We believed our love could be enough.
Our in-home counselor agreed he needed immediate and urgent help after he acted out a detailed suicide scene in front of a camera in our home. We aren’t sure whether he chose the setting intending a manipulation, since he knew the camera was there. Regardless, the underlying issue remains the same: his thoughts were focused on ending his life.
As I explained that we might need to seek help from a facility outside our home, he shrugged.
“You’ve done all you can. You’ve tried everything else. We might as well try this.”
We checked him into an acute care psychiatric facility that afternoon. We visited every chance possible and each time he fed us lies (people hurting him, taking his shoes, trying to fight him). After a visit on day 5, Hubby and I resigned ourselves to the knowledge he’d be there a while as his mindset was obviously not changing.
Less than 24 hours later, a nurse called and told me they planned discharge that day. I was shocked.
“He told the doctor he’s not thinking about suicide anymore, so he can come home now,” she chirped.
I asked to speak to the managing director, who told me they could only keep the child if the child continued to want to hurt himself or someone else. Since our boy knew the right words, he had to come home.
The next day, as I painted a closet, I glanced at the monitor to see him trying to shove a pencil through his ribs.
Continued from Roller Coaster
Finally surrendering to the truth that we might not have the expertise to help our girl, we began to consider residential treatment. We researched facilities, finding nothing available near our home.
The few programs we found were far away and insurance would cover only partial (if any) cost of the treatment available for Reactive Attachment Disorder. Actual hours with a counselor could be covered, but therapeutic activities, room and board, etc., were not considered billable. Out-of-pocket costs ranged from $10,000 to $30,000 per month (sometimes higher).
Discouraged and exhausted, we began to wonder whether our only recourse would be to simply “hang in there” until she reaches age 18, then invite her to remove herself from our home.
We’ve explained to both kids that they’re welcome to stay past 18 with the stipulation that they must do two things:
- participate in furthering their education
- contribute to the household and follow house rules
…but current behavior indicated the second stipulation might be unlikely to happen.
Then, a friend told us about a non-profit, RAD-focused program supported by donors. The price for accepted children would be reasonable. The parameters for acceptance were fairly strict, including a requirement that the child attend voluntarily. I called for information.
Causing our only hesitation was location; long distance and high airfare costs would keep us from visiting her more than a few times per year.
After hours of discussion and tears, we decided to try something new: full transparency.
We explained the program and asked her opinion.
Showing her the website, we scrolled through pictures and descriptions of the program. We explained that we felt she needed more help than we could give her, so we were looking at the I could tell she didn’t think we were serious.
In a moment we couldn’t have planned if we tried, the director called.
As I discussed the possibility of our girl attending the program, Hubby asked her, “Do you know who Mama is talking with right now? He’s in charge of the place you might need to live.”
We watched realization drain her face of color.
Once the phone conversation finished, we talked with her again. This time, she was sobbing.
“I don’t want to leave you!”
And in that moment, on that evening in late November, something shifted.
The change took months, but with the help of an in-home counselor, our girl worked through her anger and fear. Her biggest fear, it turns out, was of being happy. As long as she decided not to be happy, she had control. As long as she didn’t feel happiness, it could never be taken.
Once she said this out loud, admitted she was afraid to feel joy because it might once again be stolen, she took the power of the fear back into her own hands. It gave her the control she craved.
I won’t lie; the change took months. The roller coaster continued to rise and fall. We had bad days and good days. Each month, more and more good days. And almost a year later to the moment, I can count the bad days this month on one hand. Honestly, on one finger.
A year ago, if someone told me she’d be one of my favorite people, hilarious and smart, funny as heck and loads of fun, I might have smirked at the perceived impossibility. But that’s exactly who she is. Hubby and I are enjoying every moment with this kid in the present, putting aside the fear of what might come next.
She’s not perfect, and she’s recently become a teenager, so I’m aware we could be in for some sharp climbs, rolls and drops ahead.
But lately, riding this roller coaster is fabulous fun. When it rolls into the station, we’re riding again. No question.
*If you haven’t already, take a second look at the “roller coaster” in the photo. It’s the Tiger & Turtle from Magic Mountain in Germany. Some roller coasters are not what they appear.
Sometimes, real life interferes with writing.
Writing is my self-prescribed therapy; the hectic days, weeks and months I have the least amount of time to sit with my laptop are the days, weeks and months I need it most.
Lately I’ve been writing a lot in my head, but haven’t found time to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, in this case).
It’s killing me.
Speaking of writing…I’m on a rather spammy email list from a prolific actual (read: published) writer.
Sometimes the nudge to join his newest master class or buy his latest book feels a bit too pushy. My mouse often hovers over the “unsubscribe” link, but at the last second my finger declines to click, because in that moment I find the gem.
In the last email, he spoke of having no time to write. Of setting up a typewriter on a board across two chairs in his living room. Of carving out time in the evenings after his children were in bed. Of declining the allure of evening television or the seduction of a soft bed, of instead parking himself in a chair and writing.
Of Making Time.
Making Time is difficult, but not impossible.
Finding Time is improbable, at best. Lost minutes will never be recovered. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve come to a sudden awareness I have nothing to do.
“Carving” Time is essentially the same as Making Time but seems so much more appropriate in terms of my life. I wedge a blade into the calendar and plunge it between appointments with savage and ruthless abandon.
Ruthlessness is the only way, because otherwise my life overwhelms my intentions and conspires to drown me.
Tonight, I’m feeling a little ruthless, a bit cutthroat. Life is too overwhelming; I must make time to write, even if that means cutting out something else.
For now, I’ll cut whatever was going to happen in the next half hour.
Join me. What will you write?
P.S. Anyone recognize the photo?
We agreed for a little girl to live with us while her parents sorted things.
Dad is in jail, mom was on drugs but is trying to get clean.
She is ten, with thick, frizzy brown hair pulled back in a low ponytail. Round, sweet face, eyes made owlish by thick glasses with dark purple frames.
She wears a purple puffy jacket, which should be my first clue it’s a dream.
Those went out of style decades ago. Then again, trends cycle. Maybe she’s ahead of the curve.
We meet at a small, family-owned restaurant with a store attached. Evidently this is where she has spent her after-school hours starting back in pre-school. Her babysitter used to work here but is long out of the picture.
“She was such a good little girl” that everyone else agreed to jointly keep an eye on her until her mother sent a ride home or wandered in to pick her up. Someone noticed she wasn’t growing much in kindergarten and they started providing after-school snacks and a hearty dinner. The undernourished waif grew into a hale and healthy ten year old.
The last few months, they’ve been giving her rides home at closing. A light was always on and she had a key, but finally the cook decided to walk her to the door and found mom sprawled on the floor in a drugged stupor.
She called the police, who called social services. Our small town had no other foster homes available. Since the cook claimed to be a distant cousin and had a clean record, they let the child stay with her for 48 hours while the social worker looked for a foster parent.
These people have been her family for six years. None of them are happy to learn I live clear across town.
“You have to bring her back to see us. Come for dinner at least once a week. On the house,” the owner cajoles.
The cook chimes in, “yes, please do,” in a tone I recognize as, “I’m asking nicely but you can expect a consequence if you don’t comply.”
The child has gone back to her small play area in the rear of the store to tidy up. I follow.
As I pack her things into a plastic green suitcase, the social worker calls my cell. Mom entered the rehab program. This may be a very temporary placement.
For their sake, I hope so, but I won’t mind if this sweet girl stays with us longer.
Suddenly I realize we never finalized sleeping arrangements. I guess we’ll put her in the guest room for now. I wonder if our two will be jealous she gets the big bed.
For that matter, how will they all get along? Will a new addition send them into a tail spin?
Should I put her in class with one of them or in one of the other 5th grade classes?
It’s getting late. I haven’t even thought about dinner. I tug her heavy case toward the door, starting to feel overwhelmed. Will she even like us?
I pause by the door, ready to call her name and realize I’ve forgotten it.
The cook gives me a piercing glare.
“What?” I say.
She replies, “nothing,” but I feel her eyes on my back as I turn.
I shake my head, stress washing over me.
What was I thinking, taking this on? I just started a new job. My kids may not respond well and I forgot to tell them about it. Hubby’s out of town for a week. Wait, who is with MY kids? I suddenly can’t remember.
The girl reappears, hugging the staff as she makes her way to me.
“I’m ready,” she tells me, pushing past through the wooden screen door to the country porch.
I follow, panic rising, and stop, face to face with a huge young buck. I eye his antlers, uneasy with the proximity, and glance around for the girl.
He snorts, demanding my attention, and stomps his hoof on the echoing porch floor boards. He touches his nose to mine, huge brown eyes glaring.
I wake, wild-eyed, stressed and panting, nose-to-wet-black-nose with my German Shepherd.
He needs to potty. He snorts and stomps his paw on the bed once more.
I shake my head and let him pull me out of bed.
Thank God, it was a dream.
Later that day, I pull up photo listings on adoptuskids.org, searching for a round, sweet face with owlish eyes.
“These shutters are a lot more work than I expected,” I sigh. “Thanks for helping me.”
I agreed to paint shutters for a friend. Too late, I discovered they hadn’t been properly prepped before the previous owner covered them in enamel; it flaked off like autumn leaves but gummed up my sander. The only option was tedious scraping.
The paint only held fast where edges met, the hardest part to clean…on every slat.
A five-hour job ballooned into a week-long project. The only saving grace? The lead paint test was negative.
My ten year old son shrugs, scraping an edge.
“If they’re so hard, why don’t you just take them back and say you can’t do it?”
“Because I agreed to paint them. I didn’t say I’d only paint them if they were easy to prep.”
He flicks a piece of peeling paint. “But this is too hard. It’s not what you expected. You should give up. That’s what I’d do.”
After the week he had at school, I think maybe we aren’t talking about the shutters.
Watching black paint chips flutter to the ground like an apocalyptic snowfall, I shake my head.
“Nope. I said I’d paint them. I gave my word. That’s a promise, and I keep my promises.”
“But it’s too hard!” He shakes his little brass scraper in my direction.
“It’s not TOO hard. It’s difficult, yes, and more work than I expected, but I’m going to have a really good feeling when I’m done.
Often, when you work through something difficult, you find out that YOU are tougher than you expected yourself to be.
There will be lots of times in your life when things will seem harder than you expected, but when you finally have a great result, you’ll know the hard work was worth every moment.”
He pauses, thinking.
“That’s why you’ll never get rid of me, even when I’m bad?”