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Residential Swings

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Photo credit: Derek Bruff

I have a love-hate relationship with playground swings.

More hate than love these days, since the unreasonable swing manufacturers refuse to make swings properly. Back when I was ten, they made the swings so much larger; a perfect fit with no pinched thighs…

The part of the arc that sails me up to the sky makes my heart soar. I defy gravity. I fly like a bird. I touch the clouds. I…

drop like a rock back to earth.

As everything below rushes up to meet me, as my stomach drops away, I grit my teeth and brace for impact.

Every time.

Because once, on a cheap plastic yellow swing with a rusted chain, it happened.

Just as I realized my pinky had caught in a chain link, I fell. I don’t remember whether the seat cracked or the chain snapped, but I ended up on the ground with no nail on my pinky.

It never stopped me from swinging, but I can never fully enjoy the high of grinning madly while the wind tousles my hair.

I’m always waiting for the drop.

Having a child in residential care is a bit like taking a ride on a playground swing.

Highs, lows, devastation and recovery.

We get back on the swing, each ride a little more careful than the last.

Progress warrants rejoicing, but experience requires caution. One weak link breaks the chain.

Today, we celebrated. Our son had overall success this week, which meant he earned a 6-hour on-grounds pass.

For those of you not familiar: in most residential facilities, family may visit or come to the center to participate in family counseling as much as they like, but the child may not leave the grounds or have special privileges. In our case, the child earns passes by 2-hour increments on-grounds. Passes gradually step up to off-grounds (staying in the general area) and build up to a pass to go home. Once a child meets qualifications for 48- and 72-hour passes home, discharge from the therapy center is on the horizon. 

Before Christmas, our son earned his way to an 8-hour off-grounds pass and we expected him to have a 24- or 48-hour pass by Christmas. He regressed, once again becoming violent and suicidal. The passes were revoked for his own safety (and that of individuals around him).

His recovery from this phase has been slow; once he managed to curb the violent outbursts, he channeled his energy into testing limits. Because of his specific attachment issues, we worked with his therapist closely and kept visits to a minimum if he didn’t participate fully in his therapy plan.

In practical terms, this meant that if he didn’t do his part, we had to reschedule. (This may seem extreme, but it’s necessary for him to learn that relationships require effort on his part.)

As soon as he (finally) completed his requirements, we immediately scheduled a visit. We want him to see that he can trust us and that we’ll show up when he does. Today, we celebrated the ability to visit a second weekend IN A ROW. Swing up. 

This afternoon, just before we arrived, another child put his hands on our son’s neck. It was apparently horseplay (albeit inappropriate) on the other child’s part, with no ill intent. In months past, an incident like this would have ended with our son punching the kid in the face. Today, he simply left. He got up, went to his room and slammed the door to let everyone know he was angry.

In the grand scheme, that’s fabulous coping. Swing up. 

We had a family therapy session, discussed the situation and commended our boy for his great reaction.

The rest of the afternoon, we played Clue, Scrabble and Don’t Take My Words. (Full disclosure: we utilized several Hypervigilant Game Guidelines.)

He made the first Accusation in Clue, and I was proud because he didn’t get it rightand didn’t freak out. He helped set up and clean up each game. He offered us water. He was polite. He was kind to his sister. He hugged and kissed us each goodbye.

As we walked to the car, Hubby and I agreed he seemed better.

Swing up, up, up.

But what goes up…

A few hours after we left, he called, upset. He started crying. He said he was homesick. (I absolutely believe he is homesick, but my SuperMamaSenses started to tingle.) I asked whether he just felt homesick or was upset because something bad happened.

He said, “yes, something bad happened.” Swing down.

Then he told me about walking into a darkened room with a movie playing. Another specific child yelled at him, telling him to leave. This upset our son, so he began hitting and kicking the walls. He said he might have cracked the plaster, but the evening staff  told him he wouldn’t have to pay for it.

That last statement zinged my antennae further, because the admission contract is clear: if your kid breaks something, you pay. Big time. For the staff to say he wouldn’t have to pay…that was just weird.

I asked to speak with the staff member who’d been present.

Turns out, he made most of it up. By the time I found out, he was already in bed, so I’m sitting here trying to wrap my mind around why he might have thought it would be better to change the story. The end result in both stories was pretty much the same.

Actually, our son’s false story described a situation worse than what truly happened, because the staff member said he’s not aware our son cracked any of the walls.

In reality, our son was setting up a movie in the DVD player. There was no darkened room. The child who “yelled at” him wasn’t even present. A completely different child made a suggestion for getting the machine to work, at which time our son flipped out and started hitting and kicking the walls.

Why he would make those changes confuses me. If lies, why? If he somehow perceived reality to have happened that way, well…we’ve got a whole other can of worms to deal with.

The link breaks again.

The real issue is this: he has to learn to deal with peers’ interactions. Whether they’re giving him a suggestion, yelling at him or putting their hands on him, he’s got to be able to react in ways appropriate to the community.

I TOTALLY get that his emotions are raw and that didn’t help. I know he’s homesick. But I have to consider the future.

What if he’s at school feeling homesick?

Last year, he frequently wished to return home from school; he tried to find ways to be dismissed from school. He even caused minor harm to another child. Luckily, the child’s parents accepted his apology; at the time, there was a possibility the incident was accidental. Afterward, we confirmed his intent: he’d hoped the more extreme measure would end in suspension.

What if he does it again? What if he goes further than before?

What if a peer informs him she thinks his science project is crap? What if someone runs past and knocks him down? What if he’s having a bad day and someone suggests he should try a different method for figuring out a math problem? What if one of these things sets him off?

On one hand, I could make myself crazy trying to mitigate what-ifs.

On the other hand, the past predicts the present unless a catalyst induces change. 

The what-ifs above are likely to happen unless he corrects his course.

And if he gets upset, throws a chair and hits someone in the head—even if it’s a true accident—he’ll likely go to jail.

He has a great week. Swing up. 

He has a bad week. Swing down. 

He reacts appropriately to a bad situation. Swing up. 

He flips out. Swing down.

He lies. I’m sitting on the ground. Dust off, get back on the swing. 

We want him to come home.  Swing up. 

We want to protect him from himself.  Swing down. 

Sometimes, I want to hop off the swing and leave the playground altogether.

But he needs me.

So, I won’t.

And your kid needs you.

Let’s just keep swinging.

 

 

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A Letter to My Son

My dearest boy,

This year has been one of the most difficult I’ve ever lived. Let’s speak with honesty: you created most of the mountains and valleys.

Some people say hindsight is 20/20 regarding past mistakes. This phrase means that when we look back at the past, we have a clear picture of the choices we made, as well as the ability to see how the present might be different if we’d made other choices.

I see so many mistakes in our beginnings, due in part simply to ignorance. In some cases, these mistakes were coordinated by individuals trying to cover their wrongdoing. Sometimes, our vision was clouded by the possibilities. Other times, we were just too exhausted to see the right path.

In almost every case, the mistakes were not your fault. Unfortunately, those mistakes are partly responsible for your current location, in residential treatment—which doesn’t excuse your choices to be violent and oppositional, but provides some explanation.

Mistakes – in Hindsight

1. Ignorance

I read almost every adoption book available in this hemisphere in preparation, but don’t have any memory of advice to procure a liaison. We met you through friends providing respite care for your foster family. Rather than working through an agency, I called Social Services directly.

We ended up with the worst social worker on the planet. She wrote you off as problem kids, destined to continue the cycle begun by your birth family. She made clear her feelings that we were not qualified to be parents and threatened to remove you anytime I suggested you needed special services. As a result, I was hesitant to fight for the services you truly required. I was unaware of the many supports available to us.

2. Intentional Misinformation

Only a few months ago, I noticed the name of a therapy group mentioned in your paperwork. Searching my files, I found nothing, so contacted them. They sent me the original intake and notes from the six month time-frame they worked with you and your sister.

The documents outline clear recommendations for special handling due to your trauma situation and attachment issues. These same documents list the many times therapists attempted to involve the social worker, the consistent lack of interaction, the outright resistance to attending to your special needs.

The case is noted as closed out because they were unable to get necessary paperwork signed by the social worker, which prevented moving forward in treatment for attachment issues. These documents were sent to the social worker to be included in your file, but they were either never included or she removed them.

Reading documentation of the extent of your abuse and seeing with clear hindsight how we could have made your transition to our home so much less traumatic makes me physically ill. The room spins around me and I want to throw up. I want to scream, to weep, to track down this irresponsible human being and somehow make her see the damage she’s done to you.

3. Indomitable Belief

Your dad and I fit together like two pieces of a puzzle; together, we can accomplish almost anything. He is the logical, realistic, creative piece. He sees both the potential and the pitfalls. I am the dreamer, the visionary. I see what CAN be, but not always what IS. We both look for the good, but he recognizes solid truth, while I choose to believe the best, even if it means ignoring the obvious.

When you arrived, you were five. You did not know all the letters of the alphabet, but when I started helping you match letters to words (a, apple) I found that you knew curse words for letters A, B, C, D, F, G, H and more. In hindsight (there it is again), I should have realized the glint in your eye as you said, “S, sonofabitch,” meant you were testing my mettle with intent indicative of things to come.

I was determined to help you read; reading—and writing—was and is my survival. I knew that reading would help you heal. Would take you places far away when your reality became too heavy to bear. You were determined to learn. Within a year, you were reading full sentences. Less than six months later, you were reading a full year ahead of your grade. Every visit to the store, you brought me a book, pleading for a purchase. (I could easily reject a toy, but always bought a book.)

Your choices amazed me. Precocious. Intelligent. Many were beyond your reading ability, but you sat sounding out words, absorbed. From the beginning, I believed you and your sister were meant for big things. I saw this as confirmation of your special abilities.

You were obsessed with World War II, with military vehicles and aircraft, with the social injustices brought about by hate. I celebrated your intensity. One day, you carried an enormous coffee-table book about Vietnam toward me. My mom and aunt, with us for the shopping trip, were amazed at your choice. You were disappointed when I replaced the book (a documentary including pictures of dead bodies, which was a rule-out).

Upon returning to her house, my aunt found a black and white military documentary and asked me if I thought you’d be interested. No dead bodies filmed; I approved, and you watched it for hours. They began purchasing old war documentaries for you to watch during our visits. Everyone was amazed at your focus regarding all things war. I saw a savant. Imagined the leader of a nation forming in front of me, rather than a mind obsessed with violent images. And I still have hope.

4. Incredible Exhaustion

I do not blame you, truly, for what you had become by the time you arrived at our house. A wild animal in the body of a malnourished, neglected little boy. Like a modern-day Mowgli, you howled and screamed and struggled to communicate. You fought and snarled and ate with reckless abandon.

The foster family who kept you for eighteen months gave up long before they requested release; they had a limit. Consequently, they did little more than house you, missing important opportunities for early intervention.

Unfortunately for us all, when you arrived, there was no transition plan, no gradual acclimation to these new adults and new surroundings. During the first five years—and especially the first two, when the social worker still worked for the department—we found little support.

Some of this was our own doing; afraid that any glitch might cause the social worker to yank you from our home, we did not reach out to some of the people who might have provided strength. Of the few people we involved through necessity (people we saw each week at church or work colleagues covering for us), many walked away after a few interactions. You were too wild, too disrespectful, too dangerous to their children, too much work.

A few people continued to hold us up, but we were never comfortable leaving you with anyone untrained. Respite care workers were few and far between. We had no reprieve for almost six months, when we managed a weekend away while a trained mentor stayed with you. Watching you dismember and disembowel your teddy bear while staring at her menacingly was her breaking point. She stayed until we came home, but she never returned.

We didn’t have time to ourselves, not a date night, not a moment of true rest, for almost a full year. Even when we finally managed to coordinate a respite weekend, we were not able to relax because the caregivers constantly called us to ask for over-the-phone intervention.

When your behavior was horrible, we our only recourse was survival—you were unmoved by carrot or stick. (Actually, for the first twenty months, a literal “stick” was illegal since we were still fostering…but you get what I mean.) NOTHING worked.

Although frustrating, we also understood the lack of concern for consequences. If you’ve lost everything in your life, a redacted dessert for kicking your classmate means nothing. Understanding, though, is one thing. Finding relief is another—trying and failing to find a way to guide your behavior tested our limits. We found that prevention was the only option. We could never rest; scanning the environment constantly and guessing your next move consumed my day.

After the adoption, we felt more secure in pursuing options for support and finally received approval for in-home counseling, mentoring services and even more respite (although this was still limited). Even so, moments of true rest were few and fleeting.

Every parent makes bad decisions sometimes; exhaustion compounds the problem. I fully accept the responsibility for the times I raised my voice in frustration beyond acceptable decibel levels. The times I screamed when I should have walked away. Losing my crap completely over stepping barefoot on Legos.

I’m sure that our exhausted reactions in the first five years contributed to some of your angst.

If I could travel back in time, there are many things I’d do differently, in hindsight.

For the record, bringing you to live with us is NOT something I’d change.

I know these are not the only mistakes made in your short life. The list of people who’ve failed you is extensive, beginning even before the first moment you breathed Earth’s atmosphere.

You have a difficult road ahead, but from here, the opportunity to make (or avoid) mistakes becomes yours. You hold your future in your own hands.

As you told your therapist, you live with a Protective Grizzly Bear and a Pit Bull who Never Gives Up. Unlike that first foster family, no matter what happens, we will always call you ours. We will always love you.

Moving past the mistakes, releasing the desire for retaliation, opening your mind and heart to others…this will be a lifelong process. And it will be YOUR choice.

I pray that you will be able to see your way, clear and straight, to healing—and to HOME.

I love you.

Wishes

I’m sitting next to a family.

Two parents with three most-likely-bio sons. I watch the oldest roll his eyes as the youngest runs around the cafe, repeating with gusto,

“I spy with my little eye…”

The middle boy colors quietly by himself.

I don’t know the names of the older boys.

The youngest is definitely named Liam.

Father and mother halfheartedly chase the towheaded toddler in turns, calling his name.

He expertly ignores, then evades them.

It is a blissful scene of family togetherness, childhood glee and parental exasperation.

Sometimes I watch other people with their children, heart aching.

Wishing.

Grieving.

I am not the woman who gave my children life.

Every so often, I wonder whether things would be different if I’d held them in my arms from birth.

But

a few days ago

I saw a lady watching as my daughter and I walked through the store

arms wrapped around each others’ shoulders

being our goofy selves

and laughing.

The woman’s eyes sparkled with tears.

I wondered about her story.

And it hit me.

We all watch each other.

Wishing.

Grieving our personal losses.

Assuming others have a better, happier life.

She has no idea of the depths of hell from which my girl and I have fought our way back to be mother and daughter.

She can’t imagine the years of despairing whether we’d ever have a relationship.

I reconsider some of my wishing.

Maybe Liam’s family lets him have run of the place because he’s recently had his third round of chemo and they don’t know if it will work. Maybe they seem happy together because it might be the last time.

None of us has any idea what the others’ lives are like, and yet, we wish.

A few weeks ago, I talked with a friend I’ve always seen as the epitome of happy and positive. We lost touch after college for over fifteen years. Three minutes into the phone call, our friendship was all caught up. She’s the same sunny girl.

Five minutes in, we’d spilled our guts.

Our adoption journey. Their many miscarriages.

Everyone has a difficult patch in life to overcome.

We all have our own battles, and none of us really knows what others endure.

I’m a born advocate; when I read Isaiah 1:17, Proverbs 31:8 and and Isaiah 58:6-11, I feel they were written to me personally.

Isaiah 1:17 New International Version (NIV)

17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.

Proverbs 31:8 New International Reader’s Version (NIRV)

Speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves.
    Speak up for the rights of all those who are poor.

 

I can fight for what others (e.g., my kids) need all day long. But if I’m honest, miscarriages would utterly destroy me. God knew what I could handle.

God knew beforehand this was going to be my life, so I’m fully prepped to fight, love and pray my way through the hard times.

Maybe I just need to focus a little more on being thankful I’m equipped for this life, instead of wishing for someone else’s battle.

 

 

Isaiah 58:6-11, NIRV

Set free those who are held by chains without any reason.
    Untie the ropes that hold people as slaves.
Set free those who are crushed.
    Break every evil chain.

Share your food with hungry people.
    Provide homeless people with a place to stay.
Give naked people clothes to wear.
    Provide for the needs of your own family.

Then the light of my blessing will shine on you like the rising sun.
    I will heal you quickly.
I will march out ahead of you.
    And my glory will follow behind you and guard you.
    That’s because I always do what is right.

You will call out to me for help.
    And I will answer you.
You will cry out.
    And I will say, ‘Here I am.’

 Get rid of the chains you use to hold others down.
    Stop pointing your finger at others as if they had done something wrong.
    Stop saying harmful things about them.

Work hard to feed hungry people.
    Satisfy the needs of those who are crushed.
Then my blessing will light up your darkness.
    And the night of your suffering will become as bright as the noonday sun.

 I will always guide you.
    I will satisfy your needs in a land baked by the sun.
    I will make you stronger.
You will be like a garden that has plenty of water.
    You will be like a spring whose water never runs dry.

 

 

 

Guilty

Continued from Desolate

When the kids first came to live with us, I clocked three to four hours of sleep a night. The girl wailed until after midnight; the boy woke screaming around in the wee hours.

Every. Single. Day.

The initial sleep deprivation lasted about six months; four months for social services (still the legal guardian) to approve meds and two more months for the doctor to find the correct dose.

I still remember the relief I felt the first morning after we found the right combination, waking around 6 instead of 4 am.

I’d forgotten how it felt. September brought it all rushing back.

This time, I think, was worse.

Digressing a bit: I’ve had a recent epiphany that I experienced almost no change in stamina from the time I was seventeen. Until now.

Sometime this year, I looked in the mirror and realized I am no longer twenty-seven. Or thirty-seven, for that matter. Am I too old for a ponytail? 

Apparently, up to this point my brain has been convinced I’m a decade younger, and the shock of realizing I am OH NO middle-aged was a bit too much.

This time, sleep deprivation almost killed me.

Ok, that’s hyperbole.

But I was beyond exhausted. By the end of September, I started telling Hubby I might like a weekend in the acute center, if they actually had white padded rooms available. 48 hours sleeping in a soundproof room…sounds like heaven.

Unfortunately, checking myself in at one of those places wasn’t an actual option. Hubby took over on weekends and let me nap as much as possible while he was home.

Finally, after weeks of phone calls and meetings and waiting, we got the approval call from the treatment center.

Because we were concerned about what our son might do if we informed him ahead of time, I packed him a suitcase during the night. I crept into his room and slipped his stuffed dog from under his arm. The next day, as we drove to the treatment facility, we explained.

  1. We are not counselors or psychiatrists; we have researched and prepared as much as possible, but we are not trained to provide the care you need.

  2. We care very much about you and want to give you the best chance to succeed in life. The people at this facility have the qualifications to help you.

  3. We are NOT giving you up, letting you go, abandoning you or sending you away.

Our son responded with little emotion.

Like I said before, you’ve tried everything. We might as well try this.

His absolute lack of reaction still stymies me.

The experience at this treatment center was a complete change from the acute center. We met the director, head nurse and several staff. While the nurse completed the intake with our son, we toured the facility.

The staff explained to our son that the initial stay would be thirty days; he perked up and I watched determination firm his jaw.

At the time, we didn’t realize this would become a problem.

He thought if he could “act good” for thirty days, they’d release him. And he decided to make it happen. 

He hugged us goodbye without a tear, then walked through the metal door with a staff member. It closed behind him with a heavy thud.

We walked to the car.

I expected to feel guilt at leaving him with strangers.

I expected to feel great sadness at leaving him behind. For almost seven years, we’d been four. Now, at least temporarily, we were three.

I expected to feel lonely, to feel his absence, to experience a boy-shaped hole in my existence.

I expected to feel that I was a failure as a mother, having not been enough to help him.

But here I must admit: I felt nothing but relief.

I truly believed the people in that building would be able to help him in a way Hubby and I could not. I knew we weren’t leaving him permanently; we would, soon enough, once again be four. I understood that I’d exhausted every possibility available, turned over every proverbial stone.

As for missing him—maybe this sounds awful, but…I didn’t.

My only source of guilt: the relief at being able to relax.

No checking every thirty seconds. No worrying whether he’d wake before I did. No concern about destruction or harm to property or living creature (including his sister) if my visit to the loo lasted an extra minute.

The first three days after drop off, I slept like the dead.

A week later, Hubby looked ten years younger.

And the nurse called to tell me our son was the best behaved child in the center.

He is so polite. He is kind to everyone. I wish they were all just like your son.

I was gobsmacked. Flabbergasted. Shocked.

How could this be the same child?

Until now, I’d never realized how determined he could be.

Guess how long that dogged kid kept it up.

Desolate

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Photo credit: Dustin Spengler

Continued from Excruciating Ride, Part 2

If you asked for a one-word description of my internal landscape during early fall, I would use the word desolate.

Desolate, synonyms: miserable, despondent, depressed, disconsolate, devastated, despairing, inconsolable, broken-hearted, grief-stricken, crushed, bereft

Dark storms on the horizon and a long, lonely road ahead.

His six-day stint in acute psychiatric care only seemed to magnify his behaviors. He literally came home worse than when he left. Although he fed us lies about some aspects, we observed serious lack of supervision in the acute facility. He came home with a softball-sized bruise on his arm from playing a “punching game.” Roll the dice, the other kids punch you. Granted, there’s a good chance he willingly participated, but there’s no reasonable explanation for kids getting away with that kind of assault under true supervision.

He hid his shoes in the gym and blamed another child (we found out after); they still hadn’t found the shoes when we came to pick him up, so they led him outside in stocking feet. The nurse couldn’t fathom why we were upset. It never occurred to anyone that perhaps a pair of flip-flops (or a call home so we could bring shoes) might be necessary.

Peripheral concerns like these made us more concerned about the true level of care and supervision at the center. We began to hear stories from other families whose children had bad experiences and became determined to keep him safe at home until we could find a better solution.

I slept about 4 hours a night, making sure he was sound asleep before I went to bed and waking before he stirred. Thankfully, Hubby made it possible for me to stay home starting mid-summer (as we were planning to homeschool). I don’t know how I’d have survived trying to work as well as fully supervise the boy.

We instructed the girl to stay out of his way as much as possible. It was now early September, so each day included school work; he generally complied with the intent of “beating” his sister. Normally I discourage competition, but in this case it kept him focused so I didn’t fight it. Surviving the day was my only goal.

After schoolwork completion and some time in the yard to run around (and outside the fifteen hours of time per week with the in-home counselor, psychiatrist and office-visit counselor), I allowed him to play with Legos or let the two kids watch movies (a complete anomaly; our normal TV schedule included almost no screen time other than a Friday night movie). The only time I could guarantee no violence were the minutes his eyes were glued to the “bug light.”

Meanwhile, I spent hours on the phone with our insurance company, the social workers, a county government team and his in-home counselor. I called and researched longer-term psychiatric facilities within 6 hours of our home. Most wouldn’t take him as they were not considered locked facilities. They couldn’t protect other children from him, and they couldn’t prevent him from running away or hurting himself.

I prayed we could find a place for him; Hubby and I were completely exhausted. He took over much of the supervision in the evening so I could get a shower and make dinner, which meant he was basically working two jobs.

Finally, I found a facility within reasonable driving distance. As I researched further, I found that the original trauma counselor who saw our family in the beginning of our journey wrote the program for the facility and continued to consult with them. They utilized Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, something we’d been advised to pursue.

Every conversation gave us more certainty this would be our best option.

 

Continued…

Roller Coaster

Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson

Riding a roller coaster with my brother is one of my favorite childhood memories. Whenever we could, we stayed late at the amusement park; as long as no one waited in the queue for our seat, the coaster operator allowed us to ride again. We rode so many times we lost count. Once, we even rode in the rain, drops pricking our skin like thousands of tiny needles.

Thanks to amazing guts of steel, we never puked. (I consider this a point of personal pride.)

Hubby and I choose to ride a different kind of roller coaster. Again and again. Every. Single. Day.

Sometimes the coaster is fabulous; other times, the ride makes us queasy, but we opt to stay on.

The summer of 2016 included a few twists and surprise dips but generally kept us smiling and laughing with hands in the air. We thought we’d turned a corner; both the girl and the boy seemed happy and well-adjusted. Together, we camped, traveled, sang along in church (what we lacked in pitch, we made up in enthusiasm) and did everything “regular” families do.

The kids weren’t perfect—and neither were we—but most of the time, we just enjoyed being together. Hubby and I finally exhaled and let go of the “this can’t last” feeling.

I often joke with Hubby that “normal” is just a setting on the dryer, but I won’t lie…it was nice to feel normal for a while.

After so many steep climbs and drops, riding our coaster around gentle curves was a welcome change.

Then the summer ended.

Dark storm clouds gathered. The coaster dive was sharp, deep and straight through a painful downpour.

We aren’t sure of the triggers, but every October for the last six years—right after Halloween—negative behaviors spiked sharply in both kids. In 2016, they didn’t wait for October. As soon as school started, they both had an immediate personality flip. By November, we had plumbed our expertise and found ourselves hitting bottom. They didn’t respond to any consequence, positive or negative.

His behavior at school spiraled out of control.

Her Reactive Attachment exploded into full bloom at home.

The roller coaster fell into a series of spirals and drops, and life flipped from “normal” to “triage” without warning.

 

H E Double Hockeysticks

 

Scout Tent

Photo by Patsy Wooters

Since June, I’ve wanted needed to write about what’s going on but felt I should wait for perspective.

Some words should stay in my head. 

In June, I was ready to toss in the proverbial towel. Actually, I wanted to fling the towel. And maybe some other things.

At my kid.

We’ve found that when he’s in line of sight of a parent, our guy tends to have great behavior.

The problem starts about thirty seconds after we’re gone.

We can’t leave him alone with other adults (he won’t listen) or kids, and he simply does whatever he wants.

The first week after school ended, our son was scheduled to attend Scout camp for a week.

I was concerned; he’d been generally out of control the entire school year. After a 45-minute explanation of our boy’s background and behavior, the Scoutmaster assured me of his ability to wrangle uber-hormonal psycho creatures (aka pre-teen boys) and made me feel a bit silly for doubting his superior ability to handle our kid.

In hindsight, I should have listened to my misgivings; he’d been to camp before but never without his sister or Hubby. In this case, he was surrounded by older boys, most of whom he’d annoyed at some point. Although he brings it on himself in most cases, being “targeted” (in his mind) by older boys sparks flashbacks, which feed his aggressive behavior.

Upon arrival, he found that his expected tent mate would arrive a day late due to incomplete paperwork. To prevent any possible new bunk mates joining him, he urinated on the wooden tent platform.

Although it was his own doing, sleeping alone in a tent in the dark woods left him disgruntled. By the time his pal arrived, he wanted revenge.

He started a game of Cops & Robbers (that’s still a thing?) but got upset when two “officers” slammed our little “cat burglar” against a tree for resisting arrest. He then suggested a dirt clod fight (which the other boys were enthusiastic to join). Our guy became enraged when his intended tent buddy, in a clear betrayal (at least in our boy’s mind), hit him in the head.

“I’m going to kill you!” he yelled, before running a quarter mile into the woods.

Upon returning to camp, he found that it was his turn to wait tables at dinner and he would have to serve the table including his turncoat Brutus. Screaming obscenities, he ran back into the woods.

A week of camping turned to three days, as the seasoned Scoutmaster called to inform me he could not adequately provide supervision for our child.

I understood.

Unfortunate timing, as I was out of state with our daughter, five hours away. I’d intended this to be a week off for Hubby to take some time for himself after months of non-stop projects at home and work.

When I called Hubby to relay the news, he was almost home. He works 20 minutes from the camp. We live an hour from the camp. He turned around to retrieve our son and sat in accident traffic. For FOUR hours. So much for time to relax.

If only the boy could have had his incident an hour earlier…

 

 

So began the summer from h-e-double-hockeysticks.

 

Tougher than Expected

“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. 

Each slat. 

Both sides. 

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?”

Exactly.

Bad

I live in a room

The door is locked

My mother is on the other side

I have a blanket

It’s okay

I’m okay

Sometimes I sleep

Sometimes my mother brings me food

So I eat

Sometimes I poop in the corner bucket

Mostly I wait

One day, strangers open the door

One is a lady

This is bad, she says

Very bad

Very very bad, the others nod

I look around at my room

My room is okay

Do they mean me?

Am I very very bad?

Police come to my room

Police get bad guys

This is bad, they say

Very, very bad

And then they get me

I never knew I was bad

They don’t take me to jail but almost

There are other kids

The lady screams at us

BE QUIET!

BE STILL!

STOP PULLING ON THE DOOR!

She sits on me

I’LL TEACH YOU. BE STILL!

I bite

The stranger lady comes back

She takes me to a new place

No biting! Be good, okay?

Biting is bad.

Very, very bad.

This house is cold

I don’t know these people, another strange lady and a man

The man is loud and big

I hide from him

Come here, let’s see who they brought!

The lady laughs

Poor thing.

Why does she think I’m poor?

He reaches under the table

I swing my fists and crawl away

He grabs my foot and drags me out

He is laughing, too

Tough little man, we just want to see you.

I kick my other foot and uh oh blood everywhere

He stops laughing

She yells and brings ice for his nose

STAY under there, then!

Ungrateful brat.

The lady comes back, rolling her eyes

At the next house she says

Watch out he kicks and bites.

He’s wild, like an animal.

There is a big boy here

He says he’ll kill me in my sleep

I scream and scream

His mother says

SHUT THE HELL UP!

He hits my head every day

For months

He pinches

And touches

And makes me

NO

He will kill me if don’t

Or if I tell

This is too much

I slam his head into a wall

And kick and kick and kick him when he falls

The stranger lady moves me again

She says

This one’s violent.

Watch him.

I don’t understand any of this

These people are strangers, too

They smile and try to hold my hand

I just want to be safe

Don’t touch me.

I will not be sat on

Or dragged

Or hit

Or touched

Or scared

I will keep them all away with my spiky mean

No one will ever hurt me again

I am bad

I am very, very bad

 

***

I wrote this one day as I tried to imagine early life through our son’s eyes. He was a wild, screaming child when he and his sister arrived.

He came to us terrified and determined to keep himself safe, a need that still causes him to struggle to interact with others, to sleep and to feel secure.

As he grew more able to articulate his memories, much of his behavior became understandable, even when apparently unreasonable.

Hubby and I work hard to soothe his terror and tame his PTSD.

Give Up

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Photo credit: imelda

This has been the year from heck, educationally speaking.

Thank God for our Assistant Principal. Not only is he adopted himself, he also has an incredible ability to empathize with trauma kids and understand kids with special needs.

If only the IEP team members were all so gifted.

Several times this year, I requested meetings to discuss our boy’s classroom behavior (which is unconventional but explainable when one takes the time to see through his eyes). His Autism Spectrum Disorder has begun to shine through with amazing beauty—or a vengeance, depending upon your perspective.

I requested a one-to-one behavioral aide, which he’s had in the past but never with this particular school. The aide gave him an extra layer of self-control by monitoring the situation for triggers, then reminding him to focus.

We’re lining up for lunch. Other children will be close to you and may touch you. This is okay. You’re perfectly safe.

or

Sitting quietly during testing is important. You’ll need to focus. No chirping, squeaking or other noises. I’ll give you a check mark for every minute you are silent.

This didn’t always work and we went through several aides before finding the right fit, but by the end of first grade we were able to phase out the aide. In fifth, he regressed. We weren’t at physical-aggression-because-I’m-angry level anymore, but his self-management went out the window by the end of September.

There is much to be said for personality match when pairing a teacher with a special needs child. We had stellar matches for him in third and fourth grade; I credit his teachers for the incredible leaps he made both in social and educational arenas.

The fifth grade teacher is a GREAT teacher. Neurotypical kids probably adore her.

But she’s not a personality match for my son, and he’s not a match for her. No one is at fault; it’s just the way things are.

Part of the struggle, I believe, is a simple lack of exposure. Maybe she’s never had a Spectrum kid in her classroom.

Thanks to trial and error, the fourth grade teacher found that putting him in a desk by himself—in the corner with fewest articles on the walls—helped him focus. He began participating more fully in spite of the separation she perceived as potentially problematic.

I suggested (and the school psychologist agreed) that the fifth grade teacher should do the same. Until then, she’d kept her classroom desks in groups of four or five. One of the daily points of contention happened when another child touched his things (inevitable at close range, because his desk tended to overflow). The teacher disagreed with the tactic but said she would comply with the group consensus.

Arriving in the classroom to drop off supplies about a week later, I found that she had placed his desk alone, as asked, but IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROOM, allowing for three-hundred-sixty degrees of incoming stimulation. Anyone with experience would never consider the middle of the room a viable spot for a kid with ASD.

Our boy is focused on the end result. Consequential forethought is rare; he almost never thinks about how his choices may affect others.

For instance: a friend told him that when he stamps his foot, his shoes light up. He neglected to provide a demonstration. Our guy thought about those lights all day. His impulse control held fast until about thirty minutes prior to pickup. He couldn’t take it anymore. The light-up-shoes called his name.

He ran up and stamped the kid’s foot.

The teacher wrote me a note, stating he had “viciously kicked” another child. Write-up, suspension.

He came home with a packet of papers to complete. He sat in a chair all day and worked (and got almost everything correct).

For this kid, suspension = joy.

He can learn and do his work with no distractions.

About two weeks later, our girl was home sick. Boy wanted to stay home as well. No fever, so off he went.

I sent a note to the teacher and left a message for the assistant principal, letting them know he may be out of sorts or pretend to be ill because he really wanted to be at home.

Thirty minutes into the school day, he pulled a chair out from under another child. He truly didn’t think about whether the child would be hurt (thankfully not); he just figured that if stamping a kid’s foot sent him home, this should also do the trick.

After a phone conference with the Assistant Principal, we agreed on after-school suspension for several days, to prevent a rash of must-find-a-way-to-get-suspended behaviors.

Again, I called a meeting, explaining (for the millionth-ish time) my request for a one-to-one behavioral aide. An aide could help him process the situation. Could see—as I often must—the potential issues and prevent a problem.

For instance, the behavioral aide would have noted he left his desk and immediately required him to sit back down. He would have never made it halfway across the room in the first place, much less had the opportunity to pull out the kid’s chair.

The aide could walk him to-and-from class, preventing the spark of hallway chaos from lighting his trigger fuse. Might recognize hyper-stimulation and ameliorate his angst before it ballooned into behaviors.

The IEP team, in spite of my pleas, turned down my request because

he’s not failing.

In fact, he’s doing quite well.

He’s “unable to focus,” he “refuses to participate” and “doesn’t follow along with the class,” yet his grades are above average.

And because we must keep him in the “least restrictive environment” for his needs, this precludes the need for a behavioral aide.

When they announced the reason, I stared in shock.

You’re telling me that he constantly distracts the class, he’s not able to focus or self-manage, he doesn’t know the material, he can’t get along with others and he’s a problem that must be solved, but you won’t allow me to procure a one-to-one aide because his grades are too good.

Yes, that’s exactly what they were saying.

And so,

I Give Up.

Not on my kid, and not on his education.

And I’m sure as heck not telling him this:

I give up stressing about his classroom behavior.

 

Sometimes, the only thing left to do is give it up.

Because

you have to let go of what’s in your hands before you can pick up anything else.

And because sometimes,

moving on to the next thing is more important. 

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