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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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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…

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