Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Happy Sad

T was home for a visit for a long weekend. The visit was pre-arranged, and it was just going to be a fun one. But five days before he was to arrive, I got a call. He was sobbing and couldn't speak. Eventually, it emerged that his younger brother (we'll call him "E") who is disabled, and has been on probation for two years now, had gotten into a fight, and was headed back to court and had cut himself in an agony of frustration. This is the latest chapter in a gut-wrenchingly tragic childhood for E. T managed to reach his brother's case worker and arranged a visit. So that's what we did on his weekend at home.

It was a happy/sad day of a sort of which we've had several over the years. The circumstances could not have been more distressing. The probation facility where E lives is harsh: a county facility (known as a "camp" though it's in a far-from-idyll industrial inner-city neighborhood) where children come and go in orange jumpsuits, with their ankles and wrists in shackles. It is, in short, a prison. E is obviously disabled, with a long, long history of special education and intensive mental health services, and yet his "crimes" (all of them panicked acts of self-defense as he's made his way through various foster, and then probation, group homes) have led him to spend nearly two years now in probation department custody. He is easily led, a frequent target of bullies. He is trapped in a downward spiral, as his weak capacity for self-control mitigates against "working his program" to the satisfaction of the authorities. He is also a clown, and he has the most beautiful singing voice I've ever heard in person. You could go crazy thinking about it.

T and I went in together, and the visit was supervised by E's therapist. T, who is "parentified" to use the clinical term, launched into his usual bossy lecture, posturing as an expert advisor to his brother, his nervousness and sadness adding to his agitated energy. But E loves T so dearly, and he is protected by a supreme sense of humor. At one point, he got restless from being lectured and rolled his eyes. "I think what T is trying to say is that he loves you," I offered. His laugh of recognition lit up the room.

The boys visited for over an hour, until the therapist said she had to sign off. E asked if he could sing us a song before we left. At first, he was shy, and T was embarrassed. We stumbled through a Temptations song. Then E stood up, in order to sing better. He asked us to give him some rhythm by snapping our fingers. Then he sang a version of "Lean on Me" so beautiful, the self-consciousness of both boys evaporated on the spot. T dropped the pretense of adulthood and rocked to the rhythm and sang along softly.

E is one of those unusual people whose physical and social awkwardness disappears completely in the grip of his gift. It was like watching an amphibian that lurches on land slip into the water to reveal a fluid, graceful second self. That was how we ended the visit. T squirmed and chattered with relief all the way home. He saw and heard E's soul, intact and it made him whole again.

Thursday, May 23, 2013


Lately, and rather suddenly, T has taken to referring to me as his mom. I truly never really cared - my role was clear enough, regardless of how he referred to me. But I did find it interesting, and wondered what was going on inside.

After all, he has been living away from home, taking community college classes in another city and living with a friend of our family, for six months now. He's stretched and emphasized new aspects of his personality in that time, in magnificent ways. He is wearing new clothes, doing new things, eating new kinds of food, and thinking new thoughts. He is going through a confident, happy phase. At the same time, he talks openly about his pain regarding his younger brother, who is caught up in the probation system. And he calls me now and then when he has an anxiety attack. We chat, while he walks it off, gets something in his stomach, waits it out. I see him becoming all of himself, finding ways for the pain and the happiness to accommodate each other in the day to day, growing into the profound honesty and awareness his life requires of him while allowing himself to have fun. He amazes me.

I thought perhaps his choice to use "mom" of late was made casually. He has always referred to us as "parents" - a word he chose deliberately, when he first came to live with us. He would even introduce me that way: "This is my parent, Lulu." It made sense - he knows his birth mother, and I've spoken to her myself. He's always referred to her as his mom, although he's never lived with her. But "parent" was a role nobody had really played in his life for quite some time.

But anyway, lately, we'd noticed him referring to us as "mom" and "dad" in conversations with other people. This was new. Perhaps it was just easy, now that he no longer lives at home, and he's meeting new people and doesn't need to explain his back story. However, T is rarely casual about anything, and on Mother's Day this year, he gave me a peek inside his heart. He sent me a text that read: "Happy Mother's Day. Thank you for filling the spot my mom wasn't able to. You have been doing a great job of being my mom and I thank you for that. I love you so much."

I was beyond touched, of course. I was dizzy with love, not only because this was an exquisite expression of appreciation and totally unexpected; I was also so awed by him, as I often have been, for choosing his words so carefully, expressing himself so clearly, and for showing his birth mom so much respect, in the same gesture that encompassed me. We are his moms, and I love him for understanding that she simply could not be present for him. That is a source of unspeakable pain, and yet he refers to it so gently. There is really so little rage in his personality, sometimes he astonishes me completely. Where you expect to find it, often, instead, there are bottomless pools of wisdom.

My grandmother always told me you should never date a man who didn't respect his own mother. If that's the sign of a good man, then a man who can respect ALL of his mothers must be truly great.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

In Between

For awhile, recently, T was mad at me. I turned his phone off, because he was abusing the privilege of having me pay for it. I gave him a week's warning, gave him a clear way to rectify the problem, and when he did not, I shut the phone off, leaving him clear instructions about how to resume service under his own name, should he choose to pay for it. I explained why I was doing it, and that I loved him and what behavior I wanted to see. I felt okay about it, as a decision. But I did miss him, because for awhile, he was mad at me.

He's over it now. I sent him an "Easter basket" of his favorite candy, which I ordered delivery from the local grocery store. He loved it, and photographed it to post on Facebook. He takes pleasure in us knowing him so well. We had a nice talk last night. He's started work, and he's using his first paycheck to get a new phone. (I pay his rent and his groceries, so I feel like that's fair.) He's going to a formal dance later this month and he'd like me to come visit to help him get ready for the dance. He's excited about us picking out his tie, his socks, the corsage for his date.

I thought I'd be kind of lost when he went away to college. I wasn't--I was happy to have time to work late, go to the gym, eat more carefully. But I do miss him, and think about him every day, and he misses us at times too. It's interesting to learn what it means to maintain attachment across distance, for me and for him. For me, it means that I have to let go of so much, even though I still worry about him every day. For him, he's got to figure out what it means to have parents once you are a legal adult no longer at home.

He kind of got robbed, finding permanent parents so late in his childhood, after 15 years in foster care. I'm not sure he was quite ready to grow up, but it happened anyway. To make matters more complicated, I imagine that growing up in multiple foster care placements, it was traumatic to try to maintain attachments to those you could no longer see on a daily basis. I think he tried hard to shut down any feelings of longing or absence while he endured those many years bouncing around in foster care. This new situation is a big one for him--the first time he has ever had the freedom to choose his destiny, including where and how to live. I know he can feel its gravity, and his own uncertain promise while he adjusts to this place in between childhood and adulthood.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Two Things Can Be True At the Same Time

I was a philosophy major and I recall that one day in class, the professor stated the obvious: two things can both be true at the same time. Further, two apparently contradictory things can both be true at the same time.

For some reason, that simple thought has stuck with me. I suppose I find it a useful meditation, a reminder that we only ever apprehend partial truths, and for that reason, it helps to be open to the fact that what we can hold in our mind may appear to point in conflicting directions.

Well, fast forward and now I am the parent of a 19-year-old who is living away from home, attending college. And, wow, more than one thing is simultaneously true!

On the one hand, he is attending classes, spending time with family friends of ours who live nearby, making new friends and experimenting with independence. He is gaining a fuller sense of himself and the world. In so many regards, he appears to be just about where one expects a college freshman to be. He is doing what he set out to do, and I am proud of him for that.

At the same time, he has a formidable substance abuse problem. He's been experimenting with new, illegal ways to get money for drugs. And just recently, we formulated an emergency mental health plan and shared it with a good friend in his vicinity as his behavior was sending warning signs to those who are closest to him. So all is not "well."

How is he doing? I'm often asked, and t's hard to answer that question. To most people, I just say he's doing well and I'm very proud of him. And that is absolutely the case. In my heart, I know that he is working so hard to have even this fragile opportunity in life, despite overwhelming odds. In my heart, I never expected his young adulthood to be easy. Kids with an early and middle childhood like his have an astonishing rate of homelessness, addiction, suicide, prostitution, and incarceration. It was hard enough getting him to high school graduation that we would have been naive to regard his early forays into independence without trepidation.

To be frank, I would rather he committed to a year-long substance abuse treatment program than that he finish his freshman year of college. The consequences of his substance abuse continue to mount, and while he stays just this side of serious legal trouble and prison, it would be naive not to recognize the inherent danger in his self-limiting and occasionally self-destructive choices. He knows I would like him to reengage with treatment. But it's his decision.

He is neither good nor bad, and this period of his life is neither a success nor a failure. He is both independent and unusually (for his age) dependent. His life is both full of promise and marked by despair. I am neither a good parent nor a poor one. And the future is neither bright nor bleak. Or perhaps it is both, depending how you look at it. In any case, more than one thing is true at the same time.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Things come together and fall apart

Lately, I've noticed that I've become more anxious, due to both my thyroid medication and the more mundane realities of middle age. I've always tended toward a slight and useful paranoia, but circumstance and hormones have tipped the balance and I am substantially more prone to worry than I used to be. Although I've come through a disruptive bout with thyroid cancer pretty well, it left me with the lingering feeling that if anyone were to look too hard, we'd probably find some more bad news. I don't get through the routine mammogram as breezily as I used to, and the other night I woke up from a sound sleep with the distinct thought that, just based on age and statistics, my life (at least the active part of it) was probably more than half over, which was not a soothing thought. I am sure I am quite typical of American adults in their forties.

I'd like to quell the emotional edginess of my newfound perspective (or lack thereof), and at the same time, I'm aware that it's a fairly frank response to reality. As the Buddhist Shunryu Suzuki Roshi once said, "Life is like getting into a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink."

My fretfulness does not make me a better parent, but it does make me more like T, who is a world-class worrywart. Just today, he walked into the bathroom and said with absolute seriousness "What are we going to do when I'm not here to remind you to brush your teeth EVERY morning?!" Yesterday, he told me three times "Do not forget to lock the front door behind me after I leave!" The day before that, while we were packing for a short vacation, he must have asked Tim and I a dozen times "Is there ANYTHING we forgot? ANYTHING AT ALL?!"

Selfishly, I find this relaxing and a little bit comic (my thyroid medication compromises my short-term memory, and I'm embarrassed to admit that his post-traumatic stress-induced hypervigilance works out rather nicely sometimes!). There's little likelihood I'll overlook some obvious risk, so vigilant is he in alerting me to life's potential hazards. But I feel for the guy. It's no wonder he has a hard time giving up his beloved marijuana!

We had a nice weekend trip with T and his bestfriend, with whom he shares a very similar life story. Together, they create an odd atmosphere, both innocent and mournful, but they love each other best perhaps because they let each other ebb and flow and never let a stormy mood interfere with their absolute loyalty to one another. I think they are a bit ahead of me on the path to enlightenment, as obvious as their struggles are. (In fact, I have often wondered that T must be a particularly advanced being, because the universe seems to have conspired to hurl at him an epic and ceaseless array of thunderbolts from the moment he was born, while all it's really dealt me was an ordinary midlife crisis!)

Listening to them chat casually about this childhood disaster and that one, I was struck by their advanced awareness of loss. The lesson I am learning now--that I can't control or predict the future, that inevitably, everything I have and love will be lost or change--took a long time to sink in. Dumb luck made me arrogant; I became accustomed to having and holding on to what I wanted for myself. But T and others like him knew the truth very well a long time ago; through no action of their own, they've lost their mothers and their fathers, as well as numerous homes, many friendships, and most opportunities to experience a "normal" childhood. (While we were driving to the mountains, T's bestfriend casually said to me "This is so great- I was never allowed to go on trips like this when I was in foster care, because I had to get permission for everything from my social worker, and if was up to her, nobody would ever be allowed to even talk to me without being fingerprinted first.") Yet they manage to get up every day and take the next shaky step on their path, and listening to them together, it's impossible not to notice their open-heartedness.

Which brings me to another bit of Buddhist perspective, two quotes from the writer Pema Chodron that, together, capture my thoughts about bonding with and parenting an older traumatized kid. She writes, "Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others."

And further, "We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy."

I'd say that only a grasp of those two ideas is required to make a decent foster/adoptive parent to a traumatized kid.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


This Christmas, our fourth with T, was unexpectedly peaceful. In fact, at the end of the evening last night, T came into the living room and gave me a hug. "Thank you for a good day today," he said. "I love you." A small thing but a marked contrast to years past, when T just wasn't ready to let the happy feelings flow.

I'm often struck that T, like other traumatized kids I've known, seems most uncomfortable with happiness, of all life's strong emotions. I think happiness strikes him as very risky - to be happy, or to reach out to another person with affection, is to balance on a very fine point, one where the gale force of disappointment might easily knock him over. And to be grateful, even for a small thing, is to expose need and want, and often causes him to feel that someone has gained power over him--a dangerous thing. So for these reasons, Christmas has been a bit difficult, an entire season that demands happiness and gratitude.

But not this year. I believe adoption was much more significant to him that I ever realized. It took us three years of navigating the court system to finalize his adoption, which we did just about eleven months ago. By the time we crossed the finish line, I have to admit, I mostly felt like it was a non-event. The children's welfare system in Los Angeles drew the whole thing out for so long for no particular reason save bureaucratic ineptitude that the little piece of paper making it official just ceased to feel like a goal worth having, particularly as they only forced it through on the eve of his 18th birthday.

But on the day his adoption finalized last winter, I saw a smile on his face during the final court hearing that belied his superficial nonchalance. And this Christmas, due to his advancing maturity, but also, I suspect, to the security of adoption, he was at ease in a way I haven't seen him on any holiday occasion before. This year is the first one where he elected to stay home with us for the whole holiday. In the past, by his choice, we've taken him to see his cousins with whom he lived when he was young, and we were okay with that. But this year, early on, he let us know that he'd decided to stay home for the whole holiday. He even weighed in on the foods he thought he'd like to eat, and proposed seeing a movie on Christmas Day. When he opened his gifts, he said "thank you" in a natural way.

He also made arrangements for us to visit his younger brother. In the past, we made such arrangements for him, and he got through these visits as if he were holding his breath the whole time. This year, he initiated the process, which was fairly convoluted, and required various permissions, due to his brother's circumstances. What's more, the visit had a different tone. T was visibly uncomfortable, sad, and awkward, but he allowed himself to be those things. I could hear the emotion in his voice while he struggled to make conversation, and at some point, he gave me the mournful eyes that mean "Can we wrap this up now?" So there was pain, but he managed the pain; in years past, instead of letting the pain surface, he's often become agitated, bossy, and bullying. This year, he seemed able to let himself feel the grief without turning it to rage. And his brother, because he wasn't being ribbed and roughed up by T this time, got a chance to speak for himself and to show us that he's doing well, and becoming his own person.

I love to see T mastering the art of defining what is comfortable and tolerable for him. It is so hard for any young adult to learn how to be appropriately assertive, more so, young adults who as children had little opportunity to develop a sense of personal power and deservingness. Self-assertion takes so much trust, that other people may be reasonable and willing to grant what you ask, and so much self-knowledge, to understand what you want in the first place. Because I've been his parent, I understand now that family is, at its best, an incubator for those capabilities. The shape of our Christmas holiday this year bore the imprint of his stated needs and preferences, and that made it more magical indeed.

Friday, December 7, 2012


We had an extraordinary week, with T’s bestfriend staying with us. The kids have parallel histories, both growing up in foster care in south LA, and then landing, in their early teenage years, with new and similar parents; he came to live with us, and she moved to a new home about twelve blocks away, where the female half of the parental unit actually has the same first name that I have, making the coincidence even more odd and wildly amusing to the kids. Lately, bestfriend’s living situation is in transition, and her parents are traveling, so she came to stay for a bit.

Having her in the house was an eye-opening experience. On day two, when it became clear that she might be staying with us for awhile, I invited her to claim the large sofa in the living room as her own, and to unpack her bags. She didn’t lose a moment--soon her clothes were neatly folded at one end of the L-shaped sofa, and she’d made her bed at the other. On the floor nearby she had her essential papers, (kids who’ve spent much time in foster care seem so often to travel with a sheaf of essential paperwork – everything from their birth certificate to their recent children’s court documentation and even the life histories they are often encouraged to create with their social workers). 

At first, given my own conventional habits around hosting guests, I felt compelled to chat with her as I passed through the living room headed to and from the kitchen, and I like her, so doing so was easy. But after a day or so, I realized that she had taken my offer of personal space quite literally, and that when she was on the sofa, she was “in her room”, so to speak. There was an invisible wall there, and she didn’t mind at all if we passed through without making niceties. Unlike T, she seemed to enjoy a lot of quiet alone time, and she was often lost in deep thought. When she was hungry or wanted to chat, she let us know, and then we’d share some time. She was pensive and polite, except when a topic riled her, and then she was animated and fiery.

Her presence was like itching powder to T. He loves her with a deep devotion, but he went bananas. He wouldn’t spend time with her. He left the house to visit friends without inviting her to go with him. He made fun of her hair, and tried to irritate her on purpose, preying purposefully on her vulnerabilities. He refused food, just to avoid sharing the table with her, and insulted everyone as often as possible.

Around day four, my mother called, and I told her that we had a houseguest. “How is T doing with that?” she asked carefully. “Terrible!” I said, suddenly realizing that I had overlooked the obvious. “Now that you mention it, he’s been a monster!” Of course – any experienced mother would have seen, we were dealing with sibling rivalry on a level more often seen in a much younger child. He did not want to share. Not his grape juice, and certainly not his parents or his home.

By day five, a cloud of depression had settled over our home. Both kids kept to themselves. Both began to sleep long hours. Bestfriend shared that she was experiencing some grief around the long separation she’d endured earlier in her childhood from her birth family and her confusion about those feelings. T’s exaggerated emotional radar picked up on her grief, of course, and began to mirror it. It was as if their feelings were contagious and created an endless, ungovernable feedback loop. The atmospheric pressure began to drop, as if an emotional tornado were headed our way.

By day six, our house was in chaos. People were storming in and out. Voices were rising. T was so irritable and provocative that nobody could be in the room with him for more than a few minutes. He was unceasingly restless and increasingly self-destructive. His substance abuse, ever-present like a chronic illness that rises and falls, grew worse. Nobody could stand to be around him, and when he was out, we worried more than usual.

By day eight, T and I were barely on speaking terms. I was so frustrated I failed to resist shaming him. I had intended to set boundaries and protect myself from his extraordinary acting out, but I was overwhelmed.  My own raw unprocessed emotions were contributing to the toxic atmosphere.

By day nine, the shit hit the fan, so to speak. T tried to lecture me about being a bad parent without atoning for some notable misdeeds of his own. I had an exhausted moment of rude candor where I told him with more emotional precision than was truly required how he was making me feel. He ran into his room and wrote a dramatic poem that he then ran back and read to us in our room (which is, I should note, something he has made an occasional habit of doing over the years, when he needs to communicate). We listened, thanked him for sharing his true feelings, and retreated for an hour of adult time to regain ourselves.

When we returned, we found a two-page letter in tiny handwriting from T, describing in painfully articulate exactitude the confusion he felt. He explained that he had long struggled with hating himself and feeling horribly guilty about his brother who is very disabled and has had a very hard time of it lately in the juvenile justice system. He described the terrible pressure he puts on himself to build himself up, become successful, save his brother, and prove himself a hero and not a failure. He described his agony at displeasing us. We read the letter, and for a moment, he let me cradle his head, and kiss him on his ear, and tell him that none of this was the end of the world.

Ever empathetic, his bestfriend, who had been close at hand throughout, then invited us all to watch an inspirational TED video about a woman who recovered from her struggles with addiction and went on to establish a youth empowerment program. At this point, the rarified theatrical atmosphere of our small home had started to seem absurdly funny, as if we were all in a stage play, perhaps Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, if it had been about, not middle-aged alcoholic academia, but older child adoption, teen drama, and the aftermath of childhood trauma.

As soon as the video was done, T asked her to fire up his favorite Motown oldies, and the kids danced around and sang loudly together for awhile. Then they colored a picture of a flower (T loves to color in coloring books, strictly botanicals, to calm himself, and he colors with great veracity and deep attention akin to meditation) and slipped it under the door of our neighbor, a glamorous fashion designer on whom he has long had a crush. She slipped a very sweet and appropriate reply under our door just a few minutes later.

At this point, nearly catatonic with the extraordinary emotional range of the evening, Tim and I retired to our room to stare at the wall and wonder at our lives. Never far behind, T found us. He wasn’t sure he wanted to talk, he mostly just wanted to stare at us for a few minutes to reset our connection, as is his unique habit.

I did gently inquire whether he had noticed that he tends to get depressed around the holidays, and observed that when he is depressed, he tends to act out like he’s got ants in his pants, as if to outpace what’s haunting him.

“As you tell me that, I feel very funny inside,” he said, gesturing to his heart, or maybe his stomach (perhaps both at the same time), looking at me with his huge, mournful eyes. “That’s enough truth. We don’t have to talk about it anymore.”

Fair enough.

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