Long time no blog, because the back-to-school season and a busy phase at work kept my fingers from my keyboard.
Back-to-school: a mixed blessing for sure. We don't need to fill T.'s days. On the other hand, he's a junior in high school in a big city with lots of opportunities to get up to his business and a certain fragility in terms of his self-esteem.
Last Monday, we busted him leaving for school with a Coke bottle full of vodka and orange juice. How did we find this out? Well, we read his text messages. Imagine my horror when I discovered a text letting his friends know he'd be bringing some vodka 'n orange for an early morning rendezvous. Imagine how much I kicked myself for even having vodka in the house! Until now, he has been entirely averse to alcohol (but not marijuana), but it was stupid to have it around.
Had this happened last year, we would have freaked out completely. We're becoming more seasoned. After he left the house, we actually kind of shrugged and sat down to our morning coffee before thinking about whether he needs rehab or just a good grounding. In part, we've learned to manage our reactions better in order to preserve our own health and sanity. Adopting a teenager can be like going from zero to 100 mph without a period of adjustment and the g-force occasionally leaves us limp. Panic is the enemy, and no good for our partnership either.
I still didn't have the answer when I got home from work that evening. T was playing video games quietly in the tv room. I decided to just wing it. I went it, sat down close to him, and said "I think you left for school this morning with vodka in your orange juice. I don't want to argue about whether that is or isn't true. I just really want to hear from you why you did that. I'm worried and I need to understand what's going on."
He turned to me with his huge round eyes. He had a gentle sad expression. "I don't know why I did it," he said. He's not a particularly good liar, nor a particularly manipulative child. He looked genuinely quizzical. I said, "Were you angry? Have you been drinking before school? Did you hope that I'd notice?"
"I haven't been drinking," he said. "This was the first time. But my behavior has always been a problem. I don't know why. I do good in my classes, but I behave badly." He really does talk like this sometimes - in part, the "system" as he calls it taught him to be self-critical in this way. But it's also part of his personality.
"Why do you think that is?" I asked.
He made his puzzled face. Then he said softly, "I think about so many things. Like my mom is never going to talk to me again. And my brother, he's still in the system. We came in together, but now I'm out of the system and he's still in it. I think about it all the time."
Nobody planted this idea in his mind, and it's rare that he refers to his various tragedies - he despises the idea that anyone might feel sorry for him. He and I have talked about his mom and his brother a few times over the past year, but not often, by his choosing. We tried visits with his brother, but T. shut it down - the dynamic between them is extremely complicated and painful. For awhile, he had polite contact with his mom (and so did I, to a limited extent) but she flew into a rage last spring and cut him off. There is no easy obvious "fix" in this situation. It will take a lifetime to make sense of it.
We talked for awhile about the difference between teenage experimentation with drugs and alcohol and using drugs and alcohol to cover up feelings that seem unmanageable. I told him that if I feel that substance abuse has got him by the tail, I am going to step in because I love him. T. and I have gone many rounds trying to make progress on reducing his use of marijuana. Consistent limits are a necessity, but the only thing that works so far is when we ask him to modify his behavior just because we care about him. No other consequences or rewards have made one lick of difference. I offered that instead of punishment, what I'd like is a quiet evening without television or video games, and for us to spend some time talking a bit more about what's going on with him.
It was a bumpy conversation. We sat together in his room for awhile and he stared at the floor. He told me how he hasn't been able to cry since the last time he was removed from his family. I told him how I think about his birth mom a lot and feel badly that she missed out on his childhood (they didn't meet until he was twelve). We talked about how maybe his mom doesn't know what to say and how to make it right between them. By way of helping him depersonalize his mother's rage, we talked about how using drugs for a long time change someone's personality and make it very hard for them to control their anger. He told me that there's a "secret reason" why his mom doesn't want to talk to him or any of his siblings, a reason he can't share with me. We talked about some options for rebuilding his relationship with his brother, and he offered that he thought he'd like to start with regular phone calls.
I also asked him what he would do if he were the parent and he found out his most-loved child was taking vodka to school in the morning. He got a very serious look on his face - he slips easily into the role of parent/counselor and he really likes this approach. "Well," he said, "I would ask him. Did he drink it? If so, I would treat it very seriously. Did he sell it? That would be very bad, and he would have to lose his privileges and be in big trouble. But if he took it and gave it to someone else, and he didn't know why, and it was his first time, I would talk with him and try to understand him, and I would let him know that if he EVER, EVER does this again, there will be very serious consequences."
That's some childish logic, and not the final word on the subject. Obviously giving alcohol to other kids at school is totally unacceptable. But I do appreciate the progress he's making toward recognizing a connection between his use of mood-altering substances and the pain and confusion that come from the losses he's sustained.
Since our conversation, we've had nearly two weeks of much more moderate, relaxed behavior. Recently, he asked me to fire our therapist. "We do our own therapy," he said. "She doesn't know me." (In another post, I'll write about our frustrations with therapy and the general lack of services for teenagers like him.) T. makes me realize all the time that all that keeps us from falling off the edge sometimes is knowing that we don't want to hurt or disappoint someone who's opinion we care about, someone we feel really knows us. We can't fix what's happened or stop T. from feeling deep grief about everything he's lost. But we can sit with him, know him well, be honest with him when he's off-track and let him be honest with himself.
Here Comes the Sun!!
1 day ago