Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Late one night earlier this week, T's friend confided in him that several years ago, she was sexually assaulted by a relative. His response to her was truly awesome, and so genuine. It gave him a chance to see how much he has to give, having spent some time addressing his own needs this past year. He was calm, humble and forthcoming about his own experience.

In counseling her, he borrowed things that we have said to him (including "I'm sorry that happened to you" and "That was not your fault - you were a child, and you deserved to be protected by adults"), offering them to her. It felt good to know that those simple words, which feel so inadequate when you're hurting so much for your injured child, must have helped him. He also offered her wisdom of his own, beyond compare, from the deep reserve that is a natural part of his character.

Perhaps the most difficult part of her story is that her father beat her when he found out she had been raped. Apparently she was just eight at the time. T just listened, and then offered that perhaps her father didn't want to think or know she had been hurt so badly, and so reacted in anger and confusion, but that didn't mean that what happened was her fault. He told her that she is beautiful and complete. And then he offered the loveliest thing: he told her that he will always respect her and listen to her, no matter what else happens in their friendship, and that she can talk to him about it anytime. He told her that as he had begun talking about his own experience, he felt better with time - and he said that as he recovered, he had been to see "how people really are" and "I stopped hating myself."

All of this was done in such a gentle way. He has an extraordinary natural ability to turn the extreme suffering and loss he's experienced into deep compassion and an ability to hear and nurture other people. He wanted to talk about it with me right away - I think he was a little surprised how much he had to offer. There is something I can't capture in words about his gift in this regard. He not only listens and offers soothing words - he has a supernatural ability to project and extend an atmosphere of calm that is like the antidote to trauma. I picture him like a superhero in this way, able to detect suffering in others and cast out an invisible net of safety that catches and transforms pain into wisdom. When he was a little superhero, I think that he was still so riled up by trauma himself that he couldn't understand his gift. Now, sober and awake to the world, he sees what he's able to do and he's in command of his abilities. It was clear watching him this week that her confiding in him gave him the chance to share his signature gift with someone he loves, and that in turn contributed to his well-being too.

I am often struck that kids who have suffered like they have need just one compassionate person to receive their story in the right way for a great deal of healing to happen. It is a beautiful thing that he can be that person and I sometimes feel like I am very privileged to be parenting someone who is incubating such an extraordinary gift.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


A brief catchup on the juvenile court case we've been sorting through. Finally last week, with a whisper rather than a bang, the whole case against T was dropped altogether.

We went through three court hearings and more than a month of house arrest before we got to an ajudication hearing (the juvenile court equivalent of a trial) at which the DA stood up and said that the prosecution could not proceed, on the basis of a lack of evidence of his guilt and a preponderance of evidence of his complete and total innocence.

I have almost nothing to say about the experience now. It was brutal and racist the way he was presumed guilty of something that logic and common sense proved he could not possibly have done. I have always been someone more prone to carry on in righteous indignation than to change the subject. But I find that certain events, and this is one of them, just defy my ability to comment. The stark fact of it is enough: my teenage son was taken out of his own bed in his pajamas by seven police officers who invaded our home with guns one morning, handcuffed him in the courtyard in front of the neighbors, took him to juvenile hall, and held him for nearly a week. He returned home on house arrest for a month awaiting trial, only to be told in the end that it was all a big mistake. He had been falsely identified, and there was no case against him.

He stayed calm through the whole thing, and I was proud of his forbearance. The only thing I will add here is that T observed after the fact that "had I still been in the system" (by which he means in a foster group home, rather than with pre-adoptive parents), "I would have stayed in juvenile hall and probably nobody would have believed me that I didn't do it." I think he's right. His arrest was enough for child services to decide that he was no longer their problem - at the time of his arrest, his social worker assumed he was guilty and told us that he belonged on probation and they would not help us get him home. We had to implore the juvenile court judge directly to get him released to us. It was stunning to see how quickly a child in his position can get swallowed up in the juvenile justice bureaucracy - and how much difference parents (and, eventually, a good volunteer attorney provided for us by a friend) can make in slowing down a voracious system.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

But Beautiful

Yesterday, we were in a requisite training class for parents of "severely emotionally disturbed children." It was a stormy, rainy day. The classroom was warm and bright and there were about ten other parents there, all of them parenting traumatized kids. When it came my turn to introduce myself, I cried. That's very rare. (As emotional self-expression goes, I specialize in righteous indignation.)

I said that we had been in T's life for two-and-a-half years, and that in that time, he had been arrested twice, expelled from two schools and a rehab facility, and that he had just hit his five-month sobriety mark. To my left sat a father of a 7 year-old girl who was in seven different foster homes before coming to him. Across the table sat a woman with two children who are receiving intensive in-home wrap-around services 6 days a week. To my right sat a couple who are parenting severely traumatized siblings with an emerging constellation of troubling and risky behavior.

In other words, I was in safe company. And I suppose that's why I cried. This year, I spend so much time explaining T to police, judges, therapists, social workers, teachers, administrators to try to stave off their anger and preconceived notions--but I didn't need to do that here. I didn't need to minimize his problems, insist on his personhood, or explain that I love him more than I even thought it was possible to love another person. Nobody thought I was an enabler, an apologist, or crazy. Every mom and dad in the room is living a variation on the same story. A lot of them cried as they introduced their circumstances, too.

The curriculum was relevant, a manual for navigating the aftermath of tragedy and trauma. After our time in the trenches, I find that some lessons hit me hard and others are familiar old friends (the section on appropriate discipline, for example, is old hat by now). I was particularly pained and enlightened by a section about prenatal drug exposure. The course material captured the straightforward observation that kids who have been drug-exposed in utero are at increased risk of abuse and neglect in later childhood. It explained that such children are usually born into already-fragile families or placed in infant foster care. Many struggle with impulse control, fine motor skills, executive function, anxiety, over-stimulation and self-soothing. The resultant behaviors then make them targets for adult frustration, impatience and anger, leading to a much higher incidence of abuse, neglect and abandonment. Alienated from peers and caregivers, they are also vulnerable to other forms of exploitation and manipulation, including sexual abuse, because they exist "on the fringe".

Reading that made me want to howl. T is one of those kids. Somehow I had never considered his story in quite that light. It was stark, and statistical. I felt shocked that such a narrative of misfortune could be so common as to have made it into a book in such plain terms.

Without minimizing that painful reality, I want to emphasize that the story has another part, one that is rarely understood: it is possible to make a difference, a huge and permanent difference. I want to add a paragraph to that section of the course material so the next parent or potential parent to read it will be reminded that you don't need a psych degree, a magic wand or a hazmat suit to be there for such a child. I want the course material to say: you'll never see the light of the human spirit burn so brightly as it does in a kid for whom everything conspired to extinguish that light, but who kept it alive in the hope that someone else would come along and recognize him. A child who infuriates one adult can delight another, and souls connect in a place beyond behavior. I know that's true, too.

When we got home from the class, we went out for dinner. I remember when T would only eat fast food, because he couldn't tolerate unfamiliar food, and he was too shy to order in a restaurant. But last night was relaxed and quiet. He ordered his food, choosing something from the menu that he had never tried before. He spoke directly to the waiter, and stated his preferences clearly and politely. He ate heartily. He appeared relaxed, and even chatted a bit in between sending text messages. It's a small change, probably invisible perhaps to anyone other than his parents. But beautiful.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Sometimes I Don't Feel Like Being a Therapeutic Parent

Some days I fail to be a therapeutic parent. Some days I do not even try. I'd love to be a better person, but I have to be honest.

Today for example. I do not feel therapeutic today. In fact, truth be told, I feel like having an icy martini. That's not an option, since we're supporting T in his fledgling sobriety by keeping alcohol out of the house and out of his presence. But it's really on my mind.

Today I do not feel like gently ignoring his attempts to hook me. Take, for example, the expensive gym membership he recently convinced me to provide for him. Tonight we had plans to go to the gym together. Somehow, over dinner, that turned into "You're trying to force me to go to the gym." Sure, yes I am. Because the money I might have spent on some really good shoes got spent on your stupid gym membership. Now it's just sitting in your pocket while you laze around the house watching television and spreading your teen malaise. I don't feel too therapeutic about that.

I don't feel therapeutic about the food issues today. For years, I've mostly managed patience while nearly everything we cook is rejected. But tonight the chili was GOOD, and the disgusted and immediate "What, no rice?" really got on my last nerve. Just. Eat. It.

I don't feel therapeutic about Thanksgiving, either. It's been 8 months since I've been back to my hometown, and I want to see my friends and family. I don't want to argue about where we stay, or how long we stay for, or all the things you want me to promise in order to stave off boredom. I've done all my reading about adoption and trauma and holidays, and we've been through enough holiday seasons together now for me to develop a deep compassion about the complications and complexities. But this year I just want to go home. I don't care who's whining in the backseat as long as I get there.

It's not realistic to be therapeutic all the time. I love T more than anybody and I am willing to go to the extremes of my own capability for him. But I have my limits. Some nights I'm loose of tongue, short of temper, and devoid of patience. This night is one of them.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

School Was a Problem

Just another quick word on the wonders of home study.

I have never seen T so relaxed.

He is EXTREMELY hyper-vigilant, as a result of spending years in a violent home. He checks all the doors and windows every night and every morning. He notices the slightest movement. He frets when we go on vacation until he gets the lay of the land.

A classroom is a nightmare for a kid like that. And because he struggles to behave himself when he's anxious, he was often seated in the front of the class where the teacher could keep an eye on him. That meant all the other kids were sitting BEHIND him: the worst possible arrangement for a hyper-vigilant, anxious child.

Now that he studies at home, his teacher reports he's getting all Bs in school (and he's not working very hard at that). He sleeps late, naps in the afternoon, and works when he feels like it. I'm sure that sounds indulgent to other parents, but it's working for us. He has gained weight (a good thing, since he has been borderline anorexic in the past), smiles regularly, and recently got himself on a gym routine. He has time to go to therapy now, and he's not exhausted from a day at school when he gets there. He's on track to finish high school early. Of his own initiative, he got a job counselor and began spending part of each day looking for jobs. He's taking a college history class once a week, and managing to get by there too.

We don't sit at work waiting for yet another phone call from a teacher or administrator. We don't have to worry about the frightening friends he might be making at school - like a lot of traumatized kids, he gravitates to the bottom of the social ladder at school, because that's where he tends to feel safe. We are able to discipline him in the way that we know works well - with a gentle system of incentives and praise for desirable behavior, and a quick, logical consequence for misbehavior. I don't have to think so hard about parenting strategies, because there are fewer crises to manage.

Looking back, school was a problem. A minefield of inconsistent discipline, social pressure, physical and psychological strain. Teachers and administrators often misunderstood him, and over-punished him. He couldn't find the peace he needed to evolve. Fewer, more trustworthy adults and no crowded, noisy environments have done wonders for his stability. He does get lonely sometimes. But it's a temporary sort of loneliness, and he's learning to solve it with deliberate choices rather than the manic, panicked social behavior we saw last year. It's a good time.
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