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.”