Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Darker Side of Me

I don't like to use "psycho-babble" but I do want to try to capture a thought I've had as we transition to being the parents of an adult. I've long thought that, in the way all of us have a dark side, mine is so-called "co-dependence". I'm very sensitive to other people's suffering, I have a habit of trying to "help", and I get frustrated when the target of my "help" doesn't respond as I hope they will. I put other people's needs first, downplay my own, and allow myself to get overextended until I'm at the point of illness and/or resentment. Not pretty, and not unusual. You probably know the type. I suffer an excess of objectivity in my awareness of my faults. :)

As a foster/adoptive parent, I sometimes worried that my desire to parent in this way could be reduced to a grand act of co-dependence. Perhaps from a certain perspective, it can. But I prefer to think that being T's parent has been the single greatest opportunity in my life to become fully aware of my unappealing tendencies, and my gifts, in equal measure. My natural, totally genuine--and largely unexpected--love for T is a force beyond myself, and helped me overcome some of the limitations in the way that I love.

If you tend to want to "help" and "advise" others, being the parent of a teenager is pretty great. They need a lot of help and advice! Up until I was a parent, my desire to "help" and "advise" generally found unsuitable targets. But I learned with T to ask "would you like my advice?" and "would you like my help?". To my delight, the answer was often yes! But sometimes it was no, and learning to ask and accept the answer was good practice.

I think T and I came together so we could both work at and learn through things unique to us: in his case, he needed to learn attachment, and I was a good choice for him in that way--I'd venture to say that my more dysfunctional personality traits actually helped a bit in terms of attachment, because some of his anti-attachment behaviors are so extreme, being slightly off-balance myself probably caused me to hang in there beyond reason.

I know I needed to learn to give up control, being a classic type A control-freak prone to trying to fix the world, and he has been and continues to be a brilliant lesson to me in that regard. In the abstract, I would have thought that my control-freakiness and my love for him would coincide, causing me to be EXTRA controlling when it came to him. In fact, what I found is that the thing that most trumps my desire for control is parental love. It causes me to be gentle. It causes me to empathize with the struggles he's having, in such a way that I am forced to recognize that they are not "fixable". I am on his side, not my side. It causes me to accept him as he is at his moment, simply for the pleasure of his personality, without asserting an ego-driven need to "improve" him. I truly treasure who he is, regardless of behavior.

My relationship with him is also unusually honest, which is an antidote to the narcissism of co-dependence. I think perhaps this stems from the fairly radical confrontation with truth required for a child of his age to find adoptive parents. There are things we can do, and be, for each other, and things we cannot, and we've spoken about that boundary many times. Both parties went into it with our eyes pretty wide open.

And of course, the irresolute nature of his substance abuse problem means that I've had to accept that things simply are what they are. I cannot change it, I cannot fix it, and I cannot live with it in my house. That probably sounds like a simple realization to some people, but I had resisted reaching it in other relationships in my life, and it took parenting him to bring me to greater clarity.

Perhaps I was unwittingly drawn to parent him because of my darker side, and perhaps he was driven to bond with me because he recognized a co-dependent that he could "hook". But I found the experience of parent/child attachment to be perhaps the one thing I have experienced in life strong enough to force both the clarity to recognize the weakness in that dynamic, and the commitment to try to allow both people to grow toward something freer and more genuinely loving. In the way that all parent/child relationships evolve, ours has evolved toward greater day-to-day distance and, paradoxically, greater recognition. Both counter my darker side, and, I hope, serve his true needs.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Up and Away

We've had some nice visits with T lately. I'm not sure what that means. Maybe it just means we've had some nice visits lately.

None of the problems that led to him living away from home have resolved, and we didn't expect them to. It's just nice to see him. I would characterize his attitude as sheepish, and ours as tender. I love to see him. We have a flow. He's a sweet kid. In a way, by moving away and making a point of not needing us, he needs us more. He's regressed. He's having a rough time now, of his own making, and he knows it. Out of the house, he has to confront that his life is what he and he alone makes it. That's a big idea to absorb, and he doesn't need me to drive the point home. That leaves me free to just show my affection for him. I trust his strength and his right to lead his own life.

He knows I'm a high-strung, demanding maniac, so he knows that my low-key approach really does mean "I love you and I'm going to let you learn in your own way" and "I release you from my control, and I am here as your witness and your friend." As I've often noted, that's a big lesson for any young adult, all the more profound for an abused child who has been marked by an adult's violent misuse of power, as it is for someone struggling with substance abuse who knows that everyone around him wants his behavior to change.

He held out for about four weeks with only an occasional email before he got in touch to say he missed us and wanted to get together. His voice on the phone had a transparent joy that he's always had when he's feeling attached.

When we got together, I think he thought perhaps we'd withhold our attention, rub his nose in his mistakes, or lecture him. When we arrived, he was sheepish and awkward, alternately wondering what to do and gushing with stories about his recent breakup with his girlfriend and all the hurt feelings he had that needed soothing. We saw a movie and took him for a haircut. A couple weeks later he suggested another outing and it was easier this time. We had a picnic in the park and picked up some groceries for him.

For a long time, when he was living at home, I fretted over how and where to set limits. Life with a seriously substance-abusing teen is a rollercoaster, and some days we felt between a rock and a hard place in trying to figure out how to support him without enabling him. I don't worry about that much now. I won't hand him cash, but if I want to buy him dinner, get him some groceries, trim his hair, or just hang out in the park, I will. I strongly believe that if he could change, he would, but like all of us, there are things he can't or won't change. That is his business. I can't make that different. His struggles come from a place of pain and grief and survivalism that I understand, but he also deserves privacy and respect. He is not just a patient, and not just the sum of his traumas. He's a teenager, with faulty judgment and half-formed ideas about the world, and he needs to get out and test-drive his life.

It strikes me that in foster care, every farewell is a trauma - whether it's the original separation from birth family, or the all-too-frequent disruptions in foster placements. He doesn't know how to leave a place without rupturing relationships. When we visit him now, he becomes very childlike, I think because it strikes him like magic. We had a life together, and now we are apart, but the bond is still there, and in some ways, it's stronger. We allow each other to transition. We forgive and accept, even the unacceptable. We give him permission to grow up, and away. That permission is an important part of being a parent to me.

He'll learn in his own way, in his own time, and if by some chance he never progresses beyond the struggles he faces now, he got as far as he could and he is just as deserving of my love. When he was at home, it was hard to express love and set limits at the same time. Now that he's living away from home, in a way, the message is more pure.

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