Years ago, I judged someone for sending their daughter to boarding school. The mother told me and I had a reaction. I admit it. Her daughter was 16.
Our daughter Violet has now been gone for just under a year. When people ask where my daughter is and I tell them, I can see the very same judgment in their eyes, even if it is in silence. She is 11 years old. Isn’t life interesting?
Naivete, judgment, guilt and shame. Who the hell was I? Life isn’t always what it seems. I knew that truth even in my younger years, when I walked with less dirt in my tracks. I want to be forthcoming in hopes that maybe someone else can hold off on their judgment and spare themselves the guilt. It is an avoidable burden.
I feel no need to justify our choices. In fact, I feel beyond grateful. Like we have saved our daughter’s life. Hope is a precious light to find when you have been lost in the miserable dark for a decade.
So what could EVER make it worth it? How could we EVER send our child away? SHE WAS 11. It was so very young. And, WAS it worth it?
(this is a little recap for those who are new to our story)
From infancy, Violet waged a war with depression and anxiety, and was losing. The struggle with adolescent mental health is a real one, just as real as with adults. It permeates every aspect of your life and strangles every inch of your body and brain. It is emotional, mental, physical.
11 months before her departure we were living in agony. All of us. Have you ever seen a child - a 6 year old, an 8 year old, who just could not control how awful they felt inside? Violet was crumbling, and there seemed to be no way to pull her out. Believe me, we tried EVERYTHING. I truly suffered from half denial, half unhealthy optimism that something would change on its own, with maturity. No dice.
The feeling of powerlessness while you watch your child struggle for their own self-love is the most profound suffering I have endured.
It just kept getting worse. In our family of 5, the dynamics grew to be hyper dysfunctional – we are still unraveling them. Furthermore, continuing to watch your child battle every single second for emotional stability becomes absolutely inconceivable. Desperation struck.
It is like the man stuck in the avalanche who chews his arm off. I would have done ANYTHING just to know she could have some help and hope.
She went to a Wilderness Therapy Program. Leaving her there was the hardest thing I have ever done. She was my first baby. She was there for 3 months, and we couldn’t see or speak to her, more torture. In those months, I met parents of teenagers who had JUST STARTED to deal with their issues and many had already been sucked into self medicating, whichever form of my ultimate fears it took: self harm, drugs, promiscuity, rebellion, suicide.
Violet had just turned 11. This was the first time I felt like one of the lucky ones.
She graduated. She was confident, self sufficient, calm. But what did this really mean for the real world and all of its triggers?
I missed her desperately, still do. Yet, even with all that she had accomplished, she had not any real time to apply her new strengths, her new tools. How could we throw her to the wolves without any practice?
Violet needed longer to assimilate. She needed to be in a place where she was supported, positively reinforced, incentivized and surrounded by peers. She needed to break the patterns of misinterpretation, self-loathing, reacting. She needed to become emotionally intelligent. She needed to learn self-regulation. If she could do all of that at 11, wouldn’t THAT make it worth it?
She went to therapeutic boarding school and it was not easy. Ups and downs, major bumps in the road. Valleys of upset rivaled by mountains of hope. Ridiculous work and growth for all of us. Sacrificing proximity to your child at such a young age is gut-wrenching. Lots of visits, goodbyes, and tears.
Breaking patterns of behavior is just as difficult as kicking drugs. Not only are the compulsions the same, both stem from the same impetus in MOST cases – lack of self esteem. Violet was addicted to the dysfunction. If you are attempting such deep change, you must look at addiction in all its forms to fully comprehend the weight of the task. Because it is so connected, here are some stats that will sicken you.
· 67% of drug addicts also suffer from depression.
· After a short-term rehab (28-30 days), 90% of addicts will relapse.
· 61% of those addicts will relapse again within a year.
· An addict who has been clean for 5 years decreases his relapse rate to 40%.
So let’s put this into "Violet terms." Substances aside, she suffered from these mental health ailments. She basically went to a short-term rehab – Wilderness – which was not 30 days but 90. The potential relapse has to be similar, so off she went to a boarding school.
Now it’s Month 11, that’s right, 11.
What felt like a torture chamber of fluctuating highs and lows took a turn. We had our first successful visit. This meant our whole family, together for a long weekend, without any major freak outs.
It was a local visit near her school and we stayed at an amusement park. It was structured fun and everyone participated. We met every morning to remind ourselves of the family goals – Kindness, Respectfulness and First Time Listening. All 3 of our children (11, 7, 5) started with 25 dollars and 5 would be deducted for not adhering. They were to use the money for anything they may have wanted from park kitsch to dessert. Got rid of all bickering over silly asks and saying no. Pretty awesome to watch how unimportant themed dolls became when their own stipend was on the line.
I watched our daughter. She wasn’t a different person. She would still feel the rise of upset. BUT, she took her space without me asking her to. She journaled. She breathed. She came back to us and was genuinely ready to be functional and healthy. She was polite, kind, engaged. She was sweet to her siblings. She was expressive in an appropriate way. She didn’t triangulate my husband and me and came to each one of us with her issues. She was easy. She was calm. She was confident. She was all the good parts of her.
I left that visit feeling totally renewed. Like I could have swallowed her school therapist whole, I loved her so much.
Our lives were changing before my eyes. I was getting my daughter back, our family was healing. There were no words to express my deep belly-aching joy.
If this was sustainable, even increase-able…would she be happy someday? Really, truly, happy?
That would make everything worth it. Now, you must wonder…HOW was she doing it???