child trauma

HOME SHE CAME

Our 11-year-old daughter had not been home for 186 days.  Never in a million years would I have believed anyone who told me she would be gone for this long.  Never.

The professionals thought she was ready.  I had waited 6.2 months to have our family back together in our own house.  So, home she came.  

“…And this presupposes the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive…human potential at its best always allows for…turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.”  Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning.

This ordeal is replete with ups and downs.  Committed to optimism, I will try to see opportunities in the negatives.  I will acknowledge errors, change and adapt, turn guilt into an occasion for betterment.  There are beauties of life that are borne from this struggle, for each one of us.

2 Days Until Christmas

For years we have spent the days leading up to Christmas at my in-laws.  Violet wanted to go straight there and be included in the routine.  I listened to her, instead of my instincts.  The kid had not been HOME in 6.2 months, it clearly would have been better to let her reset at home first. 

My husband and I met her plane and squeezed the life out of her, overjoyed to have her in our eyes and arms.  We drove to the in-laws, where the other children and family were.  Within minutes of getting into the car, she was asleep.  My normal “mom alert” for emotional overload, I realized our error.  Adoration for them aside, this meant she had to immediately deal with more familial personalities than she had faced for 6 months.  I didn’t even THINK about how stressful it would be to have questions about where she had been and what it was like.  UGH.  Dumb Mommy.

We celebrated, did presents.  Watching her navigate the complete immersion gave me guilt.  She looked drained.  I took her a few times to another room to have an alone check-in.  She held it together; she did pretty well.  She only needed to make it through the night.   

Christmas Eve

We left that morning.  FINALLY, we were taking our little girl home.

She was ecstatic.  She bolted up the stairs, laid in her bed.  Soleil, Ax and Violet all giggled and played, so happy to be together again. 

Holidays for us feel magical.  They aren’t about religion.  They are traditions and family.  Our tree was so tall and beautiful.  Presents piled underneath.  Glowing lights, Bing Crosby, pine tree smells and comfort food.  No sleep the night before.  Frost outside, insides warm.  Loved it.  Easily one of my favorite times of year.

Our family friends came for a Christmas Eve pajama throw down.  Again, love for them aside, it was asking her to manage more dynamics.  Not bad, just effortful. 

My husband had ordered our family matching onesies, with nicknames he called everyone, sewn on.  As he unveiled them, Violet’s eyes lit up from the affection of the familiar name.  Her most desired love, affirmed in a single gesture.

We all ran, excited to put them on and laugh at each other. 

Violet’s pajamas were too small

She was the only one whose didn’t fit.  I panicked and tried to make light, “No big deal honey, you’re not a kid size anymore, you need women’s!  Take mine.”  She cried.  To a girl who was already self-conscious, this was traumatic.  The sweet moment, contaminated.

 The Big Deal with Little T Traumas: Trauma is just that - more than mind and body can bear without causing disruption in our lives.  Big “T”s are the obvious – accidents, death, divorce.  The Little “T”s are relative. (see link)

For Violet, it was pretty much anything that eroded her feelings of self worth – a look from someone without a smile, not being the best at something, feeling different.  All related to personal issues and tolerance levels. 

And here, the struggle began.

Violet was who she was.  She WAS going to interpret smaller incidents as overwhelming; they WERE going to feel like Little “T”s.  The only thing she could do was strengthen her skills for managing those feelings, by focusing on positives, gratefulness, and calming strategies. 

We went upstairs in private and tried to wrap our minds around the pajamas. 

She cried and tried not to get hysterical, “I’m so fat Mommy and these look terrible.  They are so tight!  And I want to wear MINE, not YOURS!  I want to have MY nickname that Daddy put.” 

“Honey, I understand how you feel.  Look at the tag babe.  These are for KIDS!  You are 11!  You are almost as tall as me, you just need a women’s small, that’s it.  I know it’s disappointing, but all we can do is come up with another solution.  Try and take a breath, put mine on, and shake it off.”

We switched, leaving her with “Ahmee the Mommy” on her chest.

She did it, soothed herself, used her tools.  Changed into mine, came down to read the Christmas Story.  By the third page, she was fast asleep on the rug.  FRIED.

Christmas Day

6 am, kids ran down and slayed the presents.  Coffee brewed, carols played, paper schrapnel covered the floor.  Hysterical laughter and smiles from ear to ear.  Lots of thank yous.  Ahhh yes, together.  My heart overflowed.

Soleil and Violet had a dance party together.  They tried on new clothes.  Soleil was beside herself with joy that her sister wanted to play with her.  We started to prep for dinner and set the table.

“I want to sit next to Violet!”

“Noooo!  I’m sitting next to her!!!” 

This kind of bickering, I would embrace.  The internal smile in Violet was worth it.

I felt so content.  Although not without its moments, I was able to have perspective and see that everyone was enjoying each other, including me. 

We all got ready for guests.  Violet “styled” Sol by helping her choose clothes.  She beamed with feeling old and cool.  Did her hair just like Violet’s.  Ax wore a suit and wanted to show Violet as soon as his getup was complete.  Sibling love in the air, the band was back together. 

The day progressed, no major issues.  We made it through some stressful dinner guests and bedtime without disruption.  Tension, but no breakdowns.

The Day After

Violet’s flight back to school was the next morning.  I could have guessed this would be a hard day.  She saw her local favorite friend, who she was always great with, a perfect distraction.  Still, she came home and looked completely ravaged.  She seemed as if she had outrun her capacity for effort.  The high of being home was wearing off. 

We started dealing with packing.  What to leave, what to bring.  I saw something lurking behind the façade of “I’m fine.”  The understandable anxiety and sadness of leaving again?  Resentment that the other kids got to stay?

I went downstairs to make dinner.  Heard some foot stomping and my stomach flip-flopped.  We had not had aggressive sounds in months.  Precursor to danger.

“What are YOU looking at?”  Violet shoulder-shoved my husband as she passed him in the hallway.  Oh no.  He tried to help her…

“Vi, what was that?  What’s going on?  Feels like you need to use your tools, you ok?”

 And just like that, the switch flipped.   

I don’t even remember what happened in these mere moments.  There were more disrespectful words and tones, it escalated quickly into yelling.  My husband came downstairs.  I got involved.

“Violet.  Take this sheet of paper and go into your room and write down your feelings.  You are NOT able to express them appropriately right now.  When you are?  You are welcome to come back and talk.  BUT NOT NOW.  Go.” 

“I NEED TO EXPRESS MYSELF!!!  You are not listening to me!!!”

“Please Violet, this sounds too out of control.  Please go into your room and take space.  You have to calm down before we can listen to you.  PLEASE.”

“BUT YOU HAVE TO LET ME EXPRESS MYSELF!!!!!  I HAVE TO!!!  You have to LISTEN TO ME!!!!”

“Violet, I cannot listen to you like this.  This is NOT our deal.  Go into your room and use your tools.  Breathe, write things down, listen to music.  Please, you MUST take space.”

Door slam, crashing sound.  Screaming.  Refusal to use tools.  I tried desperately to get the therapist on the phone.  The Little Ts accumulated and just became too much for her to manage.

I watched the undoing redo itself.  I was ensnared in the terrifying tangle of old, sticky, inescapable webs.  I wanted to run out of the house and start over.   

She had done so well for the past 3 days, I was desperate to save this deviation.  She had made it through the initial overwhelming situation, a pressure-filled holiday homecoming, the pajama trauma, the weird guests, what was happening???  No Violet nooooo.

After 25 minutes on the phone with the therapist, she was quiet.  I tentatively creeped up the stairs to spy and see if she was ok. 

Axul, who had been listening in his room, creeped over too.  I tried to wave him off.  He slid a piece of paper under her door. 

Finally, the door creeked open.  Violet came out holding the paper.  She came down and rejoined the family.  She still couldn’t relax the tortured expression on her face.  We tried to ignore it. 

I had not done a good job with MY tools.  I was too shaken from the flashback.  I truly felt at a loss.  This tapped right into MY Little Ts.  It was too familiar, too reminiscent of old spirals.  Too out of control, too unreachable, too scary. 

Compassion: the response to the suffering of others that motivates a desire to help.

We sat in silence, all 5 of us.  The weight of the tirade fresh in the air.  Finally, Axul looked over at her.

“Are you OK Violet?” 

Ice thawed.  She hugged him, still solemn, thanked him for the picture.  Soleil joined in.  Pretended to fall off the stool and giggled on the floor.  When it didn’t work the first time she did it again.  Slowly but surely, Violet’s sullen face melted into a smile. 

I sat quietly and watched these children commit to their unspoken pact to help their sister.  As the dark cloud lifted, I looked at the paper Axul had given her.  It was a little 5-year-old drawing of our family, with misspelled scrawl that said, “FEL BETR.”       

Can you teach empathy?  Can compassion be learned?  Out of this struggle, we have all found our deepest human potential.  Even though it IS suffering for me to watch my child, my children, experience this?  Even though after all the loss, work, and sacrifice - it is STILL so hard?  I get THIS.  I get to watch my 5 and 7 year old find compassion.  As the struggle dissipated into opportunity, I sighed.  So grateful.

I drove her to the airport the next day.  Held her hand the whole way there, heavy bellies in the car.

“Will I be able to come home again Mommy?”

Chestpains.  Nausea.  Violet.  My darling little first born babe. 

“Sweet girl, all of this work is so we can be together.  That is ALL I want.  I am dying for you to be home.  I miss you so much every second.  We just need to figure out how to make it healthy for everyone.”  And we will.

She had used her tools.  She struggled, she recovered.  She succeeded and faltered.  She made progress.  We all had more work to do.  

I mentally wrapped all of our Little Ts in a holiday bow and packed them away.  The New Year would bring new visits.  New opportunities for discovering our best selves.  For creatively turning negatives into something constructive.  Soleil and Axul had it down.  I wanted to do it too. 

 

 

http://www.amazon.com/Mans-Search-Meaning-Viktor-Frankl/dp/080701429X

http://fountainhillcenter.org/articles/big-t-vs-little-t-trauma-second-article-series-trauma-today/

http://blogs.psychcentral.com/after-trauma/2014/02/the-big-deal-with-little-t-traumas/

 

 

 

 

ATTACH ME TO YOU

Make me feel safe.  Be my home. 

Hold me close.  Look at me.  Love me.

Do these things so I am not fighting off fear my whole life.  Fear of being hurt.  Fear of being alone.  Fear of surviving.

Please attach me, securely, to you.

Now the real education began.  Violet’s school held a workshop about 3 weeks after we brought her.  I could not believe we got to be with her so soon, I was freaking out.  Seeing her, being with her, I cherished it.  But, I am going to take this entry and focus on what we learned and go back to our experience with Violet later.

We saw her briefly at the school breakfast then went to our class.  Let’s start at the beginning folks!  After all of their material and then lots of personal research, here is my layman version… 

The Attachment Theory

This controversial 1930s study speaks to what real bonding and attachment are about, not just the feeding and providing.  Physical contact and comfort obviously affects child development, but still interesting…

Harry Harlow’s experiment took baby monkeys and he made two “mothers.”  One made with wire and a bottle with milk, the other with no milk but soft blanketing surrounding the wire form.  The monkeys spent 17 hours per day laying on the soft mother and only 1 hour drinking from the wire one.   Now this seems totally cruel to the monkeys and would never be allowed now, still was a huge impetus for BF Skinner and Bowlby’s research on mental health development that influenced psychology in the 50s.

Babies need to feel attached to someone who is consistent, responsive, sensitive, comforting, present.  Darwin would say it is about surviving.  Ainsworth and Bowlby would expound on it with experimental interactions; the “Strange Situation.”  (see links below)

In this case, attachment is defined as “your internal working model of social relationships.”  There are four forms of attachment in this theory – Secure, Insecure, Anxious (Avoidant and Ambivalent), and Disorganized.  Even just the word choices?  I get it.  I want the secure one. 

Easy to say and even easier to understand, here are the ways to achieve it:

·      Nurture

·      Structure

·      Engagement

·      Challenge

I’m a baby.  Hug me so I know you are mine all mine and I am yours all yours.  I will feel loved.

I know when I wake up I will have breakfast.  I know that when you sing that song and give me a bath every night it is time for bed.  I can count on it and that means I am being taken care of. 

I think you love me when you play with me.  You think I am great.  Then I think I am great too.

Ask me to do more things, harder things.  Trust me to try.   You think I can.  Then I think I can.  Then I love you for believing in me.  Then I really, truly CAN.

So that’s the healthy version.  Now imagine a kid who wasn’t cared for this way? 

A baby who was neglected, a kid who was left at the hospital without a safe parent there.  A kid who has lost a parent, only known inconsistency, been abused.  Even less obvious – a kid whose parents argued or were in and out of being stable themselves, divorce.  OF COURSE, it affects your relationships – with others AND yourself, how could it not?  My self-esteem is so tied into how my parents loved me and each other, and so are the patterns of my relationships.   

I was there for Violet.  The two of us were in our own little world, which felt great to me at the time.  I played until I was holding my eyelids open with toothpicks, answered her every wail, held her when my arms were shaking from fatigue.  Still, Violet has an Insecure Attachment.  So what was it?

I was in a bad marriage.  I was sad.  Her bio-dad neglected her.  I was young, inconsistent and had very little structure.  I know Violet’s genetically predisposed frustration tolerance was low but maybe it meant she needed more of all these things?  Some people may have thought me too attentive, so I am confused.  She must not have felt safe, even though I tried my damndest.

Your initial attachment to a primary caregiver casts ripples into your interpersonal dynamics for the rest of your life.

An Insecure Attachment can lead to struggle.  Difficulty trusting relationships, feeling unsafe.  Feeling unlovable and sabotaging.  Fear of vulnerability and getting hurt.  Resorting to something controllable - anger, avoidance, ambivalence.  Fear dominates the landscape.

In another study I found, the doctor quotes, “…usually there is an opportunity to return to a more normal path of development.”  Well, PHEW, thank goodness, dear sir.

This is our job while Vi is at school.  Finding a way to be more structured, consistent, engaged, nurturing, so when she comes back it is already in place.

I began consciously instituting these tools.  Higher expectations, lists of chores for mornings and evenings with incentive programs around them.  Structured alone time with each kid during the week as built-in as the school day.  Engaging activities, time to be together and just love each other.  It isn’t just the feeling of “order;” it also provides us endless opportunities for praise and you can’t beat that. 

With the workshop completed, we spent 2 days with Violet.  We were focused on “success.”  A successful visit meant no disrespect, adhering to the goals we outlined, enjoying each other without frustration.  Tying the workshop info altogether – it was maintaining consistency, having structure, nurturing and having fun.  If we were successful, she would get another visit sooner, perhaps including her siblings.

We avoided technology.  We followed our agreements on bedtime and how many sweets and treats.  Laughed at her jokes and played games.  Listened to her with both ears and eyes.  Held hands, hugged her a lot.  Loved her.  I felt her tethered to me, but not stuck like glue.  Maybe her attachment was healing?

There were a few times when I got nervous.  Felt the old eggshells, saw her angry face creep in.  She did struggle using some of the tools.  She had relaxed a little at school and I worried that there would be a backslide.  I tried to give her a break, it was STILL very new.   

We drove her back to school.  Filled out all the paperwork full of goals and reviews.  On the whole she was successful.  I had to remind myself this was a work-in-progress. 

I hugged her and again, was sad to say goodbye.  She ran off into school smiling and didn’t even look back.

Attachment:  A bond that holds us together, lasting psychological connectedness.

I love my family.  I want our connectedness to last.  I want my kids to go off and explore their worlds and know they have a safe, loving, happy home to come back to. I want to create healthy, secure attachments.  I want Violet and my other kids to have them, and I want to give one to my husband.  And I too want to feel safe enough to be vulnerable and authentic.

Keep me safe.  Look at me.  Love me for who I am. 

Attach me to you, securely, please.

 

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_theory

http://psychology.about.com/od/aindex/g/attachment.htm

http://psychology.about.com/od/loveandattraction/ss/attachmentstyle_4.htm#step-heading

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Bowlby

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erikson%27s_stages_of_psychosocial_development

 

 

 

HELLO AND GOODBYE

Once upon a time there was an ancient forest full of wisdom.  There were tall tall trees that almost touched the sky and small small sounds that pulled your ear to the earth.  When you listened very closely, words like whispers came from the very soil that fed the long trunks and branches.  Down by the ground, your limbs were lost among the tangles of roots, where does one begin and one end?  Shhh, listen to the whispers.

There was a little girl.  She crawled on the ground with a heart too heavy to lift.  She knew not how she got there or quite where to go.  Her eyes lifted to the sky.  So so bright and so so far from her place among the knotted, gnarled roots.   

The roots hugged her fragile frame as the whispers grew louder.  She stretched to the branches, dragging her swollen heart along. 

She pulled.  She tried.  She fell.   

Her own limbs were not strong enough to help her find her way.  The roots raised her to reach a new branch.  The whispers pushed her heart along like a wind at her back.  She tried again.

The weight of her burdensome heart lifted with every height higher she climbed.  Stronger she grew, encircled by the old old trees and the rings of time within them. 

One branch, another, she rose to the treetops.  Hope appeared on branches as leaves, flowers bloomed like songs. 

She reached her little arms as high as they could go.  The sun on her face, her heart was now her ally.

The tall tall trees had a bigger voice now.  The girl was full of wisdom and whispers.  She looked down at her breast, where her giant heart lay.  The sun shone down, casting a vivid purple hue.  Plump with hope and courage, the purple heart beamed, weightless.  She sprouted like the wise tree to shine on that day.  Stronger than the violet ray.

 

Violet looked at the breakfast menu as if golden coins were about to spill from it.  After 84 days of oats, peanut butter and lentils, who could blame her?  AND, who has gone to an “all-you-can-eat” southern diner and NOT felt that way?  (joke)

We tried to be aware of not introducing too many harsh things to her system, heeding warnings from Wilderness.  Lots of potential fallout as you re-renter the wild west of the real world. 

84 days of no noise.  No music, no cars, no chatter from passersby.  No phones, no TV.  Can you really imagine 3 months in the deafening silence of the mountains and then how LOUD the world must seem after? 

We were in an adorable mini-city rampant with hippies and hobos.  We took Vi for a little walk and even the sidewalk was too much for her.  She squeezed my hand with a death grip, paranoid about each street person’s glance. 

Lunchtime.  The hostess walked us to the table and I could feel Violet’s hair stand up on her arms.  Cackles from table talkers, clanking of dishes, scoots of chairs - all WAY too much for her.  We hightailed it back in the other direction, leaving the din behind.

Alone in peace at the hotel pool, we drank in the moments with her.  Hello Violet.  Hello little brave girl, so full of pride, who has accomplished so much. 

There was a transition agreement we had all signed, removing any chance for negotiations and potential rub.  We agreed to shop for school, do special bonding activities, eat sushi.  Call her siblings, only check our phones twice per day.  Respect each other, just be together.  AMAZING.

I relished every passing moment.  Her voice, her smile, her smirk.  Her sarcastic humor.  Her sassy, playful, confident attitude.  I just loved her.  I felt like someone had given me my daughter back. 

I had spent years wondering how to find my daughter again.  I would see teensy glimpses of her incredible personality, and then they would vanish, leaving me to wonder if I had created them or they were real?  Now I could see only her positives.  So much so, that it was even harder to know we were leaving.  Three days was not enough time for me to have to say goodbye again. 

Have you ever forced yourself through something knowing if you could just do it, it would be so much better in the end? 

“What is best for your child?  What will help the new behaviors and tools REALLY sink in, to become the new habits?”

While we debated next steps, (home or boarding school) the professionals kept likening the cycle to drug addiction.  As harsh as it sounded, it was the best way to comprehend it.  Let’s make it plain - how long does it take to really quit smoking?  Are you able to still resist when faced with all of the old triggers/temptations?

I have had friends and family members struggle with addiction.  I have ALWAYS thought the idea of any short term rehab was asinine.  You’re telling me someone who has spent YEARS altering their reality is going to embrace a completely different way of living in just 3-12 weeks?  PLEASE PEOPLE.  That’s ridiculous.  And someone should seriously be reimbursing these families who have spent their savings on such a totally improbable fix.  (sidebar)  

My daughter had spent 11 years of her life stuck in these behaviors.  She was addicted to the cycle.  She broke it at Wilderness, but how could she ever be expected to keep it up in the real world with no real practice?  AND be resilient enough to bounce back when it failed?  To not give up?  To try again?

We KNEW that this boarding school was the right choice.  Doesn’t make it any easier to let her go again.  There is a primal thing inside of parents like - I wanted to hug my cub close and keep her with me to save her and protect her.  But I just couldn’t.  The only way I could best help her was to let her go.

I cherished 3 days.  Felt renewed just like she did.  Then we drove her to school. 

When will I see her again, when will I see her again, when will I see her again.  Had to keep reminding myself to stop thinking of the future, to just take each little baby step and live in the moment. 

We pulled up to the beautiful old house, basecamp of school.  Waterfalls, lake, nature.  She was greeted with the warmest “VIOLET!!!”  The sweetest girls ran out, excited to show her around, make her comfy.  We made her bed, helped her unpack her new clothes.  I squeezed her hand a million times.  She met her “Big Sister” who swept her away to make new friends and see all the cool things they would do.    

I can’t tell how I feel about getting better at goodbyes.  I have had to become a goodbye girl. 

Hold your breath.  Push pause on emotions.  Stand up straight.  Smile, hug, turn and walk away.  Think of all the positives.

Hello Hope.  Goodbye Violet.

 

 

 

THE WILD GROWTH

Violet’s letters went from screaming agony, “PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE Mommy!  Come and get me!  I hate it here…” to “…I am learning how to do really cool things.  I miss you A LOT and I have really changed, I haven’t gotten upset in a while, I am growing a lot emotionally.  I think I am almost ready to come home.”

Almost.  Just the word itself held so much meaning for me.  It embodied acknowledgment.  She was accountable with one little word.  She was challenging herself, she was working and growing; she still had some things to deal with.  She knew she wasn’t ready, yet.  But almost…sweet almost…sigh.

When you have spent 10 years screaming into a vacuum of futility, “almost” is like a brand new hearing aid.  I’m not crazy.  AND NEITHER WAS SHE.  We were all just hard of hearing for a while. 

Here is the self-fulfilling prophecy of the kid mislabeled.  Someone tells them they are “bad,” they get upset and act out because it’s easier to be in control of being “bad” than it is to be vulnerable and STILL be called “bad.”  Too hard to feel shamed.  So these kids push all this stuff down and hold it inside and BAM!!!  Hypersensitivity + shame = anguish and explosiveness. 

Violet had realistically gone through 6 years of people telling her she was doing things that weren’t “right.”  Accuracy was irrelevant; it was her perceptions and the feelings they ignited.  After eons of ‘feeling’ like the world was against her, her self-esteem was left a tarnished shred.

In the woods with people trained to be so patient, nurturing and supportive, she was finally able to stop punishing herself.  The physical feats she accomplished were so outlandish - she was a beast!  Hiking, setting up camp, making food, cleaning up, creating fire – HUGE.  If she can do those things, what CAN’T she do? 

The emotional growth began with accountability that came in a letter – amazing to receive.  She worked on rebuilding trust and respect, with others and herself.  Add more feeling better about herself which let’s face it – this is REALLY what gets us through life’s trials – the confidence you can.  She passed through the curriculum’s phases and her therapist walked us through the next harrowing step.

Just when you think you’ve cleared the hurdles, the next step crushes you...HOME or BOARDING SCHOOL.  Violet had been asking about it for weeks.  I was living in denial.

I remember talking to one of my parent advocates pre-Wilderness.  I asked how long it had been since her daughter had been home and she said 8 months.  I choked.  My ears completely refused to acknowledge this information.  IMPOSSIBLE, that would NOT be happening to us.  We were different.

Now, we were in it, 65 days in.  Her therapist told us she would graduate around her 85th day and we should prep for the next crossroad.  I wasn’t ready.  I had two separate parts of my brain screaming into my ears, Mrs. Long-Term-Rational and Ms. Instant-Gratification-Emotional.  Ms. Thang was SO LOUD, she made it inconceivable to be apart from Violet any longer.  I wanted my baby with me.  I craved her.  But, having her step back into THE GAUNTLET, our home with all the old triggers, seemed self-defeating.  Mrs. Rational took over.  More dread.  

I strapped on my big girl boots and toured the two best choices for therapeutic boarding schools.  I was constantly asking about 3 things that, to me, meant overexposure for Violet: drugs, sex, suicide.  Violet didn’t even know the word ‘suicide.’  I was paranoid about her getting any ideas, if only for manipulative purposes.  Serving such a young age group meant that my fears were prrrretty much alleviated (10-16).  Extracurricular activities abound, homey houses, tons of parent integration.  I was still conflicted, but then I met the girls.  I can’t tell you how quickly Ms. Thang shut her yap.  SO RELIEVED.  They were just like Violet.  Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.

Guided by the therapist, we told her we were looking at residential schools in her next letter.  I was petrified.  How terrible must it have felt to be confronted with not coming home after being away from everything for 3 months?  After everything she had done...  

She got it, read it aloud.   

She ran.

They let her.  She screamed and cried into the woods.  They just watched and waited for the fury to be gone.  She calmed down, went back.  Kids supported her; therapist helped her process it.

The Wilderness Program had girls from both schools come and visit – total streak of genius.  Violet aligned herself with one and luckily it was our first choice too.  We let her be a part of the decision making process, back and forth letters for 2 weeks.  It empowered her. 

“I am still pretty surprised and upset that I’m going to boarding school but here is what I’d like to bring to school…(list of goods)…I am also kinda excited to go to boarding school and would hope that you would take into consideration me going to Lions Lake Academy I really like it there.”

I couldn’t even believe it.  She was ok.  She was even a little excited. 

She would graduate in 1 week.  Belly flops of opposing extremes – elation and trepidation.  I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like.  ONE WEEK?!?!?!  84 days later and I would finally get to hug my baby girl.  YES!!!! 

She had done it.  She made it through the WILD.  She accepted another tough transition.  WE ALL MADE IT.

Now if that’s not growth I am surely confused by the definition.

 

 

WE ARE NOT ALONE

Having a kid who struggles is isolating.  You feel alone and confused and you are suffocating.  No one knows what you’re dealing with, how could they?  No one talks about it for fear of the “finger pointers.”  Those who have not had a challenging child have a common reaction – wild child = neglectful (or oblivious) parents. 

No one wants to expose anything that may invoke judgment.  I am very open, typically confident.  We taught our kids the importance of manners and kindness and we role-modeled it for them.  When you have a child who, in spite of all these best efforts, is disrespectful and unruly, you cannot help but doubt yourself.  All the psychologists in the world couldn’t allay your fear that it was your doing, your fault.  So you DON’T talk openly, and you sacrifice the chance for real support, even just through the comfort of company.    

Because this is YOUR KID, it’s not like making a fallen soufflé.  It’s so very personal and sacred.  The lack of control DOES at some point feel like a weakness; it IS embarrassing.  A lot of people can empathize, but it’s totally different to live inside the skin of it. 

To the Parent Workshop we went and get this – you go down to where your kid is, but you can’t see them.  We knew Violet was in the woods behind the place where the meeting was, but she was never to be seen, or hugged.  I was starved for her, even just a glimpse.  I’ll admit it, I tried to peek.  Didn’t work.

Two parts to the workshop – info gathering and experience sharing. 

The invite to the workshop meant that Violet was about halfway through the phases.  They were teaching us the tools to help the kids acclimate back into whatever the next step was; giving you enough time to practice. We were all dying to see her.  Yet, I had a consumptive feeling growing like weeds, overtaking my newfound confidence.  Fear.  She was working so hard, as we had been.  We hadn’t seen each other in months.  I did not want to backtrack.  We had ironed out so many wrinkles in our family vibe and I needed to maintain the even keel.

The workshop drilled the language protocol focused on active listening, feeling statements, clear boundaries and conflict resolution.  It also discussed some brain mapping of thoughts and reactions (mid-brain to fore-brain) that were awesome to understand.  The freedom of making it so black and white was a total relief.  The connections COULD be exercised, it could be managed at some level.

·      Repeat what they say nearly verbatim so they feel heard.  Ask questions.

·      Take space when you need it, even to contemplate a response.

·      Don’t speak from an emotional place, ditch emotional reactions altogether. 

·      Use “I” statements only.  “You” sounds too judgy.

·      Create the structure of limits and consequences, mean what you say – follow through – don’t bend to placate. 

·      Give choices to empower.

·      Meet resistance?  Repeat decision emotion-lessly until absorbed. 

I began reviewing my notes, attempting role-plays with my husband who REALLY loved that.  “Honey, let’s practice!  I HEAR you saying that you don’t want to go to the movies, right?  I FEEL frustrated ABOUT the tone of voice I heard BECAUSE it sounds like you don’t care what I think.”  Ohhhhhh yes, who WOULDN’T love that?  (sarcasm)  

Sitting with 16 parents, we shared our stories. 

To hear each story was like someone pulling an element of your own memory and shoving it in your face on a platter.  The similarities were actually BIZARRE.  Some of the dialogue was even identical.  My angst had company.  I heaved a sigh and squeezed my husband’s leg as each parallel universe concluded.  You wouldn’t believe the flood of stranger vulnerability.  It was crazy-liberating. The mind trips of guilt, shame, repression, resentment, cyclical dynamics, being overly emotional, feeling out of control, feeling helpless!  ALL mirrored with every tale.

There was SUCH value for me, for us, hearing other people’s experiences. This was when I started feeling like I should write things down.   If I was getting this level of comfort from ONE day of talking to others, what could I achieve writing? 

These are not kids who you could easily identify with developmental delays or physical impairments.  These are kids who are anxious, depressed and dealing with issues that are SO internal.  They act out of their discomfort with rage and anger toward their families, their friends, THEMSELVES.  These were the kids who without intervention, would end up being the “bad” kids.  The ones the world wants to push out.

UHHHHH.  The wrenching heartbreak around parents who have struggled for so long, blamed themselves for so long, is palpable.  The absolute tear-jerking realization that you have given your child a future with HOPE in it?  So totally overwhelming.  The feeling in the room was charged. 

I did write things down – like 2 million and 40 things.  Looking at them on the paper?  I was STRONG.  No problem, I could DO this.  I had the recipe, there it was.  The veritable family fix, IF you could do it all without emotion.  Anxiety strutted its heavy-gut boots back onto center stage. 

There were parent calls once a week, which tracked people in similar phases of the program.  I had never been a part of a support group and maybe even avoided them unknowingly.  This one I joined.  Someone finally spoke up – they were scared too.  Ahhh, it’s not just me, it’s OK.  I was calmed just by someone saying it.  The end of this trial was near, we were ready for our next phase and We Were Not Alone. 

“I felt it shelter to speak to you.” – Emily Dickinson

Not being alone.  Not being crazy.  Not being the worst parent ever.  Not without a bucket-load of work to do.  Major comfort in company, solace in support.

Like a warm blanket in one word - PHEW.     

 

 

http://cognitivepsychology.wikidot.com/cognition:brain-structure

http://biology.about.com/od/humananatomybiology/a/anatomybrain.htm

 

JUST DO IT

Violet struggled, hit a zenith, went to the woods.  Physically, this is one of the most challenging experiences I have ever heard about.  Emotionally, it is even tougher.  And here is where the real work lies.  First step?  All the ol band-aids come off.

Vi loves fashion, accessories, makeup, always has.  She typically had a 4x costume change per day – I presume it’s something about her outsides feeling better in hopes of affecting her insides.  RIP #1 – VANITY – No mirrors. 

Vi suffered from transition anxiety.  On a normal day I would need to give her about 4-5 ‘heads-ups’ regarding plan anticipation.  Zero room for spontaneity.  RIP #2 –COMFORT OF KNOWING – No future information.

Vi tuned out the world to screens.  Another presumption – it was probably easier to turn on and tune out than it was to function with her discomfort.  RIP #3 – HIDE AND ESCAPE – No technology. 

ONLY YOU.  Focus on only you.  No time, no plans, not what you look like.  Just YOU.  How torturously liberating.

 “What are we doing next?”

“Sorry, too much F.I., try to be present.”

First note from Violet.  Coined “The Bail Letter” by the kids, they bond by helping each other punish their parents with their worst nightmares.  Sleepless nights worrying about your lost, starved, miserable kid – confirmed!  Here are some gems collected from ours and other families…bail me out!

“I cry every night and they make me read my letters out loud and I hate it here.”

“They took away my sleeping bag and I have to sleep on the ground and I’m freezing to death.”

“They are forcing me to take more medicine and I feel weird.”

“They make me eat bugs and garbage.”

“I had to drink dirty lake water.”

 “The kids here are REALLY crazy.”  (that one is funny)

One family therapy call a week.  One highly structured letter from us.  The opportunity for her to respond (not mandatory).  No talking to her, no seeing her.  And we agreed to this so WE had to just do it.

A raw person.  No defenses, no safety nets.  Now?  Let’s tempt their most intolerable frustrations out of the cage.  Let’s taunt them with challenging tasks, while they are exhausted, and ask the frustrations to just sit with us, in the present.

“Your daughter made a fire.”

“Say what.”  (Great, now she’s an arsonist?)

The whole “fire thing” was not clear when I first heard about it.  Then you realize how powerful it is.  A tangible mark for success - oh the exhilarating flames!  The agonizing task of getting to actual flame-age can take weeks to perfect.  Could there be a clearer test of how anyone handles frustration?  Trying something unsuccessfully for days on end while others succeed?  The perseverance it takes is awesome.   

Fire from scratch?  Not like the movies.  Start with a rock and flint or you make a “bowdrill.”  This means finding the right wood, making divets and a rod out of more wood that you jimmy back and forth with string.  That’s just to get smoke.  While you are trying to make the smoke, pieces of wood are sliding out of place non-stop.  You have to take a breath, reset and start over about 1 million times.  IT IS ABSOLUTELY AGGRAVATING.

“How long do we need to DO this for?”

“Sorry, too much F.I.”

Therapeutic milestones are the next obstacle.  Building trust through accountability and consequently respect.  Owning up to your own part in the negative dynamics created, learning how to manage ONLY what you can control.  I kept thinking – holy smokes – my daughter is going to be more prepared for life’s trials at the end of this journey than ANYONE else I know.  Certainly has taken years of therapy for me to come to terms with my part in the dysfunction.  I mean, I am STILL a serious work-in-progress.

“Can you PLEASE tell me what we are doing next?”

“Sorry Vi, too much F.I., try to be here now.”

Sound challenging enough?  I think one of the strongest parts of this is that there is NO CHOICE.  No escaping, no hiding, no option.  You just have to deal with it.  Violet and I made an interview where she gives advice to a soon-to-be Wilderness kid.

“If you go against the program, it’s harder and you will stay there longer.  If you go WITH the program and you help yourself through it and you let the program also help you, you’re gonna fly through it.”  Gotta just do it.

This is a lot to ask.  Completely giving up control, or even the pretense of it, feels totally insecure.  Broken record, but what a crazy opportunity.  Couldn’t feel more lucky or grateful for this for Violet.  How could you EVER be the same after this?