emotional support

2 DAYS BEFORE

"Anxiety is a chameleon, a shape-shifter, a distortion, a robber." - Meredith Bluestine

Graduation was 2 days away.  The phone rang, it was Violet.

“Mom, promise me you will get here as fast as you can.  I mean from the airport.  Just drive straight here.  Promise me.  Because we are having a celebration and I don’t want you to miss it.  Also, I want to sleep at school with my friends for our last night together.  But I still want you to pick me up in the morning to get ready for grad.  OK…wait…maybe I should just stay at school to get ready?  I mean, if you CAN’T pick me up, if you are gonna be late?  Forget it.  It’s not even worth it.  I’ll just stay here.  You can just drop my dress off and I will get ready by myself if you can’t even BE here when I want you to.”

“Babe, you are my main priority for those days, whatever you want - I will do.  I am there to help, and that’s it.”

“You didn’t answer my question!  Will you get here when I NEED you to?  I mean, do you even REMEMBER when I asked you to come and get me?”

“5:55 am.” 

“OK, yes.  That’s right.  Don’t forget.  Will you actually do it though?  I mean, do not forget Mommy, 5:55 am.  Because I have to do my hair and it takes so long and…what if my dress doesn’t fit?  What if it doesn’t look right?  I am going to do my own makeup.  Maybe I should just get ready at school.  Don’t forget - 5:55 am – I mean - if you can REMEMBER to pick me up that early.”

“Yes Vi, of course I will be there.  Even though it feels a LITTLE early considering the ceremony starts at 10, I will be there 100%, don’t you worry for one second.  I know you’re anxious, I am too, and it will STILL be OK.  I want to try and find something I can use to thread the gold stuff through your hair.”

“WHAT!!!  You said you KNEW how to do it MOM!  You said no problem!  Are you telling me NOW you don’t know how to do my hair?  Oh my god.  Oh my god.  What?  Why would you say you knew how to do it if you didn’t???”

“Babe, I DO know how to do it.  It would just be easier with a tool.  OK, let’s just take a breath, and remember that while this is a very emotional experience, on the whole it is very exciting and should be fun.  Everything is going to be great.”

And the reality gripped its claws into me.  The anxiety would not change.  The difference would be how she handled it. 

Was she screaming?  No.  Was she irrational and crying?  Not at all.  Was she saying inappropriate and disrespectful things?  Not even once.  But her anxious spiral was frenetic and palpable.  Anything was fair game to get nervous about.  It was, of course, 2 days before graduation and she had to do a speech in front of a crowd.   It WAS a big deal. 

“Mommy, this is why I wanted to go on the school outing the day BEFORE graduation!  I KNEW I would need a distraction!  Now I will just be sitting here, and I will be worried the whole time!”

Anxiety: an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehensions and fear, marked by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to handle it. – Merriam Webster

She was scared.  She couldn’t stop snowballing.  She was also now 13 and recognizing her own needs.  She was acknowledging her feelings, not acting out because of them.  It made her swell of anxiety manageable and understandable for me.  She was using her tools.  She was telling me what was wrong, and letting me know what she needed.  I could relate to her.  I could actually help her.  It was a relief.

I hung up with her.  I walked in to bed the babes.  Soleil asked me to tell them about the next few days, “starting with tomorrow morning.”  I ticked down the list of our itinerary.  We would fly, drive, arrive.  My husband and I would meet with the therapist for discharge information.  We would go to the house where Vi had been living and check it out for a little party with the graduates.  Soleil wanted to write new words to a popular song to sing to Violet.  I could see Soleil getting excited to go.

“Oh my god Mommy, is their place really cute???”

“I’ve never been inside Sol, but from the outside it looks like an adorable little house!”

I talked about the fact that my husband and I had to give a speech too.  I had some concern about the younger kids seeing me cry as much as I was anticipating.  We discussed it openly, so they were prepared and not afraid.  Such heavy emotion from parents sounded hard for a 6 and 8 year old to process without fear.  Sol asked me what my speech was like, and Axul responded. 

“Mommy is gonna sound like this Sol - ‘WEEE MISSSED YOU VIOLEEEEET!  WAHHHHH, wahhhhh wahhhh – uhhhhhhh uhh huhhhh!!!’” (mocking me crying)

Time for lights out.  As I trekked through the minutiae of our trip, Axul was writing in his journal.  He asked me to read what he wrote - all about Violet leaving and then being with her.  The kid was 6 and so sweet.  He wanted to participate.

“Mommy, I want to write a speech too!  I want to say something.”

“I love this idea Ax, but it is really late.  How about you tell me what you want to say, and I write it down for you?”

“Yes!  Ok…write this…Dear Violet, I have missed you so much.  I can’t believe you are here with me.  I can’t believe you have been gone for 2 years.  It feels like 4 hundred thousand.  I love you.  Love, Axul.”

Slay me now.  Killer.

Now for my bedtime routine.  I washed my face and felt my tears mix with the water I splashed on my cheeks.  I was so scared too. 

What was I afraid of?  I think it’s that I didn’t want to have to face all those FEELINGS.  It was just too much.  So many different ones at once.  They ALL made me cry, no matter if they were happy or sad.  It was all too overwhelming, this culmination of everything we had all been through. 

I sat down at the computer and redid my speech for the 30th time.  Was it ok?  Would I even be able to read it?  I couldn’t even get through it in my head without sobbing.  You would think after 45 million times of going over it I would be able to have SOME self-control.  My husband must’ve thought I was losing it.  I had cried for the past 48 hours, nonstop.  Anxiety robbed me of much in these days.  The capacity to self-soothe was right in the forefront.

Time to sleep, if I even could.  2 years later, and 2 days until graduation. 

Violet was coming home.

BOUNCING BACK

When you are a parent of a child who struggles, all you want is to find a solution.  Defiance, school refusal, rebellion, self-harm, drugs, promiscuity, learning issues, bullying, depression, anxiety, aggression – it hardly matters what the struggle is.  I am the mom, I want to fix it.  Violet’s reactions all came from her feeling horrible on the inside, and watching your kid feel bad is IMPOSSIBLE.

We had tried SO MANY different things.  Schools, therapies, medication, affirmations, nutrition, exercise, more sleep, less sleep; the list goes on and on.  With every new thing, I would become so very hopeful. 

Panacea: A remedy for all diseases, ills, or difficulties; a cure-all.

Yes, this is the one, this is the thing that will work.  Once we get the sugar out of her diet, she will feel totally different, she will be happy! …OR… Yesss, this is it.  The medicine we have been searching for!  The doctor said, it could literally clear the clouds out of her way and she will be able to see how great she is! 

Grasping at every little straw of hope, I felt desperate and fragile.  We would wait at the edge of our seats to see if she had SOME relief, to see if our family could be fixed.  After years of trying and failing, she went to Wilderness.  I genuinely BELIEVED that after 84 days at Wilderness, after being at a therapeutic school for 4 months, we would have found the proverbial “fix.”

No such panacea. 

This is from a very eloquent woman friend of mine who struggles with an older son…

“Every time I think he is headed in the right direction, he turns around and spirals downward.  Hope becomes something that I cling to and resent at the same time.  It is a slim tree in a tsunami.  The higher I climb its limbs, the greater the fall.”

Violet was gone for 6 months.  She came home for the holidays.  I was too optimistic.  Old habits die hard.  Places, people, sounds and smells can be SUCH strong sense memories.  Coming home was a dunk in the old pool of turmoil.

She had an uncontrollable outburst after Christmas.  We needed the therapist, and siblings, to help pull her out of it.  The next day, she left for school.  I buckled.  I couldn’t bear the feelings caused by seeing her in that state, especially after all this work.  I lost perspective and couldn’t seem to pull MYSELF out of it. 

My husband tried to talk me down, “Amie, try and relax.  That was A LOT to ask of her.  It was a ton of pressure for the first home visit.  She had one hard time, one day.  Overall, she did really well.  She was able to bounce back after her episode and function with the family after moments, not days.  That NEVER would have happened before.  That IS progress.  You have to try and see the little things, or you will make yourself crazy.”   

In my clear mind, I KNEW how hard it was to change behaviors and cycles.  The ability to come back to the family within moments WAS serious progress.  I was the one who struggled.

“Two steps forward, one step back.”  Ultimately, this is still one step forward.  So, how could I embrace that part?  How could I experience the backslide and recover in order to continue to move forward?

Resilience: the ability to properly adapt to stressful situations or adversity; the ability to bounce back from hardship, to return to good condition.

From Day One, Violet’s school curriculum focuses on Resiliency.  How do you handle adversity?  Do you buckle or can you bounce back?  How quickly?  Can they teach you to do it faster?

Violet’s therapist shared a line with me, “Will this matter in 6 minutes?  6 hours?  6 days?  6 months?”  I burned this one into my brain.  Major aid for perspective.

 As heart rate recovery time indicates physical fitness, “resiliency” indicates psychological health.  Resiliency functions like a muscle; it can be strengthened.    

There is a trial going on lead by Dr. Martin Seligman (see link).  He has theorized a way to strengthen psychological fitness in a training program for soldiers.  Meant to enable the soldiers to “bounce back” with increased resilience, it should help decrease the cases of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). 

People with strong emotional, familial, social and spiritual fitness tend to be more resilient.  Here are some areas of focus: 

·      Accepting Reality – Let’s not be hyper optimists thinking things are great when they aren’t and let’s not be pessimistic.  No denial, or “the sky is falling,” just healthy acceptance.

·      Finding Something Meaningful – Let’s try to focus on something that derives meaning for us.  Relationships, family, spirituality, purpose.  (See Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl – I loved this one). 

·      Honing the Ability To Improvise – Let’s find that knack for coming up with a new solution, a flexible way of adapting to situations.

If it works there, in the most strained of situations, why wouldn’t it work for us all?

Reality and perspective.  Meaning and purpose.  Solutions.  Resilience.  Fall off the horse, get back on and try again.  Got it.  Man, we are all a work-in-progress.

“More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails.  That’s true for the cancer ward, true for the Olympics, true in the boardroom.” (Dean Becker)

And, may I add Mr. Becker, true for families.

 

 

 

https://hbr.org/2011/04/building-resilience

https://hbr.org/2002/05/how-resilience-works&cm_sp=Article-_-Links-_-Top%20of%20Page%20Recirculation

http:// www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx

 

 

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.

 

 

 

THANK YOU FOR THE PRESENT

Three whole months of not seeing or speaking to our 11 year old daughter.  There was no adequate measure of the anticipation dominating our flight to North Carolina.  One more night until graduation day.  What ever would this be like?   

I could not sleep.  Different scenarios spun through my mind like cotton candy, getting fluffier by the minute.  Had to talk myself down.  If I let my mind go?  I would imagine her skipping out from under a rainbow, smiles from ear to ear, joyous giggles spewing forth with unicorns dancing around the campground.  Ohhh, my overly indulgent optimism, a blessing and a curse.  AMIE, be a realist here.  Come back to earth.

To touch her.  To see her.  I could not wait.   

Her 84th day in the woods.  We had to go and stay there for an overnight and experience what she had overcome.  I was giddy with terror.

Another workshop began the day for the parents of 3 children graduating, to review what we learned and practice.  Most of which, I could barely hear through my earmuffs of excitement.  They gave us our packs, reminded us of the rules.  Live in the present.  No future information.  No technology.  No mirrors.  And the door opened…

Tentatively we walked into the woods holding a giant flag, doing call and repeats.  I think I heard her, was that her voice?  Chills surged up my spine, tingled my scalp.  I felt like running.  I think I did. 

VIOLET.  The air sucked into my ribcage.  She was so thin.  She was covered in hundreds of bug bites, scars from old ones and a layer of dirt.  She had sticks and twigs stuck in her hair, smelled like a teenage football player.  She was exhausted.  She was nervous. 

She was mine. 

I ran and hugged her with all my might.  Squeezed and squeezed, trying to get every inch of my skin to touch some of hers. 

My husband hugged her tight next.  I shivered and my eyes welled.  I was scared.  Excited.  Wanted to be perfect.  Wanted her to be perfect too. 

I took a step back and looked at her.  I could sense something was off.  What was it?  She was distant.  Protected.  My emotions swirled as I tried to understand.  It seemed like eye contact was too much.  Too overwhelming maybe?  I felt nauseous. 

Stop Amie.  She is fine, we are all fine.  She has gone through SO much.  Give her a break.  But why isn’t she squeezing me as tight as I want her to?  Because she is scared.  Why doesn’t she seem effusive, bubbling over with the excitement of being reunited?  Because she has gone through SO MUCH, this is intense.  Give her a break.  Not everything has to be perfect all the time.  This is what it is.  Let it be.   

I took a breath.  I tried not to prompt her with my usual, “You OK honey?”  I just tried to let it be, I really did. 

We gathered and had lunch.  She cooked with the counselor, served us all and cleaned up.  All coated with pleases, thank-yous, tons of respectful eye contact.  She smiled real smiles.  She was proud.  Then, we sat around the fire pit. 

“So, what are we doing next?”

“Sorry Amie, too much Future Information, gotta just live in the present.”

The woods.  Crunching leaves underfoot, a bird, a snapping twig.  I watched an ant crawl by next to my leg.  I waited.  I tried to breathe, tried to be patient.  I saw Vi check me out, she noticed my discomfort in just BEING.  Ugh.  Stay in the present damnit!

Counselor came over with some tools and we were going to attempt fire.  My husband and I tried for like 15 minutes, I was very frustrated.  IT WAS SO HARD!  Finally, I achieved the few sparks that were the goal and was ready to move on to the next thing. 

“OK, I did it!!!  Finally!!!  Where to next?”

“Amie, live in the present.”

HOLY COW PEOPLE.  I am an adult.  Can I please know what is happening next?  An outline?  Cliffs notes?  Just a tiny clue?  ARRRRRGGGGGH.

An epoch amount of time passed, or at least that’s what it felt like.  We FINALLY moved on to gathering wood for our fire and Violet lead us around the woods explaining which trees were good tinder, how to identify poplar.  She was enjoying teaching us so we asked more questions.  The thaw had begun. 

We played games devised to reconnect families after such tough separation.  It still felt strained to me, like she was so far away.  I tried not to micromanage each feeling, tried not to force myself on her.  Again Amie, LET IT BE.

By the second game, I looked over and saw Violet lean into my husband, and she stayed there.  She just leaned.  He felt it.  He gently put an arm around her.  Such a tender little branch.  I got teary.  She was going to be ok, we all were.

As nighttime crept up on us, we began to get ready in our cabins.  The heaviness of the newness lifted.  We laughed a little more.  We mocked my husband for needing me to switch beds because of the giant spider on top of his.  We took pictures and I hugged her again and again.  I finally got a real hug back.

Laughter.  She laughed for REAL.  It wasn’t edgy, it wasn’t hyper.  It was genuine joy.  It was like a symphony of sweetness.  I let it echo in my mind, memorized it.

The longest, most silent night ever ensued.  Crack of dawn, breakfast.  Violet made it again, used perfect manners, cleaned up.  Nice.    

“So what do we do today?”

“We live in the present Amie.  Enjoy the moment.”

We live in the city.  My mind has crap-on-a-loop at all times.  Constant overhaul of what’s next and what’s after that.  And do I have everything I need for the next 5 things with a family of 5?  Non-stop chaos.  I tried to give MYSELF a break.

This was nature.  Silent, vast, slow moving, real nature.  Blue waves of mountains, hundreds of years standing in the trees around us.  I was remiss to let my mind wander even for a second from the gift surrounding me.  Two people I loved so much.  The present.

I looked over at Violet.  She was peaceful.  For first time in her 11 years of life, I saw her face without the strain of her brain in it.  She really was at peace.  We sat, the 3 of us, legs barely touching.  We didn’t need to fill the space with words.  I breathed deep the smells, the closeness.  I felt content from head to toe.  Gratitude washed over me.

How many ways can you say thank you?  I wish there were more.  Oh limiting English language.  Thank you husband, thank you nature, thank you program, thank you therapist, thank you Violet, thank you life.

We did a little ceremony by a stream and threw in rocks representing old behaviors.  I should have thrown in my ‘what’s next’ obsession.  Ready to be alone, we ran like the wind outta that place.  Went to a restaurant and ate some gluttonous food, bathed for an hour, slept in big cozy beds. 

The days we spent with Violet before going to school were magical.  I felt such a sense of ease.  She was grateful for every little detail, as were we.  I was able to enjoy her personality without the tension.  She was so light, sweet, empathetic, expressive, proud, mature, funny, HERSELF.  My daughter was wrapped in her renewed self-esteem; she knew how strong she was.  I basked in her loveliness, felt like crying from half joy and half holy-cow-look-what-we-have-been-through.  It was yet another precious gift.

I started feeling nervous about the next step.  Was this sustainable?  What would happen with the real world peeking back in?  What if her siblings were here?  How would she handle real opposition now?  What would it be like to drop her off and say goodbye AGAIN?  WHEN WOULD I SEE HER NEXT? 

SHHHHH.  Amie, don’t go there, girl.  Learn from your experience like Violet did.  Stop thinking.  Breathe.  Let this be all there is.  Don’t deviate.  Enjoy the moment.             

Truly.  Ain’t no gift like The Present.

 

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? 

HEAL AND RECHARGE

There are so many elements of Wilderness that are unexpected, but here is a super positive one.

Violet was admitted on June 20th.  I got home the same afternoon to my two other children, Soleil – 6, and Axul – 4.  I had been so consumed with getting Violet to Wilderness, I don’t even know if I had been giving them attention.  Their sister was such a squeaky wheel and man, she got A LOT of grease.  These are very low maintenance kids and really didn’t demand that much.  Doesn’t mean they didn’t need it; there is a big difference between asking and needing.

“What can a family do while a child is at Wilderness?  First, recharge your batteries – you will need them!  …  This time can be difficult for other members of your family as well.  Oftentimes siblings are very confused – happy their brother or sister is getting help, but also missing him/her.  Take some time to reconnect and give them the time and the attention they deserve.”  - A manual from the program.

Here is where I felt guilt.  TONS of crazy guilt for allowing myself to relax and liking it.  I felt like I was betraying my adoration for my daughter.  But they kept telling me to chill out.  Relax.  Let yourself heal. 

I WAS SHOCKED.  Still am.  Totally stunned by how much of my life had been affected by Violet’s issues.  I can’t even think of how gravely I can present this in words, but EVERYTHING in my life, our lives, had been governed by the anxiety around it.  When you are living it, the downward gradation is so slow, it creeps.  It gets worse and worse, happens more and more frequently.  Then you have a good day and you pretend the bad ones didn’t exist.  Then it gets terrible again and you “can’t believe you are living like this.”  Then you feel resentment, then you feel guilt, then you feel bad for your other kids, then you want to save the first kid, then you can’t stand your husband, then you pity everyone, then more guilt.  It’s crazy making. 

So, now imagine all of that just disappearing.  Just gone. 

I remember feeling a knot in my stomach, a deep inner-diaphragm-under-my-ribcage-knot of tension.  I looked at my phone and it was 2:45 pm.  The time, on any other weekday, that I would begin receiving the slew of texts, messages, screaming fits from Violet as she was on her bus on the way home.  The time when she reappeared into my world after school, facing a babysitter ill-equipped to handle her, complaining about her terrible day.  And the knot happened to me probably every day for 2 months after she left.   Isn’t it crazy how physically our bodies respond?   

We explained very openly where Violet had gone to the other kids.  “We all know Violet was unhappy and needed some help.  She went to a camp where they are going to help her feel better about herself and she won’t be home for a while.”  They seemed to get it.  I know now, that Soleil in particular, experienced major loss.

I was observing them for the first few days and it was just fascinating.  The second day or two, Soleil was antagonizing her brother (which was very rare), and she screamed about something nonsensical and I realized she was re-creating the same tension she had become so used to.  It was now her normal. 

“Girlfriend.  You don’t have to do that ok?  We don’t want to have screaming or feelings like that.  We should just try to relax and be ourselves.  That is what we are trying to fix, so let’s not MAKE it happen, ok?”   

HEAL.  RECHARGE.  These words kept running through my mind.  I could actually sit on our couch and not worry about hearing someone scream.  I spent minutes, maybe even an hour reading without one disruption, everyone playing quietly, happily entertaining themselves.   Went to dinner without having to manage constant entertainment.  Had conversations without crying or interrupting or disrespect.  We laughed together freely.  No one took anyone too seriously. 

I got a glimpse into what family life could be like; what we wanted ours to be.  Loving, peaceful, fun.  I was getting an opportunity to rewrite the wrongs.   And they weren’t Violet’s wrongs, they were all of ours.  

I tried to get over the guilt, got over the stomach knot, and just collapsed into the recharge.  And even though it’s hard to admit it - it was sublimely salubrious.   (awesome word)

 

INTO THE WOODS

No clocks.  No mirrors.  No physical contact.  No technology.  No future information.

Take it up a notch – leave your family, your home, your friends and all the dynamics and routines that define you.  Someone gives you clothes, a 75 lb pack and a journal. 

Start your day by taking a 5-10 mile hike with the first hour in silence in woods that are more expansive and remote than you have ever seen.  Set up your own campsite.  Try not to freak out from exhaustion and frustration.

Now try to make fire.  FIRE, like a caveman.  Find sticks, find a rock, and after about 45 minutes mayyyyybe you get a spark.  Maybe, you just have to suck up your frustration, accept that it didn’t work out today and set your mind to try again tomorrow. 

Make dinner, eat it, clean it up.  Try to sleep - through rain slides, bumpy ground, hilled sleeping angles, fleets of mosquitos that feed on your every pore.    

Wake up, if you slept at all.  Make breakfast, clean up and organize.  Strap that huge pack on your back and there ya go – Into the Woods.  Now…do this again and again every day…until someone ELSE tells you, you can stop. 

SOUNDS LIKE I COULD USE THIS.  I would last 2 days.  That’s right, 2.

Oh wait, just a few more things – walk with 6-8 other people your age who also struggle from similar issues - stopping to wait while someone who has a hard time pulls it together.  Receive a letter from your parents stating exactly why you have been sent there and read it aloud.  Listen to feedback from your peers.  Be open with your therapist.  Reflect in your journal and start the journey of helping yourself. 

This sounds like punishment right?  WRONG.  The gift of a lifetime. 

Imagine teaching your child self-sufficiency.  Imagine putting your kid in a position where they couldn’t look to you for anything, even BLAME.  Imagine an environment that allows your kid to be stripped down to the bare bones of who they are, face it, and rebuild.  Imagine your kid telling YOU what they realize they need to work on.  Imagine your kid being among actual PEERS, who mirror FOR THEM the effect their behaviors have on a group.  Imagine what that might actually mean in the long run?

Is it potentially teaching them to rely on themselves for emotional sustenance at this crazy-young age?  Is it an opportunity to unlearn years of bad habits?  Is it an opportunity to prevent your kid from falling down a rabbit hole of self-medicating, aka drug abuse?  Promiscuity?  Self-loathing?  Self harm? I am not saying that this is the “fix.”  But it’s a damn good try.

The whole amazing concept is so therapeutically well-structured, it would blow your mind.  (our experience)  After you attempt to pull your OWN self together because you are going through the trauma of missing your child, you have to write your kid a letter for them to read to their group.  Holy intimidating, can you even imagine how powerful that is?  I love to speak to people, I am a communicator.  However extroverted ANYONE is, it is nearly impossible to be vulnerable at this level, IN PUBLIC.  I mean, I was freaked out to even publish THIS.  Now – you’re 11 and just think about this for one teensy little moment…

“I am now going to read aloud to everyone in this strange group how I have disrupted my family and why I am not a productive member of my household and/or community.  I will read about the things I have done and said and tell everyone why my parents sent me to this place.”

Then actually making yourself available for feedback?  GET REAL!  This is one of the biggest all time fears of the public AT LARGE, and now you’re talking about kids who struggle???  Public speaking mixed with vulnerability and the potential embarrassment that accompanies it?  It is just through-the-roof intense.  THROUGH THE ROOF. 

Our letter to Violet outlined her behaviors that were intolerable.  SO HARD for me to do, because I had my own hang ups about not wanting to make her feel worse.  Nasty voices, aggression, unpredictability, actual verbiage of some of the things she said.  Scaring people, hurting peoples’ feelings, being out of control.  It even got as granular as not cleaning up after herself and invading our privacy.  The program helps you structure it and it is bookended with positivity and encouragement.

“…We can’t live like this anymore.  It makes me feel like a person I don’t want to be and it cannot feel good for you…I know in my deepest heart that you are such a strong, brave, smart girl and you will be great at this.  Please make the best of your experience Vi.  You can do this.  I KNOW you can get control of these things; it will change your life!  This is not a punishment, this is so you can have a happy, healthy future and be a positive person.  I know you are going to be mad at us for going there and I think it’s natural to hate us for a little while.  We will always love you, no matter what.  And we will wait for you to love us again.” 

That last part always killed me.  I am terrible at enduring bad feelings.  And we did have to wait for her to forgive us and love us again, and that’s part of our struggle.

THIS is why I was able to sacrifice my daughter’s face being near mine for so long.  These therapeutic, internal dives that we could never have shepherded her through. It is an out-of-this-world opportunity.  And the biggest gift you could ever give anyone, at any age.  The freedom to explore yourself.  Isn’t THIS what growing is really about?  Pushing yourself past your own limits to REALLY find out who you are?

Man oh man.  I want this.  BUUUUT, I’ll skip the bugs and the hole in the woods “toilets,” thank you very much.      

 

 

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/22/how-nature-changes-the-brain/?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share

thx for this article M!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walden  - a link from my bro - love it!