healing

ONE LITTLE DATE

It had been nearly 2 years since Violet began her epic therapeutic journey that was changing all of our lives forever.  She was just 2 months away from being 13 years old when they told us.

“Guys, congratulations.  Violet is set to graduate on August 12th.”

And just like that, one finite little date morphed into a key.  And the key turned a lock.  And the lock opened a door.  And the compartment I had kept hidden from even myself spewed forth a flood.  And the flood drowned me. 

WHAT THE HECK WAS THIS?  Wasn’t this what we were waiting for?  What were all of these feelings and where were they coming from? 

Fear.

Excitement.  Relief.  Paranoia.  Joy.  Sadness.  More fear.  Happiness.  Gratitude.  Anxiety.  More fear.    

Grief and loss all over again.

All I could do was sob.  I have NEVER had such conflicting and extreme emotions simultaneously.  Our daughter was graduating from her therapeutic boarding school.  We had missed her so much.  This kid had worked so hard on herself.  When I reflected on how arduous the journey had been, I could barely wrap my mind around it. 

I had left my child, an 11 year old, alone in the woods.  It was the most unnatural, terrifying, heart-wrenching thing I had ever done.  By far, the most crucial milestone of my life. 

I heard the date and it was like I got tackled by all the feelings of losing her again. Right when you think you can’t possibly feel any more emotion, there it is - MORE.  Totally unexpected.  How could one date unlock SO MUCH?  And, how incredible is the brain that it created this defense? 

"Compartmentalization is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person's having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves.  Compartmentalization allows these conflicting ideas to co-exist by inhibiting direct or explicit acknowledgment and interaction between separate compartmentalized self-states."  (link below)

YES.  This was it.  I had allowed myself to grieve.  I had felt it, well, part of it.  These feelings of maternal desperation were in direct conflict with the betterment and healing of our family.  I made a compartment, or my brain did.  I didn't even know it.

Violet had been doing SO WELL.  Her therapist proudly told us she was the number one most desired mentor by the newer girls.  For the past many months, in times of consequence, disappointment, discomfort – Violet had been able to let it roll off her shoulders.  She had become the local diffuser of upset in the house.  She sounded like a teen therapist. 

I was so blown away by her progress, so happy to hear levity and pride in her voice.  Then, one little date came.  Apparently, Violet had a compartment too.  She cried.

“I don’t want to leave.  I’m scared.  I feel good here.  I have always felt bad, you know?  And now I have friends, I am a leader.  I am funny and people like me and come to me when they need help.  I am scared to leave and go somewhere else.  I don’t want to go.” 

OF COURSE she didn’t want to leave.  Imagine feeling terrible for your whole life, leaving your home and family and being sent somewhere strange.  Then, you find yourself again, renew your self-esteem.  NOW, finally feeling safe, you have to leave that place too?    

We sat on the phone for our family therapy call - my husband, me, Violet and her therapist.  We all cried.  The reason was not joy.  It was empathy.  I couldn’t believe Violet was being tasked with MORE intense things to process after all she had faced and accomplished.  Through her own tears, the therapist said the perfect thing, yet again.

“Violet, listen to me.  It is time.  You are ready.  You can do this.  It is normal to be afraid.  It is normal to not want to leave.  It wouldn’t be the right time for you if you were dying to get out of here.  And you will never lose me.  I will be here for you and you will have calls with me and you can do this.  You really are ready.”

My heart hurt for her.  The girl was still a 12 year old!  She was a child.  This was just SO MUCH.  I was not anticipating this round of heaviness. 

I pushed mute on my phone.  I didn’t want her to hear me heaving while I cried.  My husband grabbed my hand and squeezed.  I wanted to smoosh her and tell her it would be great.  I wanted to but I couldn’t.  I was so scared too.

In the following 2 weeks, Violet started to struggle again.  She acknowledged that she may have been sabotaging out of her own fear.  This blew my mind too.  She was SO brave to be this self-aware, vulnerable and honest.

“Behavior is said to be self-sabotaging when it creates problems and interferes with long-standing goals.  These acts may seem helpful in the moment, but they ultimately undermine us, especially when we engage in them repeatedly.” (Psych Today)

Here we were standing at the precipice of all of our long-standing goals.  We wanted Violet to come home and be able to assimilate all she had learned into our family in a healthy way.  I could totally understand how it would have been easier to postpone dealing with transition and the unknown.  We all had to show our faith in Violet. 

“Violet my love, my first little girlie.  We are scared too.  The time has come.  We can all do this together.  We believe in you.”

I had several days during this period of sitting in my car and crying.  The strength of my sobs left indents on the steering wheel.  Vi had sat in her therapist’s office crying too. 

We had almost made it through.  I couldn’t believe it.  I could not believe it had been two years.  We were actually on the other side.  I couldn’t believe how raw I still felt.     

Now, to find a new school.   A new beginning, the next chapter.  Somewhere Violet would thrive.

I couldn’t believe how scary this still was.  That part, I feared, would never end. 

It is time.  You are ready.  You can do this. 

 

http://flowpsychology.com/compartmentalizing-psychology/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/self-sabotage

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.

 

 

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)