Sunday, July 26, 2009

Credit Due

I realize the last couple of posts appear to be a means of self-flagellation or sympathy seeking behavior, but I want to assure my readers, it really is neither. But, it is realistic. Trust me, we paid a lot of professionals a lot of money to examine our parental shortcomings over the years, and they were never short of material. But I know that my parental digressions do not approach the level of others, or why else would Child Protective Services exist? I was never going to be the inspiration for a Law and Order: SVU episode, thankfully. I can even admit that there are others I came across in my travels through my daughters' troubled teens who would top my list of Misguided Parenting way ahead of me. Often they were people who at first blush are the All American Families; working dad, stay at home mom, church-going pillars in their community whose kids ran astray of that All American Dream. Primary among them were the parents who would blame everyone else for their son or daughter's situation. I found this a particularly dangerous stance to take, because one of the first lessons I had to learn was that denial does not help, it only hinders, the recovery process. Kelsey and Marissa were a popular target for those parents, as were their friends, but the school got some of the blame, so did modern society and the list goes on. They never looked inward at their family dynamic. They never considered that there might be an underlying issue causing the "bad" behavior, so the teen was left in large part to sort out his or her troubling thoughts that led to the behavior in the first place. Some of them work it out, some don't and pay a high price for their parent's blind spots. My all time favorite, however, was the couple who told me that their son's behavior was not their fault, he was adopted and went on to blame it on his teenage mother's bad genes. A good eight years before I learned of my own adoption, the statement still left me so completely livid that I was speechless. And, sure enough, they cast him aside shortly after that remark. They sent him to a group home, and then to live with relatives. This good, sweet kid who was going through a bad case of teenage rebellion and needed their love and support got neither. Years later, they both got very sick and he moved back along with his sister to take care of them until they died. It was more than they deserved I thought, but I hope they made their amends before the end. However, all of these people, like me and like my husband, wanted to do the right thing by our children, we just weren't on the right track all the time, or, worst case, any of the time. The one thing I will give us a lot of credit for is that we sought help. And we were willing to be laid bare in front of our children and then worked to make changes in both ourselves and within the family structure to help Marissa and Kelsey. I can tell you, it is an excruciating experience.

Think of the most painful thing you have ever gone through physically, then try to imagine that ten times over, and it might begin to compare to a family therapy session with Kelsey. Effective therapy, I learned early on, is neither a fast nor a pleasant process. Kelsey came at it full of rage, which I can only just now recognize as a mask for a lot of fear, and she made sure any session we were in with her was going to be a confrontation. The roughest years were in 2005 and 2006. First there were the weekly teleconferences we had with Kelsey's therapist when she was in residential treatment in Reno where I felt the woman was trying to reach through the phone and verbally bitch slap me week after week. I would almost always walk away from those sessions in tears, sometimes crying a river's worth. The whole point, it seemed at the time, was to point out exactly how much of a travesty our parenting had been. I had come across that before when Kelsey was at McCallum Place in St. Louis, but her therapists, in comparison, pulled their punches. This woman was not that shy. Then we survived her only to be introduced to Marissa's private therapist, a petite, attractive woman with a viper's touch. She often pulled me in for the last five or ten minutes of the session to enumerate the various ways I was failing my daughter. I was convinced she hated me, a charge she later denied, but, whatever her feelings were for me personally, she clearly had no positive thoughts spared for my efforts as Marissa's mother. I once whined to our family therapist that I didn't understand how tearing me down in front of my children was productive. At the end of the day, I was still the only mother they had and they were stuck with me. To a certain extent, I still stand by that comment. Kelsey seemed to learn from all those sessions that critiquing us openly and harshly was her right, and she exercised it often until the end. But, on the other hand, I know that part of the process has to be for the children to see that the parents are in it with them, willing to not only look at their past behavior, but that they are actively trying to change it. It's as if they are saying, "If the parents can do it, than so can you." And, in fairness, the staff at treatment centers know that they only have a limited time to effect a life altering change in an individual, so they go for the juggler. You want gentle? Then go to a massage therapist. You want change in your life? Then, buckle up, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

I have a theory that if you always like your therapist, he or she is not the right therapist for you. Family therapists have to be a little like drill sergeants. They have to strip you of your old ways and re-build you into cohesive units ready to take on any enemy, and that takes hard work. The funny thing about it, though, is you may completely abhor it at the time, but if you approach it honestly, openly and work to make the changes you learn about, you will find that your life does get better. And we did that. We did that work. I will go on record as being very proud of us for that. I am proud of any family who goes through it.

But, of course, in the end, it was too little, too late, not enough, or something, because Kelsey never spent more than a few brief periods healthy during the last nine years. And, over the last few months, we all saw her decline, but felt completely hopeless to stop it, let alone turn it around. All that work and here we all are, one short of our whole family. My only recourse now is to try and look at what happened honestly and openly and hope it helps someone else.

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