(Note to our readers: This is the third blog in a series written by a parent who has placed a child in residential treatment. Blog 1, The Teen Years: Residential Treatment is filled with Hope. This blog is the continuation of the second, which is about Parent Workshops.)
This trip, the second one I’ve made out to Utah, I was allowed to take my child off campus. We made a plan for the evening so that our time would be structured and predictable. As far as this was possible in a town on the opposite side of the country.
For once I was happy for the bookstore chain. It looked the same as any other one we had ever visited. “I feel so normal,” they* said as we walked through the door.
To limit any problems we had determined a dollar amount and quantity of books that I was willing to purchase. We talked about what we might look for ahead of time so that they were not distracted by the over stimulating amount of what was desired. My child has always appeared confident. At an early age they could walk into a store, converse with the necessary adult, and find what they needed. I watched their familiar charm turn on as they asked for help here and I trailed behind. Conscious that I needed to stay within 10 feet at all times. (Residential Treatment rules.)
The actions were familiar, but channeled from years ago. Before the teen turmoil hit. They sat on the floor. They read the back of the books. They perused through the discount section looking for deals. They asked my advice. They turned it down. They smiled. They laughed. They looked at ease.
After three permutations of book selections, we were still above budget. I watched the mood shift and my child began to grow agitated. Their movements sped up and they began to grasp at anything they could bring home (the RTC) as new, even if it was not anything they would want 10 minutes after we left the store.
“I feel anxious,” they admitted. Articulation rather than meltdown? That’s improvement. Riding the relative normal processing, I held my breath and made a suggestion.
“Why don’t you just bank the money? We can spend it at another time. Leave with the one book you really want.”
“Okay,” my child said and then continued. “There are too many choices. May I stand over here near the door while you check out?” They took a few steps away and I made my way to the register.
I handed the bag to my child as we exited the store and out into the evening. “Can you imagine how this would have gone a few months ago?” they asked. We both can. Yelling. Pleading to get more and more. Pocketing handfuls of sugar packets from the cafe. Anger through the night. Crying and remorse. My feeling like a failure. All over a visit to the bookstore.
“I feel like I’m a snake that is molting,” they said as we drove away. “You know, there are those snakes that shed their skin when their first skin gets too tight. I’m making a new skin.”
In my head I run through the powerpoint of the day and try to mindful of staying in the moment. “It must feel good to be making progress,” I say. “Can you tell me more?” As they talk about how it felt “too tight” at home and how they feel like people here understand them, I try to figure out the best way to respond. I want to validate their feelings and honesty. I want to hold onto the progress. They need to recognize it and I do, too.
We need to recognize and articulate the feelings that previously would have exploded.
We need to recognize the strategies developed for getting through a rise in emotion that prevented boiling over.
We need to recognize that in 4 months, a new language and way of interacting with the world has started to be built.
This was the new skin. It was taking shape and providing flexibility and ease in the world that had never before been possible.
I took a deep breath. I knew what I would share with the parents over coffee as the workshop got started tomorrow morning. I was not alone.
* The author’s child identifies as ‘they/them.’ The gender identity of the child is not the reason the child is in residential treatment.
If you want to learn more about this author's experiences and reflections read these blogs:
September 27, 2017: The Teen Years: Residential Treatment is filled with Hope
November 17, 2017: Family Weekend During Teen Treatment: We Are All In This Together
December 11, 2017: Relocate. Repair. Refocus. Required.
About the Author
The author lives in NYC and is the parent of two fascinating and engaging children, ages 15 and 12. An instructional leader at an elementary school, she has the privilege of spending her days supporting a wide-range of students and teachers.