(Note to our readers: This is the second blog in a series written by a parent who has placed a child in residential treatment.)
I went to my first family weekend in July 2017. My child was relatively new to the treatment program, just off orientation phase of the treatment program and without many privileges. Now we count 133 days since they’ve* lived at home. The family at home has gotten into a rhythm that limps, at best, as we try to feel our way around an easier, smoother, less crisis-filled daily life, while still feeling around the empty place where our child used to be.
There was a time I believed that after our child’s move to residential treatment, my emotions would somehow stabilize. I dreamt my life could shrink down from its expanded, pressurized state, to some kind of normal. Instead, my family has taken a new shape. Like a balloon blown past capacity, we resemble what we once were, but continue to show our stretch marks.
Don’t misunderstand. There are many things that have smoothed out. My own time in therapy has decreased my anxiety. The palpable panic that regularly swelled through my chest, unsure of what state my child would be in after my day at work, has noticeably subsided. I have gained a certain unknown ease of life; the chance to work late or even meet a friend for dinner without the terror of how the evening of emotions would unfold at home. I’m aware of this shift, and thankful for it. I know my child is safe and no longer lose sleep wondering what will come next.
So, why do I still find myself staring at the darkened ceiling? Perhaps it’s the dialectic that I’m feeling. My child is right where they need to be, and simultaneously, the path ahead remains bumpy and unclear.
When we went to Utah to drop our child off in June, we came home with a Parent Handbook meant to acclimate us to the rules and expectations of the program we were all newly enrolled in. We were also given a hardcover book, meant to educate us in the ways we could continue to support our child, even while they* were away. I scoured the handbook, trying to envision the new daily life of my child. The book stayed on the shelf.
Only now, on the plane for our second family weekend, 4.5 months after my child had made the move out of our house, could I pick up that book. Until now, I have been treading water, trying to keep my head one inch above the crisis in which my family was immersed. My dance card was still full nearly every night with therapeutic appointments dealing with each constellation of relationships that got us to this point -- family, couple, individual. I was trying to fit into this new pattern of life which left me with our eldest child out of the house years before I had anticipated and without anything that resembled the assumed trajectory.
I am luckier than most. I have a cushion of family and friends who have been on call at all hours, comforting my crying or processing the latest unimaginable event. I have had care and love and support at all stages: admitting my child into the emergency psych ward for the first time (and every time after), visiting possible treatment centers, packing, bleary-eyed for my child’s departure before it was known to them or their sibling.
Still, I did not know anyone who could speak from a personal experience anything like mine until I attended a family workshop weekend.
Photo courtesy of Summit Prep (MT)
We were in a hotel lobby for the workshop. It was familiar, but slightly askew. You can easily imagine the situation. Maybe you’re in a conference room somewhere, or an office building away from your hometown. You’ve traveled by necessity. You’re seated next to people you don’t know, united by circumstance, but little else. You make small talk during breaks, “Where are you from?” or “How did your last meeting go?” Resting on the conventions of small talk and or attempting to talk, even for a few minutes, so that you don’t feel so out of the element.
This situation is also familiar, the feeling that arises in the middle of a psych 101 lecture or the third paragraph of any article on the web about a particular psychological pattern. You read the list of tendencies. You scan down the checklist of hallmarks. You become certain that all these details add up to your ailment and wonder why you have not seen the truth before this very moment.
Parents’ Weekend at residential treatment is one part work-travel connection, one part recognizable psychological symptoms and one part fast reveal of your life to a crowd that understands and empathizes. These weekends are a landmark in your own familial journey through crises, and into healthy coping skills.
It was the first break of the morning and there I was, a line for the women’s room. We try to connect. Where are you from? How long have you been here? Who is your child? It was the second break of the morning and there we were again, back in the waiting line for the bathroom. Our personal stories started to seep out through the conversation in the workshop. We were already connected and the questions got more personal. Were you in wilderness before treatment? Have you learned about DBT before? What books have you read to help understand this inexplicable path?
The conversation continued over our five days together, seizing any moment we could grab. Waiting for our child at the residential treatment center in the morning, gathering in our seats before the presenters began. Again our talk shifted, taking a deep dive into things more personal: What symptoms and struggles brought you here? Are you getting hate mail from your child? How is the rest of your family coping? It was day one of parent weekend and we were all vulnerable, just by the virtue of showing up. We were finally in a room full of parents who really understood what it was like to try, as hard as you could, to parent a child who didn’t(?) respond to typical parenting moves.
The relief that comes with parents’ days is unexplainable. After months of lying, trying to protect the privacy of your child’s experience and the gravity of the situation your family is in, finally you can let your guard down. You are in a room full of people who ride the same emotions when you talk about their family, even if the details that brought them here are full of variety. What is consistent is crucial to understanding the strength of community: suddenly you are in a room full of people exposing their wounds as a way to help you realize you are not alone.
You are 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:
9/27/17: The Teen Years: Residential Treatment is Filled with Hope
11/17/17: Family Weekend During Teen Treatment: We Are All In This Together
11/20/17: Family Weekend During Teen Treatment: New Communication Skills Take Shape
12/11/17: Relocate. Repair. Refocus. Required.
2/27/18: “I’m Not Going Anywhere…” When Teen Treatment Gets Messy
5/24/18: It's Fine
5/30/18: Nearly Normal
6/7/18: The Passage of Time
7/16/18: You Have to Work With What You Have
8/10/18: Healthy Teenage Boundaries - Taking Control
3/25/19 Parenting: I Would Like a Do Over
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.