(Note to our readers: This is the tenth blog in a series written by a parent who has placed a child in residential treatment.)
It’s hard every time I get these photos. They are only sent when the self-harm hits a certain level. The residence has to report, to let us know what our child has done. It’s impossible not to look, but looking does not help my heart or help me care for my child. It’s just a reminder that I have no control.
A week ago I was out for a visit. The harm was obvious then. An indication that my child’s anxiety had increased. The visible signal of internal turmoil. This behavior has increased since they’ve* left our house. Other stresses? Different influences? I’m not sure.
We’ve survived other phases that were difficult to extinguish. They feel mild now in comparison. There was the Spring that my child pulled out their hair. Strand by strand until patches were nearly bald. Another stretch had my child spitting, everywhere. Behind the chairs in our living room, off their bunk bed, walking through the hallways at school. I now see these as precursors to cutting. The outward sensory release of deep inward struggle.
I was not aware of the harm that would greet me during my recent visit. Both arms marked with words that somehow resonated in my child’s head. The left read "liar", the right read "dumb". At the top of their thigh, they etched a small boy. That tag had been on and off across the year as my child questioned their own gender identity. Their arms and legs were further embellished with lines of different sizes. Some were healing. The fading pink scabs peeling away to show fresh skin. Others were the bright red color of new wounds, swollen and raised off their skin.
“I have to show you my cuts as part of my treatment,” my child told me during our one night together. Before changing into pajamas they raised their pant legs so I could see the extent of their damage. I simply looked, respecting their bravery. I had no comment.
When my children were young and they questioned something healthy I wanted them to do, I always had the same response, “I worked hard to give you that body. I can’t give you another. You have to take care of it.” Now, this beautiful creation of a child was actively destroying themselves. I’ve learned to look and not flinch.
This afternoon, a week since that evening, photos arrived in my inbox. These cuts were all new. The therapist wrote that the night before my child had entered the bathroom and sliced and sliced and sliced. I scrolled down, past the images. I did not need to see them.
My mother asked once how this harm is still possible. The residence is so carefully monitored. Students have to be within line of sight, a maximum of 10 feet away at all times. Sharps are not allowed. My child is not the only one to mark their body. I have developed a new acceptance that people are driven to meet their needs in whatever way they can. Even as my child develops skills to avoid self-harm, more productive ways to monitor their own deep anxieties, they cannot access them when they are in distress. Yet. No different than an addict, who is neurologically pulled to their poison, my child will do what they can, in times of need, to cut. I hope this is not forever.
The email from the therapist said my child wanted to have a session that day with both me and their father. The three of us had not be in therapy together in the last six months.
The tension between us was too great. We created a harmful energy for our child. So, instead we alternated weeks.
Today, our child wanted to talk with us at the same time. Our therapist would be present, but our child was calling this special forum. We set a time, and several hours later, the computer screen turned on. There was my child and their therapist in the office in Utah, my child’s father in the bedroom we once shared, and me sitting at my new desk, taking deep breaths, looking out the window.
“I’d like to set some ground rules,” our child began. “I wanted to talk with both of you so you could each hear the same information. I did not want it to be confused. I want to be the one who talks. If you have something to say, you can say it to me, but you’re not allowed to talk with each other. If I think it’s necessary, I’ll ask you to take a moment to pause so you can lose your emotion and get your wise mind back.”
“And,” the therapist chimed in, “You also asked to use my no bullsh*t red button to push if things got out of control.” She held it up to the screen. I loved this about our therapist, the ability to somehow bring some levity.
Our child began. “Today I looked at a new location on the computer and I really liked it. You know I’ve been having a hard time here and I think I found a place that would be good.”
We sat and listened. Part of our visit last week was a meeting where we were told that our child had hit the ceiling of what they were capable of learning at this residence. In the last year they had grown more than I thought possible. They learned to monitor their emotions and respond to their listeners with more actual connection than I had ever dreamed. They showed capacity to reflect on behavior with support. They developed an ability to spend time with us void of the protective shield of obsessive reading or drawing.
“I can’t come closer to home until you two are better together. I want to stay in Utah. I need a place that specializes in work with people on the Autism Spectrum. I hate it here because I can’t make friends. No one understands what it is like to be me and it’s too hard. I want to be with other kids who need to learn to be together.”
I took that all in. Our child’s acceptance and identification of their self on the Spectrum had been rumbling around their conversation in different ways, even before a formal diagnosis. There was the summer they returned from camp and proclaimed that they were part of a larger tribe of kids who were twice exceptional (2e), children who had some neurotypical difference. This was held as a superpower and celebrated. Neurodiversity was a gift which elevated them above the rest of us normies.
That was a first step but this moment felt fundamentally different. My child was taking their newly developed self-awareness and advocating for a place where they could better understand their self. They were embracing their complexity and advocating for their needs.
“I also really want animals. This location has 20 cats and lots of horses. I’m afraid to ride the horses, but I can do chores instead. There are also classes that I can take online and if I get a school computer I can get my drawing tablet I think.”
Our child, once addicted to the internet and crafty at getting on to disruptive sites, had not had a computer since they left home.
“It’s a less restrictive location. I can even earn 15 minutes where I can be outside with my friends or petting a cat when staff are not in line of site. I need to be independent. I want to go and I can be there in a week. They have room.”
It was mature and persuasive.
I waited. Wanting to say the right thing.
“That sounds like an amazing place,” I validated. “I can understand why you would want to be with more kids who felt like you.”
My child’s father stepped in. “I am just questioning how different this is than what you told me last week. You said that you were afraid of horses, that you wanted to come closer to home, that you wanted a place that had fewer rules and was more urban. What changed?”
It was a fair question. One the many challenges of communication with my child is their tendency to morph, to say what they believe the adult in the room wants to hear so that they can control their situation to get what they want. Everyone involved gets a different story. My child’s father was telling the truth. While they were together, my child was opposed to the same positive attributes of this location that were now selling points. Meanwhile, when with me earlier in the week, our same child said their two priorities were to be in a community with other teens on the spectrum and where there were animals. The drama triangle exists, even when we are not all in the same space.
“I didn’t have enough information then,” my child responded. “I felt like I had to say what you wanted to hear. I knew that you didn’t like the place because Mama and my therapist liked it. That meant you had to be against it. I have information now. It’s where I want to go.”
I jumped into my practical powerhouse mode. “Okay, so what are the next steps that we have to move through? How do we make this happen?”
My child paused.
“And Mama, you are not right because I want the same thing you want. You can’t do that to me. You can’t be happy just because we agree. This is not about either of you. It’s about me and what I want.”
My child leaned forward and asked the therapist if they could put us on mute for a few minutes. They had something they wanted to ask. The screen went black and we immediately broke our child’s rule.
“I’m not agreeing to this location during this call. How could we not even look for other options? We have not talked with a consultant or considered other spaces. How can I believe that this is what our child wants if they said exactly the opposite this weekend?”
I could not read his tone accurately. All I could feel was the swell of my limbic system set off by my co-parent being on the opposite side of what I thought was right for our child. Fight or flight on behalf of my child. I fought.
“How could you say that?” I asked indignantly. “Did you just hear them? This is where they want to go. They were brave enough to talk to us together. This move can be made quickly and it’s a place that the professionals recommend.”
“You always trust the professionals. We know our child, too.”
My voice raised, as it does, when I feel trapped and unable to do what needs to be done. The answer was clear to me. We were trapped in our old pattern of antagonizing the other.
I tried to appeal to what I thought would be most convincing. “We wouldn’t need a consultant. It’s a place that specializes in a population that our child is part of. I don’t understand. Why can’t we just do this?”
We went back and forth touching all our familiar bruises. Fighting about money and how to pay for treatment. Fighting about the validity of what our child shared. Fighting because we had lost the ability to hear each other. We were out of patience.
The screen came back on and our child held the red “No bullsh*t” button.
“Stop! Stop fighting! We could hear you and you need to stop!”
“I feel like I have to choose sides with both of you. It’s not fair. There are so many of me. The funny one. The smart one. The one I am with Papa. The one I am with Mama. I need to consolidate my selves. I need to be myself.”
“This situation is not fair to you,” our child’s therapist echoed and validated. “You can love both of your parents. Equally. You have to be yourself.”
We were not doing best for our child. We were caught up in our own hurts. We needed to refocus.
I jumped in. As I do. “You are so brave to say that to us. I’m sorry for what I’m doing that makes you feel like you are in the middle.”
“Last night we were playing a detective game,” my child began. “I was the lead and trying to get everyone to follow the rules. One of the other students turned and said to me, ‘Oh yeah, why is the Autistic kid in charge?’ I went to the bathroom and cut myself. I have to get out of here.”
I heard the cry for help. I couldn’t even comfort my child.
“I have to go now.” They were done. Without a wave, the call ended.
My child’s father and I are going to have to work together; transcend our own pain to respond to the pain of our child. Our child, who is trying so hard to be in control. Our child who is trying, so hard, to save themself. Our child, who is trying to hard to share what they need to be in control in a healthy way.
* 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.