(Note to our readers: This is the fifth blog in a series written by a parent who has placed a child in residential treatment.)
It was the first time we were all together in six months. Our last moments as a family of four were in early June. That Sunday, nearly 7 month ago had settled in a surreal fog in my memory. We proceeded with as much normalcy as possible, despite the fact that we spent the weekend secretly packing duffel bags for our child’s surprise move to residential treatment. We went through the rhythm of the day pretending it was like any other. We ate our morning bagels. We argued about how much time our child spent in front of their computer. We attempted, and failed, to get them out of bed and into the shower. All while dreading the moment we told our eldest child that in the early morning they* would head to the airport and they would be moving to an unknown treatment center, in an unknown state, for an unknown amount of time.
Now, it was December and we were coming back together again. The situation was emotionally loaded. My child’s father and I were newly separated. Although we had both been out for visits and parent’s weekends, we had never come with our younger son. Now we were attempting to share a vacation.
It was a long visit for our child, a full week. It was less structured than other times we traveled out. It was the holiday season, stressful with anticipation in any circumstance. It was also closing in on the one year anniversary of our child’s intense downward spiral. Last January began a stream of increasingly dangerous behavior; running away, self-harm, suicidal ideation, calling 911. Eventually, we realized that residential treatment was needed. There was no choice if we were going to keep everyone safe.
Now here we were, united as a family of four. In a small space. Tension high. Wanting it all to work out. Wishing for some kind of normalcy that we had never known.
Despite our better wishes, old habits cropped up quickly.
Our first day as four was strung together by approved activities. We went to a bookstore. We ate lunch together. We had some quiet time while our child listened to some music and the rest of us played card games. We watched an approved TV show we all enjoyed as a family, and it got us laughing. Together again. The same, and different. At the end of our agreed timing on screen, our child pushed for more.
“Let’s keep watching and eat Mac-and-Cheese for dinner,” they said when in came time to unplug and go back outside. The old pattern of pushing past previously agreed upon terms clicked in.
“That’s not what we agreed to,” I responded, as I girded myself for the anticipated refute. “The rules are the same as they have always been. We are not going to eat mac-and-cheese in front of a screen. We eat together as a family. We’re going out like we had planned.” With my words our time together took a screeching hairpin turn towards demise.
“You are so controlling!” My child exploded. “You always change the program. You blame everything on screens. We were fine before you arrived.” The final complaint was punctuated by the familiar door slam, leaving us with the burn of the eruption while our child made their own personal space on the other side of the bedroom door.
Almost immediately, my body went into emergency mode. Blood pressure rising. Replay of my words, looking for the place where I fumbled, igniting my child’s turmoil until it boiled over. In reflection it’s always my fault.
Months of treatment and learning slipped away. All the information I had stored in my wise mind -- therapy webinars, books read, words written as notes to guide my own language -- vanished as I was flooded with concern and frustration. I went right back to my familiar rut of patterns: attempts to maintain structure, even as it was battled against. Self-blame when my child has a large reaction. Things only got worse.
I took a few breaths and knocked on the door. My child was flung across the bed, face down, back heaving with wails of despair. “I can’t do this. It’s too stressful. I need to go back to the house. I can’t be with you all.” They would not let me rub their back or comfort in any way.
“It is stressful,” I agreed. “It’s a good strategy to go back and get support. We can reconnect tomorrow and talk it through with your therapist.”
I sounded a little stronger, but this was not what I wanted. Would I ever give up my false hope that we would be able to be a family that enjoyed time together and moved in some kind of ease? I tried to hold onto the memories of positive times we had had, but our last months together had been so traumatic that it was hard to see before them.
By the time we reconvened the next morning, my child decided they did not want to spend any time with me, in particular. Their skillful therapist would not let that happen, but their desires were already known. Our family was back together for the first time in seven months and in less than 24 hours we were broken apart again. Ricocheting off of each other, bumping against past hurts, old patterns and defensive language. I spent the rest of the day, playing DBT dialectics in my head. I’m doing the best I can, and I can do better.
It helped, barely at all.
I stayed present in the pain. I wondered how we ended up here. I hated the situation. I could do nothing about it.
I flew home. I waited.
The next week my child would not speak to me. The therapist reported that they would address me only by my first name. I had lost the title of Mama.
My child is gifted with words and visions. They have always spun a reality that is at times mesmerizing in its beauty and at other points equally dark and shadow-filled. This is their dialectic, their two cohabitating truths. They have competing desires which repel or attract, unsure of their own self, they lash out and blame others, or swirl up so much chaos that we are distracted from underlying causes. This pattern brought us to residential treatment, the only safe and consistent place where we hoped they could explore their deepest beliefs and develop healthy coping mechanisms to sustain them in the independent and productive life they wanted.
Every so often a space opened when their guard was down and the truth could be accessed. It requires patience and listening and quiet. If you say the “wrong” thing, the opportunity lapses, and the door closes again.
Two weeks later my child showed up at family therapy. “Mama, there is a song that helped me realize how you were feeling. It helped me understand things from your view.”
I was encouraged. As they sat down and settled in front of the screen ready for our therapy session, I loaded up the song from the musical Dear Evan Hansen. The show had been popular in our New York City home before they left for treatment. The only knowledge I had of the plot was from reading articles about the play’s success, especially with teenagers. It circled around a teen who struggles with social anxiety. Part of his treatment involves writing himself letters each day about what would be good.
The song started, and I listened carefully as the scene unfolded through lyrics. The father pulls away in a U-Haul truck. The little boy and the Mama are left alone. The boy gets tucked in that night, and holds his mother’s hand. He asks the hard question,
“Is there another truck coming to our driveway? A truck that will take mommy away.”
The sadness rolled up into my throat. My child was speaking to me in ways that they could not compose on their own despite their eloquent vocabulary and art of words. They could not access their own emotions, in a productive way, yet.
The song continued. The mother sings. “Your mom isn’t going anywhere. Your mom is staying right here. Your mom isn’t going anywhere. Your mom is staying right here. No matter what. No matter what. I’ll be here.”
My cheeks grew wet. My child’s eye could not make contact, but the song did. They were communicating.
“I’m not going anywhere,” I gasped. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Everything is different.” They opened up. “I’m so afraid that you are going to leave me. That I’m going to be alone.”
How could this be?
“I left and now you and Papa are living in different places and I don’t have anywhere to be. I don’t know what is going to happen and I’m so scared that you are going to leave me. I’m so scared.”
In the cyclone of pain, in order to survive I had learned to step away from my child’s behaviors. To read them as fear or self-doubt or confusion. I knew that they were not trying to hurt me, but this did not mean that their actions were not painful. This song reminded me that we were all still so vulnerable. There was no script for this.
“Think about your last 15 years. Have I been there?” I wanted to find a way to reassure, to rest on past events in order to solidify movement forward. “What are some times when I have not left. When I have held your hand. When I have stayed by your side?”
We cried. We remembered. We connected. I took the computer and walked my child around my new apartment. I showed them things that I hoped would bring comfort; the pre-school picture they drew of me for mother’s day, their favorite bowl where they used to eat tomato soup topped with cheerios, a baby toy that stayed on the bookshelf.
When you are in the middle of the storm, it’s so difficult to stay grounded. Until patterns are disrupted, you do not recognize the chaos and stress that has become your normal. Residential treatment allows every family member a bit of space, a shield of time and distance to work towards being their best selves, growing individually and together. The static of words and behaviors can be piercing, but you have to stay open to connecting. Children speak in surprising ways. Listen.
* 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.