(Note to our readers: This is the seventh blog in a series written by a parent who has placed a child in residential treatment.)
Although I rented a small car for this visit, I was granted an enormous SUV. I didn’t mind the extra height as I navigated the Western roads. I feel protected as we climb up into the large leather seats. Though my childhood path was suburban, now I live in a city. I recently took up driving after an 18 year hiatus.
“May I DJ?” My teenager asks. After plugging in the address of the outlet mall where we were heading, I pull out. Sunshine warms me through window. Snow shimmers on the mountain tops. The radio blares as April Levigne attempts to convince us that she would be a better girlfriend. My child sings along. “It’s a crappy song, I know,” they* say. “A guilty pleasure. Don’t you ever just feel like listening to bad rock music? It makes me happy.”
My heart swells and I try, to hold on to the present. Sharing music. Heading out for a particular pair of jeans. A smile. The desire to share something of themselves. To let me in. I drive along. We’re in some kind of alternate reality and I like it here. Quite a bit.
There is frequent conversation among parents of teenagers that these years of “emerging adulthood” hit the whole home with a wallop. Parents try to maintain rules while appreciating the need for children to break free. Children try to break free and resist rules, certain they know better. Boundaries shift. There is a necessary need to test and push and piss off and make up. It’s exhausting. Ask anyone. I don’t underestimate.
With my eldest teen the scene was a bit different. This was to be expected. All parts of their development had been on it’s their own trajectory. There was not one developmental stage where I felt comfortable commiserating with the playground parents and seeking help or understanding. I was comforted only slightly by recognizing my child’s intellectual and emotional intensity, and honoring all its positive and negative outcomes.
There was no normal.
I longed for normal. Even in fleeting moments.
Our teen got angry. This anger led to dangerous behavior, leaving hotel rooms while on a family vacation and wandering the nighttime streets. Our teen yelled at us. This yelling lasted hours and was sparked by any small parenting move — a request to shower, a desire for them to eat dinner. These explosions exhausted them, leaving them tear-filled and worn-out like a three year old who could not have dessert. Our teen felt deep sadness. This lasted days and weeks, sucking them into their bed where they refused to leave for any reason, certainly not to go to school. Our teen felt friendless. This led to online obsessions, and an inability to unplug and interact with people in “real life”. They cut themselves, arms left with thin red lines and insults to themselves etched into their thighs. Why?
Clearly, the intensity was too much. For all of us. Our child let us know they needed something else. We found our community in residential treatment. In Utah. Across the country.
The trajectory has not been a straight linear path. What path of self-discovery is? But inside this safe, understanding, protected space, filled with other teens who are also working through the contours of their intensity and the unhealthy paths they have attempted, my child has found their place. They have more comfort here than my family of love could provide. They have developed a normal.
On Friday when I arrived, I went straight to an in-person therapy session. By the time I got there, my child was busy at the white board in the therapist’s office, drawing up rules for the weekend. Taking a night away from campus, where part of the cohesion was created by the community, had potential for trouble. We needed to establish boundaries that would support us in having a peaceful time together. My child was skilled in loop-holes and demanding that rules were unfair. The therapist knew this, and after 11 months, my child could also admit this about themselves. Something I never dreamed I would see.
We went to pick up their luggage at the house. As we entered my child introduced me to every resident and staff member who gathered in the main room. Many faces were familiar, I had gotten to know them from previous visits. I was happy to see them again. I even got a few hugs. Other residents had joined more recently. We shook hands and I tried to remember names. There were smiles and inside jokes. Most teens carried notebooks, heading from class. Earbuds dangled around necks. As I spoke to one new friend, a staff member called “moment,” and the teen quieted me. All talking stopped so that the announcement could be heard.
I was in my child’s space and here was kindness and acceptance. From social phone calls and my child’s general complaints, I knew of tensions that were part of any shared space. Roommates that were annoying. Food that was healthier than desired. I also knew of problems my child had caused. Hurtful words. Stealing. One resident even cracked a joke about my child working to develop more respectful interactions. Given all this, my child still had never been so surrounded by peers who cared for and respected them. Residential treatment forced them to confront their unproductive coping skills, and develop new ones. Their daily life supported their treatment and practice in the skills they needed to learn, desperately, if they were going to have an independent, safe life moving forward. There is no other situation that would have made this possible.
The next morning, my child pulled out their guitar. “Do you know Pink Floyd?” they asked. “I know you are not really a rock fan.” Surprisingly, I could still sing along to Wish You Were Here. What a typical teenage song to learn. They moved onto indie music, more my speed. I loved listening to the strings and watching my child call up the notes of a song introduced to us years ago by their uncle. The connection was still there. I took it as a sign that my child knew that all the people who loved them were waiting, until they were ready, to join us again.
The first stop was the aquarium. “My friend went with her parents,” was all the explanation I needed. “There are sloths. Do you know how cute sloths are?” I got more information as we walked through the parking lot to the entrance. “As part of my treatment plan, I’m trying to redo experiences that I had ruined before treatment,” my child explained. I was unsuspecting of this goal.
“I don’t remember an aquarium trip that was difficult. But, I think it’s a good place for us to go to.”
“It wasn’t an aquarium per se,” they continued. “I did make a mess of many trips to museums or family outings.” With this I could not disagree. Arguments about getting out of the house, or out of the car. Decisions to sit, scowling, in one room of a venue. My internal worry about where they were as the rest of us wandered off, not wanting to be hostage to the bad behavior and worried about escalation of emotions. I was willing to set a new standard.
More importantly, my child was planning ahead to set a new standard.
I remembered what it was like to be out with my child. Their intensity can be fueled by information, and at every display they exploded with facts. A living marine encyclopedia. My brain unable to keep up with the constant, unrelenting flow of data points, it used to exhaust me. Now, I was amused, and newly amazed.
My child was different, too. They had developed a muscle that allowed them to pause and to consider an introjection of a question or a need for further explanation. They considered my desires about what areas to visit. They asked how I felt about attending the 4D movie. They stuck with me the whole time. No music playing in their ears to control stimulation. They were present in the experience with me. Not moving along in parallel or worse, fighting the time together.
Best of all, they held my hand. They pulled me close. I even got a spontaneous hug. “I miss you,” they whispered.
We looked at animals together. We watched the penguins. We laughed at the otters. We reached in to touch the stingrays. The animals provided a neutral activity that diverted just enough attention to allow other details to come to the surface. I learned about the movie they made as part of a vacation project when classes were out of session last week. They sang the song they used to audition for their musical theater elective. They talked about music therapy and the way that songs have become a path to connect. Using someone else’s lyrics as proxy for their own emotions. To not feel so alone. To describe the experiences that were too raw. To communicate.
We had a full day which I never could have planned or imagined. My child who was never attentive to how they looked, requested a shopping trip. I sat outside the dressing room as they asked my opinion on what looked cutest. “These sunglasses would look great on you, trust me,” they said as I scanned the options. I trusted their opinion, wanting to hold on to their reaching out towards me. I would feel their care each time I wore them.
Supercuts was open late in the afternoon. We looked together for haircuts and with permission they saved some images on my phone. I sat and watched by the door as my child chatted with the stylist. They explained that they were at a boarding school in Utah. They mentioned only the positive points. There were lots of arts programs. They could take advanced math. There were strict rules, but they were learning a lot. It’s code for those that have experience in residential treatment. No one is really in boarding school here, but that is more social acceptable than admitting the level of support you need to move your life forward. The hair stylist had no idea. And we were all able to suspend belief for a time.
Here was a child that I had not seen for so long. Engaging with adults. Conversant. Sure the topics of interest were particular and the dialogue relatively self-centered, but there was a normalcy. The hair got short. Buzzed in the back and on the side. It was neat. It was easy to care for. Bangs still covered the pubescent pimples. Teenagehood.
It had been a long day. More full than I would have expected. We climbed into the car. We agreed that the yogurt at the hotel room could count as tonight’s dinner protein. We could avoid a crowded restaurant and the anxious waiting. “It’s been a lot today,” they said as they buckled up. “Are you okay if I put in my headphones and recline the seat?”
I drove off with my child next to me. Eyes closed. They took a deep breath. “It’s like meditation,” they said. “I just need to get back into myself and close out the rest.” I saw the evidence of overstimulation. This time, my child felt it too and took care of themselves and took precaution before it was just too much. They learned that in treatment.
“I don’t want to hurt your feelings,” they said back in the quiet of the hotel room. “I’m not upset about anything and it has nothing to do with you, but I want to spend the night back home.”
I took a deep breath. “If we pack up now, we can make it before curfew. I’m so glad to hear you advocating for what you need. I’m happy to bring you back.”
It was the right thing to say.
“I’m so happy. I have had such a good day. I want to end happy and I am afraid if I stay longer, it will be too hard.”
Our previous visit 6 weeks ago did not even include a goodbye. Filled with anger, my child could not look at me and decided to stay at the house instead of meeting for our last activity. It took two weeks of therapy for us to get back on track.
It has been a good visit. I was happy, too.
We packed up. They changed into a new outfit and took a selfie in the mirror before we took off. They were smiling.
We were only 15 minutes away from the house. I stayed present. Pushing away my own sadness at the loss of an evening together. It was there, but it could not surface until I was alone.
They asked to DJ again. “I have something that I know that you and me both like.”
Just before they left our house for Utah, they discovered a performance album called Evelyn, Evelyn. The storyline by Amanda Palmer and Webley revolved around a pair of Siamese twins who adore each other and desire their own independence as they move through a series of tragic events. A year ago I had listened so often, making my way through some disturbing lyrics to try to get in touch with my child’s mind. Now the music was on for us to listen to, together.
* 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 27th, 2017: The Teen Years: Residential Treatment is Filled with Hope
November 17, 2017: Family Weekend During Teen Treatment: We Are All In This Together
November 20, 2017: Family Weekend During Teen Treatment: New Communication Skills Take Shape
December 11, 2017: Relocate. Repair. Refocus. Required.
February 27, 2018: “I’m Not Going Anywhere…” When Teen Treatment Gets Messy
May 24, 2018: It's Fine
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.