I would like a do over.
This is not what I signed on for. Not any part of it. And while I understand that life is a crapshoot for all of us, and that we all have hard things, I’d like to issue a complaint.
Of course, I’ll get through. Things will be fine. I’ll pull it together. I’ll gather my people. I’ll make the best possible choice, given the information I have, at that moment. I will parent until I’m blue in the face. If you met me, you would never know that in my darkest times I feel this way.
But, I’m being honest.
I want to try again. I admit defeat.
It’s a sunny afternoon and I have some time by myself. My teenage son who is still at home is off with a friend. I am just starting a vacation from work. I have not a care in the world. Except, I do. I have many cares. Most of which I’m trying to push away.
I head into the elevator so I can go outside for a walk. The door opens on a young child, maybe 5, going to the playroom with her father. I move along the sidewalk with two families starting out on an adventure -- strollers, snacks, scooters. I pass a playground and field where children of all ages are kicking soccer balls, doing cartwheels, dancing to a radio playing loud.
My eye is caught by a toddler -- hands mittened, red puffy jacket zipped up to their* chin, white knit hat pulled over their ears. They look through the fence as the people walk by. Chubby cheeks pushed through the metal diamonds. I wave. They smile.
My eyes crinkle.
What happened to my little child?
My eldest has been in treatment for a year and a half. They* are at their* second location. A move last July was prompted when they stopped responding to therapy. On professional recommendation we found a treatment center that dealt primarily with children on the Autism Spectrum (ASD), one of the many diagnoses that attempts to describe my child. Now, at center number two, we are balancing on another precipice. Again, my child’s progress has stopped. A strong beginning seems to have been only a honeymoon period. Worse than no progress, there has been active rejection of treatment.
“How do you make someone respond to therapy?” I asked my child’s therapist through video on the computer. “What is the protocol when you have drained all bank accounts, spent countless hours and mental resources trying to provide the help you thought necessary, and your child does not grow? What do you do?”
This has been the theme of dialog between myself and my child’s therapist for the last few weeks. I’m at a loss. I don’t know how to move forward when support is pushed away.
Last week, the therapist came up with an answer.
“I’ve been looking through the DSM-5 and thinking about your child and their current state. I feel like we might be missing a core diagnosis. I have some thoughts, and while I’m not in the position to diagnose, there is a description that seems to fit.”
I suck in my breath.
I’m so thankful for a therapist who spends time trying to weave together the disparate pieces of my complicated child. For years I feel like I’ve been a forensic scientist, fusing the tiny bits of information I can glean from a sample size of one, and the infinite world of the internet which can be both helpful, and the worst rabbit hole imagined.
“To be honest,” he continues. “Your child is a complicated cocktail of behaviors. There is certainly Autism and major depressive disorder. Anxiety is wrapped in there, and ADHD. However, I still feel like we are missing something. We are not hitting the root of the issues.
After considering lots of possibilities, I landed on one whose description feels close. I’m not saying this is right, I’m being candid because I know you like information and I’m curious about your opinion.”
Conduct Disorder. A possibility I have not considered before. Few biological females have this diagnosis -- less than 7% -- but the major qualities seem to fit in a frightening way. Prone to lying. Absence of remorse. Theft. Extended violation of rules.
That’s my kid.
We talk. We compare notes. We consider past events in an attempt to locate the onset. Adolescence? Childhood? There is a more positive possible outcome if the qualities appear in puberty. I don’t think my child was this disruptive as a younger child, but I’m suddenly doubting my memories.
There are people who say that a diagnosis is not really that important. The crucial thing is to identify debilitating behaviors and treat those. However, as a parent, I have to disagree. A diagnosis gives you a container for your pain. A compartment takes shape to hold your unexpected experiences. It’s a shorthand with people in the field who can provide comfort, and most hopefully, help.
“We have to treat the core issues,” the therapist continues. I cannot agree more.
“I want you to do some reading. Ask around. See how it settles. I’m going to do the same. I’ll talk with the treatment team. I’ll reach out to our psychiatrist. I’ll keep investigating. However, if this is the root, we need to find a place that can address it more fully.”
Even in my tinge of panic, I agree.
At every step of parenthood parents wish for clarity. We read books, and talk with other parents, and listen to speakers, and consult magazines, to make sense of the personal development we watch unfold with our individual children. We hunger for some “normalcy”, whatever that means. We want to recognize our offspring in the pack of other kids of their age.
When we can’t see similarities, we get nervous.
My child has been off the grid for some time.
So, here I am again, diving into research, pulling on contacts I’ve developed in the field, reaching out to friends who have known my child since birth. I’m looking through a new lens to see if it brings things into focus.
This is the first step. I know how this goes. I’ll research. I’ll find some other possible locations. I’ll argue with my child’s father who never sees things as I do. I’ll talk to professionals. I’ll make a choice that feels right. I’ll do whatever I need to do to get my child the best care possible. I’ll hope it sticks. This time I’ll be weary of a strong start.
This cycle will never stop. This is parenthood.
However, it’s not what I signed up for. And sometimes, late at night when I can’t sleep, or in the sunshine of an afternoon when my vacation has just begun, and I’m surrounded by seemingly “normal” families, I wish my path was easier. I’m not sure how my role as mother ended up so complicated. Why even now, when I’ve made 1,000 hard moves that I was not ready to make, it’s still so unclear.
I’ll keep going.
But I’ll allow myself to fantasize that things were easier.
That’s the honest truth.
* 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
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.