Saturday, November 30, 2013

parenting through persistence and pharmacopias

So, what's up with my son?

J-son has had a turbulent semester, so bumpy that it's hard even to summarize.  Here are two snap shots:

  • In early September, he was named captain of his squash team.  Two weeks ago, he was kicked off the team.  Forever.
  • In early September, parent-teacher conferences were glowing.  Early November, the teachers huddled around my recently-returned husband to outdo each other with stories of grave concerns. 
Neither of these snapshots show the most persistent trouble that J-son had this fall, which has been with impulse-stealing things from our home.  We've been through this stealing-jag before; last time we "fixed" it with a combination of behavior modification, with locks and boundaries, and with drugs.

When the stealing resurfaced, we went back to the usual drill.  By "we", actually, I mean "I", because my husband was already off at army.  I reamed the kid out.  I required restitution.  I reinstalled locks on certain closet doors.

The stealing persisted.  

I took additional measures, each one feeling weirdly drastic.   I removed all furniture with drawers from his room -- all clothes must be hung up, not in drawers, to reduce the number of hiding places.  

When that didn't work, I turned to invasion-of-privacy.  I began daily searches of his room (uncovering daily new thefts).  I searched under his mattress, pulled purloined objects out of his pillow case, uncovered contraband from his corners.  We removed his bedroom door.

I turned to professional help.  I begged his pediatrician to increase his meds; she was dubious and kept him at his current levels.  I sent for information from military boarding schools.  We called our adoption agency, who offered to connect me support groups, but didn't have anything directly for J-son;  I declined these.  We entered the insurance/paperwork morass of finding a counsellor, and finally got him signed up.  

Through all this, I was working full time, or maybe more than full time.  So of course, I was also feeling guilty and torn.  If I were home for this kid, would that have made a difference?  Almost certainly.  And yet, I also knew the problem wasn't really me.  There was really something wonky going on with J-son.

The stealing persisted.  

His foster mom told me stories of his early life; how he had grown up hungry, and how his birth mother had hidden the food in her bedroom.  The only way he could get fed was to sneak into her room and take the food.  The habit was formed. But cursing the birth mom doesn't fix the child.

I did something I thought I would never do:  I bought an alarm.  It's not a house alarm -- our dog is alarm enough for the neighborhood we live in; it's an alarm for J-son's door.  Every night I'd make sure he was okay, and then . . . I'd seal him in his room.  On would go the alarm until I wake up in the morning and let him out.  

That didn't completely stop the stealing, because sometimes he nabs things during the day, but at least it let me sleep through the night without fretting.

There is no magic wand, I know this.  Here is my current hope, though:  we finally jumped 6 months ahead in line for a psychiatrist who can prescribe meds, and she's suggested a drug that helps with impulse control.   Given how suddenly this all came on, and how the last time we had trouble it was a med-adjustment that seemed to finally fix the problem, and how every time we ask J-son, "why did you take this?" he says "I don't know" and seems to mean it -- given all that, I keep pinning my hopes on the meds.  Not as  THE answer, but as a crucial PART of the answer.

For me, how do I get through this?

Partly I think it helps to have a PhD in math, not because this is a particularly quantitative situation, but because I can think of it as a problem.  Is there a solution?  Is there a counter-example?  I'm used to spending years banging my head against the wall trying to figure out the answer to something, and I'm used to finding out that the answer is quite different from anything I expected.  It's true that I'm not used to having my math problems hide electronics in their pillowcase, but the persistence part of this whole mess, I got that down.

I also feel like this is a huge lesson in faith.  Jesus, as he was hanging on the cross, invited a thief into his heavenly home, and I follow Him in this example.  Jesus in his sermon on the mount, winds up the beatitudes by blessing those "who are persecuted for righteousness' sake", and I'm feeling peculiarly blessed right now.  Even more, the New Testament is full of descriptions of how we are all of us adopted into God's family, of how God loved us even while we were still sinning.  And so I look at this wreck of a kid, and I think about the wreck that *I* am.  I think about how hard it is to keep loving this kid, and then I think about how amazing it is that God keeps loving me.  It sounds all gooey, but J-son's troubles remind me of how much I have to be grateful for.

J-son has managed to burn a lot of bridges this year.  If we can get the impulsivity under control, there's still a lot of restitution ahead.  Several of the people living in this house don't like living here with J-son, for fairly understandable reasons, and so there needs to be a lot of reconciliation.  Fifteen year old boys aren't particularly good at apologizing or admitting culpability, and I'm guessing J-son will need a lot of help with mending fences.  

As of today, it's been 9 days since he last took something.  That's our latest record.  We'll keep slogging forward.


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Facing outward

One of my comforts of this past several months has been my "Plan B" list.

When we found out the sad (and scary) news that my former husband's illness was progressing quickly and that he'd be entering hospice soon, I knew that there would be times this semester when I would suddenly have to leave my home and job to go be with my daughter.  So in my usual rather overly-methodical way, I planned for emergencies by making a giant list of names and telephone numbers, sorted into categories.

There are comforting aspects of seeking help, I've always found.  One of these is that I realize how very many different ways I am involved in the world.   When a make a list of "things I'll need to cover", I discover in a tangible way what a lot of things I do. That's just a little bit of ego pump, really.

Even more comforting is to name out loud the many good friends and colleagues who surround me.  And I'm very much aware that asking for help draws this circle tighter, making connections stronger.  I found people who offered to step in at a moment's notice to teach my various classes, to take over some ceremonial committee duties, to feed the dog, to watch the boys.

That last bit -- someone to watch the boys -- deserves a bit of extra mention.  With my husband away at military training for three months, and with K-daughter off at college, I couldn't just dump my sons on the usual suspects.  As I thought about "who could I call if I have to leave suddenly?", I mentally rolled through my circle of parent-friends.   I also asked my sons for their ideas, and N-son came up with "Officer S.", a public safety officer on our campus.

So I sent Officer S. a note:
Your name came up in a conversation I had with the boys today . . . I was telling them that I might have to leave town for a few days suddenly, and was there anyone in particular they might want to come and stay at our home with them?  Out of the blue, [N-son] mentioned you.   Whether or not you would actually be willing and able to volunteer for N/J-duty, I thought you'd be flattered by the thought. 
The leave-town-suddenly reason is actually rather sad.  Earlier this summer, my former husband was diagnosed with renal cancer.  Unfortunately, it's spreading very fast and he entered hospice today.  My daughter has been living with her dad since she graduated from college.  She has other people helping her and her dad during this awful time (his girlfriend and his sister have been heroes in all this), but it's still very, very hard for her.   
I am going to go visit her at some point, but neither of us knows when that will be --- as you can imagine, things are a bit of a whirlwind right now.   
BUT it gives us a chance to remember how many good friends we have around us . . . like you.
She (Officer S., that is) became a rock that I relied on.   In the past, she and I had worked together and respected one another, but now there's this additional connection, and in that way, my world is now a better place, my ties to the community stronger and more diverse.

And this story of gratitude is one I get to repeat over and over: there's the mathematician who offered to cover my Friday afternoon class, but who instead gets to hear the daily updates of family crises (latest one:  no news today!  woo-hoo!).  There's the mathematician who did actually cover a Monday morning class. There's the student who earnestly wrote to me, "It will get better; I promise".  There are the people from our church who prayed for us, who listened to me rant and rail, who helped with child care, who broke bread with me.  There's the woman in Haiti who is helping us find a new Haitian lawyer in hopes of getting X-son's adoption back on track.  There's the running buddies who kept me sane.  The vice principal who took N-son under his wing after the bad-hair day.

In spite of all the grief and tribulation and frustrations we've faced these past few months, it's a good and righteous thing to have these living, breathing reminders that there's a bigger world outside my doors.  And this world, with the wonderful people who fill it up, is a good direction to turn this face of mine.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Drowning in children

This has been a challenging fall in the Miser Mom household.

There's more to the challenge than just the week we call "The Horrible Week", but that one week (in late September) gives a sense of some of the challenge I'm talking about.  In The Horrible Week,
  • LJ-daughter's dog was struck by a car.  The dog survived, but only because of surgery and lots of care.
  • I-daughter's father (my former husband) passed away after a terrifying 5-month bout with renal cancer.
  • LA-daughter got very scary food poisoning, laying her flat on her back for a week or so.
  • K-daughter, driving to her college 80 miles away,  ran over stray pieces of metal on the highway, bursting two tires, leaving her (and five other motorists) stranded for much of the day.
  • J-son was in the throes of serious behavioral problems, making me realize that I could not leave this 15-year-old son of mine at home alone, not even for 10 minutes.
  • N-son got teased for about his hair in middle school, and he didn't make the football team.
  • We learned that our adoption agency for our hoped-for X-son was embroiled in scandal, throwing all of our adoption paperwork into limbo.
During all this, my husband was away for a 3-month stint with the Army National Guard, and I was not only solo parenting, but also working overtime at my college, having offered to take on a bit of extra teaching, a big committee assignment, and a lot of extra advising.  

Some of the Horrible Week was merely horrible in the way distant earthquakes and typhoons are horrible to me.  LJ and LA, my step-daughters, both live so far away that I felt miserable for them but could do nothing practical.  All I could do was fret from afar.

Some of the Horrible Week seems trivial in the telling -- I'm thinking of N-son's hair, here.  But he called home sobbing, and he came home in tears, and no matter what other awful things were happening in the world and to his family, this was the Horrible Thing that had flattened him. As much as I wanted to turn my face to bigger problems, his was the problem that was right in front of me, the problem I had to face right away, the problem that needed both love and counsel.

September has come and gone.  Some of the Horrible Week has faded into mere unpleasant memory.  Now, here almost in December, my husband is home from the army.  My semester of overtime is almost over.  LA has recovered from the food poisoning.  LJ's dog is back on his feet.  N-son found a barber who gives him stylin' hair cuts, and while he's not on the football team, he's doing well at squash.

Much of The Horrible Week, though, continues to remain horrible lo these many months later.  A month after The Horrible Week, K-daughter sat at the deathbed of the grandmother who reared her. She faces her first grandmother-less Christmas, just as I-daughter now faces the first holiday season without her beloved father.  J-son spirals and slams through difficulties at school and at home.  X-son's adoption saga is a tsunami of bureaucracy -- both maddeningly, time-gobblingly urgent and also maddeningly slow at the same time.

There are so many stories hidden in this sweeping summary.  Like the day the boys called to tell me their bicycles were missing . . . and we found out later that was because they'd mislaid their bike locks, so they just left their bikes unlocked outside of school all day.   Like my daughter, at the other end of the telephone, saying through her tears,  "Mom, you are so useful."  Like N-son finding a professional barber.  Like buying an alarm that we glued to J-son's door.  Like resurrecting Mommy-dollars.  So much happening.

But not a lot of time to write about it.  Which is probably just as well.