I think one of a parent’s worst fears is finding one’s self in a desperate, helpless situation where one’s child is in a seeming free-fall into the clutches of something awful for which a parent cannot stop or prevent. Over the last nearly two years my son – the beautiful, talented, artistic, intelligent, intuitive child I brought into my life at 4 months old (2000), from an orphanage deep in Ukraine – has been spiraling into the depths of mental illness. In the last year, alone, he has had more than 5 stays in a local pediatric psych hospital and (currently) almost 5 months as an in-patient at a specialized pediatric residential treatment facility in Texas. My overwhelm and guilt and helplessness has swallowed me into the darkness, too.
As I write this, I’m on a JetBlue plane from New York to Austin, TX to visit my son; every word I type feels steeped in anxiety and heartbreak. In fact, this is the very first time I’ve penned (or talked about… with anyone) the words “mental illness” in the same sentence as “my son.” I have kept this secret from everyone I could, sharing only with those who needed to know, suffering silently in wishing it could be me instead of my son.
For all of this I feel guilty and ashamed.
I feel guilty, I suppose, because all parents have inherent guilt – it’s a simple side-effect of parenting, in general – but my personal level of guilt goes deeper. I’m ashamed, not of my son, but of my inability to change his (our?) situation.
I feel like the very definition of ‘failure as a parent’.
Every time I’ve made a meager effort to talk about what has, and is happening, in my son’s life (heck, even when I’ve purposefully tried to avoid it talking about it) I find people waiting in line to point fingers at me, to accuse me of causing all of this, to make me out to be a crazed, unfit parent. Of course I’m not all they imply, I’m a mere fraction of what they assume, but yet I’ve found shards of truth,
…and I’ll be honest, brutally so, and say that I really do think that some of this is my fault. It must be.
I’m not going to make excuses or point fingers at others who’ve done their own share of damage to my kid’s psyche. I’m not going to list all of the things I’ve done right during my son’s life in an attempt to somehow void the wrongs. I’ll not give justifications for my actions or reason away how I’ve contributed to this place – both the mental/emotional and the geo-physical – that my son finds himself in, but I will do my best to own it: To own what I have done and acknowledge that I’ve fallen short, to say that I could’ve done better and that in hindsight, I’ve made some heartbreakingly less-than-ideal choices that I never dreamed would result in this.
This? This is what I will own:
I divorced his father when he was a baby. I chose to not live geographically near my son’s dad, or geographically near my own family. After my divorce, I fairly immediately began what would be an 11-year marriage/relationship with a man who told me years before my son was born that he never wanted to be a parent, let alone a step-parent. I didn’t stand up for my son enough when his step-dad seemed too diciplinaritory. The handful of child psychiatrists, behavioral therapists, and even the state’s ‘Early Intervention Program’ that I took him to see at his father’s urging weren’t enough. I steadfastly refused to consider drugging him into oblivion when the different set of professionals he saw during summer break with his dad diagnosed him with “anxiety and ADHD.” I turned a blind eye when parenting choices his father made for him didn’t seem quite “right” to me, ESPECIALLY when I was purposefully prevented from meeting or knowing the adults who were spending a lot of time with my son during holidays and summers. I didn’t press the issue enough even after I was made aware of an unhealthy encounter involving alcohol and aggression [by adults] that happened in my son’s presence. When other things happened of suspicion during times my son wasn’t physically with me I most often chose to stand down and keep a low profile, feeling that I had no domain or right over things his father chose for him, or the goings-on his own home that influenced my son. I didn’t take my son to church or give him any type of church-family/foundation like I had growing up. When he did something wrong, I believed in discipline and rules… and yes, I spanked him, too. I unsuccessfully tried to shield him from the nitty-gritty details of my struggle with kidney failure (beginning when he was just 3) and years of dialysis, followed by complications after my kidney transplant. When I was finally healthier than I’d ever been in my lifetime, I traveled a fair bit, for no one’s benefit aside from my own, and was therefore gone, unavailable to my son several (cumulative) weeks of each school year. I often recognized that he struggled socially, but I was too stubborn to ask for more help, instead opting to situationally adapt my parenting-style to “help” him myself. I was never the birthday-party-planning mom, or the lets-fill-every-second-with-an-activity/field trip/outing mom. I didn’t have a lot of (local) friends with built-in kids for play dates and I didn’t make extra attempts to socialize with other parents. I selfishly kept him from participating in outdoor sports teams and activities that required me to also be outdoors because I didn’t want to spend any unnecessary time in the Florida sun. I spent time on my own (indoor) hobbies – blogging, writing, gaming, social medias – and didn’t always include him in my every activity. I hired a babysitter a few times a year and left him home while I attended adult gatherings. I didn’t cater to his every whim, I didn’t make him a different dinner when he didn’t like what was served, I didn’t stand for screaming in movies or tantrums in restaurants, and I did not approve of his doing anything sub-par or below what he was perfectly capable of doing. I did not tolerate mediocre.
…and then there was 2012, the year I apparently messed up whatever was left of my son’s literal sanity.
I left Florida, I left my 12 year relationship, and I moved to New York. Before I moved, I created a ‘parenting plan’ with my son’s father that would keep my son from bearing witness to the end of yet another failed marriage. With his dad in agreement, I sent my child to live with his father so that I could (selfishly?) regain stability and the ability to parent.
I didn’t up and disappear one day, I didn’t stop seeing my son as frequently as I was able, I didn’t change my number or refuse his calls, I didn’t kick him out of the car onto an unfamiliar doorstep. At no point did I leave him in the capable care of his father without his father’s consent and agreement. Quite the opposite, really.
What I did do was stupidly think that all of the years I’d spent investing in the relationship between my son and his father – in installing a dedicated land-line in an 8-year-old’s bedroom, setting up email and Skype access on multiple computers, paying for cell phone access and private voicemail… all because it was the right thing to do – would be somehow returned to me in-kind when the tables (or the living arrangements, as they were) were turned. Instead of all of these things, I found myself with limited access to my son (that usually depended on how obedient he had been in school or at home) that was always supervised, often abruptly disconnected, and never private.
Do you know how sickening it is to hear your child’s other parent(s) interrupt a forced “monitored” speakerphone conversation to tell your child that his mother abandoned him, that she is a terrible person without morals, that he’s not worthy of his father’s last name, that any love that he is fortunate enough to be shown [in his father’s home] is “conditional upon good behavior,” and that he is not wanted?
Just let that sink in for a moment.
All of that happened.. and in the spirit of “owning up” guess what I did? Nothing. Not a fucking thing to change where my son was living. Nothing to change his unfortunate circumstances.
I did nothing to stop the emotional abuse that I could’ve prevented had I been in a better place in my own life.
Instead, I shrank away. I wilted at the sight of an email or a text message or a caller ID from the father I’d tried so hard to keep my son connected to, or worse, from the step-mother that I came to be, quite literally, afraid of. I was so spineless that I couldn’t even protect my own child.
I failed to protect him. To protect him from me. To protect him from life. To protect him from bad people. To protect him from feeling and coming to believe that I abandoned him.
“Abandonment” is a serious, serious word. For an adoptee like my son, abandonment is something he may always feel about the beginnings of his life and he’s not alone; most adoptees struggle with abandonment issues in varying degrees at some point in their lives. It’s something that comes with the territory of being adopted, or having an adopted child. Feelings of abandonment are very, very real and very valid.
..which is why I think my “abandonment” (which wasn’t abandonment at all, until an angry, out-of-control adult who happens to be married to my son’s father started defining our parenting plan to my son as “abandonment”) became the last straw.
In my mind, I clearly didn’t feel that sending him to live with his dad equalled abandonment. To the court system that oversees our fully joint custody agreement, I was not an abandoner; to further define my intent “for the record,” the court went a step further and specifically added a statement in 2012 that said under no circumstances was my son to be told, taunted with, or lead to believe by any adult that his living arrangement was changed due to “abandonment” by his mother.
..but even now, with all of the reassurance in the world that I wasn’t in the wrong, I’ve still pretty much convinced MYSELF that I abandoned my son. I blame myself for what has happened. I feel ashamed and guilty and completely and utterly at fault for everything. For my son losing his marbles.
Honestly, who wouldn’t lose their sanity after all of that?
Officially he’s been diagnosed as, “MDD guarded, anxiety, PDD NOS, ADHD, TIC, high-functioning autistic spectrum” and the diagnosis seems to change weekly, as do the medications and treatments. My head gets dizzy just trying to understand and keep all of it straight. At some point, someone decided sending him to a treatment facility in Texas would be a good idea. I was not consulted or even informed until literally the eleventh hour and by that point there wasn’t much I could do, aside from drag everyone into emergency court proceedings. Instead of prolonging the access to the help that he obviously needed (regardless of why or the cause) I consented and off he went to Texas.
By now my entire day is over. The flight that I started writing this blog post on landed twelve hours ago and I got to spend a solid afternoon and early evening with My Kidlet. It’s now almost midnight, I haven’t slept in two days, and I’m not sure when or what my last meal was.
I’m exhausted – emotionally and physically – and my mind is pretty much fried, but at least I’ve owned up and spelled out all of the awful details.
After this post, I don’t think those pesky trolls can say I haven’t told the world what a shameful person I am. So, there, you have it all. Judge me.
Note: I’m too tired to go back and proof-read this after having typed it entirely from my iPhone and iPad… all two-thousand words.. so please excuse my spelling, autocorrect or grammatical errors. Also, I think I probably used too many commas in places and too few in others. Oh well.