Last week my son Luca’s therapist at wilderness camp, Joe, told me Luca had been so non-compliant he would have to leave early. This was hard to fathom, even for Luca. Wilderness camps are where the unruliest, foul-mouthiest kids go to have their internal hard drives reconfigured. The staff at wilderness camps have dealt with it all: kids who go on water strikes; kids who refuse to hike; kids who try to ambush the grown-ups; kids who try to escape into the starry night sky.
Apparently, Luca had alienated his peers so much that he was put on “shadow watch” (so the other kids wouldn’t jump him) and had to be separated and supervised by staff who were needed to handle intakes. Then my ex-husband Prince, who is as non-compliant as Luca, refused to hire a school placement specialist to select a therapeutic boarding school to which Luca could transfer ASAP. He said he would choose the school himself, being the grandiose and penny-pinching fellow that he is, and needed more time.
So Joe told me Luca would have go to a shelter — a shelter! — for kids who are in between placements. After I hit the ceiling, I called the shelter and was told by the director that he’d never heard of Luca and didn’t have a place for him.
When I phoned Joe back, he paused and said, sheepishly, that they weren’t really going to kick Luca out, but were trying to exert some pressure on Prince. Joe had clearly had it up to his eyeballs with Prince’s shenanigans and started a lot of his comments with: “I don’t want to say anything bad about Prince, but…”, which tickled me to no end.
A couple days later, Luca got his act together, slightly. He started hiking and doing his homework assignments. He said he knew going home wasn’t an option and he didn’t want to go to jail.
My friend Charlotte, who is one of the most grounded, wisest people I have the good fortune to have in my life, sent me a supportive e-mail yesterday. She said that Luca was crying out for limits and that maybe he was starting to understand the limits of what his peers and adults would tolerate. She also mentioned that Prince could benefit from some limit-setting as well, which made me smile.
Last night I read through the letters I wrote to Luca but never sent after he went to live with his dad full-time last year. I was struck by the letter below, because it echos Charlotte’s comments about Luca’s need for limits.
September 3, 2010
It’s Friday night. Atticus and Caleb are in the back yard shooting air soft and BB guns into a target. Franny is laughing at the size of one of the guns that looks like a machine gun.
I have been missing you today, an achey homesick feeling. When I look out the window at the “men” shooting the guns, I wish you could be out there. You should be out there. I wish I could see you out there, with Atticus and with Caleb. You love shooting guns. But they overstimulated you. You would shoot BBs through the fence into the neighbors’ yard, wave an authentic-looking machine gun in the front yard, refuse to stop when it’s time to stop, refuse to pick up the pellets, or put away the guns.
You have never liked limits, seen limits, or when they’re pointed out to you, feel you should accept limits. Sometimes I think you don’t see the limit that’s been put in front of you, that most kids your age know without being told…and sometimes I think you pretend you don’t know the limit. Sometimes I think you know perfectly well that you’re overstepping a limit, but that you’re entitled to somehow. That you’re entitled because of wrongs that you perceive have been done to you, that you get so angry when someone tells you to stop, that you can’t stop in time…that you see your dad and his family not heeding anyone’s limits and the way they do this seems so dazzling and sophisticated and appealing.
But if you were able to accept limits, you would be here tonight. You would be outside firing the guns with Atticus and Caleb. I would hear your laughter mixing with theirs.
The thing with not heeding limits, is that it’s exhilarating. You feel like you’re getting away with something, beating the system. But in the long run, you get robbed. Because you piss people off. They stop trusting you, don’t want to hang out with you. You look at their angry faces, see them pull away from you, and you get angry too. Relationships that could have been never develop. Relationships that were—like yours and mine—explode. So you lose, actually, you lose positive experiences with people that would be good for you.
So much of your childhood has been swallowed up by anger, defiance, overstepping boundaries, alienating others….then getting angry at those you’ve alienated.
So many of the normal “kid” experiences never happened for you. You got robbed, I got robbed.
So this is what I think, when I look out into the backyard as Atticus and Caleb shoot the guns. I think, in that parallel universe somewhere, the Luca that can accept limits and enjoy normal, run-of-the-mill experiences is shooting that gun, having the childhood you didn’t get to have.
Reading this letter, I see how Luca’s path to wilderness camp has been laid out for a long time. He’s a teenager now, and his childhood is behind him. Joe said he will be in boarding school “for years,” which probably means until he graduates high school.
I never imagined, when Luca was born one summer morning fourteen years ago, that his time with me would be so short, and so jarringly interrupted. But I hope that wilderness camp will lead him through the Valley of No Limits and out, for the first time, into regular life.