Last Wednesday I flew out for the Parent Workshop at Luca’s boarding school. We drove three hours through dusty canyons, past mountain ridges lined with evergreens, into a National Forest for a camping trip with the other families.
Over the course of three days, we listened to lectures, participated in experiential exercises with our kids, and checked in with other parents:
“What level is Cody on?”
“When do you think Dakota’s going home?”
“How was Ben’s last home visit?”
“What meds is Henry taking?”
The first day, it was 105 degrees. The second day, we all shivered in the damp drizzle. I huddled by the campfire next to one of my favorite moms, Julia, from Seattle. Her son Dylan is expected to reach the top level soon. She was unabashedly ambivalent about his transition home: would he come after her with knives again? How would he handle public school? How would she cope with his “ornery personality?”
The workshops are the antithesis of Mompetition culture. You can talk about how terrified you are to bring your kid home, or how terrified you are that you’ll never be able to bring your kid home, or how low your kid’s test scores are — how low your kid’s test scores are! — and know you won’t be judged.
The morning before we drove out to the camp site, we sat in a Parenting lecture in the school’s family meeting room. Midway through the seminar, we heard banging, the sounds of objects colliding with walls, screams to “get your effing hands off me!” Then the boy was escorted outside by Staff, his shouts fading into the mountain air.
No one batted an eye.
* * *
The winding drive to the camp site was mostly silent, and awkward. Three hours in a car with a 15-year-old boy who’s pissed that he’s been sent to a place where he almost never gets to see girls, or go on Facebook, is a long time. Mix in some bitter feelings because his parents ruined his childhood with their lousy divorce, and three hours can feel like Chinese water torture.
I handed Luca the carton of “conversation starters” the Staff had given us in anticipation of no conversations. This is the type of request that, pre-boarding school, would have incited a wave of protests.
But there wasn’t one. Luca opened the carton and pulled out a fortune cookie type piece of paper. He read, in an I-don’t-want-to-do-this-but-my-therapist-is-going-to-ask-you-how-things-are-doing monotone:
“What one thing do you want to be remembered for?”
I wondered if the divorce had obscured any good memories Luca might have of me. My mind felt like a vast blank canvas. I reached into the future and came up with this:
“I want to be remembered for being a devoted grandmother…if you guys have kids…I want to be really involved with them.”
Luca didn’t respond: whatever. He pulled another conversation starter from the carton.
“What was your favorite family vacation?”
Knife in the heart.
“Well…that’s tough. We didn’t get to have a lot of them…”
Between my single mother budget and Luca’s meltdowns when we changed locales, we rarely went anywhere. Prince had enough bells and whistles — multiple vacation homes, 24/7 staff, and a large extended family — to satisfy Luca, who has taken almost all his vacations with his father.
“…oh! When we went to Pismo Beach! Remember how you loved it there, riding ATVs in the sand dunes?”
“Uh-huh,” he said.
I glanced over at my son, so beautiful with his thick dark lashes and golden-brown Bieber cut. I winced at the sight of his toothpick-thin arms, the skin around his bony elbow white and stretched thin.
He has, since wilderness camp, gone on a partial food strike, and has lost so much weight that he’s seeing a nutritionist.
Since he eats more when he can escape school food, I ply him with milk shakes and burgers and mozzarella sticks when I see him.
He stared out the windshield, a half-eaten Subway sandwich in his lap. I turned my eyes back to the dusty road.
My mind got stuck in its well-trod rut, repeating the hellish mantra that the god of Divorce Guilt has bestowed upon me:
Would Luca have been better off if I’d stayed with Prince?
* * *
The writers Somerset Maugham and John O’Hara both were inspired by a fable about an Indian Servant trying to dodge Death after spotting her in the marketplace. His Master lends him a horse so the Servant can hide miles away in Samarra. The Master finds Death in the marketplace and asks her why she threatened his Servant. Death replies that she was merely surprised to see the Servant in the marketplace because she has an appointment with him that night in Samarra.
The meaning: all roads lead to the same place. Wherever you go, there you are. Until you grow up.
I thought about Appointment in Samarra often during the workshop. If I’d had more self-esteem, and more self-agency when I met Prince, I never would have signed on for the one-way relationship I had. But I was a lost, codependent child then, and there was no way I could have changed and stayed married.
If I’d stayed married, I would have stayed screwed up. I might have frolicked with the pool man and run amok with Botox and Restalyne. Prince and his family still would have shoved me to the side and communicated to my kids, albeit more insidiously, that I was simply a maternal figurehead who didn’t deserve respect. Luca would still have felt that he could run me, and the house. He might have ended up in residential treatment anyway — or not gotten help early on.
* * *
The last day of the workshop, the parents listened to a neuropsychologist deconstruct the adolescent brain, especially those adolescents with behavioral issues. It was, hands down, the most nuanced explanation that I’ve ever heard of how kids end up in residential treatment.
The Reader’s Digest version is that learning issues and developmental delays (almost every kid at Luca’s school has ADHD or some other variation of learning disorders or is on the autism spectrum) lead to low self-esteem, which leads to depression and anxiety, which leads to explosiveness and oppositionality in boys. Girls with learning disorders more frequently suffer from depression and passivity.
If you treat the learning difficulties, you also treat the psychiatric and psychological issues. And if you get on it early enough, you can circumvent the inevitable substance abuse and skirmishes with the law that are the hallmarks of troubled kids in later adolescence.
I had been diagnosed with an auditory processing disorder when I was five and recognized during the tutorial, that had I been growing up now, I probably would have been more accurately diagnosed with a Non-Verbal learning disorder, a condition marked by high verbal skills, low math and spacial skills, poor gross motor skills (I was terrified of PE). poor self-help skills, and difficulty navigating the social terrain.
I had every one of those symptoms and despite morphing into an Honor Roll student by 6th grade (thanks to early-intervention remediation), I never got over feeling stupid. I also remained unsure of myself socially, and due to my lack of self-help skills, relied on other people to make my decisions.
My low self-esteem and lack of self-agency led to a lifetime of hiding behind externals — good grades, nice clothes, popular bad boys — that never fixed my core problem of low self-esteem. My parents stuck me in individual therapy but got no therapy themselves (which they desperately needed for their own reasons) which just further cemented my belief that I was defective, and the only one who had these issues.
By high school I was a depressed, anxiety-attacked mess. I wondered, while listening to the psychologist’s presentation, what my life would have been like had my parents sent me to an Outward Bound-type program that would have taught me the competency skills I so badly needed. I wondered what my life would have been like if we had gotten family therapy so my parents could focus on their own problems: a barren marriage kept alive by their being over-focussed on me; my mother’s codependency and compulsion to rescue me from my struggles.
As I became more driven to succeed, I developed an eating disorder and became more depressed and withdrawn. My behavior just freaked out my parents more than they’d already been freaked out and they didn’t know what to do, other than assure me that one day everything would magically “be fine.” They were older, southern, and of the Waspy persuasion that you don’t delve into problems.
So I felt abandoned and frantically searched for a surrogate family to embrace me. I found that in Prince’s family, and we all know how that turned out. But my problem didn’t begin with my marriage — it began early on in life when certain developmental tasks weren’t met.
What struck me about the parents at the workshop is that they are all willing to get down in the dirt with their kids. The school insists that parents deal with their own issues whether they be marital problems, parenting problems, or mental health/substance abuse problems.
As much as I regret how I handled issues in the marriage, and the impact of the divorce on my kids, I know that I have done the right thing for Luca: I’ve gotten down in the dirt with him. I’ve forced myself into his mental health treatment despite Prince’s efforts to keep me out. I’ve taken a long, hard look at my parenting mistakes that have led to Luca’s sense that he knows as much as adults. And I will never, ever abandon him.
Sitting among the other parents, I started seeing Luca’s situation differently. His psychological crisis, as wrenching as it is, is also a godsend. It’s a blessing that good residential treatment centers exist, that his educational consultant picked the right one for him, that pediatric neuropsychology is as advanced as it is. And the fact that Luca got help starting at 14 may keep him from flaming out with drugs and legal problems that plague older adolescents who didn’t get help early on.
Because I didn’t get help early on, my life trajectory was set. Because Prince’s parents bestowed upon him an ungodly amount of entitlement and a habit of blaming others for his own problems, his life trajectory was set. If we’d kept our marriage together, Luca would have had the same issues.
None of us could have avoided our Appointment in Samarra.
Part II coming soon: what happens when Fate meets Mindfulness.