Grieving for What “Should Be”

toy-loneliness-grief-sadness-autumn-nostalgia-coldSeptember 2016, our lives changed forever. Disclosure of sibling abuse required immediate action, without much assistance or clear direction. After our oldest was discharged from a residential mental health facility for her behaviors, she had lost most of her junior year of high school. Being credit deficient by an entire semester on a block schedule leaves few options to obtain the proper academic credits to graduate time. Instead of returning to public school and using an option pathway to graduate with her peers, she chose to get her GED. She passed with flying colors. When the graduation ceremony was held for GED students, I learned of it from a friend. Our daughter chose not to tell us of this event and did not attend at all.

I never imagined that one of my children would not complete the traditional high school experience. In the whole scheme of things, I guess it’s not all that important. She obtained her GED with only a 10th grade education and got decent score on the ACT. She  secured part time employment and has taken a few classes at a technical center. While I am proud of these accomplishments, it’s not what I had in mind.  As a parent, preparing for prom, getting senior portraits, ordering the cap & gown, mailing announcements, and graduation are milestone events for us, every bit as much as they are life accomplishments for our children.

As and educator, I attend graduation every year. Last year, as I walked in with the faculty and watched the graduating class enter and take their seats, I realized the growing realization and ache in my stomach that I would not see my first born child walk across the stage as part of the 2018 class. I watched as my co-worker presented the diploma to his own child and stifled tears realizing that the same experience that should have been mine the following year would never be.

Are these selfish longings? Probably. However, they are the reality of loss and byproduct of grief.

As we start the official countdown for the Class of 2018, I am filled with many emotions. As a teacher, I experience these emotions each year, watching “my” students complete this milestone, walk across the stage, and begin their new life into the world of higher education and/or the work force. I hold back a few tears and my heart swells with pride, watching students who became part of my heart shake hands and accept their diploma, walk off the stage, and place their hand over the matching hand print on the graduation banner for a photo. I am both excited and anxious for the next steps each of the students will take in the months and years ahead.

This year, as I accept senior pictures from students, purchase graduation gifts, arrange senior awards, and prepare to bid another group of students farewell, I find myself experiencing grief. I’m not saddened by my daughter’s accomplishments. I do not see her educational pathway as “lesser” than her peers. I tell myself that it is the same, but in my heart, I am grieving for the loss of what should be. If things had followed the “proper order” of life, if she hadn’t made the choices she did, if the system wasn’t broken and we had found the right facility for her rehabilitation, things might be different.

Selfishly, I’ve thought of alternatives to attending this graduation. I’ve even considered slipping in a little late and leaving a little early, but I won’t do that. This group of students deserves my support, congratulations, hugs, well wishes, and respect as much as all the others, perhaps more. This is the cohort that my daughter should be a part of. This is the group of students who greeted me every day while my world fell apart in 2016. These are the students who came with tear filled eyes when they learned of the tragedy that happened to our family. They shared stories of the warning signs my daughter had exhibited for years, that none of them recognized as warning signs of mental illness. Some of these students stepped up alongside my youngest daughter as she struggled to return to school. These are the students who presented me with 21 Christmas cards, many reflecting on the trials they watched me walk through day after day. They filled my heart with encouragement and hope during the darkest months of my life.

I will attend the graduation ceremony of 2018 with as smile on my face, but I know some of my tears will not be the happy kind. I will do my best to process my grief before the big day. My tears are not for what is now the past or the uncertainty of the future, but rather the realization and final acceptance of a chapter of my life that should have been, but was tragically stolen by decisions that were outside of my control.

Nonetheless, I will continue to hold my head high and move forward. I will continue to raise awareness. I will speak out for hope.

 

 

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Does my Child Have a Personality Disorder?

thinkingThe first time I wondered if my daughter had a personality disorder, she was in the 6th grade. I received a harrowing phone call at work. The principal (who was a former colleague) said that something had happened when our daughter got off the bus and that there were witnesses to confirm. “Your daughter isn’t innocent in this.”

I’m not the type of parent who assumes my children are perfect angels. In fact, I’m the first one to admit their faults and pinpoint what areas they are likely to go astray. The tale of trouble continued to unfold. Our daughter, “Brittney,” threatened to kill another student. There were witnesses. Other students confirmed the alleged threat, and the mother of the other child had rightfully stormed the office. There had been underlying rivalry between the two girls since 1st grade. Rivalry is one thing, but threatening a life is another.

I assured the principal we would support the disciplinary action set forth in the handbook, whatever that meant, and that we would speak with Brittney as soon as she got home. Much to my surprise, the principal explained that because both children were exemplary students and that we would address the issue at home, she would not recommend disciplinary action. Instead, she would send both children to the counselor for peer mediation. She insisted this was the best option, as she did not want anything to appear in our daughter’s file. However, it was not for the best, not for our daughter at that time, the girl she threatened, or the tragedy that would unfold in our home years later.

After dinner, I sat her down to discuss the phone call. Immediately the hysterics began. She insisted that she hadn’t spoken to “Karen” at all. Karen and her friends hated her and were trying to get her in trouble. The story continued to change as she went on for several minutes. In the end, she claimed she told Karen goodbye when she exited the bus and no other students were present, so no one could have heard her say anything at all.

This was not our first, nor would it be the last, encounter with our child telling outrageously detailed lies, painting herself as virtuous, or as the victim of unprovoked harassment and bullying. In fact, she lied so frequently that we could never be sure where the ounce of truth ended and the lie began. I spoke with the principal the next day to retell our child’s side of the story. Again, she assured me that there were multiple other students who had confirmed the verbal threat and that Karen was walking a wide circle around Brittney. Regardless, our daughter continued to deny any wrongdoing. Concerned, we sought professional help at a family counseling center.

Counseling made her angry. After all, she hadn’t done anything wrong; she shouldn’t have to be there. She resented us for seeking help. She became detached, agitated, and we all suffered from her intense and increasing mood swings. As a family, we walked on egg shells daily to avoid the impending tsunami of her rage. At times, for the sake of “peace”, my husband I avoided confronting her with the web of lies she would continually weave and her attitude toward her younger sister.

After six months, Brittney’s counselor was leaving the practice to further her education. She stated that we could continue with someone else or that since she seemed to be doing much better, we could discontinue at this point. After dealing with our daughter’s intense mood swings that seemed exacerbated with each appointment, we decided this was a good time to take a break. Our daughter was delighted as we walked out the door. However, as I sat with her in the darkness, waiting for the windshield to thaw, she spoke the words I will never forget. “If you ever make me go to another counselor, I’ll make sure the other Brittney comes back.” Trying to call her bluff, I asked what she meant by the “other Brittney”, to which she calmly explained that I knew exactly what she meant.

These were our first encounters with what seemed compelling evidence that our daughter had a significant problem. However, she didn’t fit the mold of a mentally disturbed adolescent. Coming from a middle class, well-adjusted home, our concerns were dismissed by professionals because she was well behaved at school, had exemplary grades, and did not display any other behaviors that were concerning, such as self-harm, drug use, or promiscuity. Our concerns of her attitude and occasional aggressive behaviors toward her younger sister were dismissed as normal sibling strife. The struggles continued at home and eventually violent behavior re-emerged toward a cousin. Her mood swings continued to spike and drop every few weeks. We decided to seek a psychiatric evaluation and resume counseling. When I broke the news to her about the upcoming evaluation and counseling session, she swore that we would pay for this. The psychiatric evaluation yielded inconclusive results, although it indicated a personality disorder. This was the first time the term personality disorder would be spoken concerning our daughter, specifically the possibility of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). However, because she was not yet 18, no diagnosis would be provided and again, counseling proved to be unsuccessful.

Unfortunately, we did not know the extent of our daughter’s destructive behaviors. True to her oath, Brittney made us pay dearly. The price was her sister’s well-being and nearly the cost of her life. Our youngest child now suffers from severe PTSD. Brittney spent four months in residential care, where again, BPD was discussed but not diagnosed because of her age and the absence of other disturbing behaviors.

Looking back, I can see warning signs that something was amiss as early as toddlerhood. My advice to other parents is to keep a written record of concerning behaviors and report to your pediatrician often. Trust your instincts. The early warning signs should not be ignored or swept aside as normal childhood or adolescent behavior. Continue to seek help for your mentally disturbed child while you can. If it falls on deaf ears, seek another opinion. As parents, we must be the advocate for our children. Speak out about what is happening. Speak out when you are concerned. Speak out for hope.

A Thanksgiving Blessing

We all have much to be thankful for this holiday season and every day, but this Thanksgiving Day I was especially blessed to see the toil of a year hit Amazon Kindle Edition. Maybe no one will read it. Maybe only my closest friends will read it. Maybe everyone will hate it or think it is poorly written. But maybe, just maybe someone who is going through trauma with their children will read it. Maybe a friend or family member who doesn’t know how to support those they care deeply about will read it. Maybe, just maybe, it will ease the agony of just one person or provide a sense of companionship in the depths of a lonely road. I don’t know what will come of it, but our story, Don’t Say Dumb Shit: A Parent’s Worst Nightmarebook cover is out there. Regardless of the opinions of others, if sharing our story helps just one soul out there, it is worth it.

Holiday Help in Humbug Hell

The holidays. For some, the holidays are filled with warm and happy plans filled with family and friends. For those of us who have faced incredible difficulties with family members, the holidays are a source of stress and sometimes grief for who we once were.

This time last year, our family was facing the holidays with one child hundreds of miles away in a mental health residential care facility, while our other child grappled with PTSD, severe depression, and staying alive after disclosure of sibling abuse. It was a difficult time, indeed.  We had always spent Thanksgiving with his family and Christmas with mine, but the reality of our situation dictated a change of plans. We spent Thanksgiving with one child and Christmas with the other. The devastation to our parents because of our trauma meant that we forged our own holiday celebration, instead of following family traditions.

My husband and I carefully balanced the holidays between both children, one at home and the other in a residential facility, and tried to maintain some sense of normalcy.  My youngest daughter and I celebrated the holidays and her decision to choose life  and self love by getting matching semi-colon tattoos. We worked together to make a traditional Christmas dinner with all of our favorite foods. (It’s difficult to make a full Christmas dinner, with all the trimmings, for only three people.) On Christmas day, we opened gifts with one child, instead of two. We tried to focus on the positive and were grateful that both of our children were in a safe environment, even if it meant distance from one.

This year, as we face the holidays again, things look much different. Our oldest is out of residential care and lives with a friend, 30 minutes away. Our youngest is on the long and difficult journey to wellness. On the surface, things are “better.” However, we are far from being a reunited family unit for the holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s celebrations that have always been filled with family, friends, and traditions are now hollow reminders of how fragmented our family and friends have become post disclosure. Because our oldest is no longer in residential care, we now face the old expectations of family members that we all attend events together.

Even though a year has come and gone, our children cannot be together. Healing is an ongoing process, and our family can only heal as quickly as each member.

As joyous as the holidays are for many people, navigating events and expectations while still dealing with the grief and after math of trauma is humbug hell. After much thought, I have devised a few tips for families in similar situations:

How to Navigate Humbug Hell

  1. Take inventory of what you have. When a family has suffered great devastation, it is essential to look at what remains, not what has been lost. Family and friends may have disappeared. The holiday landscape may look like a foreign land. However, take inventory of what you have, be grateful for what remains, and focus on creating a positive future.
  2. Enjoy traditions. Bake cookies, buy silly holiday pajamas or slippers, go shopping, and decorate. Just because things are not the same doesn’t mean you have to give up traditions you have always enjoyed.
  3. Make new traditions. If you’ve always spent the holidays at the home of a family member and that is no longer an option, make a new traditions. Go out of town. Take a drive to see Christmas lights. Buy a new board game or find an old favorite. Have a deluxe movie marathon, complete with popcorn, homemade pizza, candy, or your favorite snack foods.
  4. Explore other options. If you don’t want to go it alone, look around. Are there events in your community or at a local church? Push yourself to attend one of these events, visit a nursing home or hospital, or invite someone else who might be alone for the holidays over for a visit. You never know, you might make a new acquaintance.
  5. Set boundaries. Family/friends may not understand the lifestyle changes that are needed post  trauma. If a specific person is a trigger, set boundaries and don’t feel guilty if you need a little extra space.
  6. Reality check: Hallmark movies, sitcoms, and social media posts depicting holiday bliss is the exception, not the rule.
  7. Rest. The holiday hustle and bustle is enough to make anyone say, “Humbug!” Take time to rest. Sometimes the expectations that cause the most stress are self imposed.

Take time to reflect on the good times and memories of the past year. More importantly, dream cast into the future. We can’t always fix our family, but we can enjoy the present and plan for a better tomorrow.

 

Trials of Parenting a Pathological Liar

Our oldest daughter is a pathological liar. She has lied about anything and everything for as long as we can remember. The stories of her outrageous and mundane false tales would take days, possibly weeks, to explore, and those are just the ones we caught her in.

Telling the truth is one of the most valued traits we tried to instill in our children. In spite of our efforts to encourage truth telling and appropriate punishments when caught in lies, the lesson never “took” with our oldest.

When you have a child who lies incessantly, you can’t believe anything s/he says. No matter how big or small, we must always second guess the tales she tells. The story could be true. It could be a partial truth. It might be completely fabricated. Regardless, whatever comes out of her mouth becomes her truth, whether there is an ounce of honesty or not.

Over the years, the scope of her tall tales increased. She lied about friends, she lied about school activities, she lied about our home life, she lied about sickness and injury, she lied about her sister to cause her problems at school, she lied to get her way, she lied to get out of trouble, she lied about lying…seemingly, she would lie about anything to anyone, without provocation.

During the past year, we discovered that not only did she tell lies, but that she lived a double life. She gave the appearance of being a model student at school and church; however, she was secretly abusing her sister in an unspeakable fashion. We took swift action to ensure safety and to get help for each child. This resulted in our oldest spending time in a residential facility and currently living with a family friend. Obviously, she will never be able to stay in our home again. We have sought professional help for both children and are doing as well as can be expected.

But the lies haven’t stopped. She has continued to lie to family members, friends, clergy, and to those she has forged new relationships with over the past few months. Most frequently, she lies about what happened in our home, for self preservation, of course. While I can’t blame her for not telling the truth about her actions. I do resent the outright lies she has told to friends and family that paint her father and I in a monstrous light. We did not kick her out of the house for a misunderstanding. We did not kick her out of the house because she made one single mistake and now we won’t let her “live down” her past. We did not kick her out of the house because she had sex. We did not kick her out of the house for any other reason she might give. We had her removed to a residential facility, in hopes of getting her proper help, because she abused her sister and is a danger to our home. That is the only reason she is not living with us.

She continues to live a double life. She is a wonderful employee and remains very active in a local church. However, she lies about her work shifts so that she can meet someone at a hotel. At 17, she shouldn’t even be able to get a hotel room in her name; yet she has. (We saw the video surveillance.)  She lies about her whereabouts, who she is with, and what she is doing. She is very intelligent, so there is little to no trail to help determine the truth. Without hiring a PI to follow her constantly, we have no way to know what she’s really doing.

How do we parent a perpetual liar who is nearly an adult? We hold her accountable when we can. We try to remember that we can not control her actions or the lies she continues to tell. We advise her of what is right and wrong. We remind her of legal ramifications of the behaviors we fear she may be involved in, but we have no proof. And we pray. We pray a LOT. We pray for her safety. We pray that she will make wise decisions. We pray that she never re-offends in the future. We pray she will one day get the mental health help we know she needs. We pray she never becomes the victim of abuse or sex trafficking, because her double life behaviors certainly put her in jeopardy. We pray she doesn’t get involved in drugs. We pray for the people in her life to be a positive influence. We pray she stops living a double life.  We pray she find happiness. We pray she becomes a successful and independent woman. We pray she understands that we truly love her. We pray.

Parenting is hard at any age and stage. There are lots of guide books and theories to help determine the best course of action along the way. We try to avoid the pitfalls of our own parents, while making the best informed decisions we can. The fact is, if your child is a pathological liar and could have a personality disorder, as many professionals have suggested could be the case in our situation, the suggestions of others don’t fit the situation.

We parent our nearly adult child with a wing and a prayer. May God guide and protect her as she moves into the next phase, adult life. May God provide peace to us during the dark times and hours that we worry. May God provide insight to those she comes in contact with to provide guidance and help her see that she needs professional help. And if that day comes, may God provide wisdom to the professional community to provide a proper diagnosis that may very well save her life and the lives of others.

 

When Good Parenting Doesn’t Work

Why are parents, especially mothers, saddled with blame and guilt for the actions of their children?

Good parents mold, guide, and direct their children. It’s true that some parents choose to not be engaged or have limitations to their involvement for a variety of reasons, and that this can impact behavior. However, sometimes, children of the best parents STILL do bad things. I’m not talking about elementary bantering, refusal to pick up their room, or making prank phone calls. I’m speaking about actions of adolescent children that affect the lives of others. When this happens, the blame game begins. Surely, there is something or someone who prompted the bad behavior. The child is not the primary culprit. Frequent scapegoats: parents, media, and peers. Do these things play a role? Certainly. However, in spite of the best parenting efforts, some children make bad decisions that forever change the lives of someone else. I am the parent of such a child.

My oldest child appeared to be a model student. She always made the honor roll and frequently had a 4.0 GPA. She was an active member of an after school activity and our church; however, she had few friends and had always been a loaner. Other than seeming to prefer isolation during the adolescent years, her teachers saw nothing unusual. They chalked up her preference to spend time with books, rather than peers, as a sign of maturity and independence. Little did they know the child we lived with at home was quite different.

At home, she frequently exhibited massive mood swings and was continually angry. This wasn’t a new trend to go with the age and stage; it had always been. We constantly struggled to steady the waters. Her anger was explosive, but didn’t result in physical aggression toward us. She often lied about anything or nothing. When caught in a web of lies, she was defiant and accused everyone of being against her. Even when physical evidence was present to prove the lie, she would declare that she didn’t know how the physical evidence got there; she hadn’t done anything wrong.

This became the norm. We walked on eggshells to keep the peace. Unless we had physical evidence she was lying, we had to ignore our gut instincts or pay the price with additional days/ weeks of extreme attitude. I know what you’re thinking…”No child of mine would behave that way! I would take the attitude right out of her! You just need consistent discipline and positive reinforcement.” We thought the same thing, but worked. Grounding, additional chores, loss of technology or other privileges…nothing. Clearly linking the negative behavior with an appropriate consequence didn’t work, after all, someone else was always to blame for her behaviors. Consequences made her mood swings and eccentric behaviors increase, yet we were consistent. That’s what good parents do, right?

Things escalated and we were growing more concerned by her mid teens. At one point, she threatened physical harm to another student at school. As a mother, I knew in my heart something was wrong, this was more than a simple misunderstanding between kids, and so our journey for outside help began. We sought out counseling, but counselors dismissed my concerns. Our daughter claimed she had no idea why she was in counseling. She hadn’t threatened anyone at school; the other students lied and the teachers believed the. She didn’t do anything wrong and didn’t need counseling. After a several months of weekly sessions, her behavior had only worsened at home. Counseling wasn’t worth it. She would say the right things in her session, of course all of her communication was withheld from us. On the rare occasion that the counselor would speak with me, she would indicate that she felt her coping skills were improving. When I would discuss the increased hostility at home because of counseling, that was supposedly normal. Eventually, the counselor felt that our daughter was doing much better and we could discontinue appointments if we wanted. I explained this in the car. Of course, she didn’t want to continue.

After a few moments of silence, she said, “If you ever try to make me go back to a counselor, I’ll make sure the other ‘Brittney’ comes back.”  I swear, I felt a chill sweep through the car. She just referred to herself in the third person. I tried to remain calm.

“What do you mean the ‘other’ Brittney?”

“You know exactly what I mean.”

Her voice was not the typical voice of my daughter. It was cold, calculated, and threatening. What was happening? What is wrong with my child?

The next school year, she transferred. Maybe a fresh start would help. It did, but only for a short time. It didn’t take long until familiar stories unfolded. The problem wasn’t other children or her teachers; she was the problem. All the while, she maintained good grades and was the model student, according to her teachers. We It’s middle school. All kids are difficult at this age. Right? Yet, at home, we walked on egg shells more often than not to avoid conflict.

The details of these years is too long and complicated to describe here. We ended up having lab work completed to rule out a hormone imbalance. We started weekly counseling again, at what should have been a better facility two hours away from home. We had a complete psych evaluation, as we had reason to believe she had a personality disorder. (Results indicated that she shed herself in an exceedingly positive light; therefore, they could not determine if she had a personality disorder.) Our reports of her behavior were not of concern. Rather, the mental health professionals were only concerned with how the child felt. The only reports of her behavior that mattered were what she provided. Parental input didn’t matter.  After many months of two-hour treks to counseling, we were advised that if she didn’t have a certain level of “buy in” into therapy, it was of no use. She seemed to have improved and no longer wanted to continue sessions. She had learned how to work the system. Counseling stopped, again.

Eventually, the truth came out. What had been our worst fears were not bad enough. She had been secretly harming another child. Over time it increased to excessive violence. The other child, fearing for her life, kept the secret for quite some time, resulting in a crushed sense of worth, physical, mental, and emotional trauma, suicidal thoughts, and PTSD. Thankfully, she broke the silence, undoubtedly saving her life.

By now, you expect to hear how the law stepped in, investigated, and brought justice. No. That’s not the way the story unfolds.

You see, the child she hurt was her sister. Yes, I am the mother of a victim and a perpetrator. Because the girls were not six years apart in age, the police didn’t deem an investigation as necessary. CPS claimed to not deal with child on child violence. We were left alone to decide what to do.

We swiftly took action to protect our youngest from further harm and to seek professional help for both children. But the questions and statements from the psychiatrist suggested the victim was lying, that we allowed abuse, or that our parenting was to blame. Children, especially girls, don’t do this sort of thing.

We took many steps to help our children and continue to do so. Our oldest can not live at home.

The professionals did not listen. I was only a ranting mother who I’m sure was seen as overreacting. After all, I should be grateful she wasn’t doing drugs, getting in trouble at school, or sneaking out to be with boys.  What would I, an educated professional and the mother of a child, know about anything? I even referenced the DSM to discuss potential issues, yet it all fell on deaf ears.

Our story is a long and winding road we must forever travel, but we are not alone. More importantly, we know that we did everything within our power and resources to get help throughout the years. But most importantly, we understand that we did not cause our oldest to behave in this manner. We are not to blame.

We are the parents of a victim and the perpetrator who chose to exercise her free will to use coercion and force to harm another.

We love both fiercely.

We choose to preserve life and safety over the opinions of others who try to cast blame and shame that our oldest no longer lives in our home.

Unless you have walked this path, you cannot imagine the heartbreak and tears that water every step of the journey.

What will come of our journey?
Tears regularly water the lonesome path. I could allow silence and solitude to cover each step with weeds to hide pain and isolation. But I choose to speak out.

Who decides what horrors must be hidden? Culture? Society?

Who decides if I must hide in the shadows of shame cast by my own child who willfully hurt another?

It’s not you.

I decide.

Before you decide to throw stones at me or my family, I ask that you remember the victim and the deep loss that you will never comprehend. Instead of casting judgement and throwing stones, quietly lay your stone on the ground in memorial of the violence and devastation that has occurred. We are grieving. We will continue to grieve. Place your stone on the ground in memorial and hug your own children more tightly tonight.

I will raise my voice to bring awareness to sibling violence and abuse. The victims of sibling abuse and their parents need not hide in the shadows of fear and shame.

Speak out for the victim.
Speak out for the perpetrator.
Speak out and get help for your family.
Speak out for yourself.
Speak out for hope.