Over the past year or so, I’ve become much more aware…of myself, my emotional well-being, and how I often need to talk myself through certain situations and feelings.
It doesn’t take much sometimes to trigger those feelings of anxiety, fear, and failure. In the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee at my favorite cafe, an innocent conversation about the most ordinary of things can cause a downward spiral. It often feels like these canyons appear out of nowhere and plunge me into absolute darkness.
Today I find myself dissuading my panicky brain from going down the rabbit hole yet again. I assure myself that I’m just jumping to conclusions and my brain has no evidence to justify its premise that I’ve said too much to the wrong person, yet again, and that person is now judging me to be a horrid person unworthy of friendship and understanding. I attempt to convince myself that a) what I said was in the interest of being honest and b) it is my truth and I have a right to say it without feeling the need to justify myself and the decisions I’ve made. I know in my rational mind that the person I was talking with is not judging me, but there may always be that little piece of my mind that goes completely irrational whenever I am triggered and tells me that the world hates me and that I don’t have the right to object.
This year has been a very hard one on me. I’m not completely sure I’m capable of telling my story yet. Every time I sit down to write it I find myself pulling back, hesitating, suddenly unready to “go there.” The events that finally came to a head this year began about five years ago, in 2010.
In November that year, my husband and I took in a foster child. We were overjoyed and overwhelmed all at once with the addition of a child to our tiny family. We fell in love quickly and easily. The child, I’ll call her Jane, had just turned 10. Over the next two years, we faced multiple court battles and at times, it seemed that Jane would never legally become our daughter. We spent much of those two years living in fear that we’d lose our little family. Meanwhile, we attended regular counseling sessions with Jane and took her to individual counseling sessions as well. We did what we could to help her adjust and cope with the grief and loss of her biological family as well as prior trauma due to abuse and neglect. We dealt with all of the normal childhood situations like lying for attention or to try to get out of trouble, not doing homework, poor self-esteem and friendship issues. We tried our best to work through these issues with understanding and we took our therapist’s advice, trying to compromise our expectations for a child of Jane’s age to meet her developmental and emotional needs. It wasn’t easy, but we did our best; we were learning as we went.
At the end of two years, when Jane was twelve, we were finally able to legally adopt her. We were ecstatic. Things seemed to be perfect; we were finally going to be recognized as Jane’s parents and Jane seemed to have come such a long way since she first had come to live with us.
Shortly after the adoption, though, things started to spiral. Slowly at first. Jane got sick. Frequently. We took her to specialists; everything checked out physically, but something just wasn’t right. It took us most of the rest of that school year to determine that there wasn’t a physical cause to Jane’s illness. She suffered from severe anxiety and depression. We’d still been going to therapy regularly, but now we increased the number of sessions.
Then came the bombshell – well for us it was a bombshell – we found that Jane had been chatting with strange men online and sending them nude photos. We were terrified and mortified; she’d given these people her real address and her real name. We immediately went into parental freakout mode. We took all electronic devices away from her and grounded her. We came down on her pretty hard because as adults we understood the severity of the potential consequences for a young person who put herself “out there” in such a manner.
And then we ended up in the ER for the first time with a suicidal daughter. We were terrified even more. Jane had started self-harming and then she became suicidal. I felt guilty. It was our fault. We’d been too hard on her. We’d handled the situation incorrectly. It was with these thoughts spinning in my head that we headed into even more intense family and individual therapy sessions. With the therapist’s help, we opened a dialogue about internet safety, honesty, self-respect, and integrity. Jane earned back her privileges with electronic devices over time. We thought we’d made some serious headway in communicating as a family and overcoming trust issues.
Then on New Year’s Eve, we found out that we were really back at square one. Jane had done it again. She’d been taking nude photos and videos of herself and sending them to strangers. She’d exchanged nude photos with full grown men. She had nude photos of herself as well as nude photos of men on her phone.
This time, we responded not with passionate anger, but cold distrust. With the therapist’s approval, we went back to a no electronic device policy. Once again Jane became suicidal; we took her to the local ER again. This time, the doctors decided that she might benefit from a stay in an outpatient day hospital. We agreed and worked out the details. We were concerned that Jane’s mental health issues were getting worse, not better.
Jane spent about two months going to the day hospital. I attended the family sessions alone with Jane because of my husband’s work schedule. I was usually the one who went to therapy sessions anyway, but now I was having to leave work a bit early just to get to the sessions on time myself.
The family situation at home was pretty intense for everyone. I often felt like I was stuck mediating between my husband and Jane. They spent a great deal of time upset with one another and unable to communicate their feelings in constructive ways. I was stuck in the middle and if you don’t already know it, the middle is one of the worst places to be.
On top of this, I was having a rough year at work. I had been increasingly unhappy and the situation at home wasn’t helping. By June, I knew I needed a break. I was exhausted mentally, physically, and emotionally. I planned a week in July that I would be able to spend away from Jane and my husband. I spent this week with one of my closest friends driving across the United States. It was an exciting adventure. We talked the entire way and I explained all that had been going on in my life. It was during these pieces of conversation that I started to acknowledge for the first time the impact my family situation and my daughter’s mental health issues were having on me. I hadn’t been taking care of myself at all. I hadn’t been eating properly – in fact, I was rarely eating and had lost about 30 lbs. I wasn’t sleeping right either. I’d stay up all night and wake up early in the morning. If I was lucky I was getting maybe a solid 4 hours of sleep a night, if that.
After my trip, I returned home feeling increasingly overwhelmed by the prospect of starting back to work in the fall. Jane had somewhat stabilized by the end of June over the summer she again earned back her electronic device privileges.
Meanwhile, my own mental health and well-being had already been significantly compromised by that point and I continued on my downward spiral. I had stopped talking to my family because it felt like I was just repeating the same story over and over. I felt like no one would want to hear what was really going on. It was all too overwhelming to try to explain to people who weren’t directly involved. I’d effectively cut off my own support system. I was even more exhausted in August than I had been in June at the end of the school year. I felt trapped; I couldn’t escape the stress and constant battle to pretend everything was okay when it obviously wasn’t.
Finally, my husband confronted me. I denied everything. I told him I was fine. He firmly but gently told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was not “fine.” I was angry all the time and picking fights for no apparent reason. I was breaking down in tears multiple times a day. I couldn’t make simple decisions. It was the fear I saw in his eyes that finally got my attention.
It was the week before school was to start and I tried getting in to see my family practitioner. She was hesitant to prescribe an antidepressant due to prior mental health issues back in college. She wanted me to see a psychiatrist. Easier said than done. I couldn’t get in to see anyone for at least a month. I was, however, able to get in to see a therapist within a few days. I went back to my family doctor and explained the situation this time with my husband in tow to make sure that I told her
I went back to my family doctor and explained the situation this time with my husband in tow to make sure that I told her everything. I vaguely remember crying hysterically throughout this entire appointment while my husband explained in great detail what he’d been seeing. At this point, my doctor was concerned enough to suggest that going back to work might be a poor decision. She recommended that I take a leave of absence for at least three weeks – the amount of time I would have to wait until I could get in to see a psychiatrist. I didn’t want to. I was terrified what would happen if I did. I didn’t know how work would deal with that on such short notice. I was freaked out and absolutely terrified – terrified of letting everyone down, terrified of how I felt, terrified that I would always feel the way I did.
I was adamant that I didn’t want to take a three-week leave of absence. My husband said I didn’t have much choice. He said, “What are you going to do? Go in there and stand in front of all your new students and cry the whole class period? What happens if you have to deal with a parent? Are you going to be able to handle that?” All valid points. Finally, he convinced me and I spent the next four days wallowing on my couch taking turns crying and doubting my decision and sleeping. I only ate because my husband told me I had to; I only took a bath because he told me I should; it had been several days since I’d done so.
Then came the phone calls from Jane’s school. She’d thrown up and passed out in the girls’ room. Off to the ER we went. Everything checked out physically; they sent us home. The next day she reported having difficulty breathing and the nurse called saying she thought Jane was having an asthma attack. The school nurse recommended taking Jane to the ER again…twice in the same week, we were in the ER. This time, in the ER the doctor said he felt like it was anxiety related that nothing was physically wrong. He referred Jane to a pulmonologist and a cardiologist just for good measure but really didn’t think there was an issue.
And then came the part where I got kicked while I was already down. In the midst of my own mental health crisis, we caught Jane a third time with nude photos, etc…but this time…this time, was different. You see, Jane had been telling us for several months about this boyfriend she had at school. She’d had the whole family excited for her to go to homecoming with this boy. We were all excited to meet him; Jane only had wonderful things to tell us about the young man. The problem was, the young man never existed. He was an amalgamation of the strangers she’d been courting online with her nude photos. Jane had not only lied but had deceived us for months on end concerning this relationship – all an elaborate lie. Again we made a trip to the ER which resulted in an immediate referral to the day hospital.
We were a family in crisis and to say things were tense at home would be an immense understatement. We couldn’t bring ourselves to talk to one another without it ending in one person yelling and another in tears.
By the time I finally got in to see a psychiatrist, I was having suicidal thoughts myself; my three weeks leave had expired and I had gone back to work already. The counseling wasn’t enough.
Meanwhile at home, we’d caught Jane self-harming again and the doctors at the day hospital had suggested daily body checks and room checks for self-harm and implements Jane could use for self-harm. We installed locks on our basement door and placed knives and scissors in the basement. We placed all medications in a locked safe (we’d been doing this since Jane’s first sign of suicidal ideation the previous year).
Then on one of our nightly room checks, we discovered lighters; I then found a box cutter in her dresser drawer (the hard way). When we questioned her about the lighters and box cutter, we became increasingly concerned for our own safety. She’d been playing with them and burning herself with them. At our questioning, she began to lash out at us physically.
We informed the day hospital and agreed to address our concerns in the next family session. The day of the family session I went in and they asked to see me alone before meeting with Jane. The counselor sat me down and began asking me questions about the past weekend. I explained that a family member had come in from out of town to visit for the day, but that we hadn’t allowed Jane to visit for more than five minutes or so because she was grounded. The counselor proceeded to tell me that earlier in the day Jane had reported in a group session that she’d been provided alcohol by the family member and that she’d drank the alcohol with our permission. I denied this emphatically. If I hadn’t already been at my wits end, I certainly was now. I felt betrayed. She’d lied about us – about family. The counselor decided to speak with Jane alone next. I went and sat in the waiting room extremely agitated and fuming. What would happen if this was reported to Children and Youth? I could lose my job! I began to realize that Jane’s lying could cause us to lose everything – her included.
The counselor called me back again and sent Jane out to the waiting room. The counselor told me that Jane had confessed that it was a lie – no one had offered her alcohol. Then the counselor proceeded to tell me that she didn’t think that the day hospital was going to be able to help Jane. She explained that Jane’s mental health issues weren’t the type of issues that they could treat. The counselor then handed me a sheet with tips on how to de-escalate situations with individuals who have borderline personality disorder. I looked at the woman across the table from me. “You think this is what is wrong with Jane?” I questioned. She told me that due to Jane’s age, they didn’t make official diagnoses of borderline personality disorder, but that she was definitely showing signs of suffering from it. She lied with no concern for the consequences even if it wasn’t a “necessary” lie – simply because she could. She’d exhibited inappropriate affect repeatedly in therapy sessions and throughout the day at the day hospital. She was manipulative. They were recommending a residential treatment facility.
Again my own needs were on the back burner. This was my daughter. My husband was infuriated by the deception and was having difficulty accepting that it was a result of mental illness. I was again the mediator.
My husband expressed concerns that perhaps we were in danger having her in our home at the very least due to the false accusations and at most that she’d hurt one of us. We began locking our bedroom door at night to keep Jane out. At first, I doubted that she would hurt us, but as time went on I’d become more and more concerned. Her behavior had become more and more erratic and her tantrums had grown in frequency.
I worked with the insurance company to select a residential treatment facility that could meet Jane’s needs. Unfortunately, there were only three in the state that met the requirements. One didn’t respond to our query; the second facility did but didn’t seem like a good fit; the third seemed like the best fit but was a five-hour drive across the state. We chose the five-hour drive.
The night before we were to drive out for intake, Jane had a complete and total meltdown. She became angry, screaming and yelling. She wanted to break something, so trying to use what we’d learned in therapy to this point I took her outside for a walk; she was still agitated, so I gave her a stick and let her beat it on the ground. Pieces flew nearly hitting me and the next thing I knew she’d thrown herself down on the sidewalk. She began to pound the cement with her fists. Scared that she’d seriously hurt herself I pulled her over into the grass; that wasn’t as solid. I’d become terrified of my own daughter, of living in my own home, constantly fearing what might happen next. I was glad that Jane would be leaving for at least a few months.
To make a long story short, a few months turned into a year. Despite our best efforts over the course of that year, we were unable to reestablish our trust in Jane. We’d continued to have family and individual therapy sessions from November until March and then we realized that it wasn’t working. I couldn’t handle the ongoing stress of addressing Jane’s issues while ignoring mine. She was my main trigger… and she knew it. She could manipulate me better than anyone and she’d used that to her advantage – to the point where my marriage suffered greatly and so did I as a fellow human being. It was decided that we needed to let go and wish her well. We weren’t helping her to get well and she was making my recovery nearly impossible. We informed the residential treatment facility that we would not allow Jane to come back to live with us in our house due to not feeling safe around her.
This past November we went to court and relinquished legal and physical custody of our daughter to the county. She currently resides in a residential treatment facility and will likely remain there until she ages out of the system.
It has been a long journey; there are days that I’m okay and days that I’m not okay. I can’t believe I finally wrote this all down. So if we’re ever having an ordinary conversation and you ask if I have children…be aware that when I talk about my former daughter I am still hurting. The wounds are still open. I’m still recovering. I will be for a very long time.