Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Couple and Their Daughter: Estrangement and Reconciliation

Last year, Stacy attended one of my talks and bought my book and she found consolation in it. She gave it to her husband, and he emailed me mid-way through the book.

“Ron” and “Stacy” married in their teens and had very little money and no emotional support from their families. They stayed in rented rooms and both worked two jobs for several years. He is mechanically inclined and earned his living at auto repair shops. He’d had little patience for school and used his high school vocational education to land a job at a gas station. Stacy completed high school and attended a vocational school in their early years together.

Stacy established herself in her occupation and Ron began to earn a good living as a mechanic. Although they were earning their own way, they had learned that education opens doors to promotions and better salaries. They felt insecure and inferior when running into old classmates or meeting new people. They agreed that the best way to get ahead in life is through a great education, and when their only child was born, they moved to a different community to get her into a better school system.

From the time “Mary” was little, education was stressed and there were educational toys, flashcards, games and activities designed to enhance her life. Her parents were focused on giving her the opportunities they felt they had missed.

Mary was an average student who wasn’t interested in most of her classes. She had friends and liked some activities, but did not have special hobbies or sports she enjoyed. It became a daily struggle between the parents and Mary, a constant nagging and bribing for her to do her homework. Each summer from 7th grade on was spent in summer school, not for enrichment classes but because she had failed basic courses.

They were able to have good times on weekends but dreaded school days and nights. They went to doctors, therapists and coaches, trying to find the right answer to help this child. Nothing worked because Mary did not want help.

On Mary’s high school graduation day, they were proud, excited, happy and relieved that this part of their struggle was over. They had hoped that she would go to junior college and work to help with the costs.

When they saw her after the ceremony, she told them she was leaving, that she’d be staying at friends, that any place was better than living with them, and she walked away. They were stunned.

What should have been an evening of celebration and happiness turned into a difficult and frightening eight years.

They thought she would come home that night or the next day, but she didn’t. Her friends said they didn’t know where she was. They contacted every person they knew. Finally, one of Mary’s friends called and said Mary was staying with a guy she had met. The acquaintance had asked Mary to call so her parents wouldn’t worry, but Mary refused, so the friend called.

Ron and Stacy went through everything in her room. As impulsive as this had seemed to them, Mary’s running away had been planned. Favorite clothes and her childhood bear were gone. They had saved enough money in cash to pay for several months’ rent if they needed it, but that had been taken, too. They found some unidentified pills but no other answers to the questions of what happened and why.

They called her friends regularly, some would answer; others would not. Some said they hadn’t seen her and seemed sincerely worried while others seemed to be lying and covering for Mary.

Ron and Stacy “went through hell” worrying about her, second-guessing themselves. They weren’t bad people: they worked, had friends and went to church. They thought their biggest difficulty had been fighting over school, but now they knew Mary had been taking drugs and lying about it and stole a substantial sum of money from them.

Stacy scoured the papers and checked online to see if there was some note about her daughter – maybe she’d be named in an accident, in a burglary, maybe she’d be in a photo taken at a street party. Maybe they’d find an unidentified female body, someone Mary’s size. She created accounts on MySpace and later Facebook to look for Mary and her friends.

There were no answers and no contact from Mary for years. They experienced anger over her betrayal and the emotional trauma of not knowing where she was and if she was alive. They went to a family therapist to talk about this grief and worry and to keep their marriage intact.

The pain lessened but it was always there. They gave up on finding her and felt they’d done all they could do by letting her friends know that they wanted to see her.

Stacy read my book and said learning about other parents and what they did or how they coped was helpful for her. It was comforting to know they weren’t alone and others had similar or worse problems.

Ron was partway through my book when their phone rang one evening and it was Mary. She wanted to meet them over coffee. They arranged a time to meet and the place, and the call ended.

Ron wrote to me and asked how to approach her, what to say, should they hug or what? It was the beginning of the weekend and they were to meet her on Sunday. Their therapist was away, there was no one to call. So they reached out to me.

I reminded them I’m a parent who wrote a book and I’m not a therapist. They just wanted to talk it over with someone who might understand their situation, may have thought it through. I have thought about what I might say to my son and how I might react, but nothing is certain on either side and it’s emotionally scary to extend oneself and risk losing that person again.

Here’s what I suggested: let her lead the way. Go to listen and not confront. Don’t run up and hug her, just greet her and see if there is a sign she wants to be hugged. It’s been 8 years and this is not a teen but a 26 year old woman.

They did let her lead the way so it was a rather short meeting, but now they are hopeful. It was hesitant and scary, and they didn’t hug when they saw her or before they left. They didn’t probe her to find out where she had been. Mary is hesitant and scared, but she had joined Alcoholics Anonymous and part of the program is to ask forgiveness of those you have hurt. Mary has agreed to go to family counseling with them. Ron and Stacy are hopeful but cautious: they’ve been wounded deeply and fear losing her again. There is a small light at the end of that tunnel, and I’m keeping this family in my thoughts.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Made it through Mother’s Day: how’d you do?

I thought I should write an update following my last blog about Mother’s Day.

Much to my relief, it wasn’t too bad this year.

We spent the day with my wonderful mother-in-law. It was great spending the day with her.

Did I miss my mom on that day? Absolutely, but my world doesn’t revolve around sorrow – there are some trigger points for me to think about loss. It’s appropriate to think about people we’ve lost, especially on special days.

And then there’s my son. Still not talking and I really miss him especially on Mother’s Day, but I’m not devastated as I was in years past. My feelings float in and out of resignation, anger, calm, hurt and so on.

Overall, I am stronger this year. Someone asked me about coping with a severed family relationship, and I think it’s like with death in that it takes time to learn to cope and adjust to a “new normal” as they say.

I’m taking some positive steps and hear my son is doing the same. I started going to a support group to reinforce how not to enable, how to let some things go. I appreciate the group and when I go, I am going in to listen to others without thinking about writing their stories. Whatever I hear there is confidential. I can see that for a few years I’ve written other people’s stories and distanced myself from my feelings. Now it’s time for me to look inward without thinking about what I will write here. I know I’ll find more things to write about and so will my contributors.

If you found this blog or read my post as you were worried about Mother’s Day, tell me how you fared. Was it hard? Easier than it was? What tips can you share to help others?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Dreading Mother’s Day? Me, too.

Last year I wrote about Mother’s Day and how I felt about it.

It hasn’t been an easy day for me in years. As I child, I remember looking forward to giving Mama something I had made, and even when I gave her simple beads on a string, she would beam and thank me and she’d wear the necklace. My mother was special, and she died at age 50. I’ve been without her more than half my life. I still miss her, wonder what her life would have been like, what our relationship would have been like had she lived longer. I especially missed her and appreciated all she had done once I had my own child.

If you’re a regular reader, you know that this blog is an offshoot of the book I wrote, “Strained Relations: Help for Struggling Parents of Troubled Teens.” The book and this blog came about as a result of my experiences with my son. I’ve talked with many people over the years about difficult or troubled teens, and it helped me to know I was not alone. It also helped that I was an investigator, keeping my own emotions out of it.

This year, more than others, I’m dealing with those emotions. I still don’t talk with my son and it’s been exactly four years and one month since he lived in our home. I really miss the child I had and the time we spent together. There were issues along the way, but really, it’s been since he was 13 that he was someone with whom you could have a conversation. He is 22 now and I’m still hopeful that we’ll repair our relationship in the future.

For that repair to happen I have to grow and learn and he has to do the same. I’m doing my part and hoping for good things for him.

Now I want to say one final thing about Mother’s Day. This is the most painful and cruel day for a mom who has lost a child. My son had a friend who came to our home several times. In the brief conversations we had, I had a richer sense of who he was and what was on his mind than I had with my own son. He was a lovely boy and very close to his family. He died suddenly when he was in college, and it wasn’t due to horrible things you assume with kids that age – he simply died. An adult’s version of sudden infant death syndrome, I suppose. I felt terrible, deeply sorry for his loss, for the loss to his parents and family.

If you’re wondering how you talk with someone who is estranged from a child or worse, that the child has died, here’s what I would do. I would say to that person, “I was thinking of you and I’m sure you miss your child. Do you want to talk about it?” Just acknowledge the loss, the emptiness, and don’t pry. If the person doesn’t want to talk, he or she won’t do it, but the important thing is that you have let them know it’s okay to talk or not talk, that you’re there and you care.

Take care, friends.