Fathers’ Day

Today I will allow myself to feel sad. I will indulge the negative thoughts. This will take effort. Suspending the continuous analysis and justification, the reframing and positioning, the milestone checking and progress reminders. Going with a new groove and consciously not being stuck on repeat.

I will grieve the absence of things that don’t usually matter, but somehow today do. I won’t question this.

I’m human. Only by being human can I hope to respond to those that I love around me as humans, in a human way, more empathically. I’m not a robust machine that rolls with the blows and rewires. Well, not today, anyway.

The whip, but not the walnut

My nanna choked on the walnut from a Walnut Whip. My dad dislodged the walnut and saved her from death, but she was never allowed a walnut again. The whip, but not the walnut.

Mists and Frameworks

I got dragged back into my amygdala this week. Kicking and screaming, which is a good thing because it means I recognised it immediately. I managed to drag myself back out quick sharp. While I was there, I wanted to curl up and hide. Being able to consciously bring myself back out was the most liberating thing I’ve done in a long time.

In practical terms, what this means is the following sequence of events. D wore his brother’s clothes without asking (the natural consequence of D not doing his own laundry is that he has no clean clothes; the behaviour this drives is taking his brother’s clothes). His brother spotted this, alerted me, and after a phone call from me, D returned and changed. On leaving the house, his brother spotted that D had actually swapped one pair of foot wear for another that wasn’t his. Another phone call, but this time, clearly frustrated by a further interruption to his planned adventures, D refused to return and ignored my phone calls. At this stage, my red mist descended and I blocked D’s phone, justifying it to myself that there is no point me paying for a phone that doesn’t serve my purpose. I was well and truly engulfed in red mist: seething with rage and hitting out with punitive retaliation.

Here is the turning point. Within 30 minutes, a growing feeling of regret began to outweigh my rage, and a calm voice starting asking me three things: was I happy severing this vital means of emergency communication with one of my sons; what example did my behaviour set; what behaviour would it drive in my son as a result? I reversed the changes before anyone noticed. Even though it felt I was giving something up, I could feel a stronger sense of relief. I was out of my amygdala, I could breathe, and I could get on with other things.

Two hours later, D called me to apologise for missing my calls and explained that he’d returned his brother’s shoes and sorted things out with him.

This is a major development for me. I can’t remember the last time my red mist stifled me, which in itself is good, but more importantly, for the first time, I got myself out before any damage was done.

So this morning I’m over the moon with myself for parenting therapeutically more than I have ever, in my humble opinion (pats self on the back). The boys argued over a job this morning. One beat the other to it. In the process of the argument taking place between the front garden and a bedroom window, I learned that D has been using the bathroom window and porch roof to come and go as he pleases during the early hours of the mornings. I didn’t respond, but continued on my dog walk and used the walk to think things through.

The immediate natural consequence of D’s action is a risk to his safety. The porch roof is not designed to be an exit point. I would rather he wake me if he needs to leave the house. An inconvenience for us both, but safer for him and not as much hassle for me as fixing the porch roof when it’s damaged. I will lock the bathroom window at night in future to remove this risk. I called D and explained this from a position of genuine care, and he responded calmly and without any feeling of threat.

Maybe having to wake me up will make D think twice about this, or he will plan his nights better. I make no apology for this compromise. Our framework of safety, security and nurture says that we should all be in our beds at night, and that hasn’t changed. But nearing the age of eighteen, we flex around the framework to minimise risks from driving unintended behaviours, and we are open and honest about it. The expectation is there, but the battles are carefully chosen and the risks weighed up.

On reflection, the scripts from early childhood are still there, whatever you want to call them. Theft? Absconding? Deceit? We know about the scripts. Borrowing because they don’t have things. Taking to survive. Warped versions of reality. Disassociation: “It wasn’t me, really it wasn’t. I saw it happen, it wasn’t me.” The scripts are much more manageable when they operate on teenage things like foot wear, being out with friends and jobs, although I wonder if the scripts are here for life.

Balancing Forces

He is the disruptor.
I am the peace keeper.

His driving force for change
competes with my sustaining steadfastness.

I am so rigid, dogs pee on my ankles
if I stay in one place for too long.

I must keep myself moving.
I must not dampen his dreams.

The extremities.
The complimentary poles.
Coffee with milk.
Bitter and sweet.

Scripts

This morning, while staring at a wall doing something mundane that we all do, I had a realisation. At the age of fifty-two, I have finally stopped muttering the word ‘toilet’ under my breath every time I leave a room of people to head for – you guessed it – the toilet.

This realisation has only arrived with the ending of a habit. Until now, I hadn’t really been aware of the habit. Since I was able to take myself to the toilet, I have announced my intention whenever I left a room. That room was usually the lounge, inhabited by my immediate family. I have no idea why I felt the need to do this, or even if I was encouraged to by my parents, but I have always done it and gradually over the years it became reduced to a single word, then muttered, then dropped. I gradually sub-consciously got rid of the habit that made no apparent sense.

Maybe this deeply rooted habit of mine, playing out each time like a script, has its background in the same experiences that sub-consiously trigger my anxiety if I’m not in complete control and oversight of my children at home. Maybe I should ask my mother, or maybe not.

This is a great example of something that we learn as parents of children with Adverse Childhood Experiences. We all have scripts, but our children are more likely to have scripts that don’t immediately make sense to us or even them. Squirreling away food in bedrooms is a more obvious one but we wonder about the need to scan every room in the house for the smallest of changes.

Our children are unlikely to recognise their scripts, especially when they are younger. Scripts are subconscious until our attention is drawn to them. Some scripts are for life, or at least into your fifties when you are left to work these things out for yourself. It is never too early to acknowledge scripts. It needs to be done positively and with support, and ideally linked to the underlying experience or unmet need, if it can be identified. Time to put the detective hat on.

Bringing attention to something can be the first step to acknowledging, owning and changing a script. Becoming an observer of yourself can help identify scripts and embark on making a change. Left unobserved, scripts may eventually change with the passing of time, and hopefully change for the better, but this could take decades, or in my case into my fifties.

The View From Here

Entering our tenth year as a family, a strange calm has settled on us. The disruption to what should have been a transition to College has turned out to be a welcome respite. Secondary school was damaging. It took exclusions before we inadvertently found the environments and attitudes in which our twin teenage boys could breathe, and eventually thrive.

I’ve written off any hope of educational attainment this year. I’ve used my trusty skill of reframing to see this as an opportunity to indulge their teenage brains. They can catch up with friends online late into the night, cook meals when their stomachs dictate (our kitchen sometimes resembles a 24 hour cafe), belly-laugh with us at corny 80s comedies and sleep when their bodies chose.  It feels like their emotional development gets a chance to catch up.

I refuse to feel guilty for this relaxation. We are in exceptional times and the pressures of education and employment will be back upon us soon enough.

Time to disinvest

Today we had a blip. Blip is the word used by a colleague in a moment of genuine comfort, except today it felt more like a slap than a blip. A slap in the face that left me speechless. The usual mantra of professional explanation and justification had left the building.

What really brought me down was why today felt different to yesterday. I managed yesterday’s family challenge beautifully, even if I say so myself. For once it didn’t impact my other job. I managed to give my other job parity with the family job, and it worked. Maybe that’s why today felt different. I was complacent, caught off-guard. I knew my happiness on the bus to work this morning was premature on some cosmic scale. Maybe allowing happiness was foolish.

Having picked myself and my thoughts up by the end of the day, I concluded that I am too invested. This shocked me, as some time ago I was the would-be parent that planned to take it in their stride – much like a day job – and integrate parenthood into their life framework of career, society and interests. But family life has consumed me. Maybe too much? Maybe I need to disinvest. That’s an interesting word, and is different to divest. Both words have currency in my job at the moment. And in the family context, I see it this way: I need to stop putting so much in, because it is draining me and upsetting for me when we suffer a blip. This is disinvesting. To divest would be to deprive: I’m not going to do that. I still need to parent and to be a family member, but I also need to be me and to protect me. We call it self-care in therapeutic parenting circles.

Triggers

In the process of learning what triggers our children, we learn what triggers us. This hasn’t been a natural process for me. I didn’t find it easy to be open to it, but the triggers that secondary trauma can unavoidably give us as parents of children who have experienced trauma are a good starter to identifying those that we have held from our own childhoods.

Being ignored is my major trigger. Especially via the phone. I can feel all reason evapourate when I get no reply calling one of my sons. Frustration becomes rage. I’ve started using breathing to try and manage this but it’s not easy. How much harder is it for my sons to manage their own rage, if I struggle to do it, with my insights and awareness?

Control is the other. I find it hard to cope with not having everyone safely in the places they are planned to be, such as school.

These particular two triggers have led to me screaming at the top of my voice in the street at S that I was “shutting you down, fella” like Joan Crawford on a budget. Poor S was trying to make sense of my actions. I was visiting a number of his hang-outs to warn the occupants off harbouring him, and he was trying to make it easier for me by pointing me at the addresses I’d been given, but my rage had blocked all reason and his offer of help, and I strode my own path and made things much harder.

Genuine Goods

This evening we started planning this year’s Christmas presents over a perfect pint in the Crafty Devil bar on Llandaff Road. It was our monthly two hours in Cardiff when the boys attend the youth group run by Talk Adoption. It’s a good opportunity to catch up with my family, although that usually boils down to my house-bound parents as everyone else is out on a Saturday evening.

Jon has found a web site that sells cheap alternatives to expensive brands, covering more or less everything you could want, and certainly everything on the boys’ wish-lists. This worries me. It brings to mind one of my very early Christmas’s. At the age of four or five, I wanted a toy Hoover vacuum cleaner. And I mean a Hoover. The Green Shield Stamps shop sold genuine imitation Hoovers. I guess they were expensive, and beyond the reach of Father Christmas, as that year I was given a multi-coloured plastic vacuum cleaner that lit up when it was used. This may sound like fun for a toddler, but I didn’t want fun, I wanted genuine imitation, and I wanted to imitate the thousands of housewives who used a Hoover vacuum. That need seemed to be lost on Father Christmas, and I’m determined that it isn’t lost on us as parents.

Managing Truancy

I had a really helpful chat with T about S’s fifth week of truancy, the excuses he is making, and his difficulty communicating with anyone. His truanting is a reaction to his trauma-related anxiety and has reached the stage where he doesn’t know what it is (the sick feeling he describes) and is flailing around trying to explain it, resulting in excuses.

T reassured me that we are doing the right thing by stepping back, ensuring his safety and giving him the space to work things through while at the same time continuing to assure him of our love and continuing to keep a dialogue going about attending school and needing a solution to the problem. I.e., “we love you and we will always be here for you but it’s important that you are in school and we all need to think of a way that you can be in school.”

On top of the trauma-related anxiety, S will now also be feeling guilt and shame for his behaviour and its impact on us so we need to avoid putting any more pressure on him (rewards, punishments).

The truancy is now moving from what could be a rebellious phase into something known as ‘school refusal’ which T has experience of. The school has a significant role in this, and T will work with them on their proposed next steps. They will have a policy and it will likely involve a referral to the Education Welfare Service. We will work jointly across all agencies and the school, and explore with S ways in which he can be in school, including compromises, without putting further pressure on anyone.

In parallel it is time to get an appropriate therapist to work with S on a long term basis. This will be someone who understands adoption and attachment. T will get some names and prepare a funding request for the Vale. If we want to arrange something privately in the meantime, that’s up to us, but it has to be someone appropriate and we have to understand this has been a long time building and will take a long time to fix, not a couple of sessions.

What They Don’t Prepare You For

It’s a job.
It’s rubbish.
It will bring external influences into your home and life.
It is largely thankless.
It will be destructive.
It will take you to your lowest.
You will be known, looked at and judged.
You will know the police.
It will impact your day job.
Your children will be disliked.
You will be continually lied to.
Your things will be stolen.
They will break your heart.

Coping Mechanisms

There is no beginning to this, and realistically there will be no end. So I’ll dive straight into it and try to paint the fuller picture and fill in the background as we go.

I’m compelled to take to written words today of all days because we are just over five years into this, and while I know there has been progress, today is one of those days that remind me just how much damage there is, and how readily that clouds my judgement.

What makes today of all days even more difficult is my questioning my partner’s actions and approach. Is it hindering our family? Slowing things down? Making things worse even? Are we as parents being manipulated: divided and now finally conquered?

So this morning after I’d left the house for work, it transpires world war three kicked off. And for me, the worse thing is not being there to play my part, to reassure myself that everything that can be done is being done, and is being done appropriately, that mistakes aren’t being made. I default to finding and claiming the guilt every time.

I’ve learned that everything I desire is a reaction to the things that happen to me and make me feel out of control. The simple-seeming bird guardian on Country File that I suddenly and inexplicably fall for is a reaction to the complexity of my day that day. The simple life calls to me through every available lens.

I’ve decided that I’m a control freak and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s been instrumental in my career.

I like to be prepared for all eventualities but this is unrealistic.

It’s ok to feel happy, excited and disappointed. Don’t suppress the feelings for risk of getting hurt.

I over analyse the same things and totally miss others. I need to be more decisive and then move on. Maybe mindfulness will help me do this.

I’ve decided to dedicate the next two years to helping my family be safe, heal and grow as close as possible util our boys are young men.

I can’t fix every relationship and I need to get better at knowing when to intervene, when to coach and when to back away.

I take things too seriously. Maybe if I can be more relaxed and fun, those around me can be too.

Maybe my reflection will help you. That would be nice.

Disengaging

As I write off the rest of my working day and appear at the school my partner works in, I notice the Restorative Justice aide memoirs hanging on a lanyard around his neck. The irony isn’t lost on me. Being a practitioner and professional in a particular field doesn’t mean that managing the behaviours of your own children is any easier than for other parents.

The next day, and my finely crafted plan to get everyone to their respective places of study and work has failed. I’m a twin down. During these scenarios I use a risk assessment approach. What is the worse that could happen? He’s thirteen now. Chronologically anyway. Still eleven in many aspects. And positively primeval when things aren’t going his way. He has an over developed amygdala and I mustn’t forget that. So he’s not going to wander into the road and get killed. He could get picked up by the police and brought back to me, waiting for him in the house where I’ve told him I will be when he’s ready. He returns ten minutes later. He tries to take his school bag and phone. I distract him with the offer of a cuppa. Ten minutes later his head lifts and his eyes open, and for the first time in about 30 minutes (feels like a day) he can see and hear me.

While I’ve been waiting, checking and adjusting my body language to be open to him when he is ready, I’ve been running through my contingency plan and selecting the option that best matches this scenario. It’s part of my risk management approach that stops me feeling panicked and helpless. I know that today of all days I can afford to reschedule things in work. In that alone lies a silver lining: he has chosen a good day for a melt-down. It’s one I can work with.