What to do when after eight years, your child is still fighting the demons he came with? My oldest son was eight when we got him, and after eight years of pouring everything we have to give into him, it’s as though he just arrived yesterday. We can talk about his traumatized brain, drug exposure in utero, and reactive attachment disorder, but understanding doesn’t change the day-to-day dynamic. The bottom line is that Gavin either refuses to let himself succeed or is simply incapable of rising above his challenges right now. All I know is that whenever something starts to go well, he sabotages himself, and thereby the family.
The most dramatic example is his deliberate failures in school- multiple times a year since sixth grade. We work together like the dickens to help him learn, complete his homework, and pass his classes. Without fail, every end of term when he is doing well, he lies, “loses” work, and simply does nothing so that his grades drop, usually to F’s like last week. He was afraid he would “mess up”, he said, so he made it happen on his own terms. Again.
The kicker is that no matter how much he matures, no matter how well he does for how long, he consistently drops back down to the bottom. It’s like that’s his comfort zone. He’s almost happier when he has messed up than when he’s doing well. I’ve been so focused on helping him get that high school diploma, but I realized last week that no matter what I do, he can prevent himself from getting it. It is anguishing to watch him deliberately fail when success is so within his grasp. But success is not his story, at least not now.
Despite years of safety, security, loving parents, counseling, the gospel, a stay-at-home mom, and placement with his siblings, he tells himself that it was his fault his birth parents neglected him and that he’s unlovable. It’s impossible not to become very discouraged when we realize that nothing we’ve done or given him has touched that core belief. Not being in his shoes, I don’t know if he’s even capable of thinking differently about himself. Maybe this is the best he can do. We never give up, and we made an appointment today for him to try some new therapeutic techniques (equine therapy and EMDR). Maybe those will give him some relief, maybe they won’t.
Meanwhile, we as his parents are called on to continue pouring everything we have into him, knowing that he isn’t receiving it and may never receive it. I jokingly told his counselor the other day that the County forgot to check my “Saint” card before they gave him to me, and I’m not a saint. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done to keep giving to someone who can’t give back because he can’t risk getting close to anyone again, who can’t love back because he can’t love himself, and whose basic behaviors are (unconsciously) designed to push me away and to continuously shift the bulls-eye just out of my reach.
I’m still in the process of coming to grips with his latest sabotage and what it indicates about him, about us. I guess I had been lulled into thinking things were going better and would keep going better so it hit me particularly hard when I found us back in the very same spot we’ve been in all along. And the blow of it made me see for the first time that I can’t help him if he won’t let me. In fact, he can very powerfully sabotage himself no matter how hard I work at facilitating his success. It’s a stark reality that reflexively pushes both of us away from each other. On some level, it’s what he wants so that his fears of closeness are calmed. I have to reach out and love him anyway, show him that no matter what he does, I’m still there, I’m his forever mom. I may not be part of his story, but I can let my story be loving him unconditionally, no matter what the result.
Photo credit: equine-therapy-programs.com