Six months ago, at the urging/behest/insistence of Jess, I retired this blog. Today, I am coming out of retirement, hoping that I still know how to share (without oversharing), impart wisdom (without suggesting that I have any idea what I am doing), and keep things real (without hurting anyone in the process). A lot has happened in these last several months, so sit back, grab your beverage of choice, and settle in. It has been a bumpy ride.
A few disclaimers before you read on:
- I share this story for many reasons, one of which is this: Everyone is dealing with something. Some of us are hearts-on-the-sleeve types (insert frantic waving here), while others are more private. I respect both, and ask that you do the same. This is hard stuff…and something I don’t want anyone to ever have to do alone. I have an army of family and friends protecting and serving me. I could not have done it any other way.
- In a move I never make, I showed this to Jess before posting. I emailed it to her early in the evening and did not get any response. That, of course, had me worried. This morning I received this text:
So, here we go!
This past summer, well, sucked. Jess was miserable. I was miserable. Anyone who was forced to be with us: also miserable. There was no one incident, no particular event, rather a steady trickle of bad choices and worse attitudes. Our house was a shitty place to be. There were loud, angry arguments. The tension between Jess and everyone who shared her last name or lived under the same roof was unbearable. She was angry, disrespectful to both herself and to most who came in contact with her, and was headed down a bad path..no doubt about it.
One Saturday afternoon, I got a text from her:
Mom, I am sick. Please come and get me at (this address). I ate fried dough and chicken fingers and they aren’t agreeing with me.
I knew she wasn’t sick. I knew she had eaten neither friend dough nor chicken fingers. I knew she’d made a bad choice. I knew we were in more trouble than I had been ready to admit to myself. .
Thankfully, it was “only” a bad reaction to some unsavory pot she’d somehow acquired – despite having no income. Barry and I got her home safely where he essentially had to carry her into the house. There was nothing to do or say in that moment, other than to watch her, keep her safe, and wait for the botched high to end. When it did end, she casually got up, walked over to her dresser, and banged her head against it. Repeatedly. It was horrifying enough that we headed to the emergency room.
There, we met with a kind, compassionate, and patient doctor who wanted to admit her, but did not want to traumatize her by doing so. He allowed us to bring her home with a promise to, at the very least, take her to see her primary care doctor.
The following morning, we arrived at the doctor’s office and were handed a slip of paper.
“This is the name of a psychiatric nurse practitioner. You got lucky – Jess has an appointment in three weeks…it never happens that quickly.”
This is when my mama bear kicked in, and kicked in hard.
“Three weeks?! You’ve got to be kidding me! This is clearly a kid in crisis…how are we supposed to manage this for three weeks?!”
(Aside: mental healthcare is a disaster in this country. It is shameful, and frightening that someone in crisis is told that not only do they have to wait three weeks, but that they are somehow lucky it isn’t longer! We were not fearful of suicide, but what if we were…or, worse, should have been? I could go on and on about this,but, for now, I won’t.)
As Jess was quietly listening to this unfold, she spoke for the first time. She asked me to call the psychiatrist she’d seen as a little kid. The guy who was there every step of the way during her transition from George to Jessie. She hadn’t seen him in nearly five years.
Because he is old-school, and because he is deeply loyal to his patients, the psychiatrist saw us the next day. And the day after that. And three hour long phone calls after that. And then he made a recommendation.
“Send her to a wilderness program where she will live on a mountain, sleep under a tarp, be stripped of everything that is eating away at her. She’ll learn self help skills. She’ll go places – physically and emotionally – that she’s never gone. It can be transformative.”
(Note: those were his exact words which I scribed on my phone while he spoke.)
I thought he was out of his fucking mind. I might have even given a few (or many) excuses against his recommendation. Things weren’t really that bad. She would never agree. It would be a disaster. We cannot afford it. (Aside: technically, we 100% couldn’t afford it.)
Five harrowing days later, we were on our way to Vermont with nothing but eight pairs of underwear.
“I am pissed, I am terrified, but I know you are sending me because I need to go.”
It would be 54 days before I saw or spoke to Jess. And another 21 days after that before she would graduate. During those nearly eleven weeks her dad and I had weekly phone sessions: one with her therapist, one with a family therapist. Our communication with Jess was exclusively through letters emailed between us. These were intense, meaningful exchanges. They were not easy to write (said the writer) and hers were often hard to receive. They were honest. Brutally honest.
My life at home bore no resemblance to before she left. I slogged through the first few days (okay, weeks) not quite knowing what to do with myself. I struggled with a tortuous combination of sadness, worry, anger, and, truthfully: relief. Gone were the arguments, the confrontations, the concern. I knew in my heart that she was safe, but I couldn’t help feeling like a failure. What kind of mother sends their kid off to the mountains at the precipice of winter in New England? My repeatedly telling Jess that this was not a punishment, but a gift, rang hollow in my heart. The first cold rainy day, I sat in my mother-in-law’s kitchen weeping. Reassurances from my husband, my ex-husband, my family and the few friends who knew what was going on were tricky – not one of them had been in my shoes, all the best intentions notwithstanding.
Over those weeks, I began to relax. I started sleeping again – something I hadn’t done in years. I got into a new groove – one which I enjoyed, when I wasn’t thinking too much. I started to breathe.
And then, graduation -arguably a fabulous, celebratory day – was upon us. And I could no longer sleep. I could no longer breathe. Because, despite the joy in her completing (in a totally badass way) a no-bullshit program that included sleeping under a tarp in the dead of winter, no running water or toilets, “showering” by way of a bag held precariously over her head, lugging a 70 pound backpack, having to create fire (no matches, babe), filter drinking water (this from a girl whose only wilderness experience prior to this was walking from the house out to her car) Jess wasn’t coming home…yet.
I have learned a lot about a lot of things I never knew. A wilderness program, while wholly transformative (more on that in a moment) is actually just the beginning. It is a total reboot, throw in a new operating system, plug and unplug event for sure. But is is also considered preparation for the next step: boarding school. I could not find one person – both the professionals on Team Jess, nor my psychologist-friends, to tell me it would be a good idea for her to come home -even for a few days – before starting school. Yes, she was highly transformed, but it would be wildly unfair to expect her to plop back into the same environment that clearly wasn’t working for her without also setting her up for a potentially disastrous result. So, for the six days between her graduation (which, I have to say, blew away any graduation I have ever been to, ever) it was me, my ex-husband and Jess in a hotel in Maine.
Let that sink in for a moment.
I am not proud, but I am honest: I was dreading it. I was beside myself with anxiety, trepidation, fear. I was pre-worrying (it is my specialty) about arguments, and misunderstandings, and general discord. I didn’t dare to expect things to be different. My bad: I was expecting the Jess who left in October. Guess what? That is not who showed up. Oh, sure there was a moment here and there, but they were only moments and recovery was swift. Jess, fresh out of wilderness, is pretty much the bomb.
We did some shopping.
I brought her for her first haircut in three months.
Her grungy hands and nails desperately needed a manicure.
We went out to dinner.
We slept until we woke up (and, yes, that included me…I slept!).
We visited her new school.
We went to the movies and cried at the same scenes.
We got mother daughter tattoos of The North Star, a promise I made to her when she turned 18.
It was the best six days I’ve ever spent with Jess. Ever.
We arrived at her new school at 9 a.m. and by noon she had met her roommates, set up her room, and hung a tapestry she’d bought in Israel. We said our goodbyes. Her dad and I stood by her dorm and watched her confidently head to lunch with her roommates, who, just an hour earlier, were total strangers. It was eerily reminiscent of the first day she walked into her elementary school dressed in head to toe pink, purple, and green pajamas, no longer George, but proudly Jess.
It has been about ten days. Ten days of pleasant phone calls, funny texts, easy chatter. And, remarkably, no complaints about the food, or the cold, or the people, or anything, really. It’s all good. At least for now.
Sure, she’s lobbied (pretty hard) to come home for a weekend, but accepted my response that she needed to wait a little longer. She was persistent, but respectful.
And, yes, she’s asked me to send her several things – some of which I have, others, not so much. And, again, persistent, but respectful.
She is, after all, still a teenager.
She called me just to tell me that Florence Pugh was nominated for an Oscar.
She texted me about a coloring book, “Gay Men Draw Vaginas” and I responded with a link to a story about Gwenyth Paltrow selling candles that smell like her vagina. You know: normal mom.daughter stuff. I could practically hear her laughing, despite the 135 miles between us.
I am wildly (see what I did there?) grateful to the good folks at True North who took my angry, dysregulated, disconnected daughter and helped her do what she had to do to transform herself into a fantastic version of herself. Sending her there was the hardest parenting work I have ever done (and, um, that’s saying something), but I would do it again. In a heartbeat. Remember how I said that we 100% could not afford it? Update: we 100% couldn’t afford not to.
It was this exchange that prompted me to write this blog post:
“I googled myself and, of course, your blog came up. I started reading it. You need to keep doing that, mom.”
I asked her what had changed her mind:
“I am over caring.”
Um, does that mean you are caring too much or are past giving a shit what other people think, say or do?
My heart sang when she replied that it was the latter.
Atta girl! Take that Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat and whatever other confidence destroying evils are lurking about.
Could. Not. Be. Prouder.
p.s. I am wise enough to know that there are going to be bumps in the road. I am seasoned enough to know that the moment we think we really, truly know our children, they up and change. I am brave enough to be willing to take these risks…because I always knew that Jess could be fucking amazing.