Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Into the Deep

Let me dive right in: In the months since the boys have been gone, I have taken a look at myself and and spent some time examining the recent choices I made; for about eight years I essentially gave the major portion of my life over to helping teenagers. Many people thought I was a bit abnormal, to say the least, and was "enabling" them, had "bad boundaries" and was not making healthy choices. Many others have said that I had a good heart, that I was helping the kids because I cared so much and that it was a good thing.

Motives are rarely pure. Yet it's time to attempt an answer for the question of "why" I did what I did. Like most complex human behaviors, the issue is not black and white, all or nothing. Of the two above options, you could say that both are true.

Personal boundaries are just that - personal. They can be fluid or rigid but they are unique to each individual. What I might tolerate from a person can be different from what someone else might "put up with" in, for example, a youth's behavior. For years I cringed at the term "boundaries", always hearing it as a judgement against me. Now I understand that they are about what is healthy and right for me. Over the years I have become tougher, so to speak, and will not allow people to cross certain personal barriers without some sort of response from me, but during the earlier years I allowed a much more flexible response -- consisting of an almost saintlike tolerance for these "delinquents" (I do not infer that I am a saint). I now know that this was necessary and invaluable for my growth as a human being, for my understanding of myself and others.

Many women have more fluid boundaries with men, becoming overly involved, or codependent, if you will. I have had that experience but for some reason I also had another pattern; even as a child and teenager, I often gravitated towards younger kids, and as I grew older that became adolescents. I cannot claim to have all the answers, even for my own inner self, but in addition to my conclusions (below) I do believe I have -- perhaps from living so much inside my head as a child -- retained a childlike sense of wonder about the world.

On the surface, my primary motivation for becoming involved with juvenile delinquents was because I wanted to understand: why did they rebel, why did they break the law, use drugs, and feel their parents didn't understand them? My first experience with "bad" kids was when I was 18, just out of high school and attending a community college, with no sense of direction for my life. In school, I had begun studying child development in order to become a teacher like my mother. I was a good kid most of my life, rarely doing anything wrong, then I met these kids, most of them five years my junior but with more worldly experience than I. At the same time I had just begun drinking alcohol on semi-regular basis and was interested in experimenting with drugs.

Driving illegally, using illegal substances, ignoring parental rules, and some had even robbed stores or gas station -- these were suburban kids with every material advantage, like me. Yet they were bored and unhappy with their lives, and so was I. Years later, when I became involved with urban kids, youth who had no advantage and had grown up in poverty, I noted many similarities but they were rebelling more against society than their parents. The parents, in many cases, were involved in illegal activities also; dealing drugs, using drugs, drinking, working the "system" (such as pretending they or a child had a disability in order to get a monthly check). Also violent behavior was often modelled at home, so a child's acting out by fighting etc., could not necessarily be considered an effort to break away from parents.

In the more recent cases, the youth I worked with starting in 1999, breaking away from their parents seemed be a part of simply growing up too fast, having to to be on one's own and more or less take care of themselves; usually by age of 16 (most of them dropped out of high school then) they were expected to do something to help take care of the family -- parents, younger siblings, etc. And yet the rebellion element was present big time - witness the gangsta rap culture which virtually all were a part of -- against society at large. This sense of being an outsider added to the chance that these kids would be earning what living they could stealing or "serving" (selling drugs).

For myself I think I wanted (unconsciously) to break away from all of it: my parents, a staid suburban life, and society at large. I was so naive I didn't know there was any other way of thinking or being than doing what I was told, but I do recall that from a very young age -- I was a child in the 60's -- I loved the idea of being a hippy, though by the time I was in high school in the 1970's the anti-establishment rhetoric had been toned down; the bright colors, the peace sign, the slogans (make love not war) and ideals of personal freedom, sexual freedom, women's rights and the rights of blacks was commonly accepted, in theory at least. I remember feeling like I had been born too late, that if I had been a little older I could have been there for the protests of 1968. Alas, I was just 10 years old then. I guess there was always a wild woman inside me waiting to get out!

Becoming involved with the younger kids when I was 18, I learned about rebellion, living on the edge and smoking pot - lots of it! At the same time I was attending classes at a community college and learning about different ways of thinking; about the Tao, time being an illusion, and about good and evil being two sides of the same coin. One class even used "The Dark Side of the Moon" as a slide show! And it occurred to me that I was 18 and could do whatever the heck I wanted, so I did it. Lots of it.

Getting high on acid, as well as all the marijuana, as well as the new ideas from school, -- all opened my mind up in a big way, although there was little I could make sense of. I began seeing society and its rules, laws and mores as a game, one that was man made, and I didn't think I should have to play if I didn't want to. I wrote in my journal back then that our suburban towns, and the life within them, seemed like a Monopoly Game to me. Perhaps a year later, in a letter to someone I never sent, the only explanation I had for my behavior was that I guessed I wasn't too good at Monopoly (I'm still not; I'm not good at most games as a matter of fact).

Fast forward some 20 years; at the age of 40 I finally finished college and received my bachelors degree. True to my still (sometimes) non-conformist self I had gone through a non traditional degree program called "University Without Walls". There I was, a basic B.A. in hand, with no idea of what to do next except that I wanted to "help people". Equipped with some experience in social services, and that sneaking feeling in the back of my head that I still wanted to understand "delinquents", I was hired to work as a substance abuse counselor at an outpatient center for adolescents ages 12-18. I worked there for five years, and it changed my life in profound way. Not only because I became familiar with the ways of gangs, violence, and the accompanying culture - gangsta rap, hip-hop style clothes, the language, their point of view -- but because I was able to reach down though all that into the humanity of those kids and in doing so, found my own.

I went overboard, though, as I tend to do with most things I become very involved in. I went down, down to the point of near-drowning several times. I was remembering recently the time the boys (the two brothers) were bonded out of Cook County Jail after nearly three months of incarceration (at ages 18 and 19). I was so happy but so emotionally depleted that I cried every time I saw them. You see, by the time I left the counseling position in order to go to graduate school, there were a few kids I knew I needed to remain involved with. I needed them as much as they needed me, perhaps more. I enjoyed their company, I felt like my life meant something, and I could connect with these young people better than any of my adult friends. Also, I could not desert them after they had gained a measure of trust in me - and I don't mean only the kind of trust that I wouldn't "trick" (tell) on them, but trust that I really cared, and that I valued them for who they were inside and did not simply judge them by their behavior. And so, over the next two years, I became a "aunt"; I took them to McDonald's or Burger King weekly, sometimes to a movie or arcade, I gave them rides when I could, I went to the park to see them and hang out; I was the only person to buy those boys jackets one fall, I was the only one that got them birthday and Christmas presents. I visited them in jail, wrote to them, accepted their collect calls -- and it felt so good to be there for them; even now I feel a warmth in my heart thinking about those times.

What I told them, and others, was that because I didn't have kids of my own, they filled that void in me that always wanted chidren to take care of, and to have fun with. And that when I was a kid, I never wanted for anything in the material sense; clothes, shoes, being able to go out to movies, bowling or what have you, presents for Christmas, a party for every birthday, family vacations, camping out, and other family traditions I clung to. These types of things I wanted to give them, and more. What I was lacking in emotional connection from my family I was also acquiring - through a variety of means - and passed along to them. Imperfectly, of course. Surely there was some serious codependence involved, but there was also love. It seemed a good fit; they who had never known that kind of attention, and myself who had not known how to give attention unselfishly -- not since before the drinking and drugs took me. Ten years clean and sober, I was able to get outside of myself. Yet my therapists and myself, and others, still wanted a deeper answer to the question "why?"

One answer, as mentioned, is not inaccurate but over simplified: I was trying to give to them what I didn't have growing up. The intangibles I gave (and I have to emphasize it was hard, it was work, not something that came naturally to do) were unconditional love, acceptance, tolerance, and understanding. Oh, and truth. If they did something bad, I would tell them it was not a good choice, but it did not make them bad, and everyone makes bad choices at times. If they were rude to me, I would tell them I didn't deserve to be treated like that, then would let it go. If they disappointed me, I would say you are learning, you'll do better next time. Yes, I got angry, yes I become unreasonable at times, but I apoligized, and explained.

It's true I had no one one there for me in quite that way. Certainly not someone who could verbalize those life lessons as I did for "my" kids. However I did have grandparents who were always there for me, my grandma especially. I could tell her anything and she would not judge me. She never exhibited anything but acceptance and love towards me (though I know she was not that way with my mother, her only child) and even at times gave same wise advice. It wasn't exactly the same type of relationship I had with the boys but certainly she validated me as a person.

But now comes the crux of the matter. Who was I as a person? I was, growing up, who my parents wanted me to be: cute, funny, compliant, quiet, a good student, but not outstanding in any way. Someone who did not attract attention to herself and stayed out of the way. With two sisters and a brother with some attributes that did attract attention, I think I was, in psychological lingo, "the lost child". Naturally I had signs of individuality, but I generally followed rules and I do not recall ever questioning anything, until later in high school. Inside I felt, not so much that I was not "good enough" but that I was simply "not". Then in high school I began developing a sense of self but when it was over, I had no direction. And along came alcohol and drugs; why not try them? Almost simultaneously I met young, rebellious kids! And I thought, why not join them?

During the first go round with juvenile delinquents, the alcohol and drugs rapidly took charge of my life -- and that became my identity. I was a "party girl". Years later I again - more vicariously this time - became involved with rebellious adolescents. Yet this time I was sober, I was an adult with responsibility, and this kept me from joining in their activities (most of the time) and losing myself completely. I bent the rules at times, I did perform some juvenile acts (one that stands out: a fall night, a carload of kids in my little station wagon, all of us climbing on top of the car and jumping off into a pile of leaves) but this time I was able to complete what I had begun all those years ago, to complete the rebellious stage. To do this it appears I had to become even further involvemed, even when I thought I had gone far enough after the boys got out of jail. I took them into my home when they had no place to go. Then finally, after they moved out, I experienced a sense of closure.

Yet there is more. As I said when I started the blog, I had the urge to do something BIG, to start a youth center for teens that no one else cares about, even start a movement to advocate for them. I wanted to build something that I could leave behind. I realize this is probably no different than the ancient human desire to leave a legacy behind -- usually in the form of biological offspring. Others build a business, agency, foundation, or have some creative endeavor that will outlast them. I have had to rethink this; I think the reason why I had this need was because if something were to outlast me, that would mean that I WAS SOMEBODY. That I existed. I mattered. That I was - unlike in my childhood - not under the radar and out of the way.

I as I said above, I also needed to experience my rebellious period while sober, and therefore have the ability to learn and grow from it, which I believe I have.
Finally, what I have learned, and how I have grown:

Not only did I find out that I mattered, but I know that I made a difference. Not just in those few kids' lives but in the ones' who occasionally call to say hi, in the ones I worked with just long enough to gain a little insight or answer to their problem, or those who realized an adult can understand -- or to plant a seed that may grow many years later. Mostly, as some other counselor used to tell me, working with kids is about planting seeds. So you see, I have already done something that shows I was and am a person of value. Of course, one could say that was a long, twisted road to find out something that I should have already known; but how many of us travel on a straight path? I believe that every human being has value, simply by value of being human; but for myself, I could not believe that until I could learn how to connect with other humans.
The kids were my mirror; they reflected me back to myself - and then some! Being able to be there for those young people allowed to me feel like I existed outside of myself.

As for the rebellion aspect, I think not only did I need those experiences to break away from the "good girl" my parents required, I needed to find an identity. That identity had to be something of my own, that I created and learned for myself, and not a product of anyone else's rules or expectations. I had to fulfill my expectations of myself. My identity became someone who has a gift, who can connect with young people, and now with other adults as well.

My legacy? Not a movement, but the young people themselves. They might not go on to become anyone "important", in fact, they may never (like their parents) finish high school. Yet having experienced unconditional love they may be able to love someone else, or learn to love themselves, one day. Also, I think I saved someones life.

So I have come full circle. I gave to others what i needed for myself, and now I AM.

Friday, May 9, 2008


Everything always seems to be about saying goodbye. I know it would be better to focus on the hellos; there are probably just as many of them as goodbyes. But the goodbyes encompass loss, abandonment, heartache.......... somehow, even if it's my own choice, goodbye always seems like rejection.

It's like I just woke up, or - something shifted - and I really felt for the first time that the boys are gone. I couldn't keep them, it would not have been practical (because I work at home. because it's hard to say "no" to them) and it was never intended to be permanent. Oh and I needed a break. I needed the silence, the solitude... but now it feels like, why did they leave me? Because I failed them, I wasn't good enough...
and my cat of eighteen years is gone too. She was fading, dying probably, for a long time, and in a way it was a relief to let her go (though it partly feels like murder); and I have new cat, sweet as toffee and bright and Orange as sunshine --- but where did my baby go? Why did she have to leave me too?

There's so much fear in me, and some anger too. I can hardly breathe. I can't run this vessel alone. And the older I get, the harder it is to try. Yet I can't have companions who cannot give anything back -- I cannot carry the weight of others, not such heaviness as they carry, certainly. I do not even let them visit, do not even talk to them; what can I give that I haven't already?
So where is the give and take of the so called healthy relationships? There's a glimmer, a bit of beginning there. Yes it's gotten better.

I might have to get out in the world again and give up this easy job at home. For my sanity, I think. But I'm afraid; I don't have the confidence to get out there and sell myself on how good I am with people...... people scare me right now, people I don't know, at least (and some that I do). I'm not too motivated now to work though this job has enabled me to have kids here, to do things I want to do, and if I weren't' in so much debt in part due to those boys I would be in pretty good shape.... if I discount the fact that I got a bad review.

I spoke to my mother on Mother's day. She was Nice mom this time. At Christmas she was not the Nice mom; tried to tell me what I should not be doing with my life - that the choices I made were wrong. Wrong because I'd get hurt, yet the hurt she was thinking of was the little hurt, the material part. The big hurt is the loss, the lack of that connection I was so desperately striving towards. And will keep striving towards in some manner or another with someone or other, because I am human.

Oh i have a higher power. That i have no doubt of. And I have had some remarkable connections with it/him/her/them - and sometimes the connection comes through people. I mean, to me, love IS the higher power. When I have it, I can channel it, give it, share it........ I don't suppose I ever really run out but lots of times it's stopped up, clogged up like an ill-used piece of plumbing. I know the source is never dry. I do know this. I know i have been healed of some of the pain of loss, otherwise I would not unclog at all, ever.

I've had some dreams recently about the family. About being ignored, rejected, invisible. My father is in these dreams (not dead), not loving me. My mother is there, ignoring me. They have a party for me, for my birthday, but they don't want me around. There's hardly any food for me. They treat me like I'm a fool, an idiot, a simpleton. This was my reality growing up, this was who I was. If they don't take me seriously, why would anyone else? of course I will be rejected. Over and over again. So I cocoon myself - alone. But. That is harder and hard to do - now I've had a taste of companionship, I've experienced the giving of love, and even some receiving. I have no choice but to go forward and inch along though it seems I'm going against the tide.

"Who formed us thus:
that always, despite
our aspirations, we wave
as though departing?
Like one lingering to look,
from a high final hill,
out over the valley he
intends to leave forever,
we spend our lives saying

-- Rainer Maria Rilke

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Abandon ship!

Lord that title makes me think of abandonment. Well if one could use that term technically the boys abandoned me, but I feel more like I've abandoned them. It's been two weeks now being alone and I rarely feel lonely and hardly miss them.

The story of how the last boy, "Ken", left is on my MySpace blog and I'm not going to rewrite it so if anyone did ever read this and wanted to know, that's where it is. This is in spite of the fact that the boys finally discovered I was writing about them, even though I wasn't using their real name. The situation is that hey & I have Friends on there who are now reading the blog. Honestly, I did think about this but I'd started the blog long before the boys got on MySpace, plus I have a few supportive people there & I think it's important people read about this subject that few seem to care about I know others read my posts even though they don't comment, and I just didn't want to give it up. During the time the boys were living here they never noticed my blog so I just sort of shoved my worry to the back of my brain.

However I did start this blog with the thought that I could post more freely, more personally, and they wouldn't see it. For years I journalled and kept all the writings to myself and it IS hard to put myself out there like this, and I DO feel very embarrassed that people who know me are reading what I wrote. On the other hand I've learned to be an open person and find that putting myself out there -- reaching out to others in various ways -- is good for me. (Now here I am writing the most personal thoughts yet. There is so much to process.........)

As I said, I don't really miss the boys and I don't really want to see them. Yet there is a strange sense of their ghosts or spirits being here in the apartment. Memories crop up from time to time. A lot happened in six months. Ah, that feeling of when we first moved in; being a "we" instead of just me, that joy I had of having my boys here. Now I know that even early on, after a week living with me in the old apartment & helping me move and still having more stuff to move, that we already had conflicts; I lost my temper at "Jim" and he thought I didn't want him to stay and I had to cry and basically beg him not to go. Yet I was so happy then, with the two of them, and we would sit at night and actually talk.

Yet for me, the way it was, too much of the time, was me yelling, crying, begging, complaining, being sarcastic (of course, they were very difficult a lot of the time, but I'm talking about myself) --in other words, very emotional. It's not that I was the entire time but ....... it was a lot, to me, because I don't like myself when angry, most especially. Still, some of it might have served some purpose in a way, and some of the emotions I displayed might have been good for me or them or both. I'm trying not to distinguish here between "negative" & "positive" emotion because as we counselors learn feelings cannot be categorized as good or bad, they are just feelings. What matters is what we do with them. Well I'm not happy with myself and what I did with them all them time, although I also demonstrated affection, love, joy, humor, gentleness and understanding, I sure wish I could have been calmer. Unfortunately that is not me; calm does not describe me. I can get all into drama just being by myself! This is why I needed them to be gone. I need to have a chance to regain some semblance of peace within myself. Yet this is not to say I didn't like myself at all, in fact I felt very good about myself when they were here.

I had a dream last night that the two brothers' mother said to me "you have to help feed them too". I woke up and it felt so real, and I had it in the back of my head they might be hungry. Not far fetched since it's the end of the month & they will be waiting for the next Link card. Today I was in the "hood" for the first time since they were gone, with "Ken's" girlfriend, and finding myself having all sorts of mixed feelings: looking to see if my boys were at the park yet not wanting to see them, hearing Ken's voice on her voice mail, and seeing kids on the streets - a new generation of lost young people. I felt emotional after I dropped her off, and I shed a few tears but went back to being shut down. I guess that's what I'm doing - it's not really calmness. It's just so hard for me to screen out other people's pain even when they are not near me -- I know they are full of anger, guilt, shame, hurt, fear..... and I know why they have it. The trouble for me is feeling responsible for much of it, or at least feeling like I should fix it and make it better for them. Then when I realize I can't, and it inevitably reaches that point, I am overloaded with emotions and have to bow out for awhile. This time it feels more permanent. Not that I will be out of their lives completely but I do not want to, I cannot, go out seeking them.

I need to take care of myself now.