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.

No comments: