Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Continuing to Learn Self-Differentiation

I have written many times in this blog about the value of self-differentiation for the adoptive parent. (I suspect the same principles hold true for parents of any type, but adoptive parenting is what I am most familiar with). By self-differentiation, I mean the ability to know oneself in any given situation, to be supportive of another person while not necessarily appreciating their particular behavior. It is the goal of self-differentiation to maintain an appropriate distance without creating an emotional cut-off.

I had the opportunity again yesterday to self-differentiate.

Returning home from a meeting in the metropolitan area (about ninety miles from our community) I received a call on my iPhone from our son Mike, about whose most recent exploits I blogged yesterday.

"Hey, dad."

"Hi, Mike."

"How are you doing?"

"Pretty good. I've been in the Cities today, and I'm on my way home now."

"Oh. Sorry I didn't call you yesterday."

"Yeah, I was wondering what happened. Where were you?" I knew full well where had been, because I had checked our county's online jail roster and saw his face peering back at me.

"Um. Where was I?"

"Yeah, where were you?"

"Umm. I was out of town."

"Oh, yeah? Where was that?"

"You mean what town?"

"Yeah, I guess that's what I mean."

He names a neighboring community about 40 minutes away.


"So, are you still willing to do my laundry for me?" (I have told Mike in the recent past that I would be willing to help him get his clothes washed, even though he cannot be in our home or near our property).

"I can, but it'll have to be another day. I am headed back home now, but I have a meeting at church tonight."

"OK. Well, I'm doing good."


"Yeah. I'm working hard on getting my apprentice hours in so I can be a tattooist."

"Good for you, Mike."

"Yeah, so anyway, I guess I'll call tomorrow."

"OK, Mike."

"Um, so," with exaggerated excitement, "have a great day!"

"Yeah, you, too, Mike."

I decided that I would wait to see if Mike might disclose to me his complete whereabouts for the weekend. It is, of course, possible that he was in a neighboring community at some point on the day in question, but I know for a fact that as of early evening Saturday night Mike was in our county jail on new charges. He must have been released sometime on Monday (probably after an initial court appearance).

Because he served his ninety days in prison, my understanding is that he was free and clear. But, he is stepping back into his old, familiar pattern once again ... a misdemeanor here, a minor infraction there, and eventually serious, felony-level acts. My hope is that he will curb his enthusiasm for crossing legal boundaries and not repeat his previous scenarios, but I know from experience that the best predictor is future behavior is past behavior.

There was a time when the actions of my children made me anxious with worry. While I continue to love my children, as I always have, a new depth has emerged in my life where I can love them without feeling a sense of helpless perplexity. I have (and will continue to) done my best to nurture, instruct, discipline and guide by example. I can do little more than that, nor should I.

Ah, the joys of self-differentiation!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Ten Days

On Saturday I received a telephone call from our son Mike telling me he "really needed to get some clothes washed." Evidently the place where he had been staying doesn't offer him that luxury, so I explained my tight schedule and asked him to call back on Sunday, yesterday, after lunch so that we could arrange something.

Yesterday passed without a word from Mike, and considering the busyness of our day, it was a blessing of sorts. I still thought it odd (when Mike has something he needs he is fairly persistent until that need is fulfilled). Claudia had several events to attend to throughout the course of the day, and I had a hospital visit I needed to make after that, so it was about 9:00 PM before I was home, and by that time I was too tired to think about Mike's lack of communication.

This morning, though, I decided to check where I always check if I haven't heard from him in a timely fashion. I have in my favorite bookmarks a section I call "Minnesota Criminal Justice." There are several sites there that almost always fill in details for me about our crime-ridden, third oldest son. I opened our county's jail custody website, clicked through the alphabetical list until I arrived at the "F" designation and, sure enough, there was Mike's mug shot glowering back at me.

The site says that he was arrested Saturday night, several hours after talking with me, for misdemeanor business trespass. Since I'm not an expert in Minnesota legal designations, I'm not sure what kind of illegal action that represents. I am assuming, based upon Mike's history, that it must be shoplifting or something akin. (Or perhaps it could be that he was physically present in a store which previously had legally "excluded" him from being there, due to a previous illegal act).

A week ago he was in my car, having returned to our community three days earlier. I was asking him if his intent was to remain crime-free. His response was less than enthusiastic. He knows himself well enough to know that he cannot make any such guarantees. I asked him what compels him to be consistently engaging in criminal acts. "I'm an addict," was his response. I said, "What are you addicted to, Mike?" "Well, it's not like what you think. It's not drugs and it's not alcohol. I'm addicted to excitement. I get bored with things and need to do something that's exciting, and then I find myself breaking the law."

I have pondered his self-analysis a number of times in the past few days. To the outsider it might sound like denial or escapism, but in my experienced opinion, he has accurately described himself. It is the Mike that we have come to know in our years of parenting him. Nearly everything he has done over the years that has resulted in trouble for him (whether the commonplace infractions that all kids experience in a family's home all the way up the line to the "big ticket" legal items like burglary and theft) is tied to excitement factor. The bottomline is that Mike is addicted to excitement. Biologically speaking, I suppose that includes at least adrenaline and cortisol (I am no endocrinologist either). The complex weave of a person's psychological bearing never ceases to surprise me.

For the person who is addicted to pharmaceuticals or to alcohol part of the solution is avoid substances and those who use them. For someone whose addiction is literally "in house," though, I wonder what that means? For now, at least, what it means for Mike is that his ten days of freedom after ninety days in prison have now come to a conclusion. Today, and perhaps for a few more days, our community is safe from our son, and our son's self-identified addiction is controlled, but only behind the bars of a county jail cell.

There has to be a better way, but I don't know what that is.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

When Your (Adult) Child Cannot Come Home

It has been a long time since I have updated my blog. Part of it has been the busyness of my life over the past months, and part of it has been that I haven't wanted to think much about the dynamics of my family's life. And truthfully, these past few months have been pretty lackluster and ordinary. While it is much easier to live when life is ordinary, it doesn't do much for blog interest. The hard part of starting up again with a blog is that it seems so sudden, since there is little context for its reappearance. But it's time for a reappearance, so here goes.

Our twenty-year-old (this week) son was released from prison today, having served his ninety-day sentence for probation violations. Due to the nature of his offense (parole violation) he was in the segment of the prison population that receives no transitional services upon release, which means that he has no place to go.

About a month ago I wrote him a four-page letter describing many of the ways over the past ten years Claudia and I have done our best to help him transition into a sustainable lifestyle. We have been with him in and out of treatment centers, in and out of jail, through county social services agencies, and all the other available resources. I offered him my best three scenarios for his life: a stint in the military, a Christian-based treatment program and Job Corps. I sent him information for him to apply to at least two of these options. I made it as clear as possible that it was not in his best interest to return to the community where we live (Mike had initiated that conversation to begin with, so I did my best to affirm that his decision was a right one).

Several days ago I received a call from Mike's older birth brother (our oldest son). He had agreed to pick Mike up upon his release from prison but was unsure what to do with him after that. I explained to him that his mother and I were out of options, that after ten years of trying we simply know nothing further to do. (This is the same message I had given Mike as well). I encouraged the older brother to do what he thought he could do, but that he needed to be clear in setting his boundaries. He suggested, and I affirmed, that based upon past behavior it would not be a good idea for Mike to know Kyle's residence location, unless he trusted his brother's ability to remain crime-free. I was honest with Kyle, affirmed his desire to do the right thing by his brother, but wanted him to know that his precautionary concerns were justified.

At 5:00 PM today Kyle called to let me know that he was with Mike and that Mike was "deciding where to go." I tried to remain as non-anxious as possible, listened intently and offered some kind words. By 8:00 PM we were arriving home from Lenten services at church, and I received a second call. "Um, Dad. I'm with Mike in [a town sixty miles from us], and the place that Mike thought he could stay isn't going to work out. What do I do now?"

I took a deep breath. My mind floods with all kinds of thoughts. I am reminded that more than a decade ago it was their birth mother who unceremoniously dumped them off at a distant relative's home, where they waited a number of days before the relatives called child protection so that they could be removed to foster care. I feel the pangs of paternal guilt as the questions flood my thoughts, "What could I have done differently to have prevented this?" "Should I offer to pay for Mike to stay in a hotel somewhere for the night?" "Is it fair to Kyle that this is happening to him?"

But I choose my head this time, not my heart. Months ago I have done my best to counsel Mike as to what he should do upon release. In typical fashion, he has disregarded my advice, preferring his own scattered thinking. Kyle freely and willingly entered into this agreement with his birth brother. I did not broker the conversation, nor have I "put this" upon Kyle.

And so I say in response to Kyle's irritated tones, "I don't know what to tell you, Kyle. I gave Mike my best advice a month ago, the same as I told you. Mom and I have tried for ten years; we just don't have any options left."

"So what am I supposed to do? Just dump him off somewhere?"

I pause. I feel for both of my adult sons, one successful, the other struggling. One son has received the gifts of an adoptive family, completed high school, graduated from college, teaching a third grade class. The other son, two years his junior, has been unable (or unwilling, I'm never sure which) to accept the gifts of an adoptive family, rejected all of our attempts at intervention, not yet completed high school, possessing only the clothes on his back and having no money in his pocket.

"I don't know, Kyle. I don't have any good suggestions for you."

"Well, it's late, and I'm sick, and i have to teach my class tomorrow morning."

"I understand that. It's what Mom and I have been dealing with for years, so I can honestly say that I know what you're feeling right now."

"OK, then. Bye."

I am proud of Kyle. He has not blamed me. He has not demanded it is my responsibility to do something. He has not implied (though he would readily accept, I am sure) that I need to rescue him and his brother from this situation.

A few minutes later he calls. "Hey, dad. I guess Mike is going to some random friend's in [the community where we live]. How do I get there?"

I calmly give him directions from his location, providing only geographic data, no invitations. I do not remind Kyle that his brother is not permitted to be in our house or near our home (there is a restraining order). I simply provide him the information he requests. And upon clicking "end call" on my cell phone, I immediately say to my wife, "Claudia, are we doing the right thing?"

She does not hesitate, and I am glad. She reminds me that being "done" means just that, that we can no longer empower the deviant and illegal actions of a son who calls us only when he needs to be rescued. We cannot subject our other children to his jaded attitudes, the questionable friends that come with his territory, the opportunity to be once again victimized by theft or trespass.

"I wonder," I respond, "about recriminations. Do you think he's going to 'pay us back' this time?"

"If he does, we'll just have to have him arrested again. There's nothing more we can do about it."

And that's just about the long and short of it. There's nothing more we can do about it. And that's a hard thing to admit, because I became an adoptive parent to offer a different way of life to kids whose early years had been less than ideal. My goal was to prevent homelessness for kids who would otherwise age out of the system. I wanted to rescue a kid, not live with the concern of retaliation in the form of illegal behavior or intimidation to my other children.

It's hard when your (adult) child cannot come home.