Sharks or Fog, You Get to Decide

shark following kayak
Where I feel like I am

When I talk to people about my story, I am surprised by how many have similar stories, or at least have close friends or family who have them.

When I talk to people who have children going through similar struggles, I am often taken aback by the desperation in the questions they ask me. It’s usually quiet and controlled, but ever present, as if they are looking for a lifeline of any kind that can save them.

I’m surprised, not that people are desperate, God knows I have spent considerable time trying to turn anything floating by into a life preserver.  I am surprised because they are looking to me as if I may have answers. All I can think is although I may be floating here on this apparently sturdy kayak, I’m also out in the deep ocean with a mess of hungry sharks circling me.

The thought that I have any practical information that may be of real assistance is quite strange to me. And it makes me reflect on where I was 2 years ago and where I am now, how far I have come and how far I still have to go. It brings me face to face with the mother that I was when my son came home from residential treatment, the tentative, scared, scarred women who just needed to know how this was going to end—to know that it was going to end.

The first morning after my son was discharged from his residential program he cut himself. Badly and on purpose.

We knew that 8 weeks of re-feeding and therapy and stable medication wasn’t going to “cure” him, but we were hoping that his discharge was more or less the end of the hardest part. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time musing on how things might have been different if I knew some things then that I know now. There was so much I didn’t know, about what to expect and what to look for. I was just treading water and trying to stay ahead of my emotions. I didn’t have the energy and space to look at any of the lessons that were coming from these types of experiences.

Of course, just because I wasn’t ready for the lessons didn’t mean I didn’t have to learn them, it just made things a bit harder.

And there were a lot of lessons learned in hindsight from this specific incident. The most practical and glaring was that he wasn’t ready to be sent home, and I should have fought harder. I see now it was more of a business decision on the treatment center’s part. There were easier kids on the waiting list who the insurance companies would pay for with less effort on their part. At the time, though, I thought it was something my son had done or not done, or something I had done or not done. But I still wish I had known in that moment. I feel like it would have given me some stability. But maybe not.

I sometimes write a list in my head of these things, the stuff I wish I had known then. It seems this list would have been very useful to me at the time.  I often think about taking pen to paper and writing it all down now, just to have it, kind of a talisman or even tangible evidence of progress. I’m not sure which one, it’s hard sometimes to separate hard work from dumb luck in the recovery process; I guess I should just embrace both. Yet every time I set about writing this list, it feels wrong. Like if I had known it then I wouldn’t have been able to apply it anyway or would have applied it incorrectly.

If I had known that my child’s treatment was a business decision would I have been able to handle that? Would I have been able to move forward and get the benefit we did out of it, or would I have waited and held out for perfect? Would the wait have cost my child his life?

No amount of catastrophizing is too much when I reach this point. These are the questions that spin out of control in my mind when I indulge in what-ifs. If I let them, the what-ifs will consume me, and I risk not being able to see some of the other lessons that were available to me at the time, ones I can apply in the future.

Yet I still feel the desperation of needing something to hold onto in the uncertainty.  I think, and think, and think about how to distill this journey into the one lesson of value beyond my immediate situation, something I can tuck into my kayak and use when the sharks feel closer than they are. My mind will wander around the twists and turns of this thought process for a while before it hits me that I have put this journey in the wrong frame.

I am thinking about it all wrong, I’m using the wrong metaphor.

Because the lesson always come down to one thing: There are no ends in this process, there are only beginnings. Finishing a residential program, a meditation retreat, a skills workshop is not an end. Finishing is not a rescue, I am not being pulled out of the deep. It’s just another beginning, it’s when the real work starts and the work is not your child’s alone. No one will “fix” your child, no one can “repair” your family. You, your family and your child have to do the work. It’s all a beginning.

The cure, if you can call it that, comes over time, by all of you working and working and never giving up. It comes from accepting what is and working toward what is better.

When you know you can’t handle it anymore, you still get up and do the work. Just like you did when he was an infant and needed to eat every 3 hours, just like when he was a toddler and had nightmares at 1 am, just like when he was 6 and his pet died, and again when he was 10 and 15 and 16, and on and on. Every day is a beginning. Every day you feel like you’re starting over. You’re not, it’s what it feels like, but you’re not.

It’s just the beginning. His recovery, and yours, is a series of little steps into the unknown, small yet important course corrections as the path becomes a little clearer to you.

As the fog begins to lift, you can see the trail a little better. The fog will come again and trip you up, so you can’t race blindly ahead with the false confidence that if you can just get to the end it will be okay. You just keep going and listening for clues to where you are and where you are going. Sometimes, when there is no path, you have to cut one out for yourself, hacking away with the tools you have until you get to another moment of clarity.

Those moments of clarity aren’t the end either. They are more beginnings. Hopefully they will lead you to a path that is a bit easier than the one you were on, but they may not, and you have to keep going anyway. And you can, even when you think you can’t, you can.

If you can picture it as a journey to accomplish instead of a place to escape, if you can see your child as he is,  broken and bewildered just like you are, you may be able to find the peace and space to step back and create something good and whole that you can use as a foothold.

It’s easy to fall into cynicism and doubt, and hard to let go of anger and blame.  But as comforting as those tools can sometimes feel, they rarely shine any light on the path ahead and they never help you clear it. You have to hold on to hope, even when it isn’t reasonable, and you have to question your route even as it is clear that you are on the right track. It’s a tricky and convoluted path, you are going to need all your wits about you. As Robertson Davies once wrote: “These matters require what I think of as the Shakespearean cast of thought. That is to say, a fine credulity about everything, kept in check by a lively skepticism about everything…. It keeps you constantly alert to every possibility.”

So stay alert, search for your next foothold, and breathe.

path in fog
Where I probably am.

And know. Know that this journey, as grueling as it may be sometimes, is just another opportunity to create. You can choose the frame, pick your own metaphor.

It’s not what you know going in, but how you use what you know to create your path and open up vistas. It’s okay to rest for a while, you have no end you have to reach. It’s okay to enjoy the view.

Even in the clamor, you can stop for a moment and look at how beautiful what you have created is. It will give you sustenance for the next hill, courage for the next trial, and hope for the beginnings ahead.

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