I've written before about surrender – how difficult it can be to admit I have no control over most of what happens in my life and to deal with the frustration of falling short of expectations. I have worked hard to get to a place where I can identify and feel my emotions – sit with them, ride them out, and know they're always going to change. I've worked hard to get to a place where I can be present in my life, to be in each moment without wallowing in regret over the past or anxiety over the future, to live life on life's terms, and to be okay with all of that. And I am.
It would be disingenuous though to say the last year and a half hasn't put me to the test. My life and family have been turned upside down and inside out and pieced back together in a way I didn't expect or plan. My children have dealt with challenges I never would have chosen for them. And while I truly think we'll all be better for having gone through it in the end, it has gotten me thinking lately about letting go. Not letting go of the control I once thought I had but obviously didn't. Because yes, at one time I thought I could micromanage my world, foolish drunk that I was, and then I learned in recovery that I couldn't. I learned to surrender and stop fighting to control the uncontrollable. I was left with managing my part – my reactions to people and situations, my contribution to relationships, my perception of reality.
But what about the bigger things - the overarching expectations I and others had of what my life was supposed to be? In many ways, those things remained unexamined. The expectation is that I have a family, friends, a career, interests, hobbies . . . a life . . . that looks a certain way. I gave up the frustration with lack of control over meeting expectations, but what of the expectations themselves?
Most of you probably know by now that my son is living at the Discovery School of Virginia. He's been there for almost six months now, dealing with emotional, behavioral, and academic issues that were crippling him at home. The changes in him are remarkable, and it's clear that he's where he needs to be right now. Six months ago he was in a terrible place. His inner turmoil was palpable. It was not normal middle school angst. Not by a long shot.
Not surprisingly, he always wanted in on the latest trend – expensive sneakers, athletic pants, sunglasses, electronic devices. Those things were inordinately important to him. When we visited with him a few weeks ago, he needed new sneakers, and we took him out to buy some. Historically, shopping with the boy has been a stressful and potentially explosive situation, and that is putting it mildly. If things were going to go off the rails, it was going to be around this exact type of scenario. Trust me. So I laid down the law – I would buy him sneakers, but they would be the cheapest pair we could find, whether he liked them or not. He said he was good with that. He said he didn't care. He said, and I quote, "I don't care about image anymore. Image blocks growth." And he didn't just talk the talk. At the shoe store, he commented that he liked some more expensive shoes, but he was grateful to get the least expensive ones.
I don't know how Discovery does what they do so well, but it occurred to me that the process he's going through now is not entirely different from what I've gone through in recovery. Although my son had not yet (to my knowledge) used alcohol to self-medicate, he had become obsessed with possessing and using anything and everything he could to distract himself from his reality – from feeling and being present – because it was too painful. It worked for him about as well as alcohol worked for me. It worked until it didn't. The distraction would wear off, leaving him as rattled and fearful as ever, grasping for the control that eluded him, overwhelmed by insecurity and sadness, desperately searching for the next distraction.
Discovery did what we could not do at home. They took away all of the distractions. There is no tolerance for negotiation or emotional manipulation or lashing out at others. The boys are stripped down to their foundations, held accountable for their behavior, and taught to process feelings and problems in a productive way, all while working together as a team to provide for their basic needs with consideration for how their words and actions affect the well-being of others in their group. In other words, he's relearning everything about interacting with the world, without distractions to numb the feelings that evokes. For me, it's very reminiscent of what I went through going to rehab and subsequently learning to live without alcohol. It's a whole new way of life, which requires letting go.
I vividly remember a time when I said with certainty that I would never send my child off to boarding school to let someone else care for him or her. Of course, that was before I had kids. I'm wiser now and realize that I was right! In the sense that I would instead go the extra mile and send my child off to live in the woods to let someone else reprogram him. That's entirely different, obviously.
In all seriousness, there was no way I could have predicted that path. It was a last resort, under difficult circumstances, but it was the right thing to do. And it took a whole lot of letting go – letting go of physical control over my child, letting go of knowing what he's even doing day to day, letting go of the idea that I could parent him out of his misery, but, in a bigger sense, letting go of my own construct of what my son should be and what our relationship should be.
I'm just going to put this out there – my kids have so not met my expectations. At all. They are exceptional and complex people, in very different ways, but in no way what I imagined them to be before they blossomed into what they are. Because I couldn't dream that big. My daughter in particular lives way outside the box and gives zero fucks what you think. So to lay my expectations on them would be . . . limiting. I have no idea where they'll go in life, and I don't want to. Their paths are their own. What I want for them, and what I hope to give them, is a foundation that allows them to succeed and fail and be present in life and to be okay, to have inner peace, no matter where they are or what is happening around them. And to be kind. Always that, because just don't be a dick, please.
A couple of weeks ago my daughter showed me a you tube video a classmate of hers made, wherein she talks about and assesses all of the other children in their class. I know, I know – there are multiple problems with that scenario. Mostly they're for that girl and her parents to sort out, but what she said about my daughter was, "She's that girl that comes from a troubled family." Hmmm, comes from a troubled family . . . I admit that it got under my skin a little bit. We talked about all the reasons it shouldn't, why you don't engage when others try to insult you, how people will try to label you to secure their own place in the world, why people are threatened by anything different, etc., etc., bleep, bloop, blop. She knows this. She has it down. She moved on.
But it got me thinking. Is that what we are? A troubled family? And why should that bother me anyway? It all comes back to those big expectations of what my life is supposed to look like. I've gotten comfortable with things being out of my control and not going as planned. I can be at peace when chaos swirls around me. I'm willing to be authentic, even if not everybody appreciates my awkward realness. But maybe there was a part of me that still thought I was failing at life because I was falling short of those expectations - expectations that I wasn't letting go.
A troubled family is no doubt what we are. We have troubles. Who doesn't? I certainly never planned any of this. My kids have both been through the wringer in the last year. Their father and I are navigating the world of co-parenting from different households. My daughter started middle school – gross – where kids, I'm sorry, are giant A-holes. My son lives in the damn woods! But the point is not that we are the troubled family. The point is that we are the family that acknowledges our troubles. We're not ashamed of them. We fight for each other and do everything in our power to deal with them in a healthy and productive way. And no matter what, we love and support each other through them. So if we don't look like a conventional family while doing so . . . well, that's your problem if you don't like it, because we're okay.
Image blocks growth. If I worried about how others view my life, about meeting arbitrary expectations, I wouldn't be where I am today. My family fell apart spectacularly but in a way that allowed each of us to branch out and grow in ways we couldn't have imagined. Had we all held it together, white-knuckled it and focused on distractions rather than dealing with our troubles, we might have the picture perfect postcard of a family to send out this holiday season, but it would just be an image. Instead we're the troubled family, a work in progress with endless possibilities.