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Chapter 8: Paper Parenting

For as much as I began to focus on getting Grace in a residential facility because I was now protecting Caroline and I had no other resources to try with her, and as much as stepdad wanted her out for whatever his reasons were, my parents did not. They were worried, like we all were. However, they could more readily remember the happy child who did Easter egg hunts in pinafore dresses, who danced around in a tutu, who invited them to grandparent’s day at school and drew pictures for them. It was getting harder for me to remember that child was the same one I was seeing now. Grace knew that the possibility of a residential facility was real and was something I was exploring actively.

I had to go through the discharge process from the psych hospital again, but I don’t remember it. I am sure it was similar to the previous one. I do remember Grace’s demeanor upon discharge is different this time than last time. There is a defiance where last time there was more of a tentativeness in her.

I have left the craft paper on the wall in her room for Grace to express herself, to give herself an outlet when she is “triggered.” Remember, this is years before this word was mainstream, before we had celebrities talking about mental health and people in public office discussing their own difficulties. It was still a word that was new for me in the context of someone’s behavior and the choices they make. She uses black paint and writes the words of all the piercings she wants, in 12-inch letters on the craft paper. It looks like those Helter Skelter letters with black paint dripping down from the letters. She tells me it is the “true” her. It was so jarring hanging on the room walls that her sister, Holly, and I had painted bubblegum pink for her (with sparkles!) one summer.

Her new routine, which starts immediately, is to go to the outpatient “school,” which again, is associated with the hospital she just left. I can either drive Grace all the way to the school, which is about a 35 minute one way drive in the opposite direction of my job, or I can take her to a drop off location, which is at a gas station, right off a major highway and closer to our house. I opt for the drop off, and begin to deliver Grace to a seedy, non-descript gas station every morning at 9 and wait for the white, unmarked 16 passenger van to arrive. When it arrives, Grace gets out of my car, walks over to the white van and gets into the van with the other kids who have already been picked up at other stops, and off she goes.

There are other kids who meet at our specific gas station for their ride to school. All of us congregate in our cars, at the gas station, waiting for the white van. The van returns by 4:30 and it is at the same pickup spot. This means for the next six weeks, I need to see if I can adjust my work schedule to get her there in the mornings and leave in time to pick her up.

As a side observation, and in retrospect, I wonder what if I had left my comfort zone, and my car, and talked to these other parents? What if I had gone and knocked on their windows and just simply said, “Hey – we’re clearly in a similar situation. Want to try to get through this together?” It was easy to tell by the vehicles, clothing and ethnicities that we were all very different. But we were all united in that we had a child, possibly grandchild, who was in a very bad place emotionally, mentally, spiritually. What if we had gotten to talking? What if I had taken the chance to meet any of them and started a prayer group? I don’t know that it would have ended our journey any sooner, but it would have at least made it more bearable and possibly given me hope at a time I had little. How many more of these missed opportunities were there that I didn’t see at the time, or even see years later? I think, now, in looking back that God provides us opportunities all the time that we do not see, cannot see, won’t see. But, I believe He also keeps trying.

Over the course of the month and a half that I am there, I see a homeless man who stands by the access road to the highway with his sign, asking for money. He is there by the highway, most days. One morning, I stay a bit later after the van has left and send some work emails. I watch the homeless man leave his usual post, cross the street back over to the gas station, and walk over to a car that has just pulled up. He kisses the girl who drove up, they open the trunk to their car that is newer than mine, put his “Homeless, need money” sign in the trunk, then drive off. Things not being what they seem was reflective of so much of what was going on in our lives.

In outpatient school, the students have individual therapy, group therapy, and school

work. The outpatient staff help the child continue their regular classwork, with the parent serving as the liaison with the school. The outpatient students are not to talk to each other outside of the school, but of course over time I find that Grace has notes from other kids suggesting that they meet up. Each night at home I fill out a behavior form. Her behavior is inconsistent. Since all of her things are still removed from her room per the discharge instructions, I have told Grace that she is to begin to earn things back by exhibiting compliant behavior. And these are basic level behaviors that you would expect of any child much younger than Grace: respond when spoken to, be polite, do your chores, clean up after yourself.

Below are a few of the “homesheets” I was instructed to fill out hourly.

A checkmark indicates positive behavior and a circle indicates negative behaviors. The behaviors I am supposed to monitor are on the left side. When you mark a circle, you are to explain why the child earned the negative mark. And, you are to note what your child did well. Grace responds to the writing prompts that are on the backside while she is at outpatient school. The parent/guardian is to fill out the front side, and I also made comments on her prompt answers pending their relevance to the day.

The outpatient school did not return phone calls; I resorted to communicating and parenting via these homesheets. It was a one-way communication vehicle. I was not sure what exactly happened on a detailed basis at the school. And, don’t downplay the position they have the parent in: If you question, if you press for things, the school administration gets suspicious, they get defensive, they get annoyed and there is always the threat of another entanglement with CPS that they can initiate: Non-compliant parent. They trade in fear at possibly the most vulnerable time in a parent’s life.

For our first homesheet, Grace did well on day one, but I’d like to point out, Grace was doing well on things that even a 4 year old can do well – like saying please and thank you.

On another homesheet, I called Grace out for saying “crap,” a word we just don’t use because I don’t like it. And it’s not so much that I think the word is incredibly offensive, it’s that when I called her out on it she simply denied it by saying, “I didn’t say that.” Which to me signified a larger problem. I just heard her say it. She lied about it, because that’s what she does when she cannot take responsibility for something: she lies. And, me calling her out on it leads Grace to choose her weapon of choice, her power of choice: she isolates herself. No eye contact, no talking, body language which indicates that no one else exists in the room. After this minor episode, she wants to stay in her room, and she wants to cut. Its just a sick cycle that she can’t see, and if she can see it, it’s a sick cycle of her not caring about it.

Her chores are a continual struggle mainly her room. I recognize this is not atypical for a teenager, yet, it was one of the things that Grace knew she had to maintain in order to get her things back. And were this me: I would be doing everything I could to walk the straight and narrow, to get my things back, to get my mom off my back.

She also has some good days, as reflected below.

And the backside, below, shows the prompts she answers each day:

There are some days when she does make an active effort. She does her chores without reminding, she keeps her room clean and on a particularly stellar day, we were able to talk about some serious issues, and she did not isolate. So, I knew it was possible and it reinforced for me that the negative and oppositional behaviors were oftentimes choices for her.

I knew that a difficulty we were going to have would be when stepdad and step siblings reentered the equation. Every weekend that stepdad was either with us, or that we were at his place which was an hourish away was not good. It was rather, which weekends were less bad. I felt the need to play intermediator: between stepdad and my two, between his double standard rules for his three and my two, between making myself available, or present with him and being present for my two. Some of this is common for step-families, but our dynamic was complicated with the two households, and with issues with Grace, and with the backdrop of Ephesians and Love and Respect.

Stepdad was adamant that she apologize and take ownership for the chaos she caused, and for her disrespect previously shown. I did not care so much about the past as I did on the present: how was she now? Was she making an effort? Was she being compliant? Polite?

Nine days in, we had a terrible day as described on the home sheet below:

On the backside, I continued my assessment of the afternoon:

When I had picked her up from school and we arrived home, I followed her upstairs to her room to check that her chores had been done. Her bed was not made, her room was not picked up. She knew the rules. I told Grace the obvious: you didn't do your chores, and I will devise a punishment for it. Then the volcano:

She went from quiet to erupting, “Oh My God!”

“In addition to cleaning your room, you will also wash my car,” I said as matter of factly as I could. She screamed “Shut Up!” repeatedly as I was trying to get that 12 word sentence out.

I didn’t engage. I told her I’d see her downstairs in the driveway to wash the car. After about 10 minutes, she was not downstairs to wash the car. I went back upstairs to see that Grace had taken her baby blanket, one that she loved, a quilted cat blanket that her great grandmother had made for her and had literally torn it to shreds. It was on the floor in her room. She was standing in the middle of her room with the last shred in her hand when I walked in. I don’t know if my expression revealed my shock; it probably did. Out of everything she could have destroyed, why that? It was sentimental, she loved it, her great grandmother was now deceased. I asked her, in obvious disbelief of what I was seeing: “What are you doing?” No answer, just a stare at me. I told her again, as controlled as I could get my voice, to come wash the car and that further she owed me an apology for telling me to shut up. She continued to stare me down. I left the room and went downstairs. I stayed in the kitchen replaying what happened and I was monitoring any noises I was hearing from upstairs in her room.

She came down a few minutes later and slammed the door on her way outside. I wasn't sure what she was going to do. Run? Sit in the garage? Do something destructive out there? I tried looking out different windows to see if I could see her; I couldn't. Then I hear the water hose turn on. Relief. She’s going to wash the car.

She washed the car and then came in with her apology: “I’m sorry about yelling at you to shut up but you being annoying is what started it!” was shouted at me on her way back upstairs. Not an apology, and what was clear was that the pattern was still there. She won’t take responsibility for her actions.

This was an entirely different Grace than the one I saw last week. Simply not knowing which way Grace was going to decide to behave on any given day was fatiguing. I began reminding her of the possibility of a residential facility if she did not start making better decisions. I used it as a threat. I had used every bit of leverage I could think of and nothing worked and hoped this one would. As I said earlier, a lot of decisions I would make differently now, and this is one of them.

A week after this episode I noted on her home sheet:

At therapist on Monday, Grace said she didn’t care about anything or whether she went to

residential. Maintains the previous behaviors of sneaking out, lying, past sexual behavior is no big

deal; rejects having to listen to authority, yet - she can be so sweet and kind when she wants to

Her choices are a puzzle.

Two days after I wrote this, she made me a very sweet picture, did her chores yet not her room. As the home sheet was my main way of communicating with the therapists at the school, I let them know on one of the sheets that the upcoming weekend would be important: