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Chapter 9: A God of Surprises

For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.

Matt 18:20

Grace is in the home now, all the time, like most children are with their parents. She’s not interested in doing anything with anyone unless it is something for her, like getting ice cream, fast food, something that she wants. Some of this is typical self-absorbed teenage behavior, and some of it is exacerbated by whatever is going on in her mind.

It is a weekend and stepdad is at the kitchen table working on his laptop. I have come into the kitchen from my office having just discovered that Grace had been instant messaging with a boy, and the content was foul. She not to have been on instant messenger, and I didn’t like the boy which made it worse. With each new success she has, a deception seems to follow. I'm angry because she seems to sabotage her own successes that she/we/I get her through. At this moment, Grace comes into the kitchen dressed for a run. I am tired of waiting for the "precise good moment" to confront her on anything; there never is one.

“Grace, were you on instant messenger?” I ask and I wonder if she can tell by my voice that I know she was. I’m leaning against the kitchen counter with my arms crossed.

“No,” she responds curtly as she gets a water bottle from the refrigerator.

“I’m going to ask again and give you another chance to make a better decision: were you on instant messenger?” At this point, I can’t believe she is now making an active choice to lie when it is clear I know.

She is not giving me eye contact, but her voice is adamant. “I said, ‘no’.”

“I know that you were. You’re lying,” and I don’t know why we are going through this back and forth of verbalizing what we both know.

Grace puts her water bottle down, looks at me and says, “I’m getting triggered.”

“Because I caught you lying,” I retort quickly. I am so tired of all it. I’m tired of being held hostage by her using the term “triggered” as the ultimate King’s X.

Grace shakes her head in disgust and starts for the front door, “I’m gone.”

I raise my voice after her, “Grace! I have not told you that you could leave yet!”

“I don’t care!” she responds as she makes it to the entry way.

Stepdad, who has been sitting at the table while this was going on suddenly gets up, runs to the front door and right as Grace has opened the front door, he reaches over her and slams it shut.

Stepdad tells her that she not going anywhere. Grace starts swinging at stepdad, landing a few hits. I yell at Grace to stop. Stepdad tries to restrain he arms; she fights like a wild animal and calls him a f******* c***. They have fall to the floor with Grace swinging and kicking and stepdad trying to maintain control of her arms.

I shout at stepdad to stop and let her go, I shout at Grace to stop, neither do. “I’m going to call the hospital,” I shout. Neither hear me over Grace yelling expletives and the struggle. Stepdad gets her pinned to the ground and immobilized and she spits on him. I have grabbed my cell phone from the kitchen and have run back into the room. I’ve got my phone and I’m dialing and again I frantically yell to both: “Stop it! I’m calling the hospital!

At which point, Grace stops fighting. Immediately. Stepdad releases her but he still has the adrenaline.

We stay in that moment while Grace is heaving and crying and stepdad is red in the face, breathing heavily and his soon-to-be black eye is getting swollen. He sees her laptop.

Grace through tears says, “No, I just snapped. I don’t know what happened.”

And somewhere in this brief aftermath, stepdad smashed her laptop.

Everyone was emotionally and physically spent, after only a few minutes. I ask Grace to come with me to the kitchen table.

I know this out of control episode is upsetting to read, especially if you have not been around anything like it or have never heard of anything like this. I wish I had not been a part of it, a party to it, or experienced any of it. It is horrible; it is sickening.

Grace and I go sit at the kitchen table. After what seems like such a long period of silence, I say, “Grace, you’re killing me.”

Grace responds softly, “I know.”

Grace knew that getting admitted to a psych hospital three times was an automatic admittance to a residential facility. I did not remember that myself that day in that moment although admittedly I had used the residential as a threat several times, certainly something I wish I could undo. I’m not even sure why calling the hospital came to me – did I think it would be like a 911 call? Her immediately stopping the fighting was an indication this was a chosen behavior, and when presented with consequences of hospital admission again, and almost certain residential admission, she was able to decide she did not want that option. Its odd because when I have threatened her with it, she acts like she doesn’t care if she goes or not. Was getting on instant messenger worth this? Was lying about it worth this? She seemed to have taken a deny or die trying choice – stopping only when a third possible admission came into view.

It escalated so quickly. There were so many other ways this could have been handled. He could have stayed out of it. I could have waited to confront her. It should have never gotten physical. I could’ve have gotten between them to try to stop it.

I make an appointment with her/our therapist again that week to talk about the event. At the session, stepdad says my parenting is ineffective. I don’t argue that he’s wrong with any kind of evidence. I complain that he shows up for a weekend, expects things and rules to be his way and then leaves for the week, expecting me to enforce things, his rules, that I don’t always agree with.

One of the rules he wanted was that the kids begin saying ma’am and sir. His youngest two did it pretty regularly, his oldest didn’t, and my youngest two were raised saying it to others – teachers, people in authority – but I did not enforce it in the homelife. It was something he insisted on after we married - almost to the week of the marriage. It was yet another area of contention with stepdad. At first, I thought my two were not saying it because they could not remember. But then it became clear that Grace, in particular, didn’t want to, and wouldn’t.

There was a video circulating at the time of a dad who fired seven shots in his daughter’s laptop because she posted some terrible things about her parents online. The dad went to a field, started recording his reasons why, then took out his pistol. Reaction online at the time was divided with some praising the dad and some roundly criticizing his attempt to gain respect through fear. Stepdad saw himself as the feared leader of the family much like this man in the video. The laptop, stepdad said, was too much of a temptation for her. He removed it.

He tells me and the therapist that everyone he has told about the above physical incident said he should have called the police when she hit him and they would have taken her to juvenile detention and he feels underappreciated for his not having called the police. The session ends with the therapist stating the obvious…. We need to get on the same page with parenting. But, the “same page” means his page. The counselor pointedly says to me: You need to decide if you will and can do that. End of session.

I’m conflicted. Part of the reason I was so taken with stepdad initially is because I thought he was so much further in his spiritual walk than me. I admired his 100% confidence with Scriptural interpretation. He had verses memorized, he read his Bible weekly, usually daily. He was in a men’s Bible study at his Baptist church in his home community. He could explain just about anything with Biblical reference. I wanted a male role model for my last two who were at home, because that’s what we are supposed to have, especially within an evangelical Christian model of a family. That’s supposed to be the right way to raise children. And I had failed at marriage previously. The Ephesians 5:22-24 passage seemed to me to be an ideal that I needed to work toward.

Yet, I had done enough reading on stepfamilies and blended families to know that not only does it take time, but that the bio parent is the one who should be doing the disciplining of their child. And it made no sense that I was to follow someone’s lead when they had not done any research or reading or discovery on how to build stepfamilies. I sent him articles that I found helpful, and he didn’t read them. It was as if the Love and Respect model of a family and family order was all he needed to go on. And Ephesians 5:22-24.

I made an appointment for Grace to be evaluated by the residential facility. I was often working at opposite goals, dictated by what had most recently occurred. Not too long ago, I was advocating for her being able to complete her freshman year so she would not have to repeat a grade. And here I was on this day, making an appointment to remove her from the very school we worked to get her in. It was a crazy, unfettered, ungrounded, confusing time. I only felt in control of things when I was taking action, any kind of action and making the appointment helped me believe I was at least continuing to work toward something. I am desperate for a happy child; I don’t know how to get us there.

The event above happened mid-August. My other daughter, the youngest, was due to return to school after summer break in a couple of days so we had a routine start of school year physical scheduled. At the doctor’s office, they go through the usual things that they check during a physical and asked if I had any concerns. I told them I had noticed she was losing an inordinate amount of hair. In fact, she herself had noticed it, too. You cannot imagine how beautiful her hair is. It’s about five different shades of red – or ginger. She is one those children who gets random compliments from strangers about her hair.

With all the stress in the house I am betting the hair loss will somehow be related to that. I leave to go to the bathroom, and when I return to the room where they are, the nurse tells me that my daughter has just admitted to binging and purging for six months.

Hence the hair loss.

I am in disbelief. I ask Caroline if it’s true; she nods that it is. They give me a referral and information sheet that talked about binging and purging. But it’s almost surreal. Surreal in that when I ask Caroline about it in that moment, it’s like she is really just a very sad child, which I had not noticed before. I think if she could have disappeared, she would have. I felt faint. This was such a blow. You are treading water, and finally you get pulled under.

I leave the doctor’s office, with Caroline, and we had to get her blood drawn directly for some reason relating to this – but I don’t recall what.

As soon as I can get a moment away from her, I call stepdad to tell him what is going on. He doesn’t answer. I leave him a message to call me as soon as possible. I call our therapist next and tell her what happened. I’m in tears. She tells me I need to get her evaluated immediately. My next call is to her bio dad. And, off I go to Dallas to have her evaluated.

Part of the evaluation focuses on the homelife. So, I talk about Grace. It is a lot to tell. I provide our therapist’s number, I discuss all the different things going on – the stepdad, the stepkids – one of whom is troublesome in his own way - , the medications, the hospitalizations, bio dad, just everything that they might need to know to help my youngest child.

The next part of the evaluation is speaking with the child without the parent present.

While Caroline is being evaluated, I get a call back from stepdad. I’m sad. There is nothing else I can add to that simple statement. I tell step dad what had happened that morning: I was taking her to her routine physical before I went to work, discovered the binging and purging, and was now getting her evaluated, and things were just so horrible. It was like a cancer was in the home. I am upset. I paused so he could now respond.

Stepdad is silent – so much so that I thought I had lost the connection.

“You still there?” I ask.

“Yeah. I’m still here.” Then silence.

“Did you hear what all I said?” I am wondering if I don’t have a good signal.

“I heard you just hijacked the whole family again, that’s what I heard! You just unilaterally made a decision without me! And now you’ve hijacked us! That’s exactly what I just heard!”

“What are you talking about?” I picked up immediately on me making a decision without him is what has made him angry. Not what was going on with Caroline. The fact I made a decision for Caroline, without him. “I called you first! You didn’t answer! I called our therapist next. The therapist told me to do this!”

Reader – have you ever heard the saying that someone yelled so loud at you your ear hurt? That was what happened next. I was in a waiting room and was trying to keep people from hearing how irate he was so I pushed the phone as close to my ear as I could and got up and walked outside so I could pull the phone away from my ear for some relief.

The last thing he yelled at me was that he was tired of my parenting and that he was done. He followed up later in the day with an email: “There is evil in our home and your permissiveness that continues to feed it is one of the catalysts. I will only return to the presence of the home after an acceptable discipline plan has been set in motion and I have reasonable belief that you will adhere to our agreement.” The irony here, years later, is that his son took an axe to a tree, got suspended for marijuana, stole a traffic sign - and list goes on.

So, on this day, which was Grace’s birthday by the way, Caroline was admitted. Because it would have been Caroline’s weekend at her bio dads, as she is the only one he is still seeing if she is not admitted, she will go to his house. She tells me later she said whatever she had to say so that she did not go to his house.

I called my ex mother-in law to let her know what was going on. I called my own step mom. I called my older two children. My oldest daughter told me upon hearing this, that when we were at her college for graduation and Caroline was at her apartment, she ate almost a whole bag of chips. Then, my oldest daughter said when it was time to go, she couldn’t find Caroline. She called all over the apartment, and finally found her outside, behind the bushes. She said she couldn’t tell what Caroline was doing but now we know.

So, on this night and for the next week or so, I was at home alone with Grace, and now it was Caroline who was in a hospital. It was terrible.

That immediate Sunday, instead of just going to church, I decided to find a Sunday School class to attend as well. This is a large 2,000-member congregation. I am not plugged in with anyone at all at this church. I attend sporadically, mainly to bring Grace along. She knows a couple of kids who attend.

With a church this large, there are many choices for a Sunday School class to sit in on. I randomly choose one. I am feeling self-conscious because I am one of the few uncoupled people walking the halls, and I know how we are perceived. I find a class and it has about 30 people in it. I sit down at one of the 8-person round tables. People are animatedly talking with each other because they all know each other. A couple of people say hello to me and welcome me. Someone, I guess the class leader, gets up and says that today instead of the regular class, we are going to hear from some couple who spent part of their summer in a third world country – I don’t even remember the name of the country – doing mission work.

So the couple, who it turned out, were sitting right next to me, got up and started going through their slide show. The wife starts off first. It was interesting, I guess, just seeing a different culture, but this was not really the inspiration I was hoping for on this particular Sunday morning. My attention starts to wane, because they had so many slides.

Then it’s the husband’s turn to speak. He said that one of the things he had not expected was how much this trip had helped in his relationship with his step-son, the wife’s biological child. He went on to share that his stepson had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals and had attempted suicide and was self-harming.

Just let that sink in for a bit.

He starts talking about some of the behaviors with their child that were exactly my child. They had even been to the same psychiatric hospital! Some of the class members were taken aback at some of the descriptions of the son’s behavior – but not me. I start to tear up, I feel a little dizzy – and to think these were the people sitting Right. Next. To. Me.

I hung on his every word. I knew EXACTLY what he was talking about. And when the class clapped for them and they came to sit down, I leaned over to the wife and said… My child self harms. My child has been in a psychiatric hospital. She looked at me, she took my hand, and while the class resumed, she held my hand. I started to cry.

After class I sputtered out as much as I could condense for her. I could not believe I found someone with almost the same story. I thought I was just about the only one. She hugged me, introduced me to her husband, we exchanged phone numbers and she said she would call me that night.

I go home not with hope, but with feeling like someone just threw me a lifeline. Out all the variables that morning – I could have skipped church, I could have skipped Sunday school, I could have picked a different class, heck – I could have sat at another table. It was unreal. Really unreal.

She calls me later that day. We exchange stories. She is more experienced as she has been dealing with it longer, and honestly, she is much more Spiritually confident, for lack of a better description, than I am. She has two in the home. Her older son, who self harms and younger daughter who is impacted by it all. I have the same. Her husband, stepdad, has had real difficulty with the entire situation and has not handled it well historically. She is exploring the possibility of residential homes. I have an appointment at one the upcoming week. It was uncanny. She offers to pray for me on the phone for my two at home, and for all of us. I take her up on it. We exchange emails as well and she tells me to reach out anytime.

I send her an email the next day:

Hi Dawn, Just a belated thanks for the call yesterday. I made Grace clean her room, and do her laundry today. Most kids would just do it - but gosh, everything is a struggle with her. And - she has drawn a line in the sand about saying yes ma'am and sir to me and step dad. And so at this point.... Its less about the actual word than the fact that she won't do it - eg, disregard of my request. I did something that I know is fruitless, but I did it anyway. I wrote her a three page letter about where she is and what needs to change. things escalate and she shuts down when I talk to her - so I thought a letter might be a good idea. Here is why this is fruitless: I am naively thinking that a well-placed word or nicely phrased sentences will make her say.... "Oh!! Yes!! I get it now!!!" And the sad part is ... it won't. All is does is give me a salve that I did whatever I could. And I am just befuddled that a kid would so obstinately refuse to do little things around the house and prefer to live the life she has been. My lingering concern is that we will drive down to the residential facility on Wednesday, she will not meet criteria, and I will be right back here on Thursday with the same problems and just waiting for the next blowup with her. I am trusting that if God wants her in there, she will get in. If He does not want her in there, she won't be. I know He has a plan. But, this is so painful. And it is/has destroyed the family. Caroline gets discharged tomorrow. She will come here, then resume school on Wednesday and then that’s when I take Grace for the assessment. Anyway - this is longer than I intended. Thank you again for talking to me. God is good for placing you in my path.

Caroline stayed in the hospital in Dallas for 8 days. I was told she was a “new” at binging and purging and they had little worry that this was something she would continue. During one of the meetings I had with the mental health care staff, doctor, and nurse, I was asked about the gun/jello incident and the laptop smashing, which I had to explain. Again.

At the exit conference, Caroline told me that she felt like she had to always be the “happy” kid because of how bad everything was at the home. She said bio dad had said things about her weight, and it all was too much to handle. I was told Caroline would now need counseling after her release.

I called our family therapist to see if she could start working with Caroline since she knew the family dynamics. She told me she did not specialize in eating disorders, and that we needed to find someone else for Caroline. So I did some research and found one, and she went, along with bio dad and it only lasted a short while until the therapist suspended counseling. And Caroline stopped seeing bio dad.

So, Caroline returns, and the next day will be evaluation day for Grace. I received another email from my new friend:

I've been thinking of you all day. I've prayed several times. I hope getting Caroline went okay. I know tomorrow will not be easy. I feel that they will take her. They are perfectly aware how kids can present themselves differently in different circumstances. Grace needs help. They will see that. Know that I am thinking of you and praying for you.

I know how you feel about writing to Grace. The thing is, no matter what you say, or how you say it, she does not hear you. She hears the triggers that you are for her. She will need to find a way out of this, and it will take intervention, but probably not by you. On your part, you need to provide opportunity for that intervention (from others) and being CONSISTENT with her. We took Johnny's door was off for over a year. And I completely let go of any hope that I could influence the disaster that his room became. The things that were really important to me, I insisted on. A LOT of things slid. And he argued every last thing and told me multiple times it was all my fault that he was depressed and angry. I finally told him that I had a LOT of power, if I could control the emotional state of someone else. Diana, I was miserable for so long. Loving Johnny, watching him self destruct. Listening him curse and blame me. God knows that you love your children. God loves them even more than you do. You have to rest in that. Nothing you can say to Grace right now will make her hear you now, but, God willing, the day will come when she sees with her real eyes and not her sick eyes. Right now, depression/anger/disfunction have taken over her responses. She is not well.

With time, meds, counseling, and will on her part, she will get better. But it is out of your hands now. I hated that. I cried, begged, cajoled. Nothing I did or said could reach Johnny. If you can find it at all, try to be disconnected and unemotional. It will dissempower her from controlling you, as much as is possible. In your heart, you can scream. for her. But try to be neutral.

Diana, this is so hard. But it will not be forever. Try to find the narrow place that you can trust God with that. I know that it is a very narrow place, indeed.

After tomorrow, after you know what is happening with Grace, maybe we can meet. Randy really wants to meet with your husband. From what you said, it is SOO similar to Randy's experience. Randy said that he didn't sign up for all the trauma of Johnny. But in the end, God called Randy to be there. For me and for John. You heard him talk. Johnny now confides in Randy, and looks to him for counsel. That was UNIMAGINABLE such a short time ago. There is hope for your family. It is not lost.

Diana, please know you are not alone. If anything I said doesn't ring true, just disregard it. Each of us travel our own road. But I am so grateful that if in any way I can be helpful to you during this so difficult time, please call let me.

I replied the next day:

Hi Dawn,

Thank you for your email. It was helpful.

I am in the waiting room at the residential facility. I got a call yesterday late afternoon that two patients had their discharges delayed… which means no available beds at this moment. I came anyway for the evaluation because I did not want Grace to think she dodged a bullet, and I guess the stupid part of me is hoping this will shock her.

She came home yesterday and I got precisely one polite reply, then when I reminded her of no TV because she failed to do her room that morning, the death stares came back. And she shut down.

Hope seemed to be ok. She did not cut or vomit last night.

And praise God. Stepdad set up a counseling call with me and him and our counselor who has been working with Grace. The call was charged, and some things were said that were/are hurtful, but the good news… he came back last night. He apologized for leaving. He said he would like to talk to Randy, if Randy is willing to share his experiences. Maybe next week?

After today’s evaluation, we go back to FW, and then if a bed opens up next week, they will call me and I will bring her that day. Grace told Caroline last night that she didn’t think would accept her, so I think that means Grace is pretty confident it will be business as usual.

I will give you an update when I get back tonight.

Your kindness and experience is like a flood when I been in a drought for so long. Thank you.


Again, in hindsight, part of God working in me was that I needed to share with others.

Matthew 18:20: For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.

My relationship with Scripture was fraught. The Ephesians verses that my husband routinely brought up were like a stick I got beat with. A goal I could never meet. And when I did meet that goal, at what cost to others in the home? But then, there were several Scriptures that I found on my own that spoke truth for me. For the ones that spoke truth to me, why was I always behind the Scripture after the fact instead of in front of it? Instead of being proactive and practicing what I had read, I waited until the Scripture was borne out and then I could see it! But, Scripture could just as easily be a weapon.

Because of my new connection with my new friend and how relieved it made me feel to talk through it, I started telling people everything. I was no longer embarrassed, I no longer was ashamed as a parent, I no longer was concerned that they might be shocked. I knew I had to be open, live in the light, and look to fellow believers.

It was Caroline’s admission to the hospital and finding my new friend that brought me to a point of being done. I gave up researching, and reading, and finding experts and thinking about next steps, and steps beyond the next steps, and worrying about stepdad and worrying about what Grace was going to do next and worrying about Caroline and worrying about What Ifs.

It was now on Him. I was DONE. I was letting go.

Over the next couple of days, I continually reminded myself: Whatever happens, happens. Its not my problem. It’s Gods.

It was a tremendous relief.

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