The Perfect Storm
My son Travis was 22 months old when I suffered a massive stroke. He was not yet able to speak. During my three month disappearance from his life he was not able to talk about it by asking questions such as “Where is mommy?”, or “Why does she have tubes coming out of her head?”
I was pregnant when I had the stroke so Travis’ trauma was compounded by the addition of a new baby. It is said that bringing a new baby into a child’s home is like having your husband tell you he is going to bring another woman to live in the house, but will love you just the same. You will be expected to share your things with this woman, including your husband’s love, your clothing and toys. This is what is expected of young children when a new baby comes along.
I had been home with Travis full time for his entire life when I suddenly disappeared one morning. I stayed in hospitals for three months. He came to see me once in the acute care hospital where I stayed in bed, pregnant and paralyzed, for 53 days. He turned two while I was in the rehabilitation hospital for six weeks. The new baby stayed with my parents during that time so my husband could work and devote time to Travis.
When I finally returned home I was in a wheelchair. My personality had been blunted by the stroke. My face had what is known as a “flat affect” meaning it showed little to no emotion. It was many months before I became independent with walking and self care. We hired live-in caregivers for the babies Monday through Friday. My husband took over on the weekends as I was unable to care for the babies.
Our family muddled through this nightmare as best we could. There was no way to precisely know how to cope with it. My husband and I had friends and family we could talk to. We had weathered a few more minor storms by this point in our lives so we did have some coping skills. Psychotherapy proved useful in helping us get through this.
Travis began to talk at an appropriate age of around two. He was very hard on the baby. Sometimes he was violent towards his brother. There were no instructions in our parenting manual on how to deal with this. We were both still reeling from our own trauma.
By the time Travis was three years old, I had recovered enough to think that he might need some therapy to help him deal with what he had been going through. I did some research online on child psychologists, and found someone I thought might help. My husband thought taking Travis at three years old to see a psychologist would be a waste.
He started acting out and up when he started preschool just before turning three. He had trouble keeping his hands to himself. Before he finished two years at preschool, he was referred to the child study team in our town’s public school system for an evaluation.
I had to take him to see a psychiatrist as part of the study. We met the school psychologist, Dr. G. The social worker did a study of our home life.
As a result of the child study team’s evaluation, Travis was classified as being eligible for special services when he started kindergarden with a diagnosis of ADHD. He would be given accommodations when he started kindergarten.
He tested on the high side for I.Q. His verbal abilities were brilliant when it came to manipulation of his parents. The sibling rivalry did not improve.
We struggled to get through elementary school with ongoing behavior issues, mostly around physical and verbal aggression toward students and disrespect for teachers.
Having physical limitations as a mother of a toddler made everyday battles impossible to win. His defiance of simple instructions such as being asked to put on his coat and get in the car could not be met by my physical force of getting him to do what I wanted. I was never able to command much respect.
The behavior issues became much worse when we got to middle school. Travis never seemed to care about any consequences that were imposed as a result of his misbehavior. He had major impulse control issues. He was frequently suspended from school for making racist comments to other students. He thought this was funny at a time when schools were instituting a zero tolerance policy for this type of behavior. I recall an incident when I was driving him to an event at the elementary school that he did not want to attend, and he jumped out of the car when I slowed down enough through a quiet intersection. He started to run. I drove to the nearby police station to tell them I needed help. The police seemed mystified as to why I was unable to chase down my own child. I had to explain that I was disabled. I ultimately found him at school.
We sought counseling from Dr. G., the school psychologist who had retired and went into private practice. He told us that Travis was one of the most severe cases of ADHD he had seen. We tried several medications. They helped to varying degrees. Some of them subdued him to the point of a near-zombie state.
By the end of his last year of middle school, he had been suspended about ten times, had started stealing money from us at home, and was defiant and disrespectful to me and my husband as well as teachers and other authorities at school. My husband had the ability to physically subdue Travis when necessary to protect our other son from physical harm and did so on a regular basis.
Dr. G. had recommended we send Travis to a therapeutic wilderness program where he would be camping with other troubled pre teens and would be in intense therapy daily with “no where to hide.” It seemed like an extreme option for a 12 year old kid to be sent away for weeks at great expense. We hesitated as we became more concerned about his ability to adjust and succeed in school and in life.
The violence, disrespect and defiance culminated in a bad scene on Mother’s Day. Despite my protests about having friends over on Mother’s Day, a bunch of Travis’ friends appeared at my house throughout the day. He was in the garage with a friend when I asked his friend if he was planning to spend the day with his mother. Travis looked directly at me and said, “You are a crippled piece of shit.” This was a new low. I knew he said this in part to show off in front of his friend. It was also part of his masterful manipulation ability. He was distracting me from imposing my wishes on him and his friend. I stayed calm and just said, “I can’t believe you just said that to me.” In that moment, I knew an extreme intervention was needed.
We worked with an education consultant to prepare ourselves to place Travis in a therapeutic wildnerness program. The process took several weeks with obtaining medical clearance for him to camp and hike for an expected stay of six weeks. We had to finance the cost of the program on our credit card. There was an extensive list of gear to buy to get ready for the program.
When Travis was 12, my husband flew to Georgia with him to get him situated. The program was not a fun “camp”, but rather a carefully created intervention for young at risk teens.
He was placed in a group that would camp in the wildnerness with mental health professionaals guiding them in the following process: (from their website)
The community structure mirrors life at home, although students are not aware of it initially, with its stresses, challenges, ongoing requirements, responsibilities and interactions. Everything that happens is processed therapeutically for maximum impact on students. In this setting, students play out old behaviors and dynamics while staff and the students’ peers help to reflect back — in the moment — what they observe. Students begin to see common denominators in both settings and begin to practice new, healthier dynamics within the safety of the milieu.
Travis initially resisted the program so his progress was slow. We worried about whether we had done the right thing. It took about four weeks, but he ultimately became a mentor for new students arriving in the program. Weekly phone conferences with his therapist were reassuring. He was slowly engaging with the process.
His therapist described things Travis shared about his early childhood that were traumatic. These were the pieces he was not able to articulate when he was 22 months old.
He spent a total of 12 weeks in the wilderness with no where to hide from his demons, double the usual length of a typical program.
When he was set to “graduate”, his therapist invited us to spend his last night in the wilderness with him before the final component whereby the students were reunited with their parents.
I initially balked at this because of my disability. Some consideration was given to the idea of my husband going without me. But I talked to the therapist about how we could work it out for me to come and participate despite my physical limitations. She suggested I stay in a nearby hotel and skip the sleeping under a tarp and extensive hiking.
Travis was so happy to see us when we arrived at camp. He was glad I figured out a way to come.
Before I went back to my hotel, I sat at the campfire with everyone in the group and their parents. Each of us was asked to tell the group something interesting about ourselves. When it was my turn, I told everyone that I know the lyrics to an unbelievable number of popular songs. Travis told everyone that this was “really annoying.”
As part of the graduation ceremony, Travis gave me a walking stick he had made and said it symbolized “walking into a new life together.”
To this day, Travis will tell you that this experience did absolutely nothing for him. But I know better. I know it was a valuable time for him to process an early childhood trauma that had not been dealt with in any meaningful way. The process continued for years after he came home. We placed him in a boarding school in ninth grade. He had a successful high school career that was by no means trouble free, but perhaps was typical.
Thank you for reading:)