The journey with my daughter and my own parallel path, have been excruciatingly painful and at the same time the catalyst I suppose I needed to turn inwards. I believe life will put in your way what you need for your growth; it brought a 2 ton truck to knock me off the little path I was contentedly (or so it seemed at the time) pedaling along. So Tuesday last week I sat nervously at the Rome airport, watching the arrival screen for my daughter's flight from Athens. After hospitalizations, wilderness therapy, stints at two other therapeutic boarding schools, she had finally successfully completed her last program. Our plan was to stay in Italy until her therapist was free to do some work with us together to support with the transition. I knew she had benefitted from the relationships and the experimental container that was the "change by challenge and choice" philosophy that underpinned Free Spirit Holina, in Cyprus where she had spent the last 3 months. I also knew that the goodbyes had been hard, a complicated mixture of once again having to sever ties, pack her bags, fear of failing again in the outside world, and sadness of not heading back home. A week has passed since the door to baggage claim opened, and I saw her expression of relief to spot me in the crowd. She has shared stories of the people and animals that had shown her affection, made her feel she mattered, and provided a mirror to her motivations and sometimes costs of her decisions. Despite the obvious challenges for an Israeli program running in the middle east during a humanitarian crisis, I sensed that the program was able to see complicated kids with a mix of humanity, acceptance and genuine compassion. They were willing to work with human nature, however it presented, without judgment, and perhaps even seeing the beauty in the struggle. Graduation from Free Spirit Holina wasn't tied to "buying-in" to the program and following the rules. Instead I understood that progress was measured by the degree to which you were willing to start facing your own demons, and your participation in communal life on the farm. This is a radical departure from the largely fear-based and conformative approaches that characterized our past experiences, and I sense that they are onto something.
While the streets of Rome and the sea of Sicily provided enticing distractions, the underlying currents of what complicates our relationship are still there. I've been reflecting on them, and observing how I process and respond. (Interestingly, when I came back to continue this post, despite all the work I have done, I noticed that I had made, once again, her the focus of each point. It's so ingrained in us, to put the focus on our kids and not ourselves!)
Expansion - As I observe and interact with my daughter, I see vestiges of the past that remind me of everything I thought was wrong or misguided about her decisions. From posts on social media glorifying or identifying with unhealthy behaviors, looking for friends to smoke with, and music with lyrics that leave me shaking my head, there have been multiple opportunities for questioning and correction. I can observe myself constrict, almost sense myself rise above her, hand on hip, ready with words of wisdom. I can see how in these moments my boundaries extend and I try and enfold her within mine out of fear and control. This leaves me watching helplessly as she understandably tries to escape the trespassing of my limits, and there is a break in our connection.
What I'm trying... In moments of tension, when the fear starts to take over, pause. Just observe yourself. Look at your hand. Are you constricted in a fist, or expanded, with fingers spread and palm open? This expansion, this openness, is the way of being that contributes to healing, our own and theirs, more than any words or insights.
Acknowledge and release - Some of the hardest times have been when my daughter brings up the past, of being "sent away". She says, "No child should have their home held over their head because of non-compliance with their parents' rules". She talks about the deterioration of her mental health, and the realities of a highly imperfect system that she has been part of. There are so many layers of guilt, anger, blame and shame that it feels like part of a mountain has broken off and fallen on top of me. Regardless of our intentions (and rationally I know that as a parent our primary responsibility is to keep our child safe), she felt she "wasn't worthy", that she was "too much" for us to deal with. These are strong messages of non-acceptance, of not belonging. I am trying to acknowledge that this was a by-product of our good intentions, and, inside of her, this pain exists. This anger, and the fear and sadness beneath, can't be intellectualized away with rational arguments, but something that has to be repaired with the heart.
What I'm trying... Oh how I wish I had a magic trick to make this go away. I find at times that I want to bring up that the past two years were a co-creation, that at the end of the day she exercises free will, and is not a victim. I'm finding that these words, even though they contain truth, she hears as a defensive justification and minimization of her experience. She doesn't need my "words of wisdom", which at times I still hold onto the hope that she will hear and will somehow miraculously change her perspective. I see that her transformation will come about by listening to her own voice, not mine. As I navigate my way though, I find that it helps to hold these two realities, these two truths - the knowledge that I acted out of a sacred duty to protect my child and that her pain is real. A critical piece to this is my working through my own guilt, deliberately committing to releasing it, and engaging with her without the energy of somehow trying to fix the past.
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