Things started out innocently enough. A colleague at work posted an incandescent set of pictures of Grayton Beach on his Facebook page a few weeks ago. Sun, sky, sea, all of them endless, all of them beautiful, all of them beckoning. We continue to find our way through a time of transition at my church and that is hard work. Juggling the demands of my small, complicated family, watching our country get more and more frayed at the edges, all of that gets to me. The list goes on, but what’s important is recognizing I was tired, I was reaching for some Sabbath time of laughter, playfulness and renewal. It was pretty easy to talk my spouseman into a plan for the visit we had already scheduled for the girl Maria right after Easter. I’d take the time off, she would come in on a Thursday, on Saturday we would take her and my dad to Grayton Beach for a few days before she had to return to Fort Lauderdale. I saw Sherod’s hesitation and I quickly wrote it off as his reluctance to be anywhere at night but in his own home, ready to slip into the bed he loves.
The weather we got was basically the total opposite of the pictures that had so beguiled me in the first place—windy, cold, gray. The condo we rented was fine but a little small for four of us when there wasn’t much to do outside. The night we got to Grayton, we went to dinner at a lovely little restaurant and sat where the owner was shucking oysters. Maria was curious and the owner a lovely woman who graciously offered Maria the chance to eat her first-ever oyster. There was fanfare and laughter and a fake pearl necklace to place around her neck after Maria got that first taste of the entire ocean concentrated in one speck of life called an oyster. We left the restaurant filled with the happy light of being a family on an adventure.
A picture of us 24 hours later would have been described as something much closer to hell. Our girl had started escalating into her problem behaviors and she barely held it together that evening. In somebody else’s condo. In a town where no one knew us. In a situation that could deteriorate to the point that we would have to call in cops, I had to face into the truth that I had allowed wishful thinking—magical thinking—to bring us to a place of excruciating vulnerability and I did not have time to wallow in self pity. We needed to do what was necessary to get back on safer ground.
By the next morning, we were on the road headed back home. All the way back, it was dicey, Maria cycling in and out of that scary place where her eyes glitter with calculated rage and I just pray this isn’t the moment she’s going to go postal on us. Getting home made nothing better. She continued to escalate and by late evening, she had begun to engage in the kind of self-injury that makes me want to tear my own skin off like she does, because I feel so angry and hopeless and scared at my inability to protect my daughter from herself. Late in the night we realized we had to start looking for help. Mainly, what came out of a series of pretty desperate calls was the realization that we live far from the kind of resources she and we need in such times and that the next thing we should do was make the plan to get her back to BARC.
This was Monday evening and on Wednesday, Sherod was supposed to drive her to the Atlanta airport where they’d rendezvous with a BARC staff member who’d fly with Maria back to Fort Lauderdale. The decision we made that night was to see how Tuesday went, making tentative plans for Sherod to drive her back to Fort Lauderdale if we had any concerns about her behavior. These days, airlines don’t take kindly to folks losing control of their behavior mid-flight. We knew if she lost it, her flight would more than likely be diverted to the nearest airport and there’d be cops waiting for her on the tarmac. But Sherod driving her, or the two of us driving her, had its own dangers. I started trying to find someone able to ride along who was stronger and more able-bodied than two aging parents and came up empty.
For most of Tuesday we breathed a bit easier. Maria settled down and in fact, by the afternoon was in that fun, friendly, loving place I adore sharing with her. We moved forward with the idea that we’d stick to the original plan. Until we couldn’t. Until again, as evening fell, she ramped up and engaged in even worse self-injury. Over the course of 3 hours, we radically changed the plan and in the middle of the night, I bought tickets and made flight arrangements so by 9:30 the following morning, two BARC staff members were boarding a flight to ATL and I was preparing to drive to pick them up and bring them back here. We got back by 4:30 in the afternoon and at 5, Maria, Sherod and the two staff members were in Sherod’s truck headed south. She got back to the safest place she’s ever known right after dawn yesterday morning.
What this outline of the past 4 days fails to capture is the horror of watching your own child hurt herself so badly the blood runs down her arms. It isn’t shame I feel as I reach out, trying to find help in the middle of one of these situations, but it is an absolute emptiness. I have to ask for help, and people are always so extraordinarily generous about trying to do what they can, but I feel like I am asking them to stand right next to a dangerous black hole. This time, I also had to carefully fold and put away the guilt I felt about having taken my family on a dangerous misadventure. Is that what triggered Maria’s behavior? We won’t ever know.
Life goes on. The pieces are put back together. We have new data now, data that insist we have to look carefully at the ways in which we have tried to continue to be Maria’s mom and dad. It will be a very long time before we even consider bringing her back for a visit. The next time we see her, it will be at BARC itself, probably for only a short while, and the visits for the foreseeable future will take place there, where we know we have the staff support necessary to keep her and us safe. Maria often calls early in the morning and after I woke up today, I had to consciously prevent myself from reaching out to her. It’s not that I don’t love her. I would give my life for this woman-child this instant. But my love for her cannot be acted out on the basis of magical thinking. I have to put that love into actions that help her move forward into the most promising future possible and right now that includes not making pretend that everything’s alright and nothing has changed.
Every time I have to confront the cost of magical thinking when it comes to Maria, I fight to hold on to a kind of hope that requires me to continue to learn to be the best mother I can possibly be for my daughter. Those itty bitty voices of shame and despair can’t be allowed to take hold and drive the next thing I can do to love her and the next thing after that. Sometimes the best love of all is the love that is capable of stepping back and slowing down enough to think things through, take careful steps, postpone a more immediate sense of gratification for a kind of health and wholeness that comes from embracing reality, no matter how hard that might be.