Monday, February 25, 2008

Heavy Stuff, Part 1

Okay, after more than 2 years of toodly-doodling my way through this blog, I am ready to sit down and unburden myself about the main problem in my life. People on MySpace and LJ know who I am, but I don't think anyone here does, so it feels more anonymous and safe.

It's my son. "Wally" is 18, and I can't get over the incredible contrast between his life and mine when I was that age. We're roughly 31 years apart in age. Whereas, I lived with my parents (in the same house, mainly with the same furniture!) for nearly 23 years, he has bounced between his father and me; he's lived in 4 states, 4 different places in one state, and is currently homeless in another.

He hasn't finished high school yet. He is on his own, trying to finish and get to college. My heart just aches for him, but I can't think of anything really concrete that I can do for him, other than just be there when he calls; listen, and try to come up with some ideas for him.

Here's a rough chronology.

He was the most wonderful, fantastic baby who ever lived. Okay, I'm his mom and I'm biased, but he really, truly was incredible. He was lovely to look at, he smiled and laughed and just brought a lot of joy to my life, his father's, his grandmother's, and pretty much anyone who met him. I was in awe of him.

Problems? For his first 2 months or so, he had pretty bad colic, but I had to have surgery not long after he was born, necessitating a switch from nursing to bottle-feeding. The more dense formula seemed to satisfy his hunger better -- he was a big baby, over 9 lbs. -- and definitely calmed him down.

We always worried about him, as parents do. He didn't get his first tooth until he was more than a year old. He started trying to walk close to a year, but didn't really "take off" until he was 15 months old. I was a slow walker too -- 18 months -- but then, I was a preemie. I think he was average for toilet training -- 2 years, 9 months -- but there were some odd glitches, which I'll get to later.

I think his father and I put a lot of pressure on him in the preschool years. His father had this odd notion that school was really just for socialization, and that academic skills needed to be taught by parents. So if he couldn't read by age 4, it was the end of the world. I'm sure he sensed this pressure.

He used "w" for "r" and "l" for a long time, but, as was very typical of him, he somehow just figured out the right way to pronounce things on his own, in his own time.

Last of all, he sucked his thumb until he was almost 11. This one especially gave his father fits. He tried wrapping gauze and adhesive tape around Wally's thumb to break him of the habit, but Wally was in preschool and we got some veiled threats from the caregivers that they might report this as abuse if we didn't ease off. So Wally kept sucking that thumb for years ... and then one day he simply stopped.

Right up until he left home at age 17 (and who knows, possibly still), Wally had encopresis. He would hold it in for days sometimes, until he "had an accident." I remember spending a lot of time washing his underwear in hot water with bleach. Then he'd decide to "go" at odd times. He'd wait until we were visiting a neighbor, then go into their bathroom, lock himself in, and stay there for the better part of an hour. Inevitably, he'd clog up the toilet, to my tremendous embarrassment. Sometimes he'd clog our toilet too. The last episode was a few months before he left home. I got a call at work -- "Hey mom, both toilets are clogged. I've been using the plunger but nothing works." That time, the plumber cost me 80 bucks.

All of these things were happening while his father and I were still together. We didn't fight in any kind of loud way (like my parents), and there really wasn't too much tension, at least until Wally was around 4. Then things started changing; there was a lot of stress. But the thumb-sucking and encopresis were already present. For these things, I cannot blame the divorce.

Wally went through something of a bad patch when he was about 4 or 5. His father and I split when he was 5 and a half. The break came boiling up, seemingly out of nowhere. I gave in on a lot of things, mainly because I wanted to keep the atmosphere calm for Wally and not frighten him. But by that time, Wally was demonstrating traits that he'd carry with him right into young adulthood.

I guess Wally can best be described as passive-aggressive. His shortcomings will sneak up on people, and I suspect there's a strong element of self-sabotage in him. His personality is impeccable. He has a ready smile, gorgeous eyes, a very adult-like demeanor (he's always had that -- people were remarking on it when he was only a toddler), and a lot of very obvious intelligence. But just when everyone's relaxing, feeling confident in Wally, he will "pull something." People will then look twice at him, with that unmistakable glint of doubt in their eyes. When he was 5 or 6, he decided one of his friends wasn't "cool" enough for him, and drove her away in tears. I'm surprised the girl's mother wanted to speak to me after that. It was inevitable that people would start out giving Wally an A+ in terms of personality, and gradually, it would go down to a C or a D. Once we went to a store and he smiled at the cashier. She smiled back, and then Wally decided to put on a mean face. The cashier actually looked frightened. Other times, Wally would start repeating words at random. We were in a restaurant, seated near an old couple, and he started chanting "Mee-maw." It was in the south, and that's what grandmothers are often called. It wasn't something he ever called his own grandmother -- he just seemed to pick the right set of syllables out of the air that would be the most disruptive at that moment. 95 percent of the time, though, he was very well behaved in public. That's why episodes like that were so disturbing. You could never plan for them, or figure out where they came from.

No question, he had a turbulent childhood. After the divorce, I tried to keep things light, and for awhile it worked, mostly. We moved into an apartment complex and made friends pretty quickly. It was right at the beginning of the summer, and we had a pool to swim in and new places to explore. The apartment was small, but our house had been huge, and Wally often lost me in it. I felt good that he could always walk around the corner and find me in the next room.

But around the time he turned 6, just starting kindergarten, his closest friend DJ's parents also split. That one was traumatic: a cheating husband, a murderously jealous wife, threats, hostility, open warfare. Everything I'd tried to shield him from, was getting thrown right into his face with no warning. Suddenly, he was "grown up" enough to understand everything that was going on and it hit him hard. His father was getting his life together and wasn't even sure he wouldn't move out of state, so he put a deliberate distance between him and Wally, only seeing him for occasional visits. And very soon after that, he met the new Mrs. Wally liked her just fine, which was a relief. She was a pretty nice person with her own son, a few years older than Wally. Things were reasonably peaceful. Wally adapted to all the changes -- new kindergarten, new after-school, Mom's new job, and soon, a new and bigger home when I bought a condo.

At this point, Wally was in first and second grade. Once we went to the school grounds a week or two before it opened so he could ride his bike around the paths and check the place out. When he was out of my sight for about 5 minutes I went looking for him and discovered he had joined up with two boys who were busy throwing rocks at the cafeteria windows!

From the age of 2 or so, Wally was a nut for clothes. He was very particular about which shoes he wore, and would refuse to wear a pair he didn't like, even if I'd spent a lot of money on them. After the divorce, we found ourselves living always in a poor part of town, but sending Wally to school in a neighborhood full of affluent people. Later in the school year, when it became obvious that I didn't make enough money to buy him all the cool clothes the other kids wore, Wally began using the Lost & Found as his own personal thrift shop. When one kid challenged him that he was wearing a stolen jacket, I found out what he was doing and put a stop to it. But quite often, classmates would invite him out, and if I gave Wally ten dollars, he would end up needing 20 to keep up with the other kids, and invariably someone else's parents would end up paying for it. Even at an early age, Wally would keep this from me. When I found out and tried to pay the parents back, they would tactfully refuse, saying it was worth it to have Wally's company. When Wally wanted to make a good impression on someone, he could do so very easily.

Things went on reasonably well until just before Wally's 8th birthday, when I happened to meet a man who lived in our condo complex. The attraction was immediate and mutual. We got engaged less than 3 weeks after we met, and were married 5 months later.

"Carl" and I are still happily married, 10 years later, but when it came to Wally, it was a rough go. Those were the years when Dr. Laura was at her peak of fame, and you know I suffered with guilt for having brought the complications of a step-parent into Wally's life. Especially when it became obvious that the two of them really couldn't stand each other.

Carl was light-years away from Wally's father, and that's always been one of the things I liked best about him. Wally's father, "Doug," liked to live in the intellectual sphere. He had a "small-market" mentality. Anything that was popular or known by more than 10 people was "common." I had been with Doug since my early 20s and had moved out of my parents' house and directly into his, so in many ways, he was just another parent to me. It took a long time to work my way out from under Doug's psychological influence. Doug always made me feel stupid and incompetent.

Carl had limited education and limited income potential, though he was always steadily employed. Unlike Doug, whose parents had a stable, upwardly mobile marriage, Carl came from a single parent family, with loads of siblings and half-siblings, and had grown up in abject poverty. When he looked at me, he must have thought I had a lot of advantages. And for my part, being with Carl helped me feel like a "leader" in our relationship, rather than just a subject.

Carl treated me great, but somehow, when he was anywhere near Wally, all his childhood feelings of sibling rivalry and deprivation came flooding in. He could not see Wally as a kid, while he was an adult. It became constant competition. They even fought over the last slices of bread in the loaf, or a plate of brownies I'd brought home from work.

Carl was not physically abusive toward Wally -- he never touched Wally, and if he had, I'd have shown him the door. But there were numerous times in our marriage that I entertained thoughts of another divorce. There was hardly ever a moment's peace between them. When Carl would start complaining and finding fault, Wally would retreat into a sullen silence. I've done a lot of second-guessing over the years. When I ask myself if I'd "do it all over" with Carl, knowing then what I know now, the answer is no. I would not. I love Carl. We have a good relationship as a couple. But Wally suffered for it; there's no question. I kept hoping things would work out. They didn't. Wally became more and more angry and cynical, but as always, it was kept under wraps. Wally was always able to control the outward expression of his feelings, but had mastered the passive-aggression. Wally never did anything overtly scary -- he just dropped little hints that were supposed to be scary. Carl was the one who would snoop around in Wally's dresser and find things to show me. Like a cigarette lighter, or a racy magazine. Then Wally would lie and say he was "holding it" for a friend.

Carl, Wally and I moved twice out of state. One place was Wally's favorite, but we were only there for a year because the job situation didn't pan out. We moved back to "home base," and Wally became even more discouraged. By this time, he was ready for middle school. Before our move, I had asked his father if he thought he might want to take Wally, since Wally was now old enough to be needing more of a male influence (someone he didn't hate, like Carl). Doug said no, he didn't feel ready for that kind of responsibility, and that was why Wally ended up moving twice in the space of a year with us. After we moved back, Wally spent one more unhappy school year with Carl and me. Things were much worse now, because the move had eaten up a lot of money and my job situation was not stable. I'm sure Wally got tired of feeling like he was poor. During that time, Doug and his wife moved several hundred miles away, and Doug informed Wally that once they were settled, Wally could join them. Wally was, of course, thrilled. His dad and his wife were making a lot of money at that point; they lived in an affluent area and Wally would be going to one of the best public schools.

And so, a few months shy of age 13, Wally left my home. I missed him, but also felt relief that someone else was in charge of the complicated needs of an adolescent. I could work longer hours and relax a bit.

Things were reasonably good for the next 3 years or so. Looking back, I can't believe how quickly they went by. I saw Wally a few times a year when he came to visit. Once, he got off the plane and had grown so much (his hair included) that it took longer than usual to recognize him.

I was happy that Wally had a chance at the type of lifestyle he always seemed to have craved. But there were problems. I never got the whole story from his father, but bits and pieces came across, and I knew the situation was far from rosy.

Wally had been "acting out" in strange ways, and most of them were the usual passive-aggressive stuff. He kept his room a pigsty, despite the new furniture and huge walk-in closet. He continually "forgot" to do the chores he'd agreed to. He tried to keep his school progress a secret. He continued the habits he'd formed while with me -- letting his friends' parents pay his way when they went out, rather than asking his father for money.

Less than a year after he went to live there, he was in serious trouble. He'd begun pilfering things that belonged to classmates. There were always suspicions, but he managed to deflect them, until his father searched his room and found someone's wallet. Wally came very close to Juvenile Detention. From what I heard (mostly from Wally), he got counseling, wrote an apology to the offended party, and had the incident expunged from his record.

But the worries lingered. He came down for a visit and I brought him to the office where I was putting in some overtime during the holidays. We only spent a few hours there, but while I was working at my desk, I suddenly smelled the distinctive odor of a match being lit. I raced through the office (no one was there except Wally and me) and asked him if he'd lit a match. He said he hadn't; I knew (and still know) that he had, and as proof, he continually asked me throughout the rest of the day if I'd ever figured out where "that match smell" had come from. Wally was not a good liar.

My contact with Wally was sporadic over the next couple of years. Whatever problems he was coping with were mostly kept from me. Either it was a matter of no one wanting to worry me, no one wanting my input, or simple pride on Doug's part of wanting to handle all of this himself.


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