I met a friend a few days ago for lunch and we had a nice catch-up, enjoying the beautiful rooftop of one of the local eateries here in Boulder. Each of us faces challenges with our teens, each of us talked about what we hoped our children would do and how we hoped they’d travel through the complex world of adolescence and young adulthood. As with every parent, we each also shared the reality of our lives, talking about the challenges inherent in that gap between what we wish was, and what really is. Every person knows this, whether you’re six or thirty-six.
Let me say that again as I think it’s really, really important:
After lunch we walked along the Pearl Street Mall and continued to talk. She shared just how difficult a time she was having with her son. He had become increasingly withdrawn and she and her ex-husband ended up checking him into a care facility for a week after he’d told them he was done with his life and wanted to kill himself.
Fortunately the facility helped get his meds balanced out and he came back from the brink, but he’s angry all the time, withdrawn, and has absolutely no interest in socializing with anyone, even his mother, with whom he lives 99% of the time. Indeed, if she suggests that they watch TV or play some cards, he gets furious and asks her why she would think he’d want to spend any time with her, then hides in his room for hours.
Really, a crazy hard situation, and my heart goes out to both him for being in the situation and her for having to deal with it.
Her diagnosis? It’s all his father’s fault.
I’ve heard that diagnosis before, actually. In fact it seems to be the default diagnosis for children that have any sort of challenge in their young life, whether the parents remain married or are divorced. Divorced. Sheesh, the times I hear this from newly divorced mothers…
That’s not what stuck with me about the conversation, however. What has left me really thinking about this journey we call parenting was her reaction to me saying that she was doing everything she could, showing her love and being the best mother she could be to her son, and that if he did take his own life, perhaps it was his destiny or his karmic path. She got very defensive about this idea in a way that surprised me, bursting into tears and asking “so I just let him kill himself? that’s your solution?”
The thing of it is, I don’t have a solution because there is none. She’s doing everything she can to help him.
It’s heart breaking, but each of us really is on our own journey and if a teen really wants to end their life, they’ll find a way. And it’ll be a tragedy, but all we can do as parents is be the best parent we can be, and that’s what I was trying to convey to her, the idea that we can’t own someone else’s decisions (good or bad) and we can’t allow our own happiness to be hostage to someone else’s journey — or mood — whether they’re our parent, partner or child.
That’s a really hard lesson to learn, but as a parent, no, as an adult, it’s a critical one: your happiness, your contentment comes from within. Life is hard, crappy things happen, sometimes unimaginably bad things occur and all too much of it is out of our control.
I think sometimes I have absorbed more “zen” from my Buddhist friends than I realize, but I really am getting to accept that I can only be the best person I can be, and that beating myself up for my mistakes, wishing I was different or reacted to situations differently is a path to unhappiness, not improvement.
I certainly don’t think life is deterministic, but it’s inevitable that as a parent and as a person I’m going to make mistakes, say stupid things, fail, screw up, disappoint someone else and get embarrassed. But life goes on, and happy people don’t define their lives by their failures, but by their successes.
And God willing her boy will find the light inside and make it through this dark period of his life. But ultimately that’s his challenge, not hers. Isn’t it?