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Opinion & Essays - Jan, 2001 Issue #77 

By Judy Martin
San Francisco, California

[This is the first of a series of essays by the author of Wake Up Call: A Mother’s Fight To Save Her Troubled Teen that is in the process of being published.]

At a lunch time gathering of women from my neighborhood, I told a highly educated mother about my book, Wake Up Call: A Mother’s Fight To Save Her Troubled Teen. Shock and fear permeated her staccato sentences, “You must have some words of wisdom. I’m terrified that something like this could happen to my boys. It’s selfish of us to live here in San Francisco. Bad things happen in cities.” She pleaded, “There must be something we can do.”

Like hard butter softening at room temperature, I felt my tense muscles loosen and a smile, that seemed, inappropriate, flashed across my face. Neither wanting to offend nor appear callous to her worry, I suppressed the laugh of irony growing inside me. Reaching for her hand I almost knocked a water glass over. “I have no words of wisdom,” I replied. She seemed stunned and disappointed.

My publicist has urged me to establish my expertise. I can’t find it—unless it’s to describe precisely how ordinary I feel and how little I know. I can find no way to reassure any parent that my days of terror with my self destructive daughter won’t inhabit their dreams at night and become their daytime nightmare.

I have two masters’ degrees: one in school counseling and one in marriage family child therapy. I’ve accumulated nearly thirty years of experience counseling children and adults. Moreover, I’m one of those people who exudes confidence and control.

My story is threatening—parents want to trust that they can know and do the “right” thing. How else can you guide your child to a life of self-sufficiency and responsibility?

I read books that taught me how to communicate with my daughter. I created bountiful opportunity for fun and learning, and showered her with attention and love. But by the time she was eleven, gangster culture, dangerous risk taking, and being admired by testosterone intoxicated neighborhood boys, became her entire life. Running away, stealing, cruising, cursing, fighting and flexing her muscles (using the ultimate blackmail— pseudo suicide gestures), became common fare in our upper middle class home.

Three years of residential treatment (funded by trust funds) removed her from the dangers she flirted with. The boarding schools she attended maintained such complete control over her life, she was presented with no opportunity to make bad decisions.

My daughter has been living home with me for a year now. After attending four schools in seven months she managed to graduate from high school. She’s working two part time jobs, and lately, she’s been talking about going to college. Her room is still a disaster and she shows little regard for either my feelings or my property. I guess some things never change.

If we lacked the means to place her in a therapeutic environment would she be dead? Would she be pregnant—infected with AIDS? Or would she have gradually, on her own have begun charting a safer course for herself? I really don’t know.

I know that her dad and I did everything we could—individual counseling, couple counseling, family counseling, firm limits, soft limits, tough love and tender love. We blamed each other we praised each other. If either of us earned a dime each time we second-guessed what we might have done differently, we’d be rich.

The only thing I can say with certainty is, I’ve been changed by our years of turmoil and crisis. I’m a simpler person and far more humble. I can feel, bodily, when my fear accurately expresses true powerlessness. I’ve discovered the freedom and grace that facing these limitations, affords me. Does that remove my desire to know what to do? NO. Does that remove my quest for effective influence over my daughter? NOPE. The desire remains. It’s what I call, serenity prayer territory: “God grant me the power to change the things I can, to accept the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Lately I’ve been conceiving my experience with my daughter as “kissing the Buddha’s feet.” By that I mean—amidst humbling and humiliating confrontations with my limits, I have discovered the well of my being. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s made all the hell I went through worth it—but I’ve grown through these times and, for that, I am indeed grateful.

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