In May I got some unwelcome parental news, to say the least. It was pretty darn high up on the list of unwelcome parental news, and threw me into a state of shock, then panic, then depression. Depression’s been my good pal for most of the summer.
Let me make a disclaimer first: I am not in possession of all of the facts. I don’t know what the other major players in the story actually did, or said, or thought. Or are thinking now.
So: I had a week of school in May. I was nervous, and felt really unprepared. I had made a dog’s breakfast out of my final project during the previous week of school (about 3 weeks out from surgery, SO TIRED) and had been given a D grade. I knew that would be the first project we did when we returned. I meant to go back to the school shop and practice fabricating it, but life and continuing to recover from surgery took priority.
“Oh, well, I’ll do my best,” I said, and meant it. My grades are good overall and I’m in good standing as an apprentice. As it turned out, the day was not terrible. I did better on my project this time, and didn’t miss any questions on my written exam. Maybe this week wouldn’t be so bad. 2:30 and the end of school came quickly. I said goodbye to my classmates and then headed to my car.
I checked my phone and there was a message from Pete: Child Protective Services had been by the house to see us, and would be returning around 4 p.m. when we were all home together. I felt that familiar panic whoosh: my muscles went slack and my vision got a little sparkly. Take deep breaths, I told myself. Respond, don’t react. Then the next thought: gather information.
I called my sister to see if she’d heard anything or had seen anything odd since she has inroads in social media that I do not. “No!” she said. “NO! I don’t know anything! WHAT. THE. FUCK.” She was as baffled as I was. “Keep me posted!”
We regrouped at home. Strudel didn’t know anything. Pete said the CPS agent told him a complaint had been registered via Franny’s high school. I had noticed a couple of days before Franny had accessed a health record I’d kept for her on a cloud drive. I’d pull it up if I couldn’t remember something when we were at appointments. I’d recorded dates for her nasal ablation to slow her massive nosebleeds, as well as things she had told me about having heart palpitations and chest pain, dates she’d had joint dislocations (and which joints), other appointments we’d had, and a general list of her many symptoms.
I was a little puzzled that this was happening now, because she’d moved out months ago. However, I have heard law enforcement say that abuse victims often don’t report until they’re somewhere they feel safe, so a delayed report isn’t uncommon. I knew in the infrequent and brief communications Franny and Strudel had since November, Franny had expressed a desire to get her sister out of the apparent shitshow that is our house and parenting.
Then we waited for the agent to return to meet with us. I looked around the house as if to find incriminating things, things that I knew weren’t there. Our opium den corner? The slavering wolf hybrids we keep in the bathroom? Our collection of rusty switchblades? Nothing. The house was fairly tidy but the rug was a little furry. Like many dog owners, my living room rug serves as animal napkin, bath towel, brush, bed, race track, you name it. It was deliberately affordable.
“Should we vacuum? Should we NOT vacuum?” I asked. Do you set out snacks for the person who is going to help decide the disposition of your younger child? Coffee?
While we waited, I did something that was really tough, and probably mental, but I was feeling like it was absolutely the right thing to do. I knew I had to say one of the hardest things I’d ever said to Strudel. I touched her shoulder to make sure I had her focus and looked into her eyes. I felt tears coming.
“If you feel like we’re abusing you–” she shook her head. “You should tell someone, and they can get you someplace safe, ok? We can work on this.”
“I’m fine!” she said. This wasn’t out of the blue for her since Franny had spent some time in the past few months telling her sister she was being abused and how she should get away from us. Strudel had spoken to us about this since it upset and annoyed her.
“You tell him the truth, and whatever you need to tell him about, ok?”
The doorbell rang.
The agent seemed nice, and a little nervous, which was kind of a relief to see that he was just a human. He gave us his card and he explained he was with an offshoot program of CPS that does “pre-investigations” before they open an official case. He said their aim was to keep families together and provide in-home counseling or other services as needed. We nodded, dumbly. This didn’t sound too bad so far.
He explained the claims that had been made. This is the part where it gets a little telephone and I’m not sure who actually said what, but here’s what I got out of it: Franny had told teachers that I had been overmedicating her and there wasn’t really anything wrong with her health. She allegedly said I was doing the same for Strudel and would punish them if they didn’t take giant handfuls of pills multiple times a day. She said Strudel was made to practice her violin for up to four hours in one day if she missed a practice day. The school’s nurse declared that I had munchausen by proxy and that physical illness and reactions due to fragrance sensitivity wasn’t a real thing. I can’t remember exactly what the agent said regarding the house, but Franny said something like our house was always cluttered and dirty like a hoarder house.
I flashed back to the day last year that the school had called me to tell me Franny had collapsed due to breathing problems, and should they send her to Children’s in the ambulance that had come? Yes, I said. Had I gaslit and confused her to the point that she was having an attack at school? Had I caused all of it somehow? I’m not blaming SeaFed for any of this, but I thought about her years of frustration and anger when he wouldn’t listen to her about her health problems, couldn’t remember them, or take them seriously. I always took them seriously. This was quite a turnabout.
I remember her saying she started having dislocations at his house in the summer when she was about 12 and how painful they were and how he basically told her to “walk them off” but she would have to remain on the couch resting for a few days. I didn’t understand what was happening at first…I couldn’t fathom that she was having dislocations at all. She talked about the pain and described the sensations, and I thought she was having sprains or strains from bouncing around being a kid. I didn’t become aware of Ehlers-Danlos for another 2-3 years after that. I was unsurprised about her dad’s reactions to her problems because I knew he had a history of ignoring stuff that didn’t have to do with him and wasn’t in his face like a gushing wound or compound fracture. I thought of his “parenting style” as whatever the opposite of hypochondria is.
I gave the CPS agent a brief rundown of what Ehlers-Danlos and Mast Cell Disorder is, and that medical providers and I had seen obvious signs of it in her. She was always open to talking about what was bothering her physically and would tell me when she had incidents at school or at a bus stop. He asked to call our GP and I gave him that number, and the number of the specialist in Corvallis who had diagnosed Strudel and me with MCD and prescribed asthma meds and said to keep doing what we’re doing, AND the number of the naturopath. The agent asked for two people we knew who knew Strudel, so I gave them my sister and a good and long-time family friend, a librarian I met in tech world. He said he would follow up with everyone and this would be outstanding for 45 days, at which point they move forward with an actual CPS case and work it, or close it.
Finally we stepped out in the backyard and left Strudel alone at the table with the agent so they could speak privately. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, nor did I want to. I wanted her to be able to speak with him freely. I was in the first stages of having my parenting scrutinized by the county but all I could think was, “This is a strange man, don’t let them out of your sight completely.” The contradiction chafed.
This has given me a lot of time to think. I HAVE BEEN DOING A LOT OF THINKING. I have been feeling oceans of shame over this. I was scared this would disrupt Strudel’s life, a life that she seems ok with and to even enjoy most of the time. I was upset by the allegations, since they weren’t true, but they weren’t out of nowhere either.
Last year, under the guidance of a naturopath, the girls and I were on a lot of supplements to see what worked and could improve our overall health. The plan was to bump up the stores of some vitamins we were deficient in, try to use some vitamins as levers to knock out histamine, and more. Then we would taper down to whatever seemed to work as a daily regimen. Strudel was shockingly low on vitamin D, for example, which is not uncommon in the PNW or with mast cell people.
Strudel and I have gotten down to that taper point of what we can live with and what we want to take every day. Her list is a lot shorter than mine–mostly just a multivitamin and sometimes magnesium. She complains about having breathing problems or other issues, and sometimes I remind her that she could be taking her prescribed asthma medication daily, or other things, and sometimes I don’t remind her. She doesn’t seem to be in that category of masties who have life-threatening airway closures, so I don’t chew at it much. On the other hand, I like to feel as good as I possibly can, so I’m staying up on antihistamines and whatnot.
The good news is that we’re feeling pretty good most of the time. I think this intense concentration on our health has paid off. We don’t think about it like we used to. We’re carefully eating in Asian restaurants again (we had stopped all together over a year ago because Franny felt it was not worth the chance of getting sick, and we didn’t want to leave her home alone while we gobbled pho). When we have a reaction we bounce back much faster than we used to. Life just feels kind of normal most of the time.
Point being, we were taking a lot of pills for a little while, then we stopped (the girls stopped earlier than I did, which was a bummer because I was hoping to stick with it for the short trial period the naturopath recommended). I liked that the naturopath was sensitive to the amount of pills and would check in with the girls to see if they were feeling burned out of if they wanted to keep trialing for a while.
As another example, if Strudel missed a day of violin practice (30 minutes), I usually would have her make it up the next day, with a break in between. Doubling the time the next day would be an incentive not to blow off practice regularly. But there would never be four hours or practice in a day.
I could go through everything point by point, but let me say there are differences in how I saw things and what Franny told her school and CPS.
What it comes down to is that Franny didn’t like what was happening here in our house. I did not understand the extent of how unhappy she was. Strudel told me recently that some days when she was home ill with something and Franny was here skipping school, she was sometimes crying all day in her room.
This broke my heart to hear and made me wish I’d done everything more, or less, or different. I made a lot of mistakes. I could hear that some of them were mistakes as they left my mouth. One thing I tried to always do was apologize for doing bad parenting, or being rude, or losing my temper, which is something I wish I’d had when adults around me fucked up. I want my girls to know that adults should admit when they fuck up and that they are both worthy of respect and consideration.
Franny didn’t want me standing over her while she took her meds, which was understandable at 16, but then I would discover she hadn’t taken her antidepressants for several days and was roller coastering moodwise, likely because of that. I was worried, and in hindsight I was probably too worried, but I didn’t know what else to do. What do you do when you have a kid who has health problems, executive functioning issues, and definitely some garden variety teen angst issues?
I just kept plugging away. Trying to spend time with her. Asking her to eat dinner with us. Reminding her that I’d appreciate it if she went to school, finished her coursework, consider taking the SATs and finishing her driver training course, and would try to be consistent with taking care of her health.
Lately I’ve been taking a really hard look at myself. My default mode is to try to hear people, and believe them and their experiences. I have had many experiences in my life where I’ve tried to talk to people who are close to me about how I feel, and have been dismissed or argued with. They thought I was being unreasonable, dramatic, incorrect, confused, or just wrong. I knew how I felt, and what had happened, and I knew their response felt bad.
I thought about separating myself from my own mother, and what a hard decision that was. It took me three tries to make it really stick, and I am still deeply in recovery over being raised by someone who has borderline personality disorder. It’s not an easy decision to cut a close relative out of your life, and I don’t think children do it frivolously. I also know from experience that once you make that decision, you don’t want that person badgering you to make up, to forget, to convince you that you’re just being dramatic and that your abuser meant the best for you.
I’ve concluded what I need to do right now to keep my eyes peeled open the hardest and to take accountability for myself is to accept that I was abusive to Franny. Getting CPS involved in her sister’s life is a very loud cry. No matter what my intentions were, she interpreted my actions and behavior as abusive and I need to accept that.
No one in my life who I’m close to wants to hear this from me. I want to retreat into the comfort of the assurances of my sweet, well-meaning friends and relatives. Also in admitting that I was abusive, I am telling them they are friends with or related to a BAD PARENT and no one wants to hear that. People want to blame other factors, other people, other circumstances. What I keep coming back to is that she’s very upset with me. I may be an idiot parent, but I cannot be one of those particular idiot parents who just throws up their hands and says, “I did everything right and they turned on me anyway.”
I don’t think my friends or family are stupid, and that they don’t know what really happened. Strudel finds Franny’s behavior confusing and mysterious as well, and I don’t think she’s stupid either. But right now I need to keep my focus on my blind spots, what I did that didn’t work for her, and how I can be a better person. And how I can be better for Strudel, even though she’s a very different person, who seems to be experiencing a different childhood–both experiences are valid.
I made sure Strudel understood what CPS is after the agent left. She did know, unfortunately, because she had some school friends who had temporary relocations and other forms of interventions visited upon them. She was ANGRY.
“I’m so FUCKING ANGRY RIGHT NOW,” she said. I told her I was glad she was able to say how she was feeling, and that I thought that was a very valid emotion for this situation. “It’s not very nice, but I sent her a middle finger emoji,” she said.
The CPS agent closed the case a few days ago. He called my sister and my friend, as well as the medical people on the list. He told my friend there was no cause to move forward and none of the allegations seemed to be true.
But something happened regardless. So I’ve been doing The Work. Identifying the blind spots, seeing where they come from. Trying to break patterns. Letting myself just cry. Trying to question and smash my fleas. Walking up to my own Schrodinger’s box over and over again and asking myself the same question: “Was I abusive? Was I not abusive?” There is no answer. There are 12 answers.
The box has no lid and no writing. It doesn’t speak. So I have to assume the answer, without all the garbage justifications and qualification above, is “yes I was.”