Saturday, July 8, 2017

Adversity and Discovery

Disclaimer:  This post is not about running.  At all.  
Instead it is about something far more important. 

On July 11, 2016 my life changed forever.  That was the first day of 7th grade for my son.  It was also the day he ran away from home for the first time.  Police located him, after midnight in the parking lot of a Burger King in Durham, where he had ridden his bike.  (We live in Raleigh, so he had to ride quite some distance to get there.)  What I didn’t know at the time, and what I had no way of knowing, was that this was just the beginning. 

Over the next several months, we discovered that, in addition to having Tourette Syndrome and ADHD, he was dealing with a severe case of anxiety.  He had been keeping from us how bad it was, how sad he was, how angry he was, and how lost and hopeless he felt.  He kept it from us because he is, at his core, a kind, sweet, and gentle soul with boundless potential.  He was trying his best to hold it all together until he couldn’t.  Eventually the dam burst, and all of those feelings and problems came rushing at us at a thousand miles an hour.  Running away was not the problem. It was the symptom.  Over the coming months, the symptoms continued to manifest themselves as he spiraled more and more out of control. 

As a parent, it was the most excruciatingly painful experience to watch a person, whom I love more than I ever thought possible, engage in horrible, self-destructive behavior.  Wendy and I tried everything we could to get him help.  Doctors, medicine, hospitals, therapists, police, teachers, tutors, school counselors. We tried being super firm.  We tried being super understanding.  We tried drawing hard boundaries.  We tried being super flexible. None of it worked.  He continued to spiral, and we felt like we were losing our boy. 

He refused to go to school.  When he did go, he didn’t do his work.  He deflected and blamed others for his problems.  He refused to accept responsibility or take accountability for his own actions.  He lied to me.  He lied to his mother.  He lied to his sister.  He lied to his grandparents.  He lied to and eventually alienated many of his friends. He became irrationally angry, dishonest, manipulative, destructive, and even physically violent at times - all while Wendy and I watched in horror, still trying everything we could think of and using every resource available to us to try to help him.  Nothing worked, and he kept getting worse and worse.  It was a nightmare.  An absolute fucking nightmare. 

We knew he wasn’t a bad person.  On the contrary, he has a good heart and is a sweet boy.  I have said for many years that he can accomplish anything he wants, and can do amazing things, if he could just learn to get out of his own way.  Wendy and I just couldn’t figure out how to help him do that. 

Watching him decompensate was a very similar feeling to what I had watching Wendy struggle with her addiction to alcohol before she finally managed to get to a good place and embrace her recovery.  (As I write this, she has over six years of sobriety, and I am more proud of her for that than most people will ever understand.)

Our home became a place full of stress, fear, and anxiety.  None of us ever knew what a day with him would be like.  We were in full-time crisis mode.  It began to take a toll on the entire family, including my daughter, who is two years younger than my son and thinks that he hung the moon and the stars.  They have always been very close, but even she was becoming scared of him and anxious when she had to be around him.  We also saw the toll this was taking on her, as her grades began to slip, and she began to lose interest in the things she had always loved to do.  Nightmare. 

Eventually, Wendy and I made one of the hardest decisions a parent can make.  We had to acknowledge that we didn’t have the tools to give him the help he needed.  We acknowledged that he was going down a dark and dangerous road, one that would eventually lead to prison or death. We realized that in order to save him, we had to do something drastic.  For his own well being, and that of his sister, we had to send him away.

When he first started showing real signs of a problem, I was talking to my therapist about it because of the toll it was taking on me.  I sought help for myself because I knew that I had to take care of myself or I would be no use to him.  My therapist told me about a place called TheDiscovery School of Virginia (DSV).  He had experienced similar problems with his son and had sent him there many years ago.  DSV is a wilderness school located in the foothills of central Virginia.  It is designed to take boys, ages 12-18, who have problems with severe ADHD, self esteem, respect, anger, boundaries and other more serious issues, and help them learn better ways to deal with their problems. 

Initially we rejected the idea as being too extreme.  Students live in the woods, cutting down trees and assembling them into shelters.  They live outside.  They get up at 0630 every morning and work hard all day.  If they work hard, they get to eat meals inside the lodge.  If not, they can eat them outside.  They have to work to earn the right to go to class.  There are no phones.  No computers.  No electronics and no communication with the outside world except through good old-fashioned snail mail.  They have to earn the right to visit their families.  It is incredibly structured but also supportive, with a focus on improving emotional and behavioral issues through a group therapy dynamic.  Students there live and work in groups of ten and have to deal with problems head on in a group dynamic.  There is no room for, or tolerance of, avoidance or deflection.  They are expected to participate and to be respectful at all times and also to work hard for what they have. 

The hard part is that the program lasts for 12-18 months, and we would not be able to see him or talk to him for the first 60-90 days he was there.  That’s right.  In order to get the help he so desperately needed, we would have to drive our 12-year-old son to the middle of nowhere and leave him to live in the woods with strangers for 3 fucking months before we could see him or hear his voice. 

On April 4, 2017, we did just that. The four of us loaded up the truck with everything he would need to survive outside for a year, drove three hours to VA, and left him with strangers.  It was easily the hardest and best thing I have ever done.  (It was a very similar feeling to when I drove Wendy to rehab and left her there.  It was hard, but I knew if I didn’t, she wasn’t going to live much longer.)

Today, July 7, 2017, I saw my boy for the first time in over 3 months.  We all drove up together for our first family visit. 

I barely recognized the young man who ran up to me, wrapped me in a bear hug, and burst into tears.  He had grown a few inches, lost some weight, gained some muscle, and had a good tan.  (Which is no easy feat for a pasty-skinned red head.)

More importantly than the physical transformation, was the person he's become.  We spent six hours with him today.  He was patient, respectful, caring, honest, and full of sincere remorse for what he had done and what he had put our family through.  He spontaneously apologized for things he did while at home that, up until today, he had never admitted to us he had done.  He told us over and over again how much he loves us and how sorry he was for his behavior.  We met with his teachers, who talked about how bright he is and how he works hard on his assignments.  We talked with his counselors and caseworker, who told us all about the progress he is making.  He talked about his goals and what he had to do to earn a visit home and what he has to do to earn our trust again.  He talked about how much he likes it there, how he understands why we sent him, and how he thinks it probably saved his life. For the first time, in a long time, I feel optimistic about his future.  I know he is in the right place, and I saw glimpses of the potential that I know is there.  I truly feel that he is on the right path.  It won't always be forward progress, but nothing in life ever is.  

At the end of the day, when it was time to leave, he was sad but was able to explain to us his feelings without drama.  He explained why he knew he wasn’t ready to come home and that he understands that he still has much work to do.  We snapped a few pictures, gave hugs, wiped away some tears, and parted ways.  We will continue to exchange letters with him but aren’t sure when we will get to see him again.  That will be up to him and his progress.  If he stays on track and does what is expected of him and continues to grow, we may have the opportunity to visit with him again in another month. 

Let me be straight.  The last year has really fucking sucked.  My boy fell apart in spectacular fashion. My daughter suffered real emotional trauma from her brother’s behavior. I struggled with severe depression and anxiety in not knowing what was going to happen to my kids. (It was so bad that I stopped running and working out entirely for the better part of a year.)  And if that wasn’t enough, Wendy and I separated after almost 16 years of marriage.  (You can read about Wendy's take on our separation on her blog,  Active Recovery, which she uses to talk about her addiction to alcohol and her life in recovery. )  I’m not telling you that for any sympathy.  On the contrary, I tell you all of this in spite of the sympathy you may feel for me or for us. We are good.  All of us.  We have been through hell and are stronger and closer for it. 

I’m sharing my story because emotional and mental health problems are real.  They are not a sign of weakness or attention seeking.  They are as real as a broken leg or a cancer diagnosis. Anyone who says differently is ignorant or a fool.  The mental health system in this country is broken.  There are stigmas everywhere and those attitudes prevent countless people from seeking help.  They are scared they won’t be understood or that they will be viewed as weak.  When people do reach out, they are often misunderstood or even openly ridiculed.  Well, that’s fucked up and has to change. 

I’m confident that most of the people reading this have experienced depression, anxiety, addiction, substance abuse, or considered or attempted suicide or other forms of self-harm.  If you haven’t, I guarantee you that someone you know, and possibly even someone you love, has.  Even if they’ve never said a word about it and appear fine on the surface.  It is everywhere and crosses all socio-economic boundaries.  

So, here’s my message.  Don’t give up. Don’t be silent.  Speak out for yourself.  Speak out for your loved ones.  Speak out for those who can’t.  Don’t be afraid to take a leap and make a change.  Ask for help.  Demand help.  Get help for someone who needs it. 

Things that seem insurmountable usually aren’t.  As an ultra runner, I learned to truly embrace the Buddhist tenant of impermanence.  It applies to all facets of life.  The fact that all things are impermanent is not a bad thing.  It allows you to truly appreciate the good while you have it because you know it won’t last.  Similarly, it allows you to tolerate the bad because that won’t last forever either.  It is this philosophy that helped me navigate the last year.  Through all of this, I am stronger.  Through all of this, my family is stronger. 

From adversity comes the opportunity for discovery.  You just have to be able to figure out what lesson there is to be learned.  This adversity, along with Wendy's struggle with alcoholism, have motivated me to try to make a difference and not just sit back and complain.  With that in mind, my good friend John and I have decided to transition my coaching business, Transcend Endurance Running, into a non-profit that offers free coaching and support for people and their loved ones who are or have been struggling with mental health, PTSD, or substance abuse issues. It is a small step but one that I hope will aid in removing the stigma from mental health.  Much more to come on the development and mission of Transcend Endurance Running.  

Stay strong.  Be loud.  Believe it can and will get better.

July 7, 2017

As a post script, I must say that I’m so very fortunate to have supportive people in my life. I’m so very fortunate to have Wendy as the mother of my children and my dear friend.  Even though we couldn’t make it work as a couple, we are kicking serious ass as friends and co-parents.  I can’t imagine dealing with the last year without a healthy, supportive relationship with her. 

Team Ray. July 7, 2017.