Up The Mountain And Back Down
I’ll never forget the summer of 2011.
My oldest daughter, Presley, was 17 at the time and had just finished her junior year in high school. It had been her first year in public school, having attended several private schools up until then.
She led a mostly normal childhood up to this point. She played competitive soccer for most of it and made decent grades. In the spring of her seventh grade year in middle school, I began to notice changes in her, mostly behavioral. She was getting in trouble with the teachers for acting out in class and pulling pranks to get attention. Negative, positive…it didn’t seem to matter to her; attention was attention. I was called into the principal’s office more times than I can remember. It was never anything too serious, just what I call dumb decision making, or not thinking about the consequences. A great example of this was the time a couple of boys dared her to put her hand in a fire ant bed for thirty seconds. If she could, they promised to give her two dollars. She did it (without thinking about the consequences) and ended up with twenty-something ant bites up and down her arm. They never paid her the money.
We made it through the school year, barely, but after that things seemed to only get harder for her. I put her in an alternative school where the headmaster preached discipline and structure. The school’s specialty was dealing with kids with ADHD. Presley had been diagnosed with the learning disability some years back when her first grade teacher noted that she took more time to prepare to prepare to do her school work than it would have taken her to actually just buckle down and do it. The plan was to keep her at the alternative school for two years, per the headmaster’s recommendation. We were asked to leave after one.
What worked in Presley’s favor was her gift for playing soccer. She had been playing club ball since she was ten years old. She was a different child on the soccer field. She displayed confidence and great sportsmanship and a true love of the game. You could see it in her face how much she liked herself when she played soccer. Off the field she wasn’t the same. Presley was invited to guest play on other teams during important tournaments because everyone saw what we saw: the girl was special, she loved the game, and it showed. All the time she talked about playing for North Carolina some day, the holy grail of girls’ soccer. My response was always keep up your grades and you can do it!
After being asked to leave the alternative school she was lucky enough to get into the local Catholic high school, which just so happened to have a strong soccer program. Very strong in fact. The coach loved Presley and knew all about her reputation on the field. What worried me was whether her off the field behavior would haunt us. Ninth grade went pretty well. She was the only freshman on the varsity team and got a lot of playing time, taking the spot of one of the seasoned seniors. It was a good year for her, mostly.
Keeping up her grades was a constant battle for Presley. She was taking medication to help her concentrate, but she wasn’t getting the work done. She started slacking on her school work and lying to me about things. Do you have homework? No Mom, I finished it. How’d you do on your math test? I think I got an A.
It was never the correct answer.
Her sophomore year she remained mostly ineligible to play on the soccer team because she wasn’t passing her subjects. We did everything to try and help her, but 16-year-olds have to be active participants. She showed little interest in helping herself. She didn’t bother taking a driver’s education class even though I signed her up for it. I wasn’t going to force her to go; I couldn’t do everything for her. She had to do part of the work. So when her sixteenth birthday came there was no celebrating getting her license. While her other friends were driving and getting cars, Presley was sitting at home watching TV and not trying to improve her situation. She quit soccer and went through friends like disposable diapers. One day she would bring home a girl and say “This is my best friend.” Two days later I would ask about the friend and she would look at me and ask, “Who?”
The Catholic school was expensive and she didn’t show any appreciation for the money I was spending to send her there and she was barely passing. She begged me to let her go to the public high school and I couldn’t come up with anymore reasons to say no.
The thing about public high schools? They’ll let anybody go there.
Presley didn’t have any real friends. The people she called friends weren’t all that friendly. I tried to keep up with them: their names, their parents, their backgrounds. But it’s hard to be everywhere at once, especially when you’re dealing with a 17-year-old who has friends who drive. Short of putting a tracking device in her body I relied on her to tell me her whereabouts and what she was doing.
A couple of times she burned me. Her “friends” stole things from my house. She lied about where she was and what she was doing. I grounded her more times than I can remember. She had no access to a cell phone and was on lock-down a lot of the time. It was this time in her life I was grateful she’d been lazy and not gotten her driver’s license. Small victories.
There were a few run-ins with the police too. She was caught egging someone’s house. She was out past city-mandated curfew. She got a ticket for driving without a license.
I asked her if she was doing drugs and she laughed in my face.
Then it happened.
I was away from the house for less than 24 hours. Presley was spending the night with a friend (whose mom I knew and trusted) and was not to come to the house for any reason. At nine AM the next morning I phoned Presley to let her know I was on my way back. She didn’t answer her phone, but called me from someone else’s number a short time later. She explained that her phone had been stolen (AGAIN) and that she was at home (where she wasn’t supposed to be) but could explain.
An hour later I raced into the house and couldn’t believe what I saw before me.
My house had been burgled. Most of my valuables had been stolen and the place was a wreck. Presley looked strung out and hadn’t even noticed things were missing. A gallon of milk had been poured all over the kitchen hardwood floor and the toilet in the bathroom was overflowing with the vilest filth imaginable. My bedroom door (that had been locked) was standing wide open and my panties and bras thrown all over the room. Some were hanging from the ceiling fan. My other teenage daughter’s room had been destroyed as well. It was a nightmare. I dropped to my knees and began crying out to her. “Why? Why did you do this? What is wrong with you?”
It barely phased her at all.
The details were sketchy. She’d decided (DECIDED) not to spend the night at her friend’s house and come home instead. She had nine guys over and they all took Xanax bars and drank beer. Some time after she passed out they vandalized the house and stole all my things. Then they left, but not before stealing her iPhone.
I was able to reach one of the boys who had been at my house and told him he had exactly one hour to return all my things or I would find him and shove my fist up his ass (pardon my French). Presley kept following me around the house, begging me not to be mad at her. I screamed in her face, “Leave me alone!” before slamming the back door and getting into my car. I drove to CVS and bought a drug test.
She tested positive for Xanax. But that was all. That was enough.
The worst part of the whole event was the lack of remorse from Presley. It wasn’t there. She was hollow, completely disconnected from what was happening. It scared me like I’ve never been scared before.
Three boys showed up within an hour and returned all the things they stole from me. Of course, they weren’t the ones who took everything, but they were able to “track down” the “real” perpetrator. I grabbed the stuff from their arms and looked them in the face and shook my head.
A year-and-a-half later Presley’s response after they left still leaves me breathless and sick to my stomach. Mom, aren’t you glad you got your stuff back? Are you going to be mad at me all day? Can’t we just be happy you got it back? I’m hungry. Maybe we could go get something to eat and see a movie? I don’t know if you know this about me but I get over stuff pretty fast. What happened last night is in the past. Let’s move forward.
I knew then this was more than I could handle. I needed help. She needed help.
I called my dad and he came over and together we got online searching for something; Anything that might help me deal with all of this stuff that was bigger than me.
I talked to several counselors at several programs across the nation. The next day I drove Presley to a hospital downtown for an assessment. After interviewing her (it didn’t go well, I was told) it was their recommendation that I get her out of her environment. So that’s what I did.
After talking with a few more program directors I found one I really loved. It was a wilderness program in Utah. There was a mountain of paperwork to fill out, questions to answer, decisions to make. It was going to drain every dollar of my savings to send her. But I had no choice. I had to help her no matter the cost.
It was a week before they had a spot available for her. During that time I cried a lot. I paced a lot. I worried a lot.
You generally have two options when you decide to send your kid to rehab. You can A) take her there yourself and endure hours of pleading and begging and crying; or B) hire a transport team to take her.
I opted for Plan B, which meant spending more money. Still, I didn’t think I could handle the other option.
The night before she was going to be plucked from her sleep and taken 1600 miles from home we went to her favorite restaurant, Outback Steakhouse, and watched Shawshank Redemption on TV.
I gave her a tight hug and kissed her goodnight around 11 PM and then went to my bedroom and cried myself to a restless, tortured sleep.
At 4 AM the transport team (made up of a married couple whose job it is to take kids cross country by airplane) knocked on the front door. Having been up for nearly an hour sick to my stomach with nerves and general anxiety, I let them in. We talked for a few minutes and then the husband instructed me what to do next. They followed me up the stairs and down the hallway. I could hear my heart beating through my chest and wondered if they could hear it too.
I opened the door to the bedroom where Presley was sleeping and flipped on the light. Naturally she jumped up, startled. “Presley,” I began. “I love you very much. This is Dave and Renee and they are going to take you to a youth program in Utah. I love you. I’ll see you very soon.”
And then I left her screaming my name. I never looked back. I made it to my room and shut the door before I collapsed in a heap on the floor. My legs were shaking, my stomach was churning, and I thought any minute I would lose my mind. What was I doing? Was I making the right decision? Was she going to be OK?
I stopped breathing and listened at the door. She was still screaming and cussing at them to get away from her. She yelled out my name over and over again. I covered my ears to try and block out the noise. A few minutes later it was quiet. The house was dark and still. I got up off my knees and went to the bedroom window. There, walking across the lawn, were Presley and the couple who were taking her from me.
The husband texted and phoned me several times during the transport. At first Presley cried a lot. Then she fell asleep. Then she asked them questions about where she was going. Then she talked about me and how much she loved me and how funny and talented I am and how I’m the best mom in the world.
Even now, that part always makes me cry. I was sure she would hate me for sending her away. But she swears she was never mad at me. Not even for a second.
The program lasted three months. I got to talk to her once a week. I got to talk to her therapist once a week. I got to visit her after 42 days. She smelled like the outdoors and of campfire. But she looked great. She was the little girl I used to know. It was so good to have her back. Her eyes were clear. She smiled all the time. She healed whatever the hurt was.
She’s been home since September 11, 2011. And even though she’s not perfect, she’s better than she’s ever been. Just yesterday she pulled out her photos and letters from her friends on the mountain and talked about how much she loved being there.
She’s even talking about going to work there as a counselor. I would miss her terribly if she packed up and moved to Utah, but the kids there who are going through what she went through would benifit greatly from being around her. She’s…special.