Patching a Hole in a Damaged Psyche: A Teenager Learns to Change

In Part 3 of the story of Luca’s Walkabout, a mom and her sixteen-year-old son come to terms with just how much damage has already been done.

This is Part 3 of a 3 part series. Read Part 1, “My Son’s Walkabout” here. Read Part 2, “Will You Visit Me? A Mother and Son Briefly Reunite” here.

“I’m going to visit you, wherever you are. You’re not going to get rid of me.”

I was trying to assure Luca that the terms of the custody agreement ultimately had no bearing on our relationship, which would develop and grow despite who picked his school or transported him there. In my eagerness to patch the hole in his damaged psyche, I was perhaps skating too quickly around the jagged edges, around the gaping wound created by betrayal and manipulation.

We were sitting in the shade provided by a grove of juniper trees. Jim, Luca’s therapist, and Eric, the Clinical Director, were facilitating our family therapy session. Luca was struggling to free himself–and me–from the straitjacket that is the custody agreement, the suffocating realization that Prince will be making virtually every major Luca-centered decision until he turns eighteen.

“It’s four years of my dad making all the decisions! It’s four years of my dad deciding when I can see you!”

I started to clarify what his dad could and couldn’t do and I said something lame like four years isn’t a long time in the big scheme of things, when Jim cut me off.

“Four years is a long time for Luca.”

And it is, of course. Four years is about one-third of his life. I felt like a nincompoop. After all the time I’ve spent prostrate on a therapist’s couch, I forgot that what Luca really needed from me was to let him have his feelings, as raw and uncomfortable as they might be.


The session had started with “family sculpting,” an exercise in which family members take turns moving each other into certain positions, like lumps of clay. People see how one person experiences life in the family now, and how that person wants life to be.

“You’re my dad,” Luca told Eric, pushing him a stone’s throw from the rest of us. “You stand there with your back to us, and you’re talking on the phone. My dad’s always on the phone.”

Eric held an imaginary phone to his ear. Luca took my arms and stretched them out towards him.

“And, Mom, you’re reaching out to me, like this, you’re trying to help.”

Luca stood in front of me, yet just out of reach, with a “help me” look on his face.

“What about Franny?” Jim asked. “Where’s she?”

“Franny’s by herself,” Luca said, moving Jim under a tree. “She’s crouching down, and she’s crying.”

Jim knelt in the dirt, turned away from us, his head in his hands. Luca stood in front of me again, forlorn, tentative: I want you to help me, but I don’t know how to ask.

The family sculpting exercise ended with Luca showing us how he wanted things to be. Jim was Franny and Eric was Atticus. Luca placed us in a circle and had us all hold hands, with Luca clasping “Atticus’s” hand.

I was surprised when I saw the hand-clasping. A rapprochement between Atticus and Luca desperately needed to happen, but I didn’t imagine that Luca would have any desire to be close to his stepfather.

For the first year-and-a-half of our relationship, Atticus quietly tolerated Luca’s rages. He listened to him, talked to him, tried to befriend him. He didn’t react when Luca channeled Prince and screamed at me about all my wrongdoings.

Until he did. The house had turned into Armageddon. Luca was exploding everyday, for hours at a time. We were all losing our marbles. Atticus’s son Kevin, then six, was scared of Luca. He regaled his mother with tales of Luca’s meltdowns and she was understandably not pleased. When Prince pulled Luca into the custody battle and Luca started telling me he and his dad were going to sue me, Atticus lost his zen.

He yelled at Luca. Stood in front of his bedroom door to keep him from tearing up the house. Tried to alpha-male him into submission. I understood Atticus’s pushed-to-the-brink frustration, but there were times when he crossed a line into what I felt were unnecessarily harsh reactions. Atticus and I argued privately about this and never resolved our differences–although I didn’t let on to Luca. It was bad enough that he saw his dad and me fighting; I wasn’t going to allow him to witness another partnership divided.

“You defend Atticus too much, Mom. He yelled at me a lot. He’d stand in my room and yell at me to shut up.”

It was toward the end of the family session. We were sitting on the ground, in the dirt, on a layer of prickly wilderness things that dug into my butt. I tried to explain the context for Atticus’s yelling, that he didn’t lose it for no reason.

“See? You defend him, Mom.”

The two therapists gave me a “yes, you defend him” look.

“Okay, I do, I defend him,” I sighed. “I got exhausted, Luca. It was a lot of years with your dad attacking me, and you angry at me. I think I wanted a buffer sometimes. I wanted someone else to deal with things.”

“You used to get headaches a lot,” said Luca. “You and my dad would have an argument on the phone and the next day you’d get a really bad headache.”

Certainly, I had consumed plenty of Advil post-divorce, but I had no idea Luca was aware of my physical state, or connected the dots to stress.

“Do you think you underfunction?” Eric asked me, only the question wasn’t really a question. “When you were married to Luca’s dad, did you need him to make the decisions?”

You know those occasions when someone accuses you of something you find especially heinous, and a blast of angry heat wends its way up from your belly to your face? A blast of heat that, if it could speak, would say how dare you! and oh my God, is this true!

Because at heart I am still that shy little adopted kid who always had a stomach ache, hanging out on the margins, asking for permission, second-guessing herself into a pretzel.

“Well,” I answered Eric. “kinda…I guess. Yes.”

If Luca ever started coming for weekend visits, as Prince and I had agreed he would, I would have to take the reins back from Atticus.

Eric and Jim balanced things out by explaining to Luca that Atticus had felt the need to protect me and insist on respect; that families fall apart when parents aren’t on the same page.

I watched Luca listen and nod. The force field of agitation that had held him hostage the past several years wasn’t there anymore. He was calmer than I’d ever seen him. And I was calmer with him than I’d been since he was a toddler.

“I feel like I was abandoned, Mom.”

“Abandoned?” I didn’t quite understand.

“I think what Luca means is that he feels like a pawn,” said Eric.

This cut to the quick. After being caught in the middle of an apocalyptic custody battle, how could he feel anything but?

“You have been a pawn, Luca. I am just so sorry. I’m sorry your dad and I haven’t been on the same page. I’m sorry about all the upheaval in your life. The last thing I wanted, ever, was for you to feel abandoned.”

Luca didn’t say anything, but blinked behind his mop of tawny hair.


We were sitting cross-legged in another patch of dirt. Dakota laid small piles of red, gold, and brown pigment on three “sacred rocks” in front of us.

Dakota was a wiry, bearded, tattooed-up-the-neck Staff. He was also clearly an artist: he had crafted the most beautiful shoulder bag I had ever seen out of red leather, black stitching and the tip of a deer antler for a fastener. If the occasion hadn’t been so solemn, I would have commissioned him for a purse.

After the family session had ended, Luca whispered something in Jim’s ear. Shortly after, Dakota had appeared out of the bushes and told me Luca wanted to give me a token.

Now, Luca dripped water from his water bottle onto each pile of pigment, carefully stirring the mixtures into paste with a stick. Dakota explained that we were participating in a ceremony based on an aboriginal ritual practiced hundreds of years ago by teenaged boys on their walkabout.

In keeping with aboriginal custom, kids are given wooden tokens when Staff feels they are choosing to make progress in a particular area. Staff doesn’t tell kids what they need to do to receive one. The idea is that the wilderness teaches us what we need to do. When the kids begin to “see the way” without prodding from adults, they gain a sense of internal control and self-agency–and they receive a token symbolizing the area in which they have made progress.

“Sometimes kids give their parents tokens. Luca, maybe you want to tell your Mom why you’re giving her this, and what it means.”

Dakota pulled a wooden token out of a leather pouch and handed it to Luca. Luca then placed it in the palm of my hand.

“This token means ‘Giver,’ Mom. I’m giving it to you because it’s like you, you’re a giver.” He pointed to five fine lines pointing upward. “Those are hands — see the fingers? And the thing at the top is a heart.”

I ran my fingers over the smooth wood, tracing the carved ridges. I felt the afternoon sun hot on my shoulders. A thin breeze cooled the layer of perspiration on my neck. I glanced up from the token and gazed into Luca’s eyes. He smiled, shyly. That smile that breaks my heart. That smile that says I’m trying as hard as I can.

“Thank you, Luca,” I said. “I absolutely love it. And I will treasure it forever.”

Luca dipped a stick into the red paste and painted the image of the token onto my my cheeks and forehead.


When it was time to say goodbye, Luca began to cry, silently. Tears ran down his cheeks and mixed with the brown and red pigment that Dakota had used to paint the image of a winged heart. I handed him a kleenex.

Dakota had given Luca this token after Luca gave me mine. The winged heart symbolized the two roads that Luca could take: one road led to peace and the other to self-sabotage. Luca was starting to learn that the path he took was up to him.

I hugged Luca again, murmuring in his ear how proud I was of him, that I had faith in him, and if he kept going in the same direction he would turn his life around. I told him I loved him.

I tried to pull away but he pulled me back towards him. I held him in my arms for a long time, leaning his head against my shoulder the way I did when he was a baby.

Jim led me back towards my car when I heard Luca call out: “Bye, Mom!”

I turned and saw my scrawny, moppy-headed kid waving, becoming smaller as I walked away. I blew him a kiss and, in a spasm of wanting things to be normal, yelled that I’d talk to him soon. Which was a boneheaded thing to say, I realized a moment later. Because I didn’t know when we would actually speak again.

Jim and I stood by my car on the dusty roadside. I told him how stunned I was that Luca confessed all the things his dad had said and done to him the past eight years. I said I hadn’t been sure if Luca would ever realize what had happened.

“He’s always known,” Jim said. “He just couldn’t express it before.”

I gazed at puffs of white drifting across the turquoise sky towards the distant mountain ridges. Then I looked back at Jim.

“I’ve been played a lot. So I’m not sure…was he for real back there? Do you think he meant the things he said?”

“I think he was for real, yeah.” Jim shrugged. “But it’s tough to know. I tell parents, with these kids, see how they are in two years.”

On the way to the airport, I ended up on my own walkabout. A walkabout that involved a flat tire on a dirt road in a no-cell reception area. Hours later, after I’d missed my flight, I stumbled into a gas station mini-mart, covered in grime and crusty face paint.

The gas station attendant motioned me towards the restroom without batting an eye: here’s another one visiting her kid at that wilderness camp.

I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, scrubbing pigment off my cheeks and forehead with a wet paper towel. I didn’t know what Luca would be like in two years. But I knew this: these past nine weeks in the wilderness had changed him.

And one day in the wilderness with Luca had changed me.

About Pauline Gaines

Pauline Gaines is the pseudonym of a blogger who writes about divorce, custody, and complicated children. She has survived all three subsisting primarily on caffeine, chocolate, and red wine. Her second husband is a saint. Visit her at Perils of Divorced Pauline or on Twitter @divorcedpauline.


  1. “prickly wilderness things” … ha, love that about you … Stay the course and keep us informed

  2. I wonder what Prince would think if he knew. I don’t mean about the blog, I mean about his son, his difficulties, and what just transpired at the camp. It is unfortunate that all of us can sometimes get so wrapped up in our own feelings, our own thoughts and our own lives, we completely forget about everyone else. What I mean is that we have our moments but do come around. Then there are those who never come around, who never see anybody else’s perspective, who never “empathise”.

  3. Such an incredibly moving piece. I know everything you’re doing will be for the best and when Luca is an adult, he will understand how much you love him.

  4. i’ve been reading these and have been touched by the journey you are all going through, and your willingness to be there for your son and to work with him to help him shape his future

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