Pauline Gaines offers perspective about divorce, family therapy, and boarding schools for the troubled.
Luca introduced me to his boarding school mates at the dinner table. Considering their trespasses—substance abuse, school refusal, chronic havoc-wreaking—the boys were an exceedingly polite bunch. Each boy made eye contact, shook my hand, and patiently answered my nosy “mom” questions. The conversations went something like this:
Me: Nice to meet you. Where are you from?
Luca (sotto voce): He was addicted to OxyContin. He’s my mentor.
Me: (also sotto voce): Is he better now?
Luca: Oh, yeah. He went to rehab before he came here. He was really bad, he was selling it and everything. His teeth are all messed up. He’s a cool guy, though.
We were sitting around a dinner table in a spacious room with panoramic views of a wide creek slicing through a mountain valley. Outside, the sky was a dusty blue, muted by drifting tendrils of clouds.
There were two types of kids at the school: the kids who pushed the limits and the kids on the autism spectrum. A boy stood up from the table. I surmised that this one belonged in the latter category. He was sweet-natured, with no sense of appropriate body space and a tendency to blurt out the same questions and statements repeatedly.
“You don’t have permission to stand up, Kyle,” said Mr. Dan, who was standing nearby, eating the revolting ravioli that was tonight’s entree.
“Oh, OK,” said Kyle, who sat down immediately.
Mr. Dan was an ex-cop. Like the rest of the direct care staff, he wore a nearly invisible earpiece attached to a walkie-talkie. The staff patrolled the grounds, but in a casual, interactive way, and whenever a kid wandered off, a staff member would lean into his mouthpiece and ask, “Who’s got eyes on Zach?” or “Who’s got eyes on Matt?”
A few words about the staff: they were, to a point, a singular combination of Alpha-Maleness and Zen. During my visit, I never encountered a harsh word, or threatening body language. They radiated a sense of calm and order that seemed to filter through the air. Not once did I observe a kid having a meltdown.
Except for my son.
When I arrived for the family therapy session the next morning, Luca and his therapist, Perry, were standing just inside the doorway of the main building. Luca was red-faced, demanding justification for why he was not allowed to get a new skateboard. Luca had earned an off-campus parent visit, and I had promised to buy him a gift.
Perry pointed to the impressive assortment of scrapes and gashes on Luca’s arms and legs.
“You’re taking too many risks on the skateboard. Your mom can get you something else.”
“I’m not taking too many risks! The skateboard sucks. It’s dangerous! I just need a new one.”
Perry crossed his arms. “Luca, we talked about this. No skateboard.”
Luca persisted, citing unfairness and ignorance, insisting that Perry come up with “legitimate” reasons why he shouldn’t get a new skateboard.
Luca has honed his particular brand of non-compliance—a seeming inability to recognize adults as authority figures, accompanied by a level of contempt and determination to wear down his opponent—that used to unravel me. I would find myself sucked into the vortex of endless debate and resort to banging my palms on tabletops, yelling “stop talking!” or escaping into my bedroom, where I would hurl myself face down on the bed in a spasm of despair and exhaustion.
But Perry remained calm, his body firmly planted, his voice never rising as he repeated that the skateboard was off the table. When it was clear that Luca was too wound up to come to the family session, Ryan suggested he “take a five” up the hill in the yurt, a tented structure filled with weighted blankets and hammock swings, and other sensory integration tools designed to help agitated kids pull themselves together.
“The yurt really helps him calm down,” said Perry. We were now sitting in his office, a cozy space sprinkled with glimpses into his personal life: framed drawings, presumably by his kids, photos of junior sports leagues he coached. “I think he’ll be able to join us in a little bit.”
Perry filled me in on Luca’s progress: after a turbulent entrance into boarding school, he had begun to work the program—arguing less, doing assignments, earning his way up the level system.
“We’re concerned that he relies so much on externals,” said Perry. “I tell him, anyone who relies on anything external for their self-esteem is in big trouble.”
Hearing this made me profoundly sad because I knew what it was like to grow up feeling that you weren’t enough. I always felt I had to be better just to be equal and had spent most of my life chasing after excellent grades, admission to the “right” college, a perfectly toned body, a Martha Stewart-worthy home, a dazzling husband who held me at arm’s length. Obtaining these gave me an initial high, but the buzz always wore off, and once it did I found myself propelled towards some other glittery thing to anaesthetize my intrinsic sense of unworthiness.
My carefully constructed pre-divorce life had been designed to give my children what I never had: solid footing, a sense of belonging, a sense of being enough.
Clearly, things had not gone according to my plan.
Perry went on: “His skateboard, his yoyo, his kites … Luca sort of dangles these objects in front of the other kids, flaunting his skills, bragging about how much things cost.”
“It irritates his peers; it keeps him from really relating to them. That’s another reason I wanted to get him off the fixation with the skateboard. I want him to focus on his visit with you.”
Luca walked into the room and picked up where he left off. He insisted that he be allowed to get a new skateboard. After a few volleys, with Luca refusing to back down—“I’m not going to go on the visit if I can’t get the skateboard!”—Perry showed him the door and told him to go back to school. The classrooms were in a wooden building up the hill.
“He’ll be fine in about 20 minutes,” Perry assured me, although I wasn’t convinced. “He told me how much your time together at the wilderness camp meant to him.”
“What’s the situation with custody?” he asked.
I took a deep breath and tried to figure out how to answer his question without coming across as defensive. Prince had told the psychologist who did Luca’s most recent psychological evaluation that the court took away my custody because I was an unfit mother, when in fact we had settled out of court. I gave my ex-husband virtually everything he wanted because I had run out of money to pay my attorney, and if I fought any longer I might have gone crazy for real.
When I read the false allegation in the psych evaluation, I had the psychologist amend the document, deleting the passage about custody. But I still felt the burden of having to prove I wasn’t a whack job.
“Well, I basically gave his dad full custody,” I said. “He has full physical custody of Luca, but not our daughter. Technically, we still share legal custody, but he gets to make all major decisions regarding Luca.”
“Prince told me he wants to go back to 50-50 custody.”
I stared at Perry, unable to gather the words to construct a sentence. After suing me for custody of Luca, a process that spanned more than a year, drained six figures from my life savings, and possibly several years off my life, Prince was now, apparently, saying he wanted to reverse the decision.
“I don’t believe it,” I said, finally.
“Luca doesn’t believe it either,” said Perry. “He thinks it’s more about control for his dad.”
“I think, when Luca comes home, he might want to split the physical custody,” I said. “But he’ll still want to make all the decisions.”
“Well, I’m going to hold him to what he said.”
That’s nice of you, I thought, and it will do absolutely no good.
We talked for a little bit longer and then Perry glanced at the wall clock. It was noon.
“School’s over,” he said. “Let’s see if Luca’s changed his mind.”
He walked me out of his office, through the reception area, past a snow-white Grand Pyrenees that had been conked out on the same couch since I arrived the day before. Perry pulled open the wooden door, and we stepped onto the landing. The sky was sparkling blue. Painted pumpkins lined the path down the hill.
Several boys filed out of the school building that was perched on a hill above the basketball court. I watched Luca cross the bridge that led back to the main house. I winced as I noticed his purple skinny jeans sagging on him. He hadn’t regained any of the 20 pounds he lost at wilderness camp.
Luca stopped in front of me, blinking, the way he does when he gets nervous.
“You ready to go out with your mom, Luca?” asked Perry.
I studied Luca’s face for signs of an impending explosion. I could tell he was working hard to reel himself in.
“Can we get a milk shake?” he asked.
To be continued …
—Photo Meral Crifasi/Flickr