The title is an apt one this year for me: In February, we went from having no kids to having a love-starved, distrustful PTSD teenager with defence mechanisms and trauma-induced autism, who, in the first few weeks of her being here, barely spoke intelligible sentences (communication with the outer world is a challenge for her, whether in her mother tongue or not). She’ll be with us until late-January 2017 as an exchange student, but she’ll be in our lives for years to come, because we’ve become the parents she never had. When she returns home, we will have to release her back into the abusive situation which caused many of the problems in the first place. The country she comes from in Asia seems to be stuck in the past by several centuries, especially when it comes to things like psychology; diagnosis and treatment are nearly impossible, simply because they see such things as a weakness that would cause the family to lose face, and in this particular case the fear is that the father would put her on the streets if he found out. Because of that fact, we’ve not been able to draw on the help of the student organisation’s volunteer psychologist (they would need to inform the father), so we’ve basically been on our own in this complex process; even the diagnosis is my own, having had to apply my research skills into an unknown field and narrow down the symptoms and manifestations, and figure out what we were all dealing with (it’s since been confirmed by friends who work with autistic children). I have a profound respect for parents who raise autistic children on any spectrum of the condition; I know that our situation is simply not comparable – in a few weeks she will be leaving us; at the same time, we had no preparation for going from zero to a hundred overnight. We thought we’d be getting the average exchange student; God had other plans both for her and for us – plans that go far beyond a year, touching eternity.
What that’s translated into for me this year is an abrupt shift in long-term goals and the shifting sands of daily priorities getting turned on their heads at a moment’s notice. If you’re like me as a writer or creative person, an inner irritability arises when I can’t write – not as in “writer’s block”, but as in “as soon as I sit down I’m going to be interrupted, so I can’t even begin”. Two weeks of this month were school holidays, which meant she was here 24/7 except when she was out with friends (which was unpredictable, and not very often as she enjoys being “home”); one week of that time it was just the two of us as my husband was away. By 24/7, I mean it – any time night or day, when I was trying to focus, she’d show up in the doorway, whether noon or 3 a.m; parents understand! We watched films, talked, painted, and did our own things. By the time she went back to school on Monday, I was ready to have my time for focusing again – I’m sure every mother on the planet can empathise! She gravitates to me, soaking in my presence; that’s lovely – it means she trusts me, wants to be with me, and gets the attention she craves (and should have been getting throughout her life). I like spending time with her; but it also means that my priorities – writing, editing, graphics, blurbs, and all of the thousand other steps toward publishing my fifth novel – have taken a back burner; the goal of getting this book out by Christmas had shifted away with the dunes of life by May. It also means that I can’t really relax – I never know when, after finally sitting down for a moment, I open one eye to find myself being watched. Literally. Or I just sit down and hear, “Mom!” from a distance corner of the flat. Sometimes it feels like every move I make draws some kind of commentary – it’s her way of trying to connect, and I understand that with my heart, but sometimes my mind wishes I could just flip a switch and turn it off for a while. Again, I know that every mother can relate to those feelings; just keep in mind that I’m not actually the mother, in the sense that I haven’t had years to get used to these things! She has a great father-daughter relationship with my husband, too – pillow fights, lots of fun and talks at the dinner table, and the occasional ice hockey date are icing on the cake.
We’ve had to raise a teenager that had basically raised herself the past (very formative) five years (her father bought her a flat in another city, and just paid for a maid). I am not a maid (this image is a magnet hanging on our guest room door frame). Everything that parents teach their children along the way over the years, we’ve had to try to teach her within a few months, as far as what it means to live in a family, communicate with each other, and basic principles such as clean up after yourself, turn off lights behind you, shut the refrigerator door, fold and put away clothes neatly, respect others’ property, and the list goes on and on and on. This family rule sign, which hangs outside our front door, is what we’re trying to teach as a foreign concept in more ways than one… oh, and her mouth would have driven sailors from bars the first fortnight she was here; we started charging 1 Franc for every curse word, and encouraged her to get creative with such things; now she says “Fluff-butt” and “sweet cheese and crackers” instead! Needless to say, it’s been a huge learning curve for us all.
Sands have shifted; priorities, for this year, have been relentlessly shifted; but more importantly, we’ve seen the shifting sands in one life transform into a foundation planted on solid rock. We’ve seen her open her heart to be loved, to begin to recognize the issues in her own life that will need professional help once she’s old enough to seek it without repercussions, and also begin to have an understanding and patience for and with herself. We’ve played a part in rescuing someone from the verge of suicide to a place of eternal perspective, future hope, and present happiness, and we are humbly grateful for the opportunity entrusted to us. Writing priorities be hanged… there are more important things in this life sometimes. There is a time for every purpose under heaven.
23 responses to “Shifting Sands”
That is one huge undertaking, Stephanie. I wish you all well with it. Great fridge magnet
Thank you, Derrick! I saw that magnet a few years ago in Cheddar, England, and immediately snatched it up! 🙂
I commend you on the task you have undertaken, a rather sad yet very enlightening post Stephanie, there are reasons certain paths cross in life, a loving moment in the young girls life, will remain forever ingrained into her heart.
“as soon as I sit down I’m going to be interrupted, so I can’t even begin”. THIS. Oh boy yes. Arrrgh.
As far as the girl is concerned, poor soul – I can’t even begin to describe how brave I think you’ve all been.
You and your husband are totally amazing. God bless you for the miracle you are working!
Great piece, but I hope her nor anyone who knows her ever stumbles across it.
This could be a bit painful to read even when it’s true: love-starved, distrustful PTSD teenager
It’s a humbling experience; I’ve reached my limits more times in the past months than ever before (and come to know the truth of 2 Corinthians 12:9 in a deeper way!), but I know it will be worth it for her, and for us, in the long run.
Somehow I think “bravery” implies that we knew what we were getting ourselves into! 😉 We stumbled into it in obedience to what we felt was right; the rest comes day to day.
I’ll take that blessing – we need it! 🙂
I agree, but these are all things we’ve talked through together, and it’s also why I’ve mentioned no names. I hope that by sharing it, it helps others; I know that our open discussions with her have helped her understand herself, and helped her understand other people (a difficult thing for those who live with autism, whatever the spectrum)…
I was just about to say (you beat me to it) that that’s still a hard concept to grasp as an autistic teen. All the best with her. I hope you manage to help her find a way out…
I am praying for the three of you, and that she will be able to recall all that she has learned from you and your husband over the past months. It sounds as though she will be returning to a very difficult situation. As many have said, and you already understand, your paths have crossed for a reason and God will work it for good. Romans 8:28.
Thank you! She will be returning to perhaps an even more difficult situation than when she left, as she has changed drastically in the time she’s been here: She’s gotten used to talking about things in her life (that got her beaten at home), gotten used to not being hit for looking people in the eye when she speaks, etc. and she’s going back with a new perspective on life that will not fit into either the culture or her patchwork family. We’re trying to prepare her for that – how to choose her proverbial battles, etc. but it will be extremely difficult to let her go!! I know Romans 8:28 will prove true in both our lives, and now hers! 🙂
Her way “out” will be literal – further education abroad. We’re trying to help her build courage and learn how to non-confrontationally tell her father what she would like to study, as opposed to what he (very unrealistically, and unrelated to her giftings) demands she do…
Your blog brought me to tears for two reasons. This is exactly the same sort of experience we had in 1974 with Terry Hodson. What an amazing, terrifying, stressful 10 months we had – and then suddenly he was gone! – and then the horrible withdrawal when he suddenly was no longer there. But the second reason is that in many ways for the past 28 years, I have been dealing with Ray in similar ways. When I am at home not 5 minutes of waking time goes by but that he yells “Mom” and then I must ask twice what he said because I don’t understand his speech, and then I have to answer 3-4 times for him to understand me. I am praying for all three of you, and sincerely hope that your exchange student can continue to be part of your life in the future. I have been eternally grateful for the eternal lessons that God has taught me through these experiences. I am eternally blessed because I know that what ever else happens, I will have two sons in heaven, and it will be worth all of the struggles.
I really admire you for accepting this unexpected burden, Stephanie, and taking it (her) so graciously and unselfishly. Who knows what beautiful fruit God will cultivate from the seeds of love you’ve sown?
Thank you for those kind words. I wouldn’t use the term “burden” though – challenge, yes, but more of an opportunity… a privilege dressed in work clothes.
[For those reading this who don’t know, Ray was head-injured in an accident in 1988, and is hearing impaired, with short-term memory loss, onset dementia, and a stubborn streak a mile wider than the Grand Canyon. Terry was a foster son, already 21 but from a difficult home environment, and he died from a combination of Haemophilia and hospital negligence.]
Do you think that Terry was autistic in some way, or was it simply the lack of healthy upbringing that you refer to? I still find it amazing that you’ve been able to keep Ray at home with you all these years. It’s not getting any easier, with age creeping up on both of you, but you’re right – it will all be worth it in the end!! Kudos to you! I’m proud to be your daughter!
Terry was not autistic, but he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and at least part of that was due to demonization, because after he went through deliverance at our house in March of the year he was with us, he matured amazingly. He became able to gain and keep a job doing sheet-metal assembly, and he came through a breakup with a girlfriend that a couple of months earlier would have driven him to suicide. The hardest part of his death for me was the question, “Lord, why didn’t you leave him with us one more year so that we could see the young adult he was becoming”. – and yet, at his bedside just minutes after he was pronounced dead, God definitely told me to “let him go – it’s for the best”.
I thank God for the things he taught me about HIMSELF as we were working with Terry. And though things can be very frustrating at times here, I know God is using the stresses for the improvement of my character. Thanks for your prayers.
It seems to me in your life you are realizing the reason why we write. It is ultimately a matter of love. I so admire you and yours for the loving way you live with your charge. The story about alternate swearing is a comic–and effective–example. God bless you and yours with ongoing compassion and strength.
Writing has always been an expression of love for me, in whatever form that takes; it’s ultimately the reason for life itself.
About the swearing – we tell her that lazy language is not allowed (swear words, in my opinion, are simply lazy) – so if she’s going to swear, it at least has to be creative. 😉
Stefanie, you are truly an amazing person. This is one very major challenge, bless you. I don’t know if I would have the strength on a daily basis. And knowing you are swimming against the stream of an established system. Just hang on. As you said, it’ll end soon. What I wonder is, since she is living with you, you must be in loco parentis. Surely you could use that to get her some help-and a rest for you- without contacting the parents? Here in Mainz it would work. Ps let me know if you ever end up in our area. maybe we could meet up for coffee. Would be interesting.
It would be fun to meet up one day! If you’re ever in the Zürich area, do let me know! As far as being in loco parentis, we are officially “merely” host family; as such, we don’t have parental authority, except as concerns house & family rules; we can, and have, called on friends who work with troubled teens and children with learning challenges. In the summer, she went with another host family on a two-week holiday, which gave us a respite; but when the host mother (who has had several exchange students) and I talked, she said she was relieved those two weeks with her were over. 😉 She can be a handful…