“I don’t think I can be safe at home.” These were the heartbreaking words of my 10-year-old daughter. Overhead florescent lighting blinked in and out, highlighted her face as she stared dejectedly at the linoleum floor. We were spending yet another night in the emergency department at the local children’s hospital. A clinician was determining if we were safe to go home. We weren’t. Mary would need another inpatient stay in the children’s psychiatric unit. The questioning always goes something like this:
“Why aren’t you safe at home?”
“I throw things, I hit things, I run away. I’m afraid I will hurt Mommy.”
“Why do you think you will hurt Mommy?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you remember what happened tonight?”
“Do you usually remember what happens?”
“No. When I get scared I don’t remember. I get really mad and scared.”
So she was admitted for her fifth inpatient stay this year. Luke and I answer the same questions every time. Yes, she has an amazing trauma therapist. Mary has completed TF-CBT (Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral therapy.) It was a huge success. It erased her specific, most intense, trauma triggers. Her therapist is always available by phone if we need her. My husband and I work with her partner to better our trauma parenting super-powers.
Mary has also had many, many other therapies. Partial Hospitalization, Intensive Outpatient Treatment, talk therapy, family systems therapy, art therapy, OT and many more. She has a sensory diet, we parent therapeutically, and we now have intensive in-home services. She is taking a multitude of medications because the one that worked, stopped working when she began puberty. Now she is having intense flashbacks and short periods of psychosis. She runs away from an unseen enemy into the woods or onto a road. Mary has scabs all over her scalp where she’s picked off the skin in anxiety.
Right now she craves my attention with ferocity. She needs attention, she must have attention, she is terrified of losing the love that she has found. So we make art projects. We cuddle. We play endless board games together which she mostly lets me win! She tells me, “Mommy? I wish we could love each other more than any other type of people.”
But human relationships are tricky. They have nuances, and nonverbal cues, and require space at times. Mary cannot navigate these tricky things. Is Mom happy with her? Mad? About to abandon her forever? At times, Mary honestly cannot tell. She will alternate between being my shadow and then kicking me away or screaming at me for being a “Skank a** be-otch (sp?)” I have, in fact, checked my rear end in the mirror. I assure you that I found not a trace of skank!
If primary caregiver relationships are so hard, might there be another way? If we cannot keep her safe at home, is there another way? If fear hijacks her brain so often that she blacks out, is there a way to help? There is. I just don’t like it. She may be safer at a short term residential facility. Or a long term clinical facility focused on trauma. I hate this way down into my very bones. The thought of not tucking my daughter in at night leaves me in a cold sweat.
So I found another way. Because that’s what parents do. We find a way. Maybe I can’t catch the onset of her panic attacks in time to “ground” her. She never knows when one will hit. We are often scrambling to pull her back from the memories of trauma and into the here-and-now. Psychiatric service dogs are trained to alert their human before the panic attack/dissociation occurs. We don’t know when she has intense nightmares, so we can’t wake her for deep-pressure calming techniques. But a service dog would. I can’t run after her when she bolts into potentially dangerous places where she may get lost. I’m not as fast. But a service dog is.
Enter “Blue.” After seeking a service animal large enough to help Mary, we found Blue. We were just plain lucky to stumble across this perfect dog. Right now Blue lives in Tennessee. She has a few more weeks to train while hanging out with Mary’s dirty clothes (to get used to the scent. Hopefully she doesn’t pass out from the socks!) A psychiatric service dog has to be trained specifically for the person they are working with. Enter an amazing trainer in Connecticut who is ready to privately train us all, humans and dog alike. Let’s face it, we all have a lot to learn. This trainer had a child who died years ago. She was touched by our story. In order to keep our family together, she is willing to provide Blue’s “finishing” privately. For free.
With Mother’s day coming up, I want what every mother wants. I want what is best for my child. So, Blue? I’m counting on you! Keep my daughter home with us. Keep her safe. Please. That is what I want for Mother’s day.
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**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved. Except for Blue the dog. She should be famous for all of the hard work and bonding she’s about to do!