Update from Ridgeline Drive, May 1, 2013

Well, it was a little dicey there for a while here in The Hood. I thought I’d be moving back into my 2000 Saturn L1 “mobile home”. The woman who’s place I’m crashing at had told her 15 year old daughter last month that she would sign her out of the place for wayward youth she’s being held at if she could make it to Level 2 (of 4). I was a little surprised when the girl’s treatment team let her mom make that promise, given that there is no way they would agree to it, but I imagine they figured nothing else was working so what the heck. When we met Monday morning, the team let the mom “decide” to keep her daughter there to complete the program. Of course her daughter flipped out when they brought her in and had her mom tell her she wasn’t going home. (Her sixteenth birthday is this month.) But her toddler-appropriate emotional response—an infinite loop of “It’s not fair / You lied to me / I want to go home now”—was mostly sadness and despair without her usual violent threats and histrionics.

The staff had fully explained the state of the art, no tolerance, behaviorally based program to my friend when her daughter was first committed in December as I have several times since. At the intake interview they said it was possible to complete the program in 12 weeks but that a reasonable time frame was more like six months. My friend heard this as “She’ll be fine and ready to come home a manageable child in 12 weeks” and her daughter heard: “I only have to resist this for 12 weeks and I’ll be back ditching school and running the streets with unemployed 20-something year old men.” Reality and its constraints are not part of either’s belief system; magical thinking and instant gratification without personal responsibility or consequences are their way.

I’m a brutal reality kinda guy. I don’t just accept reality; I love it and its constraints. Reality is a nice frame of reference and its constraints provide some useful boundaries to operate within. Living here has been a rude awakening for me. As a trained social psychologist and informed liberal Democrat, I knew all about the dysfunction of the underclass intellectually. But to actually see it and live among it is another thing entirely. My three now grown children had more self-awareness, impulse control, and functional life skills as toddlers than these people may ever master.

I am constantly reminded of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” and extended by him and others to understand human curiosity. His fundamental insight was that there is a hierarchy of human needs starting with Physiological needs like food and shelter. If these are not met, a person cannot attain the next level, Safety needs: security of body, employment, resources, mortality, the family, health, and property. Until physiological and safety needs are met, a person cannot attain the next level: Love/Belonging: friendship, family, sexual intimacy. Only after these three needs are met can they attain Esteem: self-esteem, confidence, achievement, and respect of and by others. Finally, once all four needs are met, can one achieve Self-Actualization: morality, creativity, spontaneity, lack of prejudice, and acceptance of facts/reality. I learned of his work as an undergraduate Psychology major at Purdue University when I was 20.

For most of my Upper Middle Class life, I had never met anyone who’s Physiological and Safety needs had not been fully met. Maybe a third had not achieved Love/Belonging, which helped me greatly appreciate my upbringing and family and realize what a blessing this was. Perhaps half had not achieved Esteem, and most were certainly not self-actualized. I loved Maslow’s Hierarchy, a useful tool but more than a little self-serving since it puts people like me on top. It explains why many people are not living productive lives and helps me have compassion for them. [Before you think: “What a privileged self-absorbed jerk!” let me add that hubris is a constant struggle for me. I’m a high functional sentient/intelligent guy, but no saint or sage.]

I was pretty confident that the staff would not—probably legally could not—prematurely release my friend’s daughter. But letting her mom voluntarily face the reality that she needs to finish the entire program, with no short cuts or easy out, while wildly risky from my perspective, paid off. I was surprised at my friend’s resolve and clear rational thinking in the face of her daughter’s pleading and wailing and complimented her.

So the good news is that my friend has accepted the reality of this situation and her daughter will have to complete the program. My friend will have to attend a number of mandatory family counseling sessions and learn some functional parenting and human being skills. They both may have a shot at a productive, or at least not completely dysfunctional, parent-child relationship and this precious almost 16-year old child a productive or at least not completely wasted life. Oh, and also, I have a place to live for at least another three months…

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