Part 1: Adolescents and the Legion….How One Prepared Me For the Other 7/16/11

In almost 10 years of working with college students, adolescents and families (and hearing stories of many friends who have confided in me over the years), I don’t think that I am alone in struggling with trying to control things over which it is impossible for me to influence in any way. When I started working with Philadelphia teens in group homes in 2005, these clients taught me so much about myself, about control, and how to see the system from their point of view. This system seemed to have no regard for their voice, their goals and dreams, or for the people they loved. To cancel a home visit because it was a national holiday where, culturally, “too much drinking occurred”, or to lose privileges in the group home because someone else stole money, these all initially seemed like “part of the deal” for having to be put into care in the first place. Furthermore, when I first started, listening to their side of the story seemed like an exercise in futility. What’s the point, I would ask myself. It's not going to change anything, I would probably just be encouraging whining and entitlement type talk anyways, they need to learn how to fall in line with the system. How many times have we said in one way or another “Get with the program!”
As a therapist, I felt more free to join and connect with my clients, that was my job! Seeing it from their perspective, looking through their eyes and helping them reach their goals, being their voice when no one else would or could. And that experience is what started preparing me for the Legion. Scott had permission assigned, and then they took it away without any explanation – on several occasions. He would pass rapport with the Captain and he would be given a completely new career plan from the one we had become so excited about the month prior. He would come back from one three-week training, to be told he was leaving Monday morning for another 4 weeks. For Legionnaires, this is a great thing, to have all this training and preparation. However, for us, having been apart already for 8 months and now being less than a mile away from each other, we hardly ever saw each other. Scott being home isn't just his presence, which I miss so much. It's being able to maybe go to town for a drink (which you just don’t do toute seul here as the fiancée of a Legionnaire), speaking English, making meals together, watching our favorite movies together….it's my “home pass” just as much as it is for him. And these times were (and are) taken from us on the drop of a hat, while we watched other Legionnaires go into town, get drunk, fight each other, be disrespectful to civilians, and on and on. This sense of fairness, control, and power was (and continues to be at times, to be honest) especially hard for me to accept. And neither of us can do anything to change our situation. It's only a matter of time, which I know if any of my students are reading this understand this whole heartedly.
If I could write my treatment plan for the last 15 months of my life, it would probably include the following goals (I’m a little out of practice, give me some leeway :) 1) Meghan will be able to identify 3 things she can do to help her cope with her feelings of frustration and anger when Scott is not allowed to leave base. 1a. Meghan will not use red wine as a coping skill! (LOL, wait for my next blog!!) 1b. Meghan will share her feelings and thoughts with Scott (of course during approved call times!). 2) Meghan will use working out and school studies 6 days a week to maintain physical and mental health. 3) Meghan will pursue (and explore) opportunities to use her vocational skills and passions to find work that suits her abilities and interests. 4) Meghan will support Scott in successful completion of his trainings as he advances in the Legion (and gets more time home!) 5) Meghan will participate appropriately on home visits (LOL, I couldn’t resist!)
As you can see, some things I do very well, and some things are continual works in progress. But this is just like anyone I know! When someone starts treatment, there is a 90 day initiation period, where they learn the ropes of the program and are given instructions on how it all works. However, that doesn’t all really sink in until the person actually experiences the program, experiences the consequences – and the rewards – and begins to see how their growth takes shape. Scott and I did a lot of research before he joined, but that was all just the “initiation period” for me. The Legion’s complete control of Scott’s life is the hardest part for me. Despite all of his successes, the Legion sees my presence here as a weakness in his life. That’s really hard to take, especially seeing how much stronger we have become through it all. However, as I grow in my life here, through tutoring, learning French, working out, and maintaining friendships, I am learning to embrace the things in my life that I have control over, and I am TRYING to let the Legion just do their thing. I can control learning French, I can control my workout schedule, I can have a daily schedule for myself, I can keep a clean & relaxing home, I can invest in friendships and people (despite how they choose to invest in me), I can take on tutoring clients and build a mini-career for myself! With our life in the Legion, I can control how much I tell Scott I love him & support him 100% and how proud I am of his (our) accomplishments, I can maintain our reputation here while he is gone, I can keep an open mind about next week, next month, and next year, and I can hold his hand and face whatever they throw at us. Because ultimately, he is in the same place I am (although much more advanced in his acceptance I might add :) ….The Legion tells him when he is to go here or there, and there isn’t any room for disagreement. It’s hard for him to dream, to plan his career, because the Legion is doing it for him. As his abilities and gifts shine through, they see it and allow him some voice, and all we can do is be thankful for the voice he has.
The most dangerous part of our life, in my opinion, is disappointment. There isn’t a lot of room for it, but sharing this feeling is most important in learning to acclimate to this subculture in which we live. However, there is a time and place for it, and then moving forward is a necessity. But doesn’t that apply to everyone?
So I come back to my clients. If I really looked back at the two themes of therapy with teenagers, it would certainly be control and disappointment. We want people to respond a certain way, give us certain things, but we feel that sting when they don’t measure up, when we realize we can’t control them. And that’s the life lesson I learned from my clients. So, I dedicate this to them, to the ones I still keep in touch with, to those whom I have no idea where they are or how they are doing. I think of them often and I miss them, but I hope that my growth in understanding what is within and without my control is my little way of honoring them in my life.