Trust your intuition, especially if you are a mother. I don’t know how we know, but we know, until we don’t. Sometimes the power of intuition comes back. Listen to it carefully before it slaps you in the face. Yesterday I was crushed by more news. Every time I learn something new my heart breaks all over again. However, I don’t have the privilege to say I wasn’t surprised because I had figured it out and had even called him on it a few months ago. At that time, he denied it to my face. He’s allowed to do that. I’m his mother, not his college roommate. When I was his age my parents had no idea what I was up to, but then again I wasn’t self-destructing.
Let’s start with an easy example that many new mothers can relate to. When Philip was a baby, he had repetitive ear infections and occasionally had strep throat. I could literally touch his forward and knew if his fever was 38.5 or 39.5 degrees without a thermometer. Of course I would then confirm his temperature with the proper instrument and be amazed that I knew what the number was going to read. Whenever he had a fever of 38.5 it was an ear infection. Anything over 39 was strep throat or the flu.
When Philip was about 8 months old, we went out for our daily morning walk. We had a number of different routes. On one particular morning, we were going along quite happily and I turned left to go to a shop that sold my favorite oatmeal cookies. Philip starting screaming the moment I turned the stroller. “What’s wrong?” I asked him. “Do you want me to walk another block so you can see the little red man?” I kept walking towards the shop and he kept screaming. I decided to turn the stroller around and walk the other way to where there was a life-sized plastic figure of a jolly fellow holding a beer and wearing a red suit. Philip immediately stopped crying and started to smile. Intuition? Possibly, or maybe mothers just know why their kids are crying even when the reasons are peculiar.
Once our children go off to daycare or school, we entrust them to the care of others and we become somewhat less intuitive. Or maybe we just don’t have as much information as before because they are no longer with us 24 hours a day. They have different experiences that become their own. If your child is talkative, you’ll probably know a lot about her life at school. My child rarely told us anything, good or bad, about his days at school. We found out from his pre-K teacher that he didn’t speak to anyone the first two weeks of school. I guess he just needed to take it all in first.
When Philip was in secondary school, I had a few other moments of intuition that I can recall. One day I gave him and his friend some money to go to the store and buy a snack. They came back with some chips. He knew that I was against him drinking any kind of energy drinks. For some reason, I walked out the front door past the elevator and walked down half a flight of stairs. There I saw two cans of Monster drink. How did I know to look? I honestly don’t know. He had never hidden anything there before.
About a year after that he was spending a lot of time on his new cell phone. We made him wait until ninth grade to have one. That night he went to bed and I sat down on the sofa with my husband to watch a movie. Out of the blue, I stood up and walked into his bedroom. “Show me your phone. Put in your password so I can see it.” Amazingly, he obeyed and I looked at his latest messages. He had taken an official website photo and had manipulated it. He had sent the modified picture to a girl in his class. I asked him where he had found the image. He said, “I took it off Google images.” I replied, “Ok, so then if I go into Google images right now, I’ll be able to find this image.” At that point he had to confess that he had manipulated the picture. Fortunately, we stopped it before anything negative could happen. We made him call the girl and ask her to please delete the message. Then we had what parents love to call an important learning momentwhen we explained the danger of social networks and how fast rumors and images can travel. How did I know? Again, I have no idea. I simply had a gut feeling.
Around that time he became ill. He asked for a piercing. I told him no. He started listening to alternative heavy metal. I assumed it was a form of rebellion. He was also into techno music. Again, I assumed it was a typical adolescent stage of finding his own identity. My husband and I listen to every kind of music imaginable except techno, so it made sense to me.
In reality he was binging and purging. I had absolutely no idea it was going on. I assumed he ate more sandwiches because he was a tall, thin, growing teenager. I never heard him throw up. I still don’t know how that could have escaped me under my own roof. Why did it escape me? Because kids know their parents. He had studied our every move. He knew what time we did the dishes, when we turned on the TV, when we were listening to the news, when we were sleeping……when we wouldn’t hear it. He knew my yoga schedule and which afternoons we had to go back to work for meetings. Children are experts at hiding what they don’t want us to know.
There were times I asked my husband why Philip was spending so much time in the bathroom. He assured me that a boy his age needed to spend time in the bathroom, and I felt that it was my duty to respect his privacy. After all, we live in an apartment and everybody deserves a little space. Again, I was completely oblivious to what was truly happening in the bathroom. He was very ill and I. Didn’t. Have. A. Clue.
In tenth grade everything seemed fine. A new class in school, only for the students interested in technical sciences. The mix was good for him. New classmates. A new girlfriend. Studies, hanging out with friends, playing computer games, dates.
When he started eleventh grade he changed, almost overnight. “Mom, I’ve made a decision. I’m going to become vegetarian. I hope you can respect my choice.” I thought it was a phase. I myself had a similar phase that lasted for about three months in college. I told him I could respect his choice as long as he didn’t go vegan. There would be dairy products and eggs on a daily basis. Living on legumes alone would become monotonous and smelly.
He became moodier and moodier. He spent endless hours in his bedroom studying. He broke up with his girlfriend. He had an agenda with a daily list of tasks he had to achieve. He would tick off the tiny boxes after every activity was accomplished. He bought a book to learn Japanese and studied diligently. He bought himself an electric guitar and actually taught himself to play it. On a day off, he would practice for up to five hours. After a few months there were Eric Clapton riffs coming out of his room. He would go to bed after 11:00 pm and set his alarm for 5:00 am to study more. I would wake up to get ready for work and find him taking notes and making outlines. He filled literally dozens of notebooks with his perfect, tiny handwriting. Ironically, there were no computer classes in the technical sciences at his expensive private school, but he learned different programming languages, taught himself to design video games on Blender and wrote to companies in the US who sent him free versions of their software.
I begged him to sleep more. I told him I didn’t care about his grades. We forced him to take walks with us in the country. He refused to go out with us, except for a quick meal. He didn’t have time. He had to complete his agenda. I started making excuses to go into his room to take him clean clothes or offer him a snack. This only increased his moodiness.
He had a new best friend. She was also a vegetarian. As his friends were always welcome in our home, she was invited to spend a weekend with us. She came to our house without pyjamas. I lent her some of mine. She took a shower and walked out of the bathroom half naked with a small towel wrapped around part of her body and pranced down the hallway past me, my husband and my son. At dinner I attempted to ask her about school and her family and have polite conversation. That was impossible. She would only address Philip. In the afternoon they sat together on his bed in the dark watching 13 Reasonson her iPhone. She had one arm around some part of Philip’s body at all times as if she were trying to spin a web around him. The next morning while Philip was having his shower, I again tried to engage in polite conversation. She wouldn’t look me in the eye or answer my questions. She was literally crawling on the floor and meowing at my dog. Yes, you read that correctly. She was crawling on the floor while I, her friend’s mother who had invited her into our home was trying to converse with her, and She. Was. Meowing. At. My. Dog.
This was Philip’s first toxic relationship. She had told him she was a lesbian, but was calling the girls in their class and crying because he didn’t want to go out with her. He had somehow handed over control to her. She has a few nicknames in our house. The only one I can share with you is THE SECT. The other nicknames I cannot say in polite company. We couldn’t forbid Philip from seeing her, but we did make it very difficult for them to get together. We even found him a private electric guitar teacher as a reward for working so hard with the hope that he would meet other people through his hobby. I also explained to my son that she would never again be welcome in our home.
I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but I knew there was something terribly wrong. I would wake up in the morning or after a long Saturday afternoon nap with an emptiness and despair that I could not explain. I even thought maybe I was depressed or that there was a problem with my marriage. Now I know what it was. Philip was sick and it was getting worse and worse. I could see that he was thin. I made sure to be at home every day when he got back from school so that I could prepare him a big, healthy snack. I knew he wasn’t eating well at school because he refused anything made with fish or meat. We prepared protein-packed dinners with legumes or eggs and quinoa. I packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in his backpack and filled his drawers with nuts, granola bars and candy bars. In the morning I would wake up and make him a huge shake out of fruit, seeds, whey protein, an egg and milk. I had no idea those shakes ended up in the toilet. I had to leave for work before him. I started at 8. His school started at 9.
At the end of his junior year I received a call from his father at 7:30 am. They had spent the night in the hospital. Philip was in severe pain and couldn’t breathe. He later confessed that he thought he was having a heart attack and was going to die. I called my boss and tried to explain through my sobs that I would not be into work that day. Thankfully, it was a collapsed lung. Philip was in tremendous pain. One morning, the doctors had to take out the tube and reinsert it. They did this in his room without any anesthetic. His pain was unbearable that day. He asked us not to speak to him. He could barely breathe. That was when I noticed how terribly thin he was. You can hide under baggy clothes when you have broad shoulders, but you can’t hide your body in a hospital bed.
I begged him to eat protein to help him heal. I spoke to the doctors. I asked them to have a dietitian check in on him and prescribe a menu for him. They didn’t pay any attention to me and he refused to eat meat or fish. However, a few of the nurses told me that we had to get some protein in him. One particularly sweet, older nurse, used to slip him in some protein shakes when nobody was looking.
Two months later he had another collapsed lung. He had spent the morning with me and even spent some time reading with me on the sofa that day, which was quite unusual for him at that time. He left the house to meet a friend, who called me about 30 minutes later. He called for an ambulance and I took a taxi to meet them. By 2 am they had him back to the University Hospital and were inserting another tube into him. One of the older nurses who had to assist during the process was extremely cranky and rude to both Philip and me. I realize now that she was probably tired and nervous. Philip was wearing his ripped black jeans and a heavy metal t-shirt. They kicked me out of the room. After the procedure, the grumpy nurse came in and apologized to me for her previous behavior. She said, “When I saw him I thought he was going to fight us because it’s very painful. He didn’t even flinch.” Yes, I guess years of torturing yourself can leave you with a very high threshold for pain.
Getting back to intuition. The following morning he had surgery. I asked the surgeon about the healing process and if he shouldn’t see a specialist about his diet. Again, I was ignored. They sent him home after two days with a tube and a machine where any extra liquid could drain. He was allowed to walk around the block, but had to carry the box with him. As I walked alongside him I got looks from strangers, looks of pity that I had never experienced before. They thought he had cancer.
The day the tube was taken out, Philip was told he could lead a normal life. As any mother, I understood that he could slowly get back to his normal routine. He insisted on seeing our family doctor (who I really appreciate). He asked her if he could go back to school and she answered that he could. He and I had a huge argument. He insisted on going back to school that very day and refused to use a backpack with wheels. He called his dad to pick him up and drive him to school. I told him to go to his dad’s for a few days. You may think that was irresponsible on my part, but I knew he was ill and I knew he was refusing treatment. It was breaking my heart to fight him. You don’t know obstinate and determined until you know Philip. He can handle more pain and hard work than anybody I have ever met. And he will not be convinced. (except by the toxic bitch…. sorry that slipped out)
His senior year was a nightmare. I knew he wasn’t well. We all knew. We convinced him to see the school psychologist on the premise that she would be able to help him to “manage his time better and deal with the stress from school”. Of course, that wasn’t the real reason. I told him that he could talk to her about his stress or anything else that was worrying him. Thanks to the trust she was able to build with him and the fact that he was hitting rock bottom, he was able to ask for help.
It’s been one year now since he finally allowed himself to ask for and accept help. It wasn’t easy for him. He was afraid of how much it would hurt us to know the truth. I’m spending more time at home now, like when he was a young child. You can’t be intuitive and have gut feelings if you don’t have enough information.
This leads me to the latest part of our story, for it is not only Philip’s story, it is a family story. It affects everyone who loves him.
Yesterday, 51 weeks to the day of when he first told the psychologist that he needed help, he revealed another secret to his psychiatrist. Then he sent me a message asking me and my husband to visit him so that he could explain himself. He literally let the cat out of the bag. I’m so very proud of him for telling us, because it was tremendously hard for him to admit that he has been in another toxic relationship for the past three months. It is a person he met in therapy and who he was explicitly told not to see outside of therapy. He used two different names to talk about the same person to try to make me believe he was seeing a friend from college when he was seeing someone else. The names don’t matter. It’s another sect.
I had it all figured out a few months ago. I even called him on it. I even asked him if “Mary” was a real person or if she was someone he had made up. I was right. I was right to sit up at night waiting for him to come home from seeing “Ana” when he told me he was with his “Mary”. It turns out that the new toxic friend is even older and even more problematic than the previous sect. As they say in Spain, the devil knows more from his age than from being the devil.
Toxic people don’t prey on the weak. They prey on the sensitive. They use their victim’s compassion and empathy and turn it against them. The victims need to learn to see the signs so that they won’t fall into the same pattern again. Although we are in a very dark place right now, Philip has spoken out. He has spoken out with words. Now that we all know where the problem lies, we can start to work on it. Hopefully in time, his compassion and empathy for others will turn into his greatest strength.
What’s the moral of the story? Mothers, trust your intuition. If you have a feeling something is wrong, you are probably right. I wish I had acted sooner. I wish it hadn’t come this far. But I won’t let it go unnoticed ever again.