Toy Story fans everywhere will remember that iconic film moment when Rex the toy dinosaur, upon finding out that he has falsely accused Woody of trying to get rid of Buzz Lightyear, cries out, "Great. Now I have guilt!" I've been relating to that sentiment a lot lately, and I'm not sure what to do about it.
Several months ago, my husband Chris took a position with a therapeutic wilderness program for troubled youth. I'm sure most people know about these programs where youth who just can't function safely in their own home environments (due to drug abuse and other adolescent stupidity) are taken to a kind of long-term camping experience, stripped of all their personal belongings and entitlements, and taught to value the blessings they have in their lives.
Well, one or two months ago, Ben had fallen into one of his catastrophic, hurricane-force meltdowns about who-knows-what. The meltdown began in the living room where siblings and friends-of-siblings were watching t.v. That meant that my first order of business was to get Ben out of that room, so that no one would be punched, kicked, spat upon, or showered with a torrent of obscenities that only Ben can spew when he is completely out of control.
Unfortunately, Ben is much bigger now than he used to be. Where I used to be able to easily pick him up and haul his flailing body anywhere I needed him to be, I quickly discovered that getting him up the stairs and into his own bedroom required a certain Herculean strength that I simply don't possess. And so the process of "escorting" Ben up the stairs involved more of a lift-and-push process that left Ben free to kick and punch with terrible violence. By the time I got him up two sets of stairs and into his room, I was dripping with spit and sweat, bleeding from scratches down my hands and arms, and aching from the dozens of punches that would eventually become bruises all over my body.
As I heaved and hauled Ben up those stairs, I warned him that he had to stop hurting me. I warned him that if he continued to hurt people in our family, then he would no longer be able to live in our home because it would be too dangerous. I reminded him that dad works in one such place, and that it would not be hard to take him there at any time. I said these things for two reasons. The first was that I was desperate to make him stop hurting me, and at that moment I would have said anything I needed to. The second reason was that I was serious. I have heard many, many stories of autistic children who eventually have to live in treatment facilities of various kinds because the meltdowns have become too violent and too dangerous for that child to continue living at home.
At the time of the meltdown and these threats, I didn't think I was getting through. He didn't respond to me (he was too busy screaming in a high-pitched, primitive shriek peppered with very coherent swear words) and he didn't stop his violence. Once in his room (where I held the door closed for several minutes while he emptied his closet of all his belongings and threw them at the door), the meltdown continued in spite of my continued warnings that he would not be able to stay if he kept up this behavior.
Eventually (when objects stopped hitting the door) I sat down on the top steps of the hallway, put my head down in my arms, and just waited until all the screaming and noises from his room subsided. They always eventually do.
This time, after they stopped, Ben came out of his room, sat down next to me, and very quietly asked, "So, do I have to leave the family tonight?" And then he erupted into the most heart-wrenching sobs I have ever heard from him. And my heart broke.
A few weeks ago he was listening to me relate this experience to my sisters, and he broke into tears again and said, "I feel sad about that even if we talk about it!"
So here's where the guilt comes in: Since that day that this meltdown happened and I made that threat, Ben has had almost NO meltdowns. At least, none at that Pompeian level of violence that scares me so much. It's almost like that terrible, horrible, gut-wrenching threat that still brings him to tears actually got through to him. But how on earth could I ever play that card again, knowing that it reduces him to sobs of sorrow?
On the other hand, isn't this exactly what I wanted? Didn't I want to do whatever I had to do to keep him from hurting us so that he can continue to live here and be a daily part of our family? I can say with certainty that it would take an awful lot for me to send him away to a treatment facility. I will tolerate bruises and broken bones if by so doing, he continues to live and grow in our family. But at some point, whatever that point ends up being, I would have to say that it was too much.
So...did I win, or did I lose? Did he win or lose? I just don't know. I don't know if the means justified the end in this scenario.
All I know is that I have guilt.