One Tough Decision

Do you remember that time when no matter what you did or how hard you tried, nothing was working and you felt that your life was a mess? If that wasn’t bad enough, your messy life was affecting your spouse, your children, your friends, and/or your co-workers? A continued cycle of insanity was keeping you down and keeping you stuck. For those of you who do not know the definition of insanity, it is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Sound familiar? “Stop the insanity!” you scream either verbally or mentally, or in this case, hypothetically. That is a good decision and if it can be done, will benefit all who are involved.

The question now is, how? How do we stop doing the same thing that is obviously not giving us a different result and figure a way to do something different? And what is the result we are after? Will reaching this new goal also free those who are directly affected by our insanity? Carol Gilligan, a University Professor in the School of Law, at New York University, has placed a lot of focus on moral dilemmas that are similar to this one. One of the things she is most known for is her theory on the moral perspective focused on care. “From a care perspective, the relationship becomes the figure, defining self and others. Within the context of relationship, the self as a moral agent perceives and responds to the perception of need. The shift in moral perspective is manifest by a change in the moral question from ‘What is just?’ to ‘How to respond?’” I have personally experienced a very difficult decision in my life in which the first of these questions was important, and considered, but the second question is where I found myself most often throughout the process.

Just this year, I made a decision to move from Oregon to Pennsylvania. Included in this decision to leave the place where I had lived for over 20 years and to go somewhere I had never been before, was leaving my two sons behind; one is 18 and has been going it on his own; the other is 14 and moved in with his half-sister and her family. The reasons for these decisions were many; a fresh start for myself, a fresh start for each of them, a much needed support system (the women I am living with) as I continue in therapy concerning years of abuse from the father of my boys, an opportunity for them to see if life would indeed be better without my constant interference and attempts to “fix” things, and because of all that the three of us have been through together throughout their young lives.

My divorce from the boys’ father was particularly hard on my oldest son, Jeremy, then age 5, as he was torn between anger at his father for the things he had seen him do to me and anger at me for taking him away from his father. He didn’t understand why his father would not stop drinking and why I would not give his father a chance. Feeling so angry at either of his parents made him feel guilty and caused him further anguish. He began turning his anger at others in an attempt to place the blame on anyone else without feeling like he was betraying anyone he loved. I tried to be there for him, but his emotions would change so drastically and without warning that I was never sure if I was helping him or causing him further harm. What came next in our lives only made everything worse.

After breaking up our family, at age 27, I started using drugs, and for the next seven years, we experienced having no food, going sometimes months without doing laundry, moving from place to place and changing schools and friends often, and ultimately ending up homeless for over nine months. With no place to stay, no food, no job, no money, and a big deal at the time, no drugs, I started to take the stress of it all out on my children, and subsequently ended up getting the state courts involved. The boys were placed in separate foster homes, and eventually placed with their father, whom they hadn’t seen or heard from in years. This court journey took over four years to complete and it took more than two of those years before I finally got clean, established a stable residence, and a stable job. When I had finally accomplished all that was required in order for the boys to be returned my care, Jeremy was still trying to come to grips with having learned that I was a drug addict and that I had caused so much turmoil in their already chaotic lives, so at first, he chose to remain with his father. However, when Zachary returned home, I quickly learned that I had caused a lot more damage to my young son and our relationship than I had originally thought.

Zachary had just turned six when this all began and he was told, face to face by a social worker, that his removal from me would only be for a few days and he would be returned to my care very quickly. She was an authority figure and whether her intentions were good or she unprofessionally misspoke, it was the first of many “lies” from several other people in authority that Zachary was told he could trust. As you can imagine, this led to his distrust and disrespect for any and all adults. He rebelled against case workers, his father and step-mother, his teachers and his counselors. He would not cooperate in any way and put in a lot of effort into making life for anyone around him as miserable as he felt. Once I got clean and he was returned to me, his anger continued to grow and he was regularly in trouble with neighborhood mothers, school teachers, counselors, and the principle in whichever school he was in at the time. His behavior resulted in being expelled from three schools and placed in several alternative schools for children with emotional and behavioral needs. Though I had enrolled him in numerous counseling services both for individual care and family therapy, he refused to go. A constant battle ensued and we were both on the losing end.

Jeremy, the oldest, kind of fell into the cracks with all the time and energy I spent on trying to help Zachary. He went back and forth between his father and I, and in the process of trying to find a place where he felt he belonged, he began drinking and drugging and found himself in juvenile hall on several occasions. His father, an alcoholic himself, and a bad influence, had finally given up on him and made it clear he was no longer welcome. Once back home with me, he would regularly fight with Zachary either in his own defense or in my defense, which just made very difficult situations almost impossible. He again felt out of place and not where he belonged. If I wasn’t arguing with one of the boys or the other, I was trying to break up a fist fight and would more often than not get hurt in the process as they were both much too strong for me.

So, there I was at that point where I recognized that my life was a mess and it was greatly affecting my children. Zachary, bless his heart, really wanted for all of us to try and get along better, but was quite often the one who refused to cooperate or compromise in order to make that happen. Jeremy was fighting to be treated and accepted as an adult and insisted he should have the authority to discipline his younger brother. While trying to deal with each of the boys I was also doing what I had to to maintain my sobriety while also going to school. Our house was filled with screaming and fighting and tears of rage, sorrow, and pure misery at all hours of the day and night. There was no harmony and no relief in sight. I was watching my boys continue to crumble before my eyes and finally accepted that I, too, was just too broken to save them. “Stop the insanity!” Something had to change.

First and foremost, we had to be separated. We could not live together and find healing and growth. Jeremy was in the process of applying for financial aid and getting into college and was determined to take care of himself, but was struggling with leaving me alone with Zachary, as his behavior was becoming more and more violent. A few months before, my step-daughter, Anna, and her husband, Mike, offered to take Zachary in and with tough love and enforced boundaries, help him to balance life with his emotions. Also during this time, I had established a very good relationship with my friends Cherie and Mary here in Pennsylvania, who are also in recovery (going on 35 years!) and have both been through in depth therapy around different types of abuse in their lives, and Mary with her four boys, who are all now grown with children of their own. They could both relate to a lot of what I was going through and offered to help me find strength and hope and give me support while I continued in therapy and in school. They had an extra bedroom in their house and said I was welcome to stay for as long as I needed or wanted.

A solution was in the works; we all had somewhere to go. But then reality set in. Was moving to the other side of the country just a way for me to escape? Was it such a good idea? Was it fair, to them or to me? I love my kids and spent years fighting to get them back, and now? Was I just abandoning them because it was easier? Or was I going to take myself out of the unhealthy relationships I had with my sons so that they could also find help? This was going to be a huge change for all of us and I couldn’t make a flip decision. I had to make sure I was doing it for the right reasons. I reached out to many to discuss where we were and what my potential plan was. I spoke to my personal therapist, to a group at Zachary’s school which included his teacher, his counselor (whom he refused to see) his principal and his case worker. I discussed it with family members and with friends and spoke about it often in NA meetings. I even called the county women’s crisis line and spoke to a faceless woman at length, someone who could be completely objective since she did not know me or my boys from Adam.

Carol Gilligan was familiar with how such a decision could be looked at from two different angles, but she also recognized that we will either lean toward one or the other in the considerations and their implications. What is just? Or, how to respond, which I have come to look at as what really matters? Gilligan touches on this, saying, “Since moral judgments organize thinking about choice in difficult situations, the adoption of a single perspective may facilitate clarity of decision. But the wish for clarity may also imply a compelling human need for resolution or closure, especially in the face of decisions that give rise to discomfort or unease.” We can make a clear decision with one set of ethics to base it on, but not all things can be accepted as the right choice with using justice alone. We are human and it is not at all unnatural to follow our hearts, and in some cases our guts, in order to address all that is entailed. Gilligan’s explanation is thus,

“The distinction between justice and care as alternative perspectives or moral orientations is based empirically on the observation that a shift in the focus of attention from concerns about justice to concerns about care changes the definition of what constitutes a moral problem, and leads the same situation to be seen in different ways. Theoretically, the distinction between justice and care cuts across the familiar divisions between thinking and feeling, egoism and altruism, theoretical and practical reasoning.”

I was unable, in spite of my efforts, to reestablish a healthy relationship with either of my children. In all that had to be considered, the main question I felt I had to satisfy was, am I causing them more harm than good by keeping us all together? My conclusion was that, yes, I was, and giving each one of us some freedom from the others was what felt like the right thing to do.  Did everyone agree that I should follow through with my plan? No, of course not; however, I did gain a lot of different perspectives and considered them all carefully. In the end, I decided that it was the best course of action for all three of us.

Did I base my decision on the ethics of care or of justice? I miss my boys terribly and wish that I was stronger and wiser and more patient, but I recognized that I was not. Was justice done? Am I suffering with pain and regret and guilt justly because I failed to begin with or because I chose what most would see as a cold solution in just walking away? Or did I base my decision on care in that I did what I felt was best for them, and yes, for myself? According to Gilligan’s view, it is clearly the latter;

“As a moral perspective, care is less well elaborated, and there is no ready vocabulary in moral theory to describe its terms. As a framework for moral decision, care is grounded in the assumption that self and other are interdependent, an assumption reflected in a view of action as responsive and, therefore, as arising in relationship rather than the view of action as emanating from within the self and, therefore, ‘self-governed.’ Seen as responsive, the self is by definition connected to others, responding to perceptions, interpreting events, and governed by the organizing tendencies of human interaction and human language. Within the framework, detachment, whether from self or from others, is morally problematic, since it breeds moral blindness or indifference—a failure to discern or respond to need. The question of [which] responses constitute care and [which] responses lead to hurt draws attention to the fact that one’s own terms may differ from those of others.”

The things I feel are par for the course when making such a monumental change in life and rather than justice, I think of them as growing pains. It is also the beginning of my healing process. And guess what? The boys are doing fine. Yes, they have their own growing pains, but the insanity we were in before is long behind us.

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