I have two sons who are now in their 20s. The older one, Andres, lives with the three As: anxiety, attention deficit disorder, and autism. Long-time readers may recall that he was the reason I changed the name of my blog, after he accidentally discovered my previous blog.
I don’t think I have said much about his living circumstances, but for several years he was living with a girlfriend and her family in a very chaotic household. About a year ago, she broke up with him and got another boyfriend. He remained in her household, but under the rules that he had to pretend to be her cousin, so her new boyfriend wouldn’t feel threatened. Then the new boyfriend moved in. My son tolerated all of this because… I don’t know, I suppose because he was used to it? I told him numerous times over the past year that he had options and that I would help him, but it took until November this year for him to make the leap.
(In a way, I get it. You can slowly get sucked into a situation that is completely crazy. At the beginning, it didn’t seem so bad, or at least there were more good things than bad. Then it starts to get worse over time, and you tell yourself that it’s temporary; things will improve. Instead, they get worse. But now you’ve invested so much in this relationship that it feels hard to walk away from it. That happened to me in my first marriage, so I feel for him.)
At any rate, I discovered, entirely by chance, that the new boyfriend was physically abusing my son, under the guise of “play fighting.” Can you imagine: the former girlfriend (FG) posted a video of their “play fight” on FB. In it, my son receives a terrible thrashing while doing essentially nothing to the body-builder boyfriend, who also kicks my son when he is lying on the ground. And yes, he is wearing boots in the video.
I felt sickened, utterly shocked and horrified, when I discovered this video. I showed it to my husband and to Sandro, my younger son, and they couldn’t believe it either. I talked to Andres, who at first insisted it was no big deal. But when I said, no, it was most certainly a big deal, he confided that he did want to leave, but he was afraid.
We spent about a week sending messages back and forth in secret. He didn’t have a phone then; just a tablet. However, since FG had bought it for him, she said she had the right to know how he was using it and read all his messages (classic abuser behavior). This meant he only wanted to message when she was asleep and he would have time to delete all the messages before she could see them.
It took a while to agree on his exit strategy. He was afraid to leave, he said, because FG and her new boyfriend had told him they would call the cops on him for leaving, because they said he owed them a lot of money for things he had broken in the household. I told him that it wasn’t illegal for him to leave the house, that as an adult they couldn’t claim he was a runaway, and that FG owed me at least as much money as he could possibly owe them. He was so caught up in their threats, however, that for a while his plan was to pretend I was sick and come visit me, then fake his own death and change his name. That felt entirely over-the-top to me, but it also told me a lot about his level of desperation.
I went through so much anxiety during that time period. I was distressed to know things were that terrible for him. I kept asking myself: What if I hadn’t seen the video? Would he have continued to tolerate the situation? I saw how hard new boyfriend pounded on Andres, how tightly he grasped him around his neck; what if he did that again and broke his back? Was I endangering Andres by not retrieving him immediately? How could things have turned so bad? Why hadn’t I realized? Why did he put up with that? Did I fail to teach him his own value?
I knew these thoughts weren’t helpful and tried, as much as I could, to put them away. But then I’d replace them with new worries: The last time he lived at home, some years ago, he and my husband clashed quite a lot. He was hard to live with. On visits, he often kept us up at night. What would happen when he came home?
I had a couple of days when I had to cancel all of my appointments because I was too consumed by worry to think about anything else. Most of the time, however, I was able to bring my calm, concerned, wise mother self to the forefront. That self reminded me I have learned a lot of coping strategies, and I have good support now. My husband and I have learned a lot more since then. We are both committed to ensuring that Andres is safe and well. We will find a way to make this work–without faking his death.
So Andres and I continued to plot in secret, and finally, we agreed on a compromise he could live with: my husband and I would drive to pick him up (he lived 5 hours away and doesn’t drive). He could give FG a story about my mom being sick and needing to visit her, but I wouldn’t participate in his lies and stories. I don’t like to do that because 1) they can get convoluted and complicated and 2) I don’t see any problem with just telling the truth: it wasn’t good for him to live there anymore. Because he was pretending he was only coming with us for a short visit, he barely took any of his stuff.
Ahead of time, my husband and I had planned to spend the long drive home with Andres talking about future plans, about some expectations we had for him, about logistics he’d need to take care of. All those intentions quickly evaporated, however. In the car, Andres collapsed in tears, overcome by guilt about leaving (“but they need me to help with expenses and with the household…” and “I am just one person, who cares if I am unhappy? Now five people will be unhappy! I am being selfish!”) and also the sadness of making a final break with FG, who had been in his life for close to eight years.
(You might read, sometimes, that people with autism don’t show much affect. And perhaps that’s even true about some people with autism, but it definitely is not true about Andres!)
So my husband and I tossed all our previous ideas out the window and spent the trip home talking gently with my son. I told him how hard it had been for me to leave his dad, even when I knew I had to. We talked about his right to make choices for his own well-being. We talked about the many forms of emotional manipulation and how we can get tricked by them.
The first week back at home, he waffled a lot, and I had to come to peace with the idea that he might not be ready to end this relationship. He might go back. After that first week, though, he repeatedly said that it was the right decision to leave, and he was very happy to be back here. I no longer think he’ll go back.
In many way, it’s been easier than I thought it would be. There haven’t been any family arguments. He’s been more flexible than he used to be, and my husband has done the same. He’s been respectful of our need for quiet at night and hasn’t awakened us even once. He has made repeated calls to social security to get his disability benefits reinstated, something he didn’t use to be able to take care of himself. There have been frustrating moments, but also some sweet ones. He loves the holidays and has enjoyed baking with me and writing Christmas cards. He goes with me to the dog park sometimes, or to run errands, and I appreciate the company.
On the other hand, I have maybe worked only a dozen hours since he came home a month ago. I don’t have a lot of contracts right now, and nothing due right away, but working 12 hours a month is hardly sustainable. He has looked for a job (a little), but both my husband and I see a lot of behaviors that make us wonder whether he could actually hold a job if he found one. And if he can’t work, his social security won’t be enough money for him to move out. So while we are fine for the moment, there are enormous questions about the future that we simply can’t answer right now.
I breathe, I meditate, I practice yoga, I continue to see friends. I tell myself: I can tolerate uncertainty. In time, we will figure this out. The important thing is that Andres is safely home with us. And for now, I’m okay with that.