Friday, April 18, 2014

Same Old, Same Old?

Michael has come far since he was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome when he was six. At that time, the prognosis was grim. Although the clinician at The Hospital for Sick Children was clear that early intervention could make a real difference in his life, the diagnosis was irrefutable – Michael was brain damaged. Research at the time was showing that by their adult years, many people diagnosed with FAS would be living on the streets, be on welfare, in and out of jail, and leading lives of quiet desperation.  Only time wold tell.

Our son is now 26. He lives in a group home during the week and is home with us from Friday through Sunday.  We’re happy to have a break from him during the week, and know it’s important for him to develop some independence, which he can in the the semi-independent living environment at the home.

He has become a sweet, mild-mannered young man, kind of heart.

Michael did drop out of school in Grade 9, as predicted. But last year he started a program here in Toronto at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) to get his GED (high school equivalency), and goes to classes four days a week. To date, he has had no success holding a job, he has few friends, can not manage money, prefers his own company, and would never do his laundry, shower or clean his room unless forced to.

He has become an excellent woodcarver. Several of his carvings have won awards.

The dire predictions made when he was six never came true, but Michael does not function well in the world. He needs family and professional supports daily.

We love our son, always have, and appreciate the many strides he has made in his life.

But something worries me. Last week, when he was home with us, he stole $20 from my purse to buy cigarettes. This is not the first time, and I’m afraid,  this may not be the last.

We saw him with this pack of cigarettes and couldn’t figure out how he got it. We knew he had no money. When asked about it, he started to lie.  With each word, he was digging himself deeper into the proverbial hole. I walked away. I couldn’t bear hearing him making things worse, adding lying to the list of crimes.

The next day, Michael admitted that he had stole the money.  He saw how upset I was. It was obvious he felt remorse.  His eyes filled up. Unprompted, he said he was sorry. He looked miserable, went to his room and threw himself on the bed. I believe he truly was sorry.

The trouble is, it doesn’t mean that the next time Michael is desperate for something (be it cigarettes, candy, a beer...), he will be able to control his impulses.  One of the characteristics of many people with FAS is poor impulse control, not to mention poor judgement.  It’s the nature of the beast.  He doesn’t stop to think about consequences of his action.  In the heat of the moment, he doesn’t care.

That night, I went online to one of my FASD Facebook support groups. I read messages from parents talking about their children who had stole money, food, and other valuables.  Many said they locked up money and everything else hey could. They hid food. One person put food and money in the trunk of her car. Several parents said it was their duty to not to have anything around to tempt their children.  It wasn’t their fault that they stole. It was part of the FASD package.

The children of these parents were all under 10.

At 26, Michael still has impulse control problems. He smokes too much, eats too much, and would drink too much if he could. He tries to cut down on everything, but it just doesn’t seem possible for him. But I did think he had outgrown stealing. It was a real shock to us that he clearly hadn’t.

Though we understand that people with FASD have particular neurobehavioural problems, my husband and I believe we had to hold Michael accountable for his actions.
Perhaps if the consequences are meaningful enough to him, perhaps, just perhaps, he will be able to control his impulses the next time he wants to steal. We have to do something.

Our decision was to not let him come home to be with us the following two weekends after the incident. Why would we want someone in our house who steals from us, we told him. Why would we want to be with someone we couldn’t trust?

Before he could come back, we asked Michael to write a letter to us explaining what he had done wrong;  why it was wrong; why he wanted us to trust him again; and what he was going to do to earn our trust again. We hoped to encourage him to think hard about his actions and to understand that things would have to change before he would earn our trust again.

He followed through.  He wrote some very thoughtful things, but of course, he’s no dummy. He knows what we want to hear.

Michael  is home this weekend and we can see he’s on his best behaviour.  But the truth is, if the opportunity and impulse arises for him to steal again, I’m not completely sure he won’t just go for it. I’ve hidden my purse.

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