Warning: This poem contains some intense topics. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It features a sudden burst of temper, vulgar language, a bad foster placement in Shiv's past, dysfunctional family dynamics, scapegoating, self-recrimination, suspicion, Jules accidentally dyeing himself, attachment issues, unreasonable expectations, introvert issues, and other angst. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.
"The Test of Freedom"
[Monday, May 4, 2015]
"Hi, Shiv," said Dr. G as he
stepped into the apartment over
Blues Moon. "We're making
family t-shirts this weekend.
Would you and Luci like
to join us on Saturday?"
Shiv's temper exploded.
"Oh, not you with
with the fucking shirts!"
he snapped. "Why does
everyone think that wearing
matchy shirts makes a family?
It doesn't, and it never did!"
"Shirts don't make a family,"
Dr. G echoed mildly.
"Everyone acts like life
is so great and, and they have
a perfect fucking family," Shiv said.
"People try to put on a good face on
family life," Dr. G said, watching Shiv pace
in tight loops around the living room.
"It's not true!" Shiv snarled.
"It's not real, it was never real!"
"And that bothers you," Dr. G observed.
"Uh yeah," Shiv said. "They told us
to be a family but we weren't, and
all the stupid shirts in the world
couldn't make it so. They didn't
care about us, just the money."
"What didn't they care about?"
Dr. G said, leaning forward.
"Nobody cared that Zak
couldn't read even though he
was nine, or that Zillah picked on
everyone," Shiv said. "That's just
under one roof. They ran us kids
together -- Mary was sad all the time,
and Byren just stared into space."
"That doesn't sound good,"
Dr. G agreed with a frown.
"Yeah, this one time they
dragged us all to the beach.
Mary and I never wanted to go, but
they made us, and what happened?"
Shiv said. "Mary got bit by something,
and Zillah tried to fucking drown me."
"How awful," Dr. G said. "What kind
of trouble did Zillah get in for that?"
"None," Shiv said with a snort.
"I'm the one who got punished
in that family. Fucking assholes."
"Well, I can't disagree with
that assessment," Dr. G said.
"Were there other things that
made you unhappy with them?"
"Doesn't matter," Shiv said,
slumping onto the futon. "It's
in the past now. Thank fuck."
"It's still upsetting you, though,
and that does matter," Dr. G said.
"The past can influence the present."
Shiv shrugged. "Whatever,"
he said. "Guess I shouldn't
have bit your head off. It's not
your fault my past is fucked up."
"I'm here to listen," Dr. G said.
"You know I don't like to talk
about this shit," muttered Shiv.
"It's just sometimes you get me
all wound up, and it spills out ..."
"I just wanted to invite you over for
the weekend, but if you don't want
to come, that's all right," Dr. G said.
"I think I hit a nerve, though. I didn't
mean to do that, but if you want to talk
about what happened, it might help."
"I dunno," Shiv replied. "As soon
as you said 'family t-shirts,' my head
went for a ride, and I just lost it."
"That can happen whenever something
reminds you of your past trauma," Dr. G said.
"It's a normal response to an abnormal situation."
"Which is a fancy way of saying I'm fucked up,"
Shiv said, slumping forward over his knees.
"May I sit down?" Dr. G asked.
Shiv slapped the futon. "Sure,
knock yourself out," he said.
Dr. G sat at the far end. He
never crowded Shiv. That was
one of the things that Shiv
liked best about him.
"So uh ... you wanna tell me
what you really had in mind?"
Shiv asked. "And I'll try
not to flip out again?"
"Each year, we get
together to make t-shirts,"
Dr. G said, watching Shiv
carefully. "It's fun and it
makes good memories, too."
"And that's it?" Shiv said,
blinking. "No pictures?"
"Oh, somebody usually
has a camera or three, but
it's not the goal," Dr. G said.
"I could show you some
snapshots if you like."
"Maybe?" Shiv said.
"If they're not awful?"
"Okay, what would be
awful?" Dr. G said. "If you
tell me things you don't want
to see, I can skip any of those."
"Nobody yelling or hitting,"
Shiv said instantly.
"We don't do those,"
Dr. G assured him.
"Nothing with kids
being dragged into shit
they don't want to do,"
Shiv said. "That sucks."
"Nobody has to join in,"
Dr. G said. "Most years
we all do, and often we invite
friends -- we asked Luci too -- but
it's okay for people to sit out."
"Guess it wouldn't hurt
to look," Shiv admitted.
"Here," Dr. G said, offering
his smartphone to Shiv.
The screen showed the Finns
laughing around a picnic table
full of multicolored t-shirts
and squirt bottles of dye.
"Do you always do it
the same way?" Shiv said.
"What, the tie-dye?" Dr. G said.
"Yes and no. We almost always use
tie-dye, but there are many ways to do it.
We tried marbling one year, which was
gorgeous but messy and too hard to do, so
we haven't repeated that one. We liked
the bleach enough to bring some each year,
but it still hasn't replaced the tie-dye."
"Bleach?" Shiv said. "How can
you color anything with that?"
"Technically, you don't," said Dr. G.
"We bought colored shirts instead of
white ones that year, and then used
the bleach to lighten the color in patterns.
Like a paint pen, a bleach pen makes it
easy to draw designs or write on fabric.
I have some snapshots of that too."
The picture showed Aida bent over
a dark blue t-shirt, carefully drawing
some complicated design. Then Dr. G
paged to the next one, showing the shirt
after it had been washed, with the pattern
appearing in pale robin's egg blue.
"Huh," Shiv said, touching it,
and the photo jumped away.
"Careful," said Dr. G. "If you
touch the screen, then it'll
switch to a new picture."
Shiv flicked a glance at him,
then leafed through several more.
You never knew what people
might be trying to hide.
It paid to check them out.
There was nothing awful
in the Finns' photos, though.
The closest anything came to it
was one of a teen boy falling into
a tub of red dye. The header read,
Jules, with a handwritten label and
arrows pointing to his clothes,
Accidentally dyed to match.
Shiv laughed. "Red and blue
make purple," he said, indicating
Jules' blue jeans and turquoise top.
"Yes, and that outfit actually turned out
rather well," Dr. G said. "Jules still wears it."
"And he didn't get in trouble for wrecking
his clothes or anything?" Shiv said.
"Of course not," Dr. G said. "Everyone
stumbles sometimes. We try to make
extra allowances for Jules, because
that's more of an issue for him."
"Must be nice," Shiv said.
"Everyone in the de Faux family
went apeshit over spills -- anything
that spoiled the image, really."
"They wanted the illusion of
a perfect family, without doing
any work to pursue it," Dr. G said.
"Yeah, that's it exactly," Shiv agreed.
"They just wanted to ... fake it."
He thought about Dr. G, who
had busted his ass trying to get
the time of day from Shiv.
No matter how much of
a butthead Shiv was being,
Dr. G never gave up on him.
That was new, and weird,
but Shiv kinda liked it.
"Well, that's not what I'd call
a very healthy family dynamic,"
Dr. G said. "Relationships take work,
Shiv, and that holds true whether
those are romantic or platonic."
"Especially for a fuckup," Shiv said.
"You may need to put in some extra time
to learn skills you missed earlier, if you
value the relationships you have now,"
Dr. G said. "People may not always
understand what you need, but you
can explore ways to explain it."
Shiv thought about the people
he knew now. They were worth
a lot more work than the ones
he got stuck with growing up.
"I still dunno what I'm doing,"
he muttered, looking away.
"Mostly people just dump me
'cause I'm too much of a bother."
"That definitely isn't how family
should work," Dr. G said. "However,
it's your choice now. Is there anyone
from the de Faux family that you
might want to see again?"
"Not really," Shiv said with
a shrug. "Mary was okay --
we spent some time together,
hanging back from the ruckus --
but she was just kinda there.
We didn't really know each other."
"Okay," Dr. G said. "You don't
have to reconnect with people
who don't mean much to you.
I just wanted to offer the option."
Shiv shuffled in place, inching
closer to Dr. G. "They're not exactly
the kind of people I want to be with."
"Then it's up to you to choose
who you want to be with, or whether
you're happier alone," Dr. G said.
The hell of it was, Shiv had been
happier alone. Or at least less unhappy.
Now, though, he got lonely when
he least expected it, and he had
no fucking clue what to do about it.
Shiv scooched a little closer.
"I dunno, maybe?" he said.
"Sometimes I get tired and
want to leave early, but
people hate that."
It was a big reason why
nobody wanted him around,
although nowhere near as much
as his tendency to cut people.
"If you get tired, then you can
go home early -- or just crash on
the couch for a while," said Dr. G.
"Nobody will mind if you do, and you
probably won't be the only one who
needs to take a break, either."
Shiv narrowed his eyes.
"You swear you won't
get mad if I bail?"
"We won't get mad at you,"
Dr. G said. "We're already mad at
most of your foster parents, so --"
He shrugged. "-- cry in the ocean."
Shiv leaned one way, leaned
the other, and came up nearly
touching Dr. G's sweater.
"I still don't get why you're pissed
with them," Shiv said. "I mean,
it's not like they hurt you."
Dr. G sighed. "Shiv, they
hurt you, and that does hurt me,"
he explained. "Caring about people
makes it painful when they get hurt."
"With six kids, you must be
a basket case!" Shiv blurted.
"I would be if I hadn't learned
how to handle it," Dr. G said.
"Most of the time, my coping skills
let me get angry, or sad, without
losing my grip." His mouth twisted.
"This year, though ... that has
not always been the case."
Shiv had gotten so used
to Dr. G being a rock that
the thought of him losing it
was downright terrifying.
"So uh, coping skills, good
to have?" he said hastily.
"Yes, they help people
calm down to make it easier
to solve problems, or endure
hardships that can't be solved."
Dr. G said. "The more the merrier."
"Sometimes I just run off one of
those dumb lists online, and cross out
the things that don't work," Shiv admitted.
"That's useful," Dr. G. said. "It lets you
avoid wasting your time. "Do you ever try
the ones that aren't obviously pointless?"
"Now and then," Shiv said. His lips curled,
the memory tickling a smile out of him.
"I wasn't expecting the color baths."
"Color baths?" Dr. G cocked his head.
"Yeah, I stumbled across those in
a list of relaxing bath ideas," Shiv said.
"I've always liked oatmeal baths, but things
like bath bombs were new to me. Then
Boss White tipped me to color baths
and those are just ... so pretty."
"Then I'm glad that you have found
more coping skills," Dr. G said.
"Well, you put me up to it," Shiv said.
"This all started back when we made
that bet, and I kinda ... kept going."
"That's fine," Dr. G said. "You can
explore as much as you like."
"And if I want to maybe sort of
try out the t-shirt weekend?"
Shiv said, licking his lips.
"Then you're free to do so,
and we will all be delighted
to have you visit," Dr. G said.
"That's what family is all about."
Shiv snorted. "Family ain't
about freedom, doc," he said.
"The family is the test of freedom,"
Dr. G said firmly, "because the family
is the only thing that the free man
makes for himself and by himself."
Shiv fidgeted, brushing against
Dr. G's colorful, fuzzy sweater.
It was striped in soft shades
of gray, green, and brown.
He hated tests. He always had.
He liked freedom, though.
He'd craved it, growing up with
people who never gave him any.
Besides, Dr. G kept encouraging
Shiv to test things, instead of
taking them on faith. That
was easier than a blind leap.
Shiv watched him through
the sheltering fringe of hair.
He always felt self-conscious
getting into someone's space.
Dr. G shifted a little, silently
inviting Shiv to snuggle up.
With a sigh, Shiv leaned
against the larger man's body.
The Finns seemed determined
to give him freedom at the same time
they reeled him in closer and closer.
Shiv maybe ... didn't hate that
as much as he would've expected.
"See you Saturday?" he whispered.
"We look forward to it," Dr. G said,
giving him a barely-there hug.
And so did Shiv.
* * *
Shiv stayed with the de Faux family when he was about six. He doesn't show in the photo because he tended to sneak around and hide behind other people. Several adult siblings had chosen to foster children, and they often got together, which piled all the kids together too. The family was hyperconscious of other people's opinions and pressured each other to act like everything was fine, even when it wasn't. They often wore matching clothes, took group photos, and did other things to emphasize belonging. Shiv was miserable in that environment, and responded by acting out. The whole family hated his irrepressible tendency to belt out inconvenient truths, but they wouldn't leave him home; they always dragged him along and tried to force him to participate, which made everyone else miserable too. One time they all went to the beach -- wearing matching shirts -- and Shiv's much older foster sister pushed him down and nearly drowned him. The woman on the far right was his foster mother Rebecha, and the two children with her were his foster siblings Zillah and Zak. Shiv still refers to them as "the awful, matchy-shirt place."
Shiv's unpleasant beach experience was mentioned in "Everything That Is Real About Us."
Zillah (the first girl on the right, with golden-brown hair, 12 years old)
Zak (the first boy on the right with dark brown hair, 9 years old)
Mary (the second girl from the right with light brown hair, 5 years old)
Kenan (the second boy from the right with brown hair, 7 years old)
Narcissa "Sissy" (the third girl from the right with white-blonde hair, 5 years old)
Byren (the third boy from the right with blond hair, 3 years old)
Rebecha (the first woman on the right with short blonde hair, divorced because her husband got tired of putting up with foster kids; foster mother of Zillah, Zak, and Egon)
Chertney (the second woman from the right with chestnut hair, married to the first man from the right with light brown hair in the blue hat, foster mother of Mary)
Joyst (the third woman from the right with long brown hair, foster mother of Kenan and Sissy)
Huxley (the first man from the right with light brown hair in the blue hat, married to the second woman from the right with chestnut hair, foster father of Mary)
* * *
"The family is the test of freedom; because the family is the only thing that the free man makes for himself and by himself."
— Gilbert K. Chesterton
Family T-shirts are popular for vacations, gatherings, and other occasions.
Triggers are common among abuse survivors. Analyzing them can help. Here's a worksheet for that. Understand that you don't have to eat the eggplant. There are ways to cope with trauma triggers and help a friend who's been triggered. In this case, Dr. G helps by mirroring Shiv's complaints and then reassuring him that he doesn't have to come to the T-shirt part if he doesn't want to.
Explosive temper can cause a lot of problems. It may come from genetics, childhood trauma, PTSD, or other sources. There are ways to cope with rages and teach kids how to handle anger. Shiv has difficulty with his temper, but he's not ready to work on it yet. However, he has noticed that some people, such as Dr. G, can help him calm down and stop feeling crappy when he overloads -- and he's starting to gravitate toward that. It's a much later echo of a toddler leaning on his parents for emotional regulation that he can't do for himself yet. There are ways to teach children these skills. Here are some worksheets on emotional regulation.
Dysfunctional families tend to develop certain roles. The scapegoat is the person set up to take the blame for everything. They're often stronger than anyone realizes. Abusive parents can break all kinds of things -- in this case, Shiv's attachment. A bad therapist who believes the family spiel about the scapegoat can make matters massively worse by becoming a flying monkey for the abuser. Understand how to break free of the scapegoat role and stand up for victims of abuse.
Marbling T-shirts can be done with cellulose, acrylic, oil, or other pigments that will float on water. Marbling Easter eggs is challenging to do well, but gives spectacular results. We tried it once, and the dye was obviously oil-based because it reeked like motor oil.
Bleach can be used to decorate T-shirts using liquid bleach in a spray bottle or a bleach pen.
A color bath uses various materials to tint the water. It can be done as a toddler activity or for spiritual cleansing. Bath bombs and other colors can be made with artificial colors or natural ingredients. You can buy or make colored bath salts. There are many ways to make a bath more relaxing.
See the front and back of Dr. G's eyelash yarn sweater.
The Finns customarily buy a gross of t-shirts, which is twelve dozen or 144 shirts. "Event packages" contain large numbers of shirts in assorted sizes. This one has six dozen shirts in the child half (12 each of infant, toddler, extra-small, small, medium, large) and six dozen in the adult half (12 small, 24 medium, 24 large, 12 extra-large).
Tie-dye can be a fun summer activity.