Surviving Ophelia: Mothers Share Their Wisdom in Navigating the Tumultuous Teenage Years

Surviving Ophelia: Mothers Share Their Wisdom in Navigating the Tumultuous Teenage Years

by Cheryl Dellasega


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Surviving Ophelia: Mothers Share Their Wisdom in Navigating the Tumultuous Teenage Years by Cheryl Dellasega

Why are the teen years fraught with crisis for so many girls? Why do so many mother-daughter relationships deteriorate drastically at this time? When her own teenage daughter began to spiral out of control, therapist Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D., launched a nationwide search to find answers— and hope. In this inspiring, compassionate book, Dellasega shares the strength and the wisdom of mothers who have seen their daughters through the tumult of adolescence.

Drawing on the experiences of scores of mothers and daughters, Dellasega takes a hard look at the lives of girls in crisis—once happy, carefree children who are now struggling with eating disorders, unplanned pregnancies, substance abuse, and severe mental problems. These are stories of girls on the edge, and mothers who are trying everything to save them. Yet even in the most desperate situations, Dellasega hears the same clear message: the key to survival is the support and the understanding of others going through the same thing.

Surviving Ophelia is a book that provides the community that mothers of troubled teenage girls need more than anything. Powerful and heartfelt, this book captures both the pain and the strength of mothers who are living with the daily challenge of raising teenage daughters today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345455383
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/01/2002
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.52(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.54(d)

About the Author

“This courageous book offers clear insight and direction to mothers struggling with how to help their daughters restore their future while they reclaim their own lives.”
Co-author of Teens in Turmoil

“Thank you [Cheryl Dellasega] for showing mothers everywhere that we are not alone in our struggle to help our daughters. . . . Surviving Ophelia is mesmerizing and the truth of its stories resonates.”
—SUE WELLMAN, President
The Ophelia Project

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Turning Points for Better and Worse:
Facing Anorexia, Dishonesty,
and Separation

* * *

"Is Ellen losing weight?" my husband asked during her eighth-grade Spring Concert. Hearing this from a man who regularly took our daughter out in public with her clothes either on backward or rescued from the Goodwill bag made me pause. I, too, had thought she looked thinner in recent weeks, but knowing she was growing taller and maturing physically had offset my concern.

    That night I searched the crowd of children taking their places on the risers to sing and realized I couldn't find Ellen. There was a girl in the same blue dress I had bought for her, but she was too skinny to be my daughter—wasn't she?

    Impressions flashed through my brain: Ellen's recent remarks about the fat content of nearly every food she ate or didn't eat and her newfound fussiness about clothes. Hadn't she been a bit irritable, too?

    "I'll take her in for a checkup," I told Paul. "She needs a new asthma inhaler anyway."

    A week later, our family doctor confirmed that Ellen had lost twenty pounds since the previous fall.

    "Ellen, are you throwing up or not eating?" I asked, when we were alone, my heart pounding with fear. She hesitated before nodding slowly, causing tears to spill out onto her cheeks.

    Within days, she stopped eating completely and was then admitted, for the first time, to the eating-disorder program at a medical center in our hometown. We were told her stay would only be five days or so, but after thirty days she was still hospitalized and no better. I began to wonder: Was this just a passing incident, or was it an indicator of more serious trouble?

    Ellen ended up in institutions for over half of the next sixth months, losing twenty more pounds and missing both graduation from eighth grade and the beginning of high school. I knew what we faced wasn't a temporary problem—it was a crisis.

    There isn't always a specific event we can identify as a turning point, but several mothers clearly recalled a "moment of truth" when reality could no longer be denied. A few said (in retrospect) they had played "ostrich," trying to deal with what might be happening with their daughters by "burying their heads in the sand." The following story illustrates how one mother was forced to acknowledge that her daughter was leading a secret life.

A Moment of Unanticipated Clarity

The realization stung me as if I'd been slapped hard across my face. I understood in a word and a look what I'd avoided for a year: I'd been betrayed. My seventeen-year-old daughter, Sara, had lied to me and, because I wanted to believe her, I lied to myself. The way it happened was inevitable in a year marked by emotional opposites—hope, fear, peace, conflict, promises, disappointments—all melted together. Then, in a moment of perfect stillness, the reality I had been avoiding struck with absolute clarity.

    I was lying in our backyard in the hammock. My husband was puttering in the garden. My younger preteen daughter, Katie, was in the house giggling with her girlfriend as they tried on clothes for a pool party they'd be going to later on.

    I dozed off, waking to the sound of Sara returning from work with her friend Zoe. What I knew about Zoe bothered me: she had a car, didn't work, and had no rules to live by at home.

    Sara looked tired. Stubborn wisps of hair refused to stay in her topknot, and she had deep circles under her eyes.

    Sara had spent the previous night at Zoe's house. Before leaving, she had given me the evening's schedule that included some time, but not much, with her boyfriend, Josh, who supposedly had other plans with his guy friends.

    "Aren't you happy, Mom, that I'm going to have a girl sleepover, just like you always hoped I would?" she had asked. "We're going to do each other's makeup and hair and rent some movies. So don't worry, Mom. It'll be fine." She had been uncharacteristically chatty but I missed that part of our relationship so much I didn't question it—in fact, I was grateful.

    Now, they were making a quick stop at home before going out again. They came over to the hammock to say "hi" and tell me what was up. I asked what they did during the sleepover the night before.

    "How did Sara ever get you up to get her to work by seven this morning, Zoe?" I commented.

    Sara blurted out, "Josh took me."

    Realizing what she had said, she quickly came up with an implausible story of how a boy who I know can never wake up for anything went to Zoe's house at 6:30 A.M. to get her to work.

    I hadn't understood before. It was only then, when she turned on me, adopting the familiar arrogant tone of voice, and gave me a look that said "Don't push this, Mom," that I realized what she was telling me. Her life was not what I thought it was, and she wanted me to stay out of it.

    In that moment of pain, the sun could no longer touch me. I lay there thinking back to other conversations but with different interpretations: Sara using a belligerent tone when none was warranted, Sara giving sparse details, Sara impatient that I would even ask what her plans were. I never saw the subtext.

    My husband drove Katie to her party. Alone, I rushed to Sara's bedroom, a place I rarely went into anymore. I sat on the edge of her bed, looking at the furniture we'd happily picked out together and remembering how elated she'd been when we'd found a tie-dye border. Now this room was a dumping ground and a place to sleep.

    Clothes were piled high on the floor, but I was afraid to touch anything, feeling like a suspicious wife, driven to look for tangible proof of defection but desperately hoping not to find any evidence. All around me, there were undeniable signs of a life I couldn't imagine my daughter living.

    I picked up a T-shirt displaying a frightening image of the Cradle of Filth band and clutched it to my chest, inhaling deeply to get beyond the smell of stale cigarette smoke to the scent that belonged to the real Sara. The tacky kind of lingerie you'd expect to find in Frederick's of Hollywood was strewn over the floor. It was the room of a stranger that should have been in another house.

    There was nothing new that happened that day. It was just until then, I wasn't ready to absorb the choices she was making, but no matter how long I tried to delude myself, the truth was ultimately inevitable. You're never ready, you never want to acknowledge the unimaginable, but in some way, once you do, it's a relief.

Jan Marin Tramontano, New York

Turning points catch us unaware and pivot us in a direction different than the one we originally planned, changing our relationships with our daughters in an instant. Seeing the scaled-down version of Ellen on stage the night of the Spring Concert transformed her into a stranger. Like Jan, I wondered where the child I loved had gone. In a matter of days, it seemed as if the Ellen I thought I knew had been kidnapped and a gaunt, irritable girl sent to live in her place. I began to guard my words and actions, fearful of upsetting her. Mealtimes, once our main family downtime, became tense and unbearable. Here are some other situations that changed the lives of both mothers and their daughters, for both better and worse.

Starting Over and Over

It was October 7, 1996, and I was ecstatic. Even though we'd just made a permanent move after my divorce and I had a full-time job outside the home for the first time in my life, my daughter, Melody, was being admitted to the Beta Club in middle school. Previously, teachers had told me she didn't read well and was "barely teachable," but my mom, a retired schoolteacher, and I had worked to help my daughter. Now she was getting an award, and I had the pictures to capture the moment forever.

    Although my parents helped watch the kids while I worked many long hours, all I wanted was to go back to being a full-time mom and "be there" for both my kids. Before the divorce, I had enjoyed being a homemaker/mom, singing, and attending Bible studies. Through dating and chatting about this, I found a man to love me, the kids, and the cats. He spoke of the same "ideals" I had, but in the first year and a half of our marriage it turned out he had trouble fitting in and conforming to those beliefs.

    Melody took advantage of his inner battles and my working too many hours. She ignored our house rule "nobody in/nobody out;" if no parents were home, no company was allowed unless planned and approved, and she was to call before going somewhere and tell details and ask time restraints and so on.

    She ended up having to repeat tenth grade after her grades and attendance dropped. She also developed a solid smoking habit, confessed to trying many types of alcohol, a little "pot," and was picked up for shoplifting twice in one year. I got calls from sheriffs about that and late-night loitering. One day I got up to go to work and found my car missing—she'd stolen and wrecked it.

    We went through all the teen court classes and youth alternatives' classes and available counseling. Some of these counselors could have helped more or differently. The attendance counselor let it slip that sixteen-year-olds aren't actually required by law to attend school and that was all my daughter needed to fuel her apathy. After that, my groundings, positive reinforcements, scoldings, lectures, and tears had little effect.

    Three months ago I caught her skipping school one morning. I knew she was up, getting ready, and thought she had left with a friend to walk to the bus stop. I took my shower and then found myself in Melody's room to put away some laundry.

    She was there, squatting on her closet floor, hiding. I wanted to know why, but she kept silent. I was beside myself with anger and mixed emotions but had to go to my low-paying but steady-income job. Didn't she understand I had to work a menial job because I, too, had been overly boy crazy and only went through fifty-eight hours of college? My goal was for her to have a better future than mine.

    "Come on, Melody—I'll drive you to school," I said. Still, she was silent. I did some preparations for my day until I heard her crying and sobbing, actually freaking out on the phone.

    "Who are you talking to now?" I demanded.

    "My father!" she cried.

    "Why are you calling him long distance and crying and talking to him when you won't talk to me?" I shrieked.

    She eventually relinquished the phone. I wanted her to talk, but that was not going to happen for another three hours.

    Finally I announced my allegiance to her and her prominent place in my life and said: "Neither of us are going anywhere till you talk to me."

    I called in "sick" for work. We ended up talking and crying—it was a truly quality-filled day. She shared that she was five months pregnant and arranging for an abortion, but her ride had canceled and she'd wanted more money from her father to get a taxi.

    We prayed together and agonized over every possibility. She was set on getting an abortion—with or without me. I love her. I offered my support and dutifully drove her and held her hand. That was a weird day emotionally and mentally for both of us, but we ended up bonding.

    While we still have to get beyond our emotional scars and rebuild our "trust level," she confides more in me now and says she's sure learned her lesson and doesn't want to repeat any more "stupidity" (her word). She comes home on time and we negotiate better. I take the time to iron out all details with her—you see, I announced to my second husband that he no longer has any excuses for gallivanting and he must be the husband/stepdad we discussed on our dates because I quit my job outside the home and will do whatever necessary to put my kids first, at least for this summer. I may have to resort to a part-time job after school resumes, but Melody and her brother are more worthwhile and important to me than that nice retirement plan I'd accumulated.

Lori Stafford, Florida

And Baby Makes Two

I was not quite twenty years old when I gave birth to Tiffany, terrified of the responsibility of raising her properly. She would stretch me beyond what I thought were my limits—especially during her adolescent years!

    When she was twelve, we went to Virginia Beach so I could attend a weeklong conference. I was eagerly looking forward to an oceanside vacation with my daughter, who was enrolled in a program for teens whose parents were attending the conference. Tiffany was not very sure she wanted to be there.

    My daughter, an Aquarian who finds it imperative to do everything years before others, had decided twelve was the year of her independence. She had been sulky, belligerent, and noncommunicative for almost a year. There had been a new crowd of friends to hang out with in the neighborhood. She tried, then quit, smoking. She experimented with marijuana, and assumed a defiant attitude about contact with boys. As she became more secretive and withdrawn, our communication suffered.

    As the conference began, she and the other young people formed a tightly knit group. Their activities during the day were organized, and in the evening they were left to their own resources. Tiffany chose to spend as much time as possible with her new friends. We didn't see a great deal of one another except at meals, and at night in the motel. I would ask her about her day and she would answer in monosyllables. This was the stuff of sitcoms, so I attempted to deal with it humorously by answering my own questions in great detail in what was ostensibly her voice. Her looks were withering! Composure cracking, I alternated between patience and exasperation. This was, after all, my only vacation for the year, yet here I was with a sour-faced twelve-year-old who didn't wish to be there, and certainly not with her mother.

    One evening toward the end of the week, I was sitting alone on the beach thinking about our relationship, feeling frustrated and sad. My daughter was slipping through my fingers while I felt powerless to stop her from doing so. I heard voices and laughter coming toward the beach from behind me. A group of adolescents were walking on the beach, so occupied with themselves they didn't notice me. Especially occupied were Tiffany and Thomas, a sweet and charming boy a few years older. They were walking closely together, with his arm around her. I watched them from the distance, seeing the circle of boisterous energy the little group made.

    The others noticed me first. I heard them squeal, "Tiffany, your mother ..." elbowing her and pointing in my direction. She quickly slid out from under Thomas's easy embrace.

    I called her over to me. The group split apart not knowing quite where to go, but certain Tiffany was in big trouble. She stopped a few feet away from me, looking sullen and ashamed at the same time.

    I said, "Tiffany, did Thomas have his arm around you just now?"

    "Yes," she replied in a challenging, if somewhat shaky, voice.

    "Did you want him to put his arm around you?"

    Again, "Yes."

    "Did you think there was anything wrong with his putting his arm around you until you saw me?"

    "No." She wondered what I might be getting at. These questions were not what she expected.

    "Then don't ever let me catch you going against what you think is right, no matter who is involved. Not even if it's me."

    She stared at me in disbelief, trying to reconcile my stern tone with the grace of my message. Tears filled her eyes as she stared hard, seemingly right through me.

    That night the floodgates opened and she began to talk to me. This was definitely a turning point in our relationship. She never treated me like a stranger again. Thereafter, even if she knew I wouldn't like it, she found a way to let me know what was going on in her emotional and social life. Sometimes for really difficult things, she would let me know indirectly, by leaving a letter to a friend open on the table for me to glance at, or speaking loudly enough on the telephone for me to overhear something important. I understood. I had done the same with my mother.

Cie Simurro, Massachusetts

Journey to a Foreign Land

My daughter was a sophomore in high school when she came home and announced that her French class was planning a trip to France. I was divorced and although Sarah's father didn't want her to go, I was determined she would take advantage of this opportunity.

    I had begun working at home as a typesetter before the divorce. It was exhausting, mind-numbing work but it allowed me to take the kids to school and pick them up. I didn't get a vacation or holidays, but there was never enough money to go anywhere, anyway I didn't date because there simply wasn't time.

    When her chance to go to France rolled around in 1994, I simply went ahead making plans with Sarah, which meant devoting most of my weekends to helping her with fund-raising, a long, hard job. At the first parents' meeting, I learned that parents who wished to join the trip were welcome. I was thrilled and signed up immediately. My own high-school class had planned a trip to France back in 1965—but my parents had not allowed me to go, or even to participate in the fund-raising. I had been waiting over twenty years for this opportunity.

    My daughter was livid.

    "I don't want you to go. You'll be hanging around me and treating me like a kid. This is my trip and I want to be with my friends."

    I was stunned and terribly hurt. Obviously, I didn't want my trip to spoil her trip. The "chaperones" were given room assignments with other chaperones—not with their children—so I couldn't understand what was bothering her. I felt I was doing everything I could to give her a wonderful opportunity.

    After a while, she and I settled into a state of polite resignation. I was going on the trip and she was not going to be nice about it. It wasn't until we were in France that I learned from the other parents that my situation was not unique. All of their kids were being snots, too.

    We were in Tours when the blowup came. The teens were scheduled to go to a dance with another tour group. The adults were going to explore the old town with the teachers. We left the kids in the care of the tour leader and set off on our walk. We had a lovely time until we started back and saw a young girl approaching us. She was scantily dressed, heavily made up, and a member of our group who had not been accompanied on the trip by a parent. She announced that the dance had been canceled, and that the tour leader told the kids they could entertain themselves for the evening. She had been "driven" from the hotel by "some immature girls who were running up and down the halls with squirt guns getting everybody wet." One of the girls with the squirt guns was my daughter.

Excerpted from SURVIVING OPHELIA by CHERYL DELLASEGA. Copyright © 2001 by Cheryl Dellasega. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

1 Turning Points for Better and Worse: Facing Anorexia,
Dishonesty, and Separation11
~ A Moment of Unanticipated Clarity,12
~ Starting Over and Over,14
~ And Baby Makes Two,17
~ Journey to a Foreign Land,19
~ Lydia's Adolescence,20
~ Life with Lindsay,22
2 Living with Uncertainty: The Search for Why24
~ Choices,26
~ Letter to My Family,30
~ See Her Smile,33
3 Finding a Way Around Problems: The Magic of Music,
Communication, and Hugs37
~ Negotiating a Settlement,38
~ Sofie on Her Way,39
~ Rocker Mom,41
~ Between Mother and Daughter,44
~ The Challenge of Junior High School,47
4 Shared Vulnerabilities: Body Image, Fitting In, and
Ghosts from the Past50
~ Snickerdoodles,51
~ On the Perils of Being Different,52
~ Our Less-Than-Perfect Family Tree,56
~ In Her Interests,57
~ Mothering Ophelia: From Stroller Brigade to
Solitary Beat,59
part two Hoping to Help: Crises Big and Little
5 The Contrary: On Being Smarter, Prettier, or More
Unique Than Others69
~ Second-Born,71
~ Early Matriculation,73
~ The Worst Summer,78
~ Grading Oneself,81
6 The Power of Mother's Intuition: Making Mistakes,
Bullies, Lack of Trust, and Starting Over83
~ Bullies,85
~ Nothing but the Truth,88
~ Brandy Is Fourteen,90
~ In My Footsteps,92
~ Timed Connection,94
part three Interventions: On Our Own and with Others
7 Combating Depression, Eating Disorders, and Rebellion:
Professional Therapists and Mother Therapy99
~ Excerpt from "Losing Time,"101
~ Another Mother's Story,105
~ Losing Control,106
~ Feeling Through the Fog,107
~ 1981: Sprite Lost, Sprite Found,111
8 Institutions: Strangers Take Over Our Lives113
~ School Security,116
~ Child Retreating,118
~ Lost Shoes,125
9 Change of Struggles, Change of Scene128
~ Hiking Boots,129
~ Out of the Woods,131
~ A Miracle for Two,135
part four When Troubles Go On and On
10 Crazy Soup Emotions: Love, Anger, and Frustration143
~ History of Chelsea,144
~ On the Run,148
~ Seven Years in Hell,151
~ Out of Control,153
11 Grieving for Our Little Girl Lost: When Proms,
Graduation, and College Fade Away156
~ Double Difficulties,157
~ Tears from a Rose,158
~ Christy Lynn, My Little Princess,163
~ Emma's Stepmother,167
~ Being Kelly's Stepmother,169
12 Trying to Survive: Getting Through a Day, an
Afternoon, or an Hour173
~ Struggling Through,174
~ Breakdown,176
~ A Very Special Relationship,179
~ Letter to a Friend,181
~ Some Notes About a Mom,182
~ Prone,184
13 Discovering Boundaries: Saving Our Daughters, Saving
~ Grand Mother,189
~ How I Lost Control of My Daughter but Regained
Control of My Life,191
~ Change,196
~ All She Needs Is You,197
part five Part of the Picture: Significant Others
14 Ophelia: With and Without Fathers205
~ On My Own,206
~ Daddy Died, Leaving a Wife and Daughter,209
~ My Journey with Amanda,210
~ Skipping School,216
15 Little Girl Grown: Daughters Look Back223
~ Family Story,223
~ Cutting,226
~ Time Away,228
~ Celebration,229
~ Step by Step,233
~ Mother Lost,236
part six Into the Future
16 Where We Are Now243
Appendix: Where to Find Help247

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