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Lessons I Learned From My Children
I’ve always been a planner and a motivated person, so as a teenager, I had big plans for my life. Those plans all changed quickly, when at 16 I found out I was pregnant. My boyfriend, who was three years older than me, convinced me that we should have the baby and get married. I was really unsure about that, but wanted to do the “right thing”, so I went ahead and married him. It quickly became obvious that our marriage was not going to last, so I prayed for a girl because I knew it would be easier to raise a girl on my own.
My daughter was born three months after I turned 17. She was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. From that tiny little girl I learned what it meant to love someone unconditionally. She is now, and always has been, a loving and delightful person, a warm and open spirit. She’s a wonderful daughter and friend.
As most mothers do, I hoped she’d make better choices than I did and get to do some of the things I didn’t get to. But one winter day, when she was 20, while we were having lunch, I could tell there was something she wasn’t telling me. I finally asked, “What is it you’re not telling me?” She burst into tears and handed me an ultrasound picture. I was dumbstruck. I know my daughter very well, and was surprised she could keep this from me for five months. I told her everything would be fine, we’d make it work. I asked who the father was, assuming it was a guy from high school that I knew she’d been seeing. She started crying more. Turns out she had been dating a guy that I didn’t know about. The reason I didn’t know about him is because he was black and she didn’t think I’d approve.
I grew up in a small, very white town in the Midwest. A place where everyone looked the same and acted the same. I learned from my mother not to be prejudiced, and did not think I was. I thought inter-racial relationships were fine – for other people. I doubted that my husband would be able to accept this situation, and knew that my dad would not.
I am not proud to admit that I was devastated. What would other people think? And even worse, I doubted myself. I confided in a friend that I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to accept the baby. She said, “Yes you will. That’s who you are. You will love her unconditionally.”
I was in the room when my granddaughter was born. It was the most moving experience of my life. I loved her instantaneously. My daughter married the father and they had two more children, a boy and another girl. I am so blessed to have those kids in my life. They are the nicest, sweetest kids I’ve ever encountered. I’ve never given a thought to my earlier fears. And as for the rest of my family, they all stepped up too, and there has never been an issue. In this day and age, one wouldn’t think there would be an issue, but remember, I’m from a small Midwestern town, and attitudes change slowly, if at all.
A few years ago, my daughter started getting tattoos. I was not impressed. To me, tattoos were so trashy. I really hated it and couldn’t resist telling her so. Finally, I realized that it was her body, and if that was the way she chose to express herself, that was her choice. I still think it’s unattractive, but that just means I don’t have to get tattoos if I don’t like them. It doesn’t change who my daughter is, it doesn’t mean she’s “bad” or whatever other negative things I had previously associated with tattoos. It’s just a form of self-expression that doesn’t hurt or in any way affect anyone else.
So from my daughter I’ve learned unconditional love, that love is color blind, and to see beyond superficial things and accept people for who they are. My daughter is one of the most loving and open minded people I know, and she’s taught me to be more that way also.
My Oldest Son
After raising a daughter, and never having been exposed to little boys at all, I was not super excited when, 14 years later and on my second marriage, I found out that I was having a boy. I had viewed little boys as loud, messy, stinky, rambunctious and basically unnecessary creatures. And in reality, they pretty much are loud, messy, stinky and rambunctious! But they are also funny, adventurous, sweet, loving, and tender, at least at times.
I was secretly afraid that I couldn’t love another child as much as I loved my daughter, so I was glad I was having a boy. I learned there was enough love in my heart for both of them, and that it was completely different.
My son was diagnosed with ADHD when he was about 10. I had previously viewed that as an over-diagnosed condition that people used to medicate undisciplined kids. It’s easy to think that, until you have one of those kids, and you realize the struggles they go through. So I did my research, and did everything I could to help him learn to control his impulses. From making sure he got enough sleep, watching his diet, trying different vitamins and supplements, helping him maintain a regular routine, monitoring his homework, to trying different medications, we tried it all. Some things helped, some didn’t. I encouraged him in every sport and physical activity, but he just wasn’t really in to anything. The reality is, he has his own personality and he had to want to excel, or make changes, himself and sometimes he really just didn’t want to. He was content to just get by, and it didn’t seem like anything really motivated him.
Unfortunately, around the age of 12 or 13 my son was introduced to marijuana by another kid in our neighborhood. I didn’t find this out until many years later. But I knew by the age of 16 he was getting high on a regular basis, and he began experimenting with alcohol and other substances, legal and illegal. When he was 17 he was arrested for stealing cough syrup from Walmart. He was put on probation, but that did not deter him. He regularly failed his drug screens. He was sent to a drug education class. The very day of that class, he stole a bottle of vodka from a stash his dad had for a party. While we were outside having a party, my son was in the basement watching TV with friends. I checked on them regularly and suspected they were drinking something, and even looked for it, but couldn’t find anything. Around 11:00 pm all the other kids had left, but I couldn’t find my son. I went to the basement to see if he was there and found him passed out on the floor. I could not rouse him. I called 911. It’s fortunate that I found him when I did because as I was talking with the 911 operator, she instructed me to roll my son onto his side. Within one minute of doing that, he started to vomit, while still unconscious. Had I not found him when I did, I’m sure he would’ve choked on his vomit and would’ve died. He was transported by ambulance to the hospital where he had a blood alcohol level of.21 – almost three times the legal limit. We were at the hospital for hours, where he was given an IV and monitored until his blood alcohol level got below the legal limit.
Since he was still on probation, this was a major violation and his probation officer was ready to have him picked up and taken to juvenile. I just couldn’t see any benefit to that and we were allowed to send him instead on an Outward Bound trip for troubled kids. It was a two month trip in the boundary waters of northern Minnesota. I thought it would be a great experience for him, and over time he has admitted that it was, but in the end he was unable to make the changes he needed to make.
That was when I began to learn about addiction. Previously I had believed addiction was basically just a weakness of character, and calling it a disease was making an excuse for lack of self-control. I have since learned otherwise. Addiction issues often run in families, and have to do with your individual wiring. Just like some people are born with a predisposition towards diabetes or heart disease, some are also born with a predisposition to addiction.
In my typical fashion, I threw myself into trying to figure out how to control this and cure it. I embraced Al-anon and later Nar-anon. One of the hard lessons I learned in those meetings is that I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and I couldn’t cure it. That was hard for me to accept. My personality is such that I was sure with the sheer force of my will I was going to fix this thing. But in reality, all I did was drive myself crazy, and his behavior never changed.
Over the last four years, besides the Outward Bound trip, my son has been in rehab three times. He has been arrested on drug related charges at least three times that I know of. His last arrest was for stealing golf clubs while high on pain pills, and because he was already on probation for possession, the last arrest landed him in Drug Court. It was an option to keep him from being sent to prison. After only two months in Drug Court, he was sent to jail for 90 days for having numerous violations. At least that gave him 90 days sober, which was the longest stretch of sobriety he had had in years. He was then released to rehab, followed by a Sober Living facility, but he was on zero tolerance with Drug Court. Three months later he missed a drug screen, and that was it, they decided to terminate him from Drug Court. His attorney called saying a warrant had been issued for him and that he should turn himself in.
My son decided to run. He knew where he was going if he turned himself in. I begged him to come and stay with me until we could figure this thing out and talk to the attorney more, but instead he went to a friend’s. I knew where he was for the first 12 hours, I even stopped by there to see him. That was the last time I saw him on the outside. For two days I texted and called him but he wouldn’t answer my calls. He’d text back occasionally, telling me he was fine. I got a call from his probation officer, asking me if I knew where he was. I told her I didn’t, but that I was worried. She said the Drug Court team was very concerned that he would overdose. That thought terrified me. I was concerned that he was using, but naively, the thought that he might overdose never occurred to me. I decided I would turn him in if I could find him. Can you imagine what point a mother has gotten to if she is willing to do that? He still refused to answer my calls and would only text saying not to worry. He reached out to my sister, who arranged to pick him up, but he didn’t show. I was beside myself with worry.
The next morning I called the jail, and fortunately they had him there. I was relieved that he was in jail. At least then I knew he wasn’t dead. Later that day he called me. He told me that he overdosed on heroin the night before and that the paramedics revived him, and took him to the hospital. Once he was stabilized, they picked him up on the warrant and took him to jail. Up until that point, I disagreed with everything that had happened in Drug Court, the way they handled the whole situation. I was so angry with “the system” for what they were doing to my son. Then I realized how wrong my thinking was. They weren’t doing it to him, he was doing it to himself. I had been intervening for years, and this is where we had ended up. I decided that my way wasn’t working, and I was going to have to let go and just accept that maybe someone else’s way was what was needed, no matter how much I disagreed with it. That’s been a hard thing to accept, but I had finally reached a point when there was absolutely nothing else I could do to save my son. I had tried everything in my power, everything I could possibly think of, and he still almost died.
The next time I saw him was two weeks later when he had to go back to Drug Court for a hearing. He came in wearing the orange jail jumpsuit, with his hands shackled to his waist and his feet shackled. My heart was broken at the site of him. After court, the bailiff allowed him to talk to me before taking him back to jail. I put my arms around him and told him that I loved him. He laid his head on my shoulder and cried. I had previously told him if he went to prison that I wouldn’t be visiting him, he would be on his own. But when it came down to it, I knew I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t kick him when he was down. I told him I knew I had said that, but that I would be there for him, that we’d get through this.
Two weeks later was his final court appearance, when they’d terminate him from Drug Court and sentence him to two years in prison – for possession (a crime against himself) and stealing golf clubs. I will never agree with this sentence. I think restitution would’ve been appropriate, or any number of other sentences, but two years in prison for a set of golf clubs? We paid more in court and legal fees than the golf clubs were even worth, the victim got no restitution, though he did get his clubs back. I’m still struggling with the “justice” in this situation.
I was literally sick to my stomach while I sat in court waiting for the inevitable. When the judge issued his sentence, the tears started flowing. I’m usually fairly stoic, hold my emotions in, and certainly don’t display them in public, but I couldn’t stop myself.
After court, my son asked the bailiff if he could talk to me and this time the bailiff wouldn’t let him. I was on the other side of the rail, only three feet away, like the previous time. He was shackled as before. I said, “Please, I’m right here. Please let me talk to my son!” He said, “No! Stay back!” As if I was going to leap the rail or something. “Please! Please let me see him!” I was sobbing. He grabbed my son’s arm and shoved him through the door. I’ve never cried so hard in my life. I was inconsolable. I sat down in the court room and bawled as everyone else filed out. A woman I had never seen before came up to me and said, “Are you his mother?” She put her arms around me, and just hugged me while I cried on her shoulder. She told me it would be fine, that maybe this is what would save his life. She talked to me like that for 5 – 10 minutes until I calmed down. I will never forget her and the kindness she showed me that day, and if I ever encounter a person in such distress as I was that day, I hope that I will have the compassion to respond in the same way.
My 20 year old son is now serving his sentence at a state penitentiary not too far from me. I’m able to visit him every other week. It’s so hard to go there. To drive up to the facility, see the guard towers and razor wire fences and know that my son, my little boy, is locked up there. That he’s in a dangerous place, that “rehabilitation” isn’t even a concept in prison these days. That his first cell mate was a convicted murderer, that he’s in with drug traffickers and child molesters. Again, I fail to see the “justice” here. And there’s not a single thing I can do about it.
As I sit and wait for him to enter the visitors room, I feel so out of place. I’ve always been a “good girl”. I never imagined anything like this would ever be part of my life. Then my son walks in, and he smiles his big smile and I’m so glad to see him, so glad that I can see him. I know that other parents’ children haven’t survived their drug addictions. And I console myself that at least he’s alive, and I can still see him and talk to him. I cry when I hug him, and he says “It’s OK momma, I’m OK”.
So from my son I’ve learned that sometimes things aren’t fair and there is nothing you can do it about it, and that’s just life. I’ve learned that some people, for whatever reason, have to learn the hard way. I’ve learned that we all have our own journey, and that his journey isn’t my journey, and I have to let him have his journey, regardless of how hard it is for me. I’ve learned that when you love someone unconditionally, you love them even when they make bad choices, but that I need to learn the difference between loving and enabling. I’ve learned that addiction is not a weakness of character, and that I should not be any more ashamed of having a son with the disease of addiction than if he was diabetic or had cerebral palsy or a heart condition. It’s a condition, it’s not who he is, and just like other medical conditions, it can be treated. But it does not have to define him.
My Youngest Son
There is only 17 months age difference between my sons. I wasn’t particularly ready for another baby at the time, but what was I going to do? My youngest was the sweetest, most loving and patient baby ever. Two small boys were quite a handful and my daughter willingly and lovingly helped out without ever complaining.
I always knew my youngest son wasn’t like the other boys. He liked playing dress up with his girl cousins, and loved playing with dolls. He didn’t care for action figures, like his brother, but he loved girls. He was quite a flirt even. Once at a restaurant when he was about 6, he saw a teenage girl that he thought was pretty. He wrote his number in crayon on a piece of paper, walked up to her table and laid it down and said “Call me sometime!” I admired that boy’s confidence! He always had tons of girls that were friends, and even some girlfriends. The girls loved him.
When he was about 10 I took him to a therapist for some family related issues, and the therapist commented that he was “an effeminate little fellow”. I was somewhat offended. When he was around 12 I took him to my daughter’s salon for a haircut, and one of her co-workers, a gay man, commented that “your little brother pinged my ‘gaydar'”. Again, I was offended. But my daughter always told me not to be surprised if one of these days we found out he was gay. I just didn’t believe it. For one thing, I had no experience with that, for another, in my family it would be totally unacceptable, and to his dad – well it would just not be anything that could ever be discussed, let alone accepted. I thought it was fine if it was someone else’s kid, but whole other story if it was mine.
At the end of 8th grade, I began to see warning signs that something was wrong, emotionally, with my son. He came to me crying one night, saying that he needed to see a therapist, but he didn’t want to tell me why. He ended up talking to his pediatrician, who could not tell me anything, or give me any guidance about what I should do to help him with whatever was troubling him.
That summer I began to see pictures on his Facebook page that concerned me, him with an older boy, his arm around the boy. I felt very uneasy. My son was becoming more and more difficult to deal with. Then we found out he was experimenting with drugs. After the first drug incident, my older son asked me if I’d seen his brother’s arm. I hadn’t. He said I needed to. It was a very hot summer day and I had noticed that my son had been wearing a long sleeved jacket all day. I went to his room and told him I wanted to see his arm. He said, “No mom, it’s OK.” I said, “Show it to me right now.” I was physically trembling because I could not imagine what he’d done. He finally took his jacket off and there were two 2 inch cuts, probably each an eighth of an inch wide on his forearm. They were fresh, but he had them taped up. My handsome, intelligent, loving, motivated son was cutting himself? I could not begin to understand. We went to the stress center, to the doctor and any place else I could think of that day. All I got was that he should see a counselor and the cuts weren’t infected. So he started seeing a counselor, and things settled down for a while.
One night at the beginning of 9th grade, he came in to my room and he was mad because he wanted to spend the night with a girl and I wouldn’t let him. He didn’t think that was fair, but I didn’t think 14 year old boys and girls needed to have sleepovers. He was getting more and more angry, and I could tell there was something he wasn’t telling me. So I asked him what he was trying to say, still totally unaware of where this was going. He said, “You should know”. “I don’t know, so why don’t you tell me”. He said, “You’ve known me for 14 years, I shouldn’t have to tell you!” He was becoming very upset. “What is it buddy?” I asked. He said, “I’m gay.” I still didn’t believe it and I said, “Who told you that?” He said, “No one told me. I’ve always known it!” Then he left my room in tears. I went to him, put my hands on his face and said, “It doesn’t matter. I love you, I will always love you. I don’t care.” I put my arms around him and hugged him.
The truth was I was extremely concerned. His dad is an alpha male and a homophobe. I was terrified of what would happen if he found out, physically afraid of what he might do to both my son and me. We were still married at the time and I was not in a financial position to get a divorce and support the kids. I told him that dad could never find out, and neither could his grandparents. My motivation was to protect him.
So I did what I always do when I don’t know how to deal with a situation. I look for people who can help me. I called my best friend from childhood, whose son had come out to her at 18, and talked to her for a long time. She was a wonderful help. She told me about PFLAG, a support group for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. I contacted them and met with some of their members and went to a few of their meetings. They were wonderful. It’s been amazing to me that complete strangers can be more loving and supportive than my own family, but that’s what I’ve found in any support group I’ve attended. I also reached out to a support group for gay and lesbian teens, again they were so helpful. I asked my son if he’d like to check out the place for teens. He adamantly refused, saying he didn’t want to hang around with those kids.
He never mentioned anything about being gay again. A few years later his brother told me that the reason he’d told me he was gay was so that I’d let him spend the night with girls. My youngest son is extremely manipulative, so I began to think that it was all a big hoax. He went to prom, went out with girls. He was very metrosexual, but I thought maybe that was the extent of it.
Last spring, after a year of college, my daughter again noticed pictures on his Facebook page, and mentioned it to me. Then one day she was cutting his hair before he left on a spring break trip with his dad, and he confided in her that there was someone special he was seeing, and showed her some pictures of the guy. She was concerned that his dad would find out on the trip. That is exactly what happened. During the trip my son was drinking heavily and his dad was also concerned about potential drug use, so while my son was in the shower his dad looked at his texts. He saw more than he bargained for. My son had actually been sexting with his boyfriend. My ex-husband was shocked. No one wants to see anyone else’s sexting, but especially when it reveals your son’s homosexuality and you’re not the kind of guy who’s open to that. To my ex-husband’s credit, he did not say anything about it at the time.
After they got home, he called me to tell me about his concerns with the drug use, then told me about the texts he’d seen. I said, “I’m sorry you had to find out like that. I hoped you’d never know. He told me about four years ago.” The reason I hoped he’d never know is that I knew he couldn’t deal with it, and I didn’t want my son to face that rejection.
As I drove my son back to college that day, I told him “Dad knows what’s going on.” “What does he know?” he asked. I told him his dad knew everything. He turned away from me in the car and started crying. I put my hand on the back of his head and said, “I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care. I love you just like you are. I’ve always loved you. I will always love you. Nothing will ever change that. You are my son, you will always be my son.” I told him I was sorry that I had not been a better support for him. Since then, he has been far more open with me, even introducing me to someone he was dating.
To his dad’s credit, he has handled this far better than I could’ve hoped. Though I don’t think he will ever accept the fact that his son is gay, he has not rejected him. He stays in regular contact with him, though he has told him he does not want to meet any of his “friends”, and has maintained the same kind of relationship with him as he had previously. That’s such a huge relief for me.
I have tremendous regret that I was not a better support for my son when he was in high school. That must’ve been such a burden for him to carry, to feel like he couldn’t be himself with his own family. After his dad finally found out, I asked my older son if he knew. He said, “Yes, I’ve always known. He’s my brother, I love him.” And of course it was never an issue for my daughter. The rest of the family still doesn’t know, and I don’t see why they need to. As one of the people I talked to at the support group for teens told me, it is not my job to out him. Besides, why is it anyone’s business what his sexual preferences are? It isn’t.
My son has taught me to be accepting of other life styles. Not that I wasn’t before, I thought it was totally fine for someone else’s kid. But I guess the definition of acceptance is when you can accept things as part of your own life that are different from the lifestyle or choices that you make.
I’ve learned a lot from my kids. I recently told a friend that I think I got these three kids because I had a lot of lessons I needed to learn, and they’ve helped me learn them. She said, “Maybe they got you because they needed someone who’d love them unconditionally for the people they are.” I almost cried, because I don’t think I deserve that much credit. But this is what I do know, I was blessed with three smart, funny, beautiful, loving children, and I’m so lucky to have them. I am a better, more loving, accepting and tolerant person for having had the privilege of being their mom.
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