adoption, family, parenting, PTSD

Tales from Our Bathroom: Adventures in Trauma Triggers and PTSD

fear ladder

Playing Uno in the bathroom? Go Fish? Perhaps a bathroom snack of apples and peanut butter? Sounds great, pull up a bath mat and let’s get started! Yes, that’s me, attempting card games with Little Mary in the bathroom floor. The bathroom is one of her biggest triggers. Right now we are attempting to gradually expose her to the bathroom in a non-scary way. We need to provide this corrective experience in order to lessen her fear.

In fact, Carl and Sean have the bathroom as a trigger as well. Whatever happened to them there must have been terrifying to stay with them years after being out of their bio home. Taking a shower or a bath can cause them to re-experience the trauma they suffered in this location. Then their “fight or flight” response kicks in and they panic.

For Mary, any added stress or anxiety in her life can exacerbate her fear of the bathroom. Recently, she has been showing us her elevated fear levels by fussing and tantruming before it’s time to take a shower. Mary has also been avoiding going to the bathroom unless someone waits outside the door and talks her through it. When she is finished she flushes, jumps off of the toilet, and bolts out of the room. She refuses to wipe, but she will wash her hands in the kitchen sink.Her fears include the mirror, having the door all the way closed, being alone, and being naked.

To alleviate her fears we have implemented the following:

  1. The door is always cracked open.
  2. Someone waits outside. Sometimes all of us wait outside. And we sing silly songs loudly and off-key.
  3. We play soothing music.
  4. We send in back-up. Mermaid Barbie to the rescue.
  5. We colored all over the mirror with Crayola Window markers. We made encouraging messages and silly pictures.
  6. We taped wallet-sized pictures of me on the mirror, next to the toilet paper roll, and yes, even in the shower. That way mom can be with Mary the whole time. Creepy? Maybe. But we’ll try anything.
  7. We let her go into the shower with a dirty shirt that has been worn by either Luke or me. This way it has our comforting smell, and she has the job to “wash it.”
  8. We play car-ride type games to activate the “thinking” area of her brain, because her emotional-survival brain is taking over. My favorite is the ABC game. You take turns naming your favorite food starting with “A is for ___” Next, the other person takes a turn but they have to repeat all of the other letters and foods that have been named, before adding a new one. You have to focus on your memory, language, and coming up with a food name. This can be awesomely distracting if you can engage the child before they become too escalated.

Despite all of our interventions, Mary had an incident one day when she refused to brush her teeth. Luke and I stood outside with the bathroom door open and promised to stay with her while she went in. She couldn’t do it. She screamed like she was being murdered. As Luke attempted to talk her down from her sobs, and I attempted to comfort Carl, she switched into “flight” mode. She turned and ran across the hallway with her head down and head-butted the door to the basement. Twice. It happened so fast we couldn’t even catch her and we were right next to her. I ended up in the ER with her, making sure she didn’t have a concussion. She has a bump and a bruise, but otherwise she is physically alright. The poor thing was so scared of brushing her teeth, that she preferred a head wound.

Currently Mary is in the midst of her Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT). She is writing a narrative with her therapist about the trauma she experienced in her bio home. I’m no therapist but I will try to paraphrase what I’ve learned about it. This particular kind of therapy helps the child to confront and process their past trauma with the support of a therapist. Our children’s therapist is amazing. She showed us (including Little Mary) a graph representing the research on what happens when a person represses and tries not to think about traumatic events in their past. When the past event is ignored and not thought about, temporary relief is gained. However, over time, the fear grows into epic proportions when the child is confronted with any reminders of the traumatic events. This causes all kids of maladaptive response behaviors, including Mary’s tantrums. She is a survivor and her brain’s “fire alarm” is going off, even when there is no fire. With TF-CBT, she is opening up old wounds, in order to heal them. Exposure therapy is intended to help her face her triggers, in this case, the bathroom, a little at a time.

In her last session, Mary was able to express why the bathroom was so scary. This is progress for her. Her therapist helped her to come up with a fear thermometer and a fear ladder. This helped Mary to see exactly how afraid she was in what circumstances. When Mary was able to express and quantify her feelings in this way, she gained a measure of control over her fear. A million thanks to this therapist who is putting Mary back in charge of her emotions. I believe there will come a day when she is no longer at the mercy of her past, her triggers, and her “big feelings.”

She still cries when she gets into the shower and screams for a minute before washing up. We will continue to reassure her that she is in a safe home now. Until she internalizes this safe feeling, we will be there. You can find me right outside the bathroom. Or inside, playing Hungry-Hungry-Hippo! We will take it one day at a time and we just keep working on it. She will never have to face these fears alone, ever again.

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

If you’ve ever considered fostering or adopting, I encourage you to start your adventure, today!

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adoption, family, fostercare, parenting

We Like Big Butts!: Adventures in Healing for Our Family

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Does it get better? Will there be mornings when I stop calling for Sean not to miss his bus? Maybe a morning where I remember he is gone before I start checking that he is ready for school?

This weekend Luke and I took our Littles to the “Big E” along with Seth and Catlyn. We went on rides and played games and ate impossibly unhealthy foods. We laughed and the children caught bead necklaces when the parade went by. We stuffed ourselves full of Kettle corn and zoomed down a slide twice as tall as our house!

Luke grinned and belly laughed with me and kissed me with abandon. Our kids squealed, “Ewww! Gross!” as children are supposed to do.

In short, we had fun.

We did pass by certain rides or food booths that brought up memories from last year. That is when I thought of Sean and I missed him. We saw things Marcus would love and I missed him, too. I wonder of they look back and think about all of the fun we’ve had as a family? Do they miss us as well?

At the same time, we saw our Littles relax and bond. Carl held Mary’s hand to make sure she wouldn’t be afraid. When they went on the little roller coaster together, she got so scared that she screamed for me the  entire ride. The whole time Carl held her hand and told her she wouldn’t die and that he was there and he loves her. That story is beautiful to me. It reinforces that siblings belong together. It lets me know that they are healing.

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The next day was their football game. Luke and I were sure to change our Little’s names on the roster so they would be announced with our family last name over the loudspeakers. After the game Carl was so proud that they announced his name during his many, many tackles. Mary said, “Yeah, they knew who I was, too!” She also commented that while she was cheer leading, she saw me jumping up and down shouting, “That’s my son!” to strangers.

Despite all of the turmoil, I think they are beginning to feel secure. I suspect they are attaching. During in-home therapy the littles were asked if they had any questions as to why Sean and Marcus aren’t living with us. Carl asked, “Why were they so mean?” I did my best to explain that Sean and Marcus were scared to get close to a mom and dad because they had been hurt so much before by a mom and dad. I said they were trying to do things that would push us away so we wouldn’t love them anymore. Carl looked incredulous. “Well it didn’t work!” he exclaimed.

As for Mary? She had a question about the family, too. She asked, “Mommy? Why does Daddy like big butts so much? ‘Cause he Really likes yours!!!” And if THAT is the most pressing question about our family? Well then, I guess we are doing alright! Although maybe Luke should lay off singing Sir Mix-A-Lot to me….but this Mommy’s got back and she cannot lie!!

yarypigs

**Names have been hanged to protect the privacy of those involved.
If you’ve ever thought about fostering or adopting, I encourage you to start your adventure!

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adoption, family, fostercare, parenting

Seeking Sean: Understanding Why He Can’t

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The Mother’s Day gift Sean made me with a deck of cards.

Why? Why on earth would he despise being in our family?? I have compiled a list of the horrors our family inflicted upon our teenage son, Sean. The perils of family life he faced include, but are not limited to:

1. Having to shower on the daily. Yes, that’s correct, we do enforce proper hygiene particularly for those in the throes of puberty.

2. Family dinners. That’s it. We just sit down at the table as a family. You don’t have to eat but you have to show up.

3. Taking out the trash. His only chore.

4. Be respectful to your family members, at least decently so.

Before he left, these seemed to be his triggers. I feel like the real list of complaints he has boil down to one thing only. The revised (and I believe truthful) list is this:

1. Having a mom and dad who set limits and enforce boundaries.

He couldn’t get used to it. He complained about it all the time. Ever since Marcus left he began threatening to do the same. It was usually about how if he didn’t get what he wanted or do as he pleased, then he didn’t want the family.

We sat down that day and made a little book about what our family responsibilities and roles are. Mom, Dad, the littles, and Sean all had a page. We wrote it together. We talked about it and agreed to it. That was the last thing we did with Sean, as a family.

Now, his place is empty at the dinner table each night. The last I heard he actually went into the same foster home Marcus is in. At least, Marcus will be there until October 24th, when he turns 18. Then he is going to his older bio-sisters home for a “big party.” Part of me is happy they are together. Part of me is cringing inside because my 14-yr-old baby is back in “the system.”

I want to make sure he is going to therapy. Given the history of Marcus’ mental health care during foster placement, I doubt it. I wonder who goes to him at night when he has nightmares? Who watches the cooking channel with him in the evenings? Who will hang up his art work and buy him all of those expensive art supplies? Who will hug him and tell him he is a wonderful boy?

No one. That is what a mom does. That is what he did not want. Sean used to wait for me each night for almost 45 minutes while I put the littles to bed and sat there until they slept. I didn’t want them to be scared. He didn’t want to be scared, either.

We would watch a movie or HGTV. The last movie we saw was “A Monster in Paris.” It was an animated musical and Sean sang all of the songs while cuddled up. I didn’t make him snuggle up or hug me. I didn’t chase him around to watch TV. He craved that time with me. Sean used to make little art projects for me and he would just glow when I put them on the fridge. Being his mother is rewarding but also exhausting at times. I would tuck him in at bedtime and rub his back. I would try to leave 2 or 3 times and he would beg for me to stay a little longer because he was scared. Just like a small child.

Some nights (when he was especially anxious or triggered) I was so exhausted my eyes would close and I would nod off while standing up. It took so long to put him down for the night. Now I lie down early to read or write before bed. I have time in the evenings. I still wish I appreciated the times he needed me, no matter how exhausting.

Sean didn’t like limits and rules. He didn’t like that Mom and Dad set them. He didn’t like it that Mom and Dad had “off duty” time at night to be with just each other. Sean wanted to be our only child, soaking up all of our attention. That tells me that he does want to be loved. However, he wanted to be our equal. Having control and being separate from “the kids” was a big sticking point for him. That tells me that he absolutely does not understand love.

Having a mom and dad is hard for all of our kids. It’s a foreign concept to them.  That would be like someone dropping off an exotic elephant and expecting me to know what to do with it. Even though showering and taking out trash are not torture, it must feel like it to someone who just can’t understand. The care, the limits, the very oversight of us must have smothered him.

I saw him one last time when he was in-patient. I brought him his favorite sketch books. I said what I needed to say. He looked bored, indifferent even. But I know my Sean and I saw that he was holding back tears. I was a mess just crying and distraught.  The conversation went something like this:

Me: I really do love you, you know. Very much.

Sean: Yeah. (Eye roll) I love you, too.

Me: I want you to know that you are very, very wanted. It was never a question of that. We always wanted you.

Sean: Yeah. I know.

Me: I’m so sad that you didn’t want to be part of a family. That it was so hard for you. I’m sorry it worked out like this.

Sean: Okay.

Me: I want you to be happy. I really hope that you find what it is you’re looking for.

Sean: Okay.

Me: I don’t know what else to say to you. I promise we will take very good care of the littles.

Sean: I know.

Me: You’re a great kid, Sean.

(Long pause)

Me: Do you want me to go?

Sean: Yeah.

That was the last of it. I can accept that he doesn’t want parents right now. I can accept that he wants to be with Marcus or maybe be like Marcus. I can even accept that he doesn’t want contact with us. He didn’t need to say anything to me that day. I needed to say what I said to him. What I cannot accept is the facade that being in a family was so awful for him that he just doesn’t care. I know he cared. It must have been harder than I can imagine but I know that it was good for him to be with us.

I can’t say if he will ever be with us again. Who knows? I can say that this experience was the hardest. It taught me that what we are doing with these kids, for however log we have them, is worth it. My joy, my love, my memories? They are worth the soul-shattering grief I am feeling right now. That time was worth everything. Being “mom” is worth everything to me.

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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adoption, family, parenting, PTSD

Smashing the iPod: Adventures in Accepting My Own PTSD

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My first thought is “Oh god, it finally happened. Someone’s been stabbed.” It was around 3 AM and Sean was standing over my bed with his arms stretched wide. A thick liquid was pooled on his head and dripping down his face. His arms and hands were covered in the stuff. I didn’t even hear what he was saying to me. My heart raced in terror and panic. I just began to scream and grab at Luke, my husband.

Glue. It was only glue. Sean had apparently woken up in the middle of the night and attempted an ill-fated art project that ended with the explosion of a bottle of Elmer’s. After crying hysterically and cowering into my husband, I realized what was happening. Just glue. I got out of bed and helped clean off my perplexed teenager. “It’s OK, mom. It’s not like this happened at a frat party or something,” he said. Not at all reassuring but, OK.

The thing that got to me was my reaction. I actually believed that Marcus may have stabbed Sean or Sean may have stabbed someone. It was my first thought. Waking up to children standing silently over the bed is nothing new. They do it all the time. They wake up and want to make sure they still have parents. It’s never scared me before. It’s slightly creepy to have someone watch you sleeping, but I understand why they do it. My reaction is new. I’ve been doing that a lot lately. I’m jumpy at loud noises. If I hear the kids yelling I often dread that it’s a fight or a tantrum. Usually it isn’t. But that feeling in the pit of my stomach? That’s new.

It started when Marcus finally moved in. It wasn’t his fault, certainly. I was afraid of him, though. I loved him but I was scared. As he began to chafe against family life, his anger was directed at me. He walked around with barely concealed rage just at the sight of me giving hugs to the littles or offering him snack. Sometimes he lashed out and punched his punching bag or the wall. The day he left he assaulted me by kicking me and throwing his phone at me. At the time I remained calm, yet firm. We are a house of no hurts and he would need to use a coping skill and take some space. He honestly didn’t leave a mark on me. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized how jumpy and nervous I was becoming. I haven’t slept well at all since then.

All of our kids have expressed aggression at one time or another. Little Mary used to have severe and prolonged violent episodes due to her trauma history. It wasn’t her fault and it was just as hard on her as it was on the rest of us. There were months in the beginning of bringing our children home where she would scream and attack me and rage for literally 5 or more hours. Living at home and walking through that with her was like living in a war zone. I was relieved to go back to work because no one was hitting me there. I spent the months of August and September sweating in long sleeves and long pants to cover all of my bruises. But all of that is long in the past. Our children still rage from time to time but the daily prolonged violence is gone. So, it’s all over, right? Then why don’t I feel safe in my home?

Sean has had a few outbursts but not many. Normally he is sweet and affectionate and loving. He is the child who is filled with hugs and snuggles. He is also the child who is over 200 lbs and is physically intimidating. Sean lost it last week. That’s not the worst part for me. The worst part is that I lost it last week. 

Sean had been upset for a few days about “having to be in a family.” He didn’t earn his electronics privileges over breaking some rules, and refused to hand over his iPod. He grabbed his things and started packing up to leave. I snapped. I yelled at him. I don’t often raise my voice at all but I yelled that if he wanted to leave, fine, take it up with the social worker. Then I snatched the iPod right out of his pocket. He shoved me and hit me and broke a window. Sean tackled me to the ground and I cut my leg on part of his bed. Little Carl started punching me and then Sean punched him and then Carl and Sean were fighting. Luke came in to break it up. He blocked Sean from chasing me. Mary ran and hid in her room with the door locked. I scrambled away and locked myself in the bathroom.

That’s not the worst thing by far. I was upstairs with the stupid iPod just shaking with rage. I was furious at being the “target.” I was mad at the fact that I felt weak and helpless and preyed upon. Why did I always get the bruises and the blood? Why? None of our kids target Luke presumably because he is larger and stronger than I am. I was furious with Sean but mostly furious at feeling so weak and vulnerable.

Everything I’d been holding in just hit me at once. I did the most illogical thing I could think of. I smashed the iPod. Then I dumped it into the tank behind the toilet and sat down in the floor and sobbed. Luke handled the whole thing like a pro. He was calm and assertive and let me hide in the bathroom while he handled things. I am so thankful that this man is the other half of my equation.

The police came. The ambulance came. Sean went to the hospital psychiatric in-patient unit. He has been there for a few days now and he is insisting that he won’t return home. Without Marcus and Sean in the house there really isn’t anyone to hurt me physically anymore. I still jump when a door slams. If the perceived threat is gone then why am I still scared??

I decided to see a therapist that I know and trust because I can’t seem shake this fear. I’m ashamed, really. I haven’t lived through even an iota of what they have lived through. I am a strong and stable adult. I should always be the calming influence in their lives. I shouldn’t yell and smash iPods. I most definitely shouldn’t be losing children. Losing Marcus was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. If we lose Sean? How do I even come back from that?

My therapist listened to my story and my symptoms. She told me I have PTSD from suffering my own trauma with our children. She told me I was a good mother, and I so needed to hear that. She told me that it was OK to be human and have reactions. She told me that it was OK to grieve for losing Marcus. She told me it was OK to grieve for Sean. Most of all she gave me permission to feel my feelings. I can’t and shouldn’t just “let it go,” because I love my boys. I will always be their mother. A part of me will always hold out hope, no matter what the boys say right now. The therapist says that I will still feel “jumpy” like this for a while and it may take time. I’m going to continue to see her because even though I haven’t been through what our children have, I know that I am affected by this. I need help, too.

The best thing happened with Little Mary, though. She saw me crying about Sean and she came over and snuggled up. She began to rub my back in broad circles, as I have done so many times for her. I heard her parrot my own words back to me, “It’s going to be OK. You are safe. I will stay with you until you feel safe. Here, have my blankie as a coping skill.” I was so proud of her. I think I might even be a little proud of myself this week. I’m not proud at all for losing it. But PTSD? I can acknowledge and accept the effects that this kind of intensive parenting have had on me. I can acknowledge that intensive therapeutic parenting has had a huge impact on little Mary, in a miraculous way. I am flawed and I am tired. But I am mom, and I will survive this, too.

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adoption, family, parenting

And Then There Were 5: Aftermath of a Failed Adoption

bedempty

There are no more boxing gloves in the basement. His bedroom walls are bare and his bed is stripped down to nothing. All of his Rubik’s cubes and puzzles are gone. I can’t even find one bottle of Gatorade left in the refrigerator. It’s official. No more 17-year-old. Marcus is gone. We’ve only got 5 little chickens left.

He came by to get his things this weekend. He didn’t say a word to me. I greeted him and helped him and asked how he was. Marcus would only address my husband. He wouldn’t make eye contact with either of us. Although he claimed to be mad I sensed guilt and sadness. I can still see through his facade.

Afterwards I tried to send him a message via Facebook to let him know that he would always have a place in our home and in our hearts. I received a brief auto message from Facebook that read “This person is not accepting messages from you at this time.”

I don’t think social media has ever been more insightful. It’s true. Marcus cannot accept a message of love at this time. He won’t hear me right now because he simply can’t. But is there someone who can hear me? Someone who needs me? It would appear so. After all, there are still 5 chickens running around, needing a mama.

Since Marcus left I have been grieving the loss of a child. I try not to let it affect my day-to-day interactions but I have felt such a sense of failure. I’ve been just so sad and so heartbroken. It took me a few weeks to notice that Sean was different.

It started when he emerged from the basement (the Marcus lair) and began to interact with his younger siblings again. Gone was the jealousy he had been presenting about his older brother “getting more stuff” or even “getting away with more stuff.” Instead we saw him laughing and participating in family art time or movie night or game night again.

Not long after that he began hugging me again and seeking me out for comfort. He made me a beautiful carved heart with needlepoint stitching in the middle. He never would have done this while Marcus was around. It seems that he is once again finding his equilibrium after the tornado that hit our family. The Marcus tornado.

Sean started high school last week. Our boy is now a high school freshman! The most amazing thing started to happen. He had one friend over to the house. Then two. Then he began asking to go to do things with a group of friends 2 or 3 times a week. He never socialized beyond Marcus before. Sean loves to be at home making sure the family is all safe and together. We’ve been waiting for him to start some outside friendships. I’ve been recounting tales of high school fun and hi-jinx for months now. Is he finally taking my advice?

Last night he asked me to tuck him in before bed. I know he’s 14 now, but it’s nice to give him the kind of mothering he never had before. As I rubbed his back and listened to him talk to me about friends and high school classes I realized something. He wants to be close again. I think I’m getting through to Sean.

I am still grieving my lost son. A part of me will probably always hold this grief. That empty space in his room is like an empty void inside of me.

But maybe it’s time to shift my focus. Perhaps I’ve lost in the struggle to help heal one child. But I am a part of the healing for another. Sean is flourishing. This child is beginning to “accept messages from me at this time.” Maybe Facebook can tell me all about it someday. Until then, this is enough. Isn’t it?

mfish
**The names in this blog have been changed to protect those involved.
If you’ve ever considered fostering or adopting, I encourage you to start your adventure!

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