adoption, family

Plot Twist

It is a strange thing, how this quarantine has affected the family. There was a time when large amounts of relatively unstructured time at home with us would have sent Mary over the edge. During school vacations or weekends she would tantrum and rage. Therapists would always remark that these school holidays were typically “slow times” for their agencies. They would marvel at how our children’s responses were completely upside down from the “normal” problems they encountered. Yeah, I know, major plot twist!

Inwardly I’d groan and roll my eyes because attachment difficulties present quite differently than other emotional problems for children. The agencies responding to our crisis calls or dealing with outpatient clinical services were unaware of this difference. Being home was harder for our kids. As in, they typically were worse around their attachment figures aka “parents.”

These days everything is different. Mary used to have a disorganized or “push/pull” interaction with Luke and I. She would rage at us yet seek to control us and keep us near. At times it seemed as though she were desperate to possess me while simultaneously despising me.

These days Mary trusts us more. She’s transitioned into a desire to be with her parents every second of every day. Her need for attention is still exponential but gone is the need to push us away. She is insecure about her ability to function or survive without us but she is much more comfortable with us around. Thanks to Covid19 we are ALWAYS around.

Friends with children like ours would often proclaim the benefits of homeschooling. To me it seemed that the opposite would be true. Why remain home with a child raging at you all the time? Wouldn’t that just trigger their attachment related panic responses? Who would benefit from this?

I suppose I was drastically wrong. Mary is absolutely flourishing right now. Although she checks on her parents every hour or so, she is much more calm and regulated. Anytime she wants to, she can reassure herself we are still here. She’s even happy that no one ever leaves the house. In fact, she’s dealing with this lockdown better than any of the rest of us.

I’ve been hesitant to write about our family’s quarantine experience. Mostly this is because I know it’s different than a lot of people’s. We are fortunate that I can work remotely so our finances haven’t changed much at all. The money we used to spend at restaurants or for sporting/social activities for the kids now goes to the increase in grocery prices. We are so lucky to have not been seriously financially impacted.

Luke and I had the last living donor kidney transplant in our area the morning of the day that a pandemic was declared. Many people are still waiting on this life saving procedure. We were able to recover in the safety and comfort of our home while others had to wait. How lucky is that?

At the time of the procedure, Luke and I were bracing for emotional fallout from the kids. Could they cope with our recovery? Would they worry during their school days? Would we see an increase in maladaptive behaviors? Well, we shouldn’t have worried so much. We should have known there’s always a plot twist.

Today, our children continued to function with relative ease. Marcus is continuing online classes. Carl misses his friends but he is managing as best he can. Luke and I get to spend a lot of time together. He has become more of “himself” now that his kidney function has returned. However, it’s not all rosy

My mother-in-law came to stay with us the week following surgery. She wanted to help out with the children for a week or two. At the time, I was concerned about two full weeks with her. I love her but we do not see eye-to-eye. Two weeks seemed like a LOT of time to be in the same house. That was before the lockdown.

We are going on 10 weeks now. She was unable to return to her previous living situation. It’s been stressful and frustrating. When I want to see my own parents I bring a lawn chair and sit outside their house. We yell to each other from across the lawn. I miss my own mother’s hugs and comfort. I’m doing my best to manage with that. Meanwhile, Mary is handling everything SO WELL.

Her mornings always start with a super-cheerful, “Good morning mommy and daddy!!” As she prepares to spend another entire day with us. There’s no need to go anywhere or do anything. Again.

It’s time I took a page from Mary’s book. You’d think by now I’d be used to the fact that nothing turns out how we think it will. I’m working on it.

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

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adoption, family

Murphy’s Law

Sometimes, every single thing that can go wrong will absolutely 100% go wrong. This is the turning point. It’s the beginning of the end of things, or at least this cycle.

Marcus is always in-and-out, push-then-pull, loving-then-running-from family. I’m pretty sure he’s on his way out again. At this point it seems like a matter of time before the volcano erupts, sweeping our family dynamic under mounds of smoking viscous deluge. Let me start at the beginning of this particular ending.

The weekend began with temperatures well below freezing and a snowstorm in the forecast. Luke and I awoke to a frigid morning wrapped in murky gray winter sunlight. There was no cheerful burbling noise from the radiator. We could practically see our breathe…inside the house. Our furnace was out. On a holiday weekend.

After several phone calls where cheerful operators offered to send a technician out to fix the problem AFTER the long weekend, we found someone willing to work a Saturday. At first he thought it was an easy fix, maybe a few hundred dollars. Would we like it fixed today? Yes!

Marcus borrowed the car and left with his girlfriend. Mary, Luke and I made our way to the grocery store for warmth and (as an afterthought) some groceries. Right before snowstorms, a New England market resembles a post-apocalyptic horror film. As we fought our way through panicked shoppers we got the call. The furnace fix was actually more of a replacement-situation. It would probably run over $2,000. Super.

In the parking lot of the grocery store Marcus suddenly appears in a full panic. He is shouting, pacing, and waving his arms in a frantic jerky motion. It’s hard to tell what he’s referring to or when he arrived.

“They f-ing did it, man. Some guys f-ing got me. What the hell?! Why does this sh-t happen to me?!!”

I couldn’t understand what he was trying to tell me as he interspersed his rant with spurts of anger against bystanders. In the grocery store parking lot, patrons driving or walking by were met with Marcus yelling and charging at them.

“What the F–K are YOU LOOKING AT?! I bet you’re f–ing in on it. You like this, A–HOLE?!?!!”

I wedged mysef between the raging Marcus and the bewildered bystanders. Eventually he ushered me over to our SUV and showed me a completely shattered rear glass panel. A disjointed story followed peppered with expletives and semi-delusional statements of paranoia.

It seems some sort of road rage incident ended with 2 men in a pickup truck cutting Marcus off, getting out and smashing one of the SUV windows. Marcus is so full of panic and rage that he’s convinced someone from his ex-girlfriend’s past has hunted him down in our state. Also the local shoppers may be in on it.

He is yelling at me, yelling at passerby, and completely out-of-control raging. Mary begins to sob, both kids are shaking and glass bits continues to fall out of the window as the winter wind blows. Marcus is enraged that he moved out of the city to get away from being jumped and it’s happened in our sleepy town. He is not safe anywhere.

Once we are home I wisely give him an Ativan before the police come to take his statement. There’s nothing they can do except go back to the area to see if the pickup truck returns. Marcus, however, can’t hear this. Even after the officer leaves, Marcus gets progressively drunk on corona and collects a skin cell from the smashed window with my tweezers. He places this in a ziplock bag CSI style, convinced he’s cracked the case.

I try in vain to explain to Marcus that this kind of forensic evidence is too costly and won’t be pursued. He won’t hear me. He is raging and yelling about how he plans to escape the “next time” someone tries to tie him up. He has plans about being stabbed and beaten as well.

At this point it’s been close to 4 hours since the incident. I’ve had a hot shower, the heat is on and everyone is home safe. But Marcus is ranting and yelling and has not stopped for even 5 minutes. He’s calling friends from the city to back him up. He’s threatening to cut off fingers, steal a car, and commit various and sundry crimes to any and all that are “after him.”

This rage lasts a whopping 48 hours. He stays up all night. The next day at 1:30pm he wakes up screaming at his siblings to be quiet because no one should be making noise in the house. Because he is in an irrational place he focuses his anger on Carl. He is mad about things that aren’t actually even happening.

Luke and I keep them apart and contain Marcus as best we can. We do not allow Marcus to drive in this state. Carl is afraid of him and sleeps in the living room. Meanwhile Marcus locks Carl out of the bedroom without his shoes.

By the 3rd day Marcus is calm but depressed. He wants a job. His siblings are spoiled. He can’t understand why I haven’t written him a resume yet (?!) or why we ask him to be quiet in the middle of the night, yet we make noise in the daytime. He’s frustrated he doesn’t have his own room. He wants his own car. According to Marcus he is over the incident and it never bothered him in the first place.

Today Luke is having a talk with him. The truth is that once Marcus’ trauma is triggered he cannot think clearly at all. He can’t hear anything we say. He has little to no concept that he’s just raged out of control for 2 days. He is unaware that his actions affected others. He doesn’t remember most of it.

However, our heat is fixed. The snowstorm is past. Now it’s time for all of us to dig out and keep going. Hopefully, Marcus will stay. However, I see the signs of an awakening volcano in our forecast.

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

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adoption, family

Christmas Crisis

Christmas is upon us. This is one of my favorite times of year but also the most stressful time of year for Mary. We don’t really know why. It is some history of trauma and all we know is that this time of year is HARD for her. Therefore, one of my favorite holidays has become hard for all of us.

Unsurprisingly, Mary has been having tantrums. For the most part she only destroys the things in her room. She isn’t violent towards us right now and I am grateful for that. However, it is still a struggle to maintain a cheerful outlook amid all the screaming.

A lot of Mary’s anger is directed at Carl. She can be incredibly cruel to him. That normal sibling stuff turns into something darker here. For the most part, Marcus and Carl spend lots of time in the teen basement lair, avoiding her. Since she is terrified of the basement it works out. Unfortunately, this has the unintended side effect of separating Luke and I from our boys.

A large part of parenting Mary involves therapy. We have an in-home program now for 8 hours per week of in-home support. There is a therapeutic mentor who takes Mary into the community. They work on social skills, independence, and regulation. This component of the program is worth it’s weight in gold. Therapeutic Mentor is a young intern working on her Master’s degree. She has great ideas and insight when it comes to complex trauma.

Then there is In-Home Therapist. She comes out once a week for individual session with Mary and once for family session. She is quiet, unobtrusive and about as effective as old dishwater. Through a series of long pauses, meandering half-finished metaphors and general silence we usually complete some kind of art project.

None of us is particularly clear on what we are working on or how it pertains to family life. We never EVER discuss how we can all function or work better together as a family. We never bring up any unpleasantness that has happened. In-Home Therapist cuts that talk off immediately with phrases like, “Mary, no one is mad at you. We are here to support you.”

In short, In-Home Therapist is useless. Luke and I are struggling with the idea of remaining in this program. Should we try to ask for a different family therapist? Is there one available at all? That’s actually unlikely as the program is spread thin around the state. If we leave this program we could get in-home services from a smaller program with fewer hours and no in-community mentoring. Should we?

The other night Mary screamed in her room for close to an hour. We called the on-call emergency line for her therapy program. Oddly enough, that turned out to be just an answering machine. It took close to an hour for them to call us back. By that point Mary had screamed herself to sleep. The on-call provider gave us the sage advice to let her sleep.

I am questioning if this program is even helping. At one time I thought intensive in-home services could divert Mary out of residential. Now I realize they never would have been able to help with Mary in an unstable psychological state. At least I know we did the right thing at the time.

Now, I have no idea what to do. They are here for a few more months. In-Home Therapist isn’t the worst clinician we ever encountered. She isn’t doing any harm. She also isn’t helping. I’m not sure how we will handle things.

All I really want is a cup of hot cocoa and some time with my boys. I may just venture into the basement today.

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

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adoption, family

New Beginnings

Sparkling white snow blankets our yard like the heaviest of down comforters. Close to 10 inches of fluffy white has the effect of muffling all sound outside. For once, the forest is silent and still. I could scream and shout but my noise would be swallowed up in winter’s thick insulation. I have always believed that snowflakes start the world anew.

In typical New England fashion the pristine powder will eventually turn brown and grey from cars traveling by. What was once beautiful will become a dirty, muddied slush from use. However, none of that is visible now. I cannot see mud or dirt underneath the powdery blanket. For now, all I can see is the sparkle of a pure white expanse. All is beautiful. All is calm.

Inside my house the fireplace crackles and Christmas lights twinkle. I wrap both of my hands tightly around a steaming cup of peppermint mocha coffee. Meanwhile, Marcus struggles into his uniform shirt for school. I am inexplicably moved to tears. School! My oldest son has started college. Could I have even imagined this six years ago?

I hastily blink away the moisture while he is busy determining how to get his cast through the right sleeve. Marcus broke his wrist punching his bag that we keep in the basement. He was mad. This is behavior I’ve become accustomed to from Marcus. He damages himself to deal with feelings.

Enrolling in a technical school to pursue his goal of becoming an electrician? This is something I wasn’t sure if he would ever do. After the incident where he was terminated from Job Corps due to an anger outburst, he seemed resigned to failure. Somehow he has managed to pick himself up and start over at a technical college. I am overwhelmed with pride that he is actually doing this.

The sound of Marcus driving off is absorbed by all of the snow. The rest of us are off on a snow day today. Alone in the quiet once more I busy myself in preparation. In the kitchen I gather up ingredients to make slime. I’ve selected an art project and a science project to do with Mary today.

This is the day we will have fun together. For the time being I will let her sleep-in while I relish the silence. Today feels full of possibility.

Staring out at the pure white expanse that has become my world, I exhale.

Today is a day for new beginnings.

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

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adoption, family

Harder Than I Thought

It’s hard not to feel like I’m failing at this. Each day I wake determined that today is the day I will have a positive experience with my daughter. Today I will spend time with her and let her know she’s special. I’ll be the type of mom who makes her feel loved. I’ll be the type of mom I used to be.

“Today is the day.,” is the line I repeat to my reflection in the mirror.

Except it’s not. It never is.

Most of Mary’s behaviors are designed to get my attention. They stem from a place of deep trauma and fear. Terrified of abandonment, Mary latches onto me in a death grip. She’s too loud, too close, too rough, too forceful. It’s all based on fear.

Logically I know this. It’s my job to soothe those fears and calm her storm. My presence should regulate her. Time together should reassure her that I love her. I will never abandon her.

Except that’s not what happens. It never is.

These days I think she sees how I avoid her. I reflexively flinch away sometimes when she surprise-hugs me. I’m critical and snappy. I’m always in a state of frustration or exhaustion.

Long ago I had endless amounts of empathy and patience. Somewhere along the way it seems to have dried up. I’m too tired deep in my bones. Therapeutic parenting seems out of reach. Parenting in any form seems out of reach. Between the kicked-in doors and smashed Christmas lights, I’m worn out before family time even begins.

I stumble through each day gritting my teeth and trying not to snap at Mary. She argues with Carl nonstop. She’ll bully him when she thinks she won’t be heard. She’s attempted to pretend he pushed her or took something of hers. She yells and stomps and slams things. She’s Mary. She’s just living her trauma.

Most of all, she never wants me to interact with him. I feel so isolated. So tired.

Mary yells random Christmas facts directly into my face if I start speaking to someone else. Mary will aggressively shove herself between me and any cashier/bank teller/barista I start talking to. In a desperate attempt to be heard she’ll begin rapid-fire speaking without breathing. Her body will jump up and down and her volume will increase until she’s shouting and grabbing at me. People stare in the grocery store. I should be used to it by now.

“Is your daughter alright?” They’ll ask me.

The in-home family therapist has been doing weekly sessions with us since September. We haven’t once addressed any of this in a session. I recently requested we work on coping skills to help with sharing mom. At least something to keep Mary and Carl from killing each other. It seems like the transition home from residential should include therapy around how to work together in a family setting again. Why 4 months have to go by before this occurs to the therapist is beyond me.

In-Home Therapist thought about it and agreed. She was very proud of herself for an idea she researched. We were all going to (finally) address family interaction. It was something about a river as a metaphor for family life. Every member drew a tributary and we all connected them together in a large art project.

The session was a bust. In-Home Therapist was quiet and timid. She let Mary yak over her completely with an incessant monologue about school adventures. The therapist quietly let us “lead” session and then asked a few questions about beavers and fishing. She never fully explained the metaphor or related any of it to family life.

Later I asked Carl what we learned in session. “I don’t know,” he shrugged. “It was something about agriculture.”

I know that Mary deserves better. She carries deep shame with her. She fears being unloved. I know I need to be mom enough to give her unconditional love.

I do love my daughter.

I’m not showing it well. I have to do a better job.

I’ll try again tomorrow.

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

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adoption, family

Breathing in the Frost

Sharp, pointed prickles of cold gather in my throat as I lean out of my door and inhale in the early darkness. The mornings here are covered in a paper thin layer of icey white frost. New England Fall crackles with the cold white promise of winter to come. The world is dark and quiet at 4:00 am.

Startling from my nature induced revelry, I shut the door against the cold. What am I always telling the children? We aren’t paying to heat the front lawn.

I rise at this time every day to study for my Boards. I have a week left before the big test will tell me if I am certified in ABA or not. At this point all of the “solistic mand extensions” and “conditioned motivating operations” bleed together in my thoughts like a load of whites washed with one red sock. How am I going to remember all of this?

At 5:45 Carl gets up for school. Some days he screams and yells. Some days he quietly walks to the bus. I wake Mary at 6:00 so the children don’t come to blows over the bathroom. The more I glance at my note cards, the louder she becomes. The more I engage with Carl, the more desperate for my attention she becomes.

It feels as though Mary is a boa constrictor wrapped around me. When I try to make contact with anything or anyone beyond her she squeezes tighter and tighter. The more I am confined the more I must fight the panicked urge to run outside into the frost bitten morning. I imagine feeling the ice-stiffened blades of grass crackle beneath my bare feet. 6:00 am is too early for a jailbreak in New England.

Meanwhile, Marcus sleeps undisturbed by the noise, ensconced in the living room the couch. We’ve run out of places to put the children, you see. He’s boomeranged home after fighting with his bio sister and becoming homeless. Having him home means we celebrated his 22nd birthday together. How long will he stay this time?

We’ve done this routine before. Luke believes this time Marcus will stay. I think we will repeat this cycle many times until Marcus no longer feels the pressure of his own boa constrictor.

Autumn has always been my favorite time of year. This one has been fraught with difficulties. For now, I will reread my flash cards. I will continue to breathe in as I watch the winter descend.

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

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adoption, family

Capacity

Pinching a metal machine as hard as I can with my thumb and forefinger seems like an exercise in futility to me. We have been at this for about four hours. Fifteen of the last minutes have been filled with various types of pinching. The combinations include pinching with three fingers, pressing with just my thumb and also a full hand grasp. Then the evaluater checks my pulse and blood pressure and we repeat each exercise three more times in the exact same way. This poor man now has more information about my grabbing and pinching abilities than anyone could ever possibly want to know about.

Except they do want to know. This is a functional capacity evaluation, or FCE, to determine my physical capabilities. The insurance company has ordered it for unknown reasons. This is supposed to be useful information for my employer. They can now be satisfied I am fully capable of a great deal of sustained grabbing and pinching. Rest assured that as an elementary school teacher, these capabilities should not be used at my job!

This process exhaustingly long. In addition to pinching it also involves pushing, pulling, lifting, walking, screwing in a variety of round knobs and (rather mysteriously) climbing up and down a ladder. Typically these are done in work injury cases where the employer is trying to determine if an employee can return to work. Sometimes the FCE determines if more treatment is needed. Since I’ve been full time for many months, and I am not seeking further treatment, it just seems weird.

Will this snapshot from a few hours really give a picture of my complete physical capabilities? How do I stack up against, say, Betty White? What about someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger? Would he be a better thumb presser than I am? Who would rate higher in the random ladder climb?

I wonder what foster care training would be like if it included a functional capacity examination for parenting skills, For instance, what if a family was given a sibling group for about four hours and asked to address various needs and behaviors? And also probably their pinching skills because…priorities. Would that somehow help with placement determinations?

These weekend visits we are having with Mary are going well. I do wonder what they are telling Luke and I about our capacity to parent her at home. Obviously, they last for longer than four hours. Clearly, we haven’t tested out any newfangled pinching or ladder climbing techniques. Still, I wonder if these visits are proving our capacity to function as a safe family. There isn’t a test to determine it. Instead, we just have to have faith.

Last week Luke and I requested to start Mary’s transition home from residential school. She’ll still attend their specialized trauma-informed day school but she will be come home to us in the evenings.  The discharge will take about two or three months. We are filling out all of the paper work to jump back into the community-based service model. We are gearing up for a big change.

Are we up to this challenge? There isn’t really a way to know. I can say with certainty that we want to be capable of it. Mary wants to be capable of it.

I do know we are far more capable of taking care of Mary than anyone else (I’m looking at you Betty White and Arnold Schwarzenegger). We are her parents. I don’t need an evaluation to tell me that.

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

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