adoption, PTSD

A Safe Place to Land

Everyone seems to know how to live this life better. This complex and confusing life of parenting children with severe developmental trauma. The life where your kids may have extreme behaviors, and/or mental health diagnosis. This life. This is a life that others are afraid to live. 

The part that most don’t understand is how this particular life could be one that I love. One that I have chosen. This life is fulfilling and joyful for me. I can be a hard person to buy material gifts for because I honestly just don’t care. I already have everything I could ever want.

Sometimes, though, I am scared. How will I continue to handle aggressive rages and outbursts? After almost 3 years of physical safety from my daughter it is hard to go back to that place. The place where her most common expression is one of anger. Her reactions to the slightest disappointment become violent outbursts. She is 10 now, and much taller and stronger than when she was barely 7.  I wonder how we got back to this place?! 

Loving my daughter is never the question. Sometimes, when I am in my deepest, darkest place, surviving her becomes the question. No matter how much love we put in or how many resources we find, the trauma continues to plague us all. This past week I’ve woken up several times in terror, covered in a cold sweat. I feel as though danger is imminent and I cannot catch my breathe. Since when do I have such a  visceral response to basic nightmares? Probably since Mary started raging again. 

There could never be an expiration on my love for her. There could never be an expiration on my commitment to her. Is it possible there could be an expiration on my ability to handle her violence? 

How did this happen? I naively thought we had conquered the worst parts. We still battle past traumas alongside our children. They still go to therapy. But I thought the days of her physical attacks were long gone. Perhaps that is why my reaction is one of panic. We left this place so far behind. Can we get through it all over again? 

I understand that professionals have a different perspective. In fact, they often lack perspective entirely. This life that I have chosen is actually quite rare. Not many “older children” get adopted from foster care. In essence, there is less chance of a doctor coming across a case like ours. The goal seems to always be to change their behavior. Change my behavior. To fix it. To fix her. How ridiculous.

I cannot fix what is already beautiful. All I can hope for is a bit of healing mixed with trust. I can love until forever. And I can hope for a safe place to land. For all of us. 

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

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adoption, family, parenting, PTSD

Furniture in the First Degree: Adventures in the Rage of a Traumatized Child 

He is standing in the closet doorway, screaming in a wordless rage at his dresser. I eye the dresser suspiciously. What was its offense against my son?

“Carl, honey, did you want me to help you pick out some shorts?” It’s 6:00AM. A full hour before he needs to be up. My bleary-eyed-9-yr-old is standing in long sleeves and pants, screaming at his dresser. It is going to be over 90 degrees outside today.

It isn’t entirely unusual for Carl to become enraged with inanimate objects. I very much prefer this to becoming enraged at mom! Often times I will “count” the offending object a la “1-2-3 Magic.” I will sternly scold the table-door-cleats-refrigerator with a, “Hey! You can’t do that to Carl. That’s 3, take 5!” Then said object will remain in “time out” until the timer rings. I figure laughter is the best policy, right?

Wrong. At least, not this morning. This is one of those mornings that Carl woke up yelling. He blocks me from the dresser in a defensive stance and insists that he has no shorts. He dares me to “cross him.” Why on earth would I want to do that? I suggest getting myself some coffee and coming back when he is ready to choose his clothes.

As I walk away I can hear him kicking the closet door. Maybe the closet is an accomplice? I shrug it off and wake my husband. He will need to be up early if Carl is already raging. Just in case. Because I have to go to work. Thank god for Luke. He is the glue that holds our family. He has the power to soothe a raging child, calm a stressed out Mama, and properly discipline a wayward dresser.

This marks a solid week of Carl being in his rage cycle. Waking up is difficult and the time before bed is difficult, too. He has been physically aggressive with both Luke and I. He has punched his walls and thrown his things. Luke caught him smashing his bed with a hammer he must have gotten out of the toolbox in the basement.

Things are changing. Marcus is gone. Sean is gone. I’ve gone back to work. The chickens have gone back to school. It’s a lot to take in. And let’s not forget that the furniture is misbehaving.

The problem is, when Carl starts in this cycle, he gets stuck. He rages one day, then the next and the next and the next. He hurts us and hurts himself. He feels tremendous guilt about his own actions. He starts to make claims about how he “hates Carl.” Who could hate little Carl? Seriously, his dimples are to-die-for-cute. He judges himself too harshly.

Luke and I have concerns that he may go back in-patient if we can’t break his cycle. What we want most of all is to keep him home and keep bonding with him. A sense of permanence and belonging is so important to our kids.

We are working on a sensory plan to help with his mornings. After work I got a “thunder vest” for him. It’s actually a strong Velcro vest that is used to soothe dogs during thunder storms. The vest has little doggie paw prints on the front. A weighted vest didn’t help very much but Carl seems to love the Velcro. I can strap him in really to provide deep pressure that should help to soothe his senses.

We tried it on and then Mary wanted to try it. Don’t worry, I had one for her, too! They paraded around in their vests and pretended to be police. I told them that they were ASPCA officers responsible for brushing our cats in the mornings. I added it into “Officer Carl’s” morning schedule.

I am hoping that tomorrow he wakes up, gets dressed, and then suits up to fight against cruelty to animals. I hope he has a morning adventure rather than a morning altercation with the closet.

The bottom line is, I am hoping. Perhaps with practice, modeling, and a little sensory feedback, maybe we can break this cycle. Just don’t tell my children that the vests are made for dogs.

I am hoping we can maintain Carl in the home without another hospitalization. No matter what, we will keep trying new approaches. Therapy, sensory, behavioral, visual interventions, whatever it takes. We haven’t had much luck modifying the behaviors of our furniture. I am hoping we have luck in riding out this cycle with Carl. After all, we were lucky enough to find him, weren’t we?

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**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, parenting, PTSD

Tales from Our Bathroom: Adventures in Trauma Triggers and PTSD

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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, 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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