adoption

Scars and Secrets: Memories of Child Abuse

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They kept so many secrets in foster care. So many. My son has three tiny round scars on his top left shoulder. They have spread apart and faded as he has grown and his shoulders have broadened. Those scars are not his fault. They are from the metal end of a belt buckle. He was beaten with it in his biological home by “everyone,” he says. His biological mother, his biological father, and many other men that passed through the house.

When his skin browns deeper in the summer sun, they stare at me in accusation. I wasn’t there to protect him. In the winter months they are easier to overlook. Easier to lose sight of, at least for me. Carl never forgets.

Other memories he has of his biological parents are fun. His biological father let him steer the car while driving drunk. Bio-dad had Carl “help” when he worked on cars. He bought Carl little toy Hot Wheels for a collection.  Once, when their biological father was drunk and left a $100 bill under Mary’s pillow for the toothfairy.

But Carl was left alone a lot. When his biological parents were drunk or high, they often left 5-year-old Carl to care for his younger sister, Mary. They would find their own food  in the cabinets while their mother slept and the older kids went to school. Soon after Bio-Dad left, a string of men were in and out of the house. When Bio-Mom wasn’t high and sleeping, locked in her room, she was drinking and partying with anyone and everyone.

These are stories that I have heard from our children and their older biological siblings. Obviously, I wasn’t there, but I believe my kids. I believe their siblings. I know these things happened. Yet, I also know that their Bio-Dad loves these children and his feelings for them are real. Once we started contact with their biological father, things changed a bit.

Our littles both got cards and pictures from Bio-Dad for Christmas. Mary got a birthday card. He promised to send Carl a birthday card as well, only if I told him when Carl’s birthday was. We have decided to let the kids respond if they want to.I continue to send updates and photos.

Carl looked at Bio-Dad’s Christmas card, tossed it aside, and continued playing a card game with Luke. Later on he put it under the coffee table and hasn’t looked at it since then. Mary kept both of her cards in a memory box and seemed really happy to have gotten them.

But their views are very different. Carl remembers being beaten. He remembers more because he is older. Mary was younger. Most of what she remembers came from the many boyfriends mom had after bio-dad. The difficult part with having siblings adopted from the same traumatic background, is that they hold different memories.

Mary has begun insisting that their Bio-Dad never hurt them, it was only their bio-mom. She has begun to build up this fantasy around him (similar to what I did when I was younger.) Both children got into an argument about their bio-dad the other day. Mary insisted he never hurt her, so whatever Carl did must have gotten him hit. His face crumbled as she implied that the abuse was somehow his fault. I corrected her immediately and ended the conversation.

I spoke to them each separately about how different the things they might remember are. Everyone sees things from their own viewpoint. I stressed to Mary that she must never, ever, ever invalidate her brother’s feelings.

With Carl I explained that his memories were his and all of his feelings were OK. He and Mary might feel differently, but she will not be allowed to invalidate his experience. No one should ever be abused physically. It was never Carl’s fault. Bio-dad probably just had no idea what to do as a parent.

Later at dinner that night, Mary started counting all of the “moms” she had. She came up with 4 or 5. Carl scoffed at her and said, “Well I only have one mom!” His feelings may change on the subject but for now he refuses to contact Bio-Dad. That’s OK.

Beyond that, it is up to them if they decide to write to their Bio-Dad. So far, neither one has. I’ve put a moratorium on discussing their bio-home together until we get to the therapist’s office. Until that time they can talk to Mom or Dad alone about their first parents. Good and bad memories are OK. Mixed feelings are OK. Love and anger are OK, even at the same time.

I will continue to casually mention that sending a letter or picture would be nice, but the contact is up to them. So far I haven’t gotten any takers, but I am determined to leave that door open and respect my children’s wishes. Only time will tell what happens next.

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Mary happy with Daddy Luke

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

 

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adoption, family

Therapeutic Strategies for Sleep Disturbances

Our Daughter has such a difficult time sleeping at night. She used to physically fight for her life when bedtime came (you can read about it here.) Bedtime triggered her fight/flight response because she experienced trauma at this time in her biological home. Luckily we have the very best trauma therapists to work with us and out children with therapeutic strategies. These are some of the best strategies to calm our daughter’s fear response at night. She needs to feel safe in order to rest.

  1. Comforting Smells: I like to use lavender scented baby lotion to give her arms a deep-pressure massage before bed if she needs it. She will also put a drop of essential oil onto a tissue and rub it together. Then she holds it to her face and breathes in slowly. Smells activate the brain’s Amygdala, which triggers memories from the hippocampus and can activate an emotional response. The mom-massage is a good smell, thus triggering feelings of love and safety. I also rub a bit of my hair conditioner in her hair before bed sometimes.
  2. Comforting Sounds: We have a noise machine for both of our children. They can choose to listen to white noise, rain sounds, a forest, the ocean, a brook, etc. They use these sounds as a coping skill when they need to calm down throughout the day. The sounds also give them a sense that they are not alone in a scary place.
  3. Soothing Light: Our children have always needed a night light to sleep. Complete darkness means they can’t see if any danger is approaching. Although there isn’t a real threat inside our home, our children have an overactive fight/flight response. In order to calm this fear we provide creative nightlights. Our daughter had one that was activated whenever a the light was turned off. We also have a mushroom nightlight probably intended for infants. It projects a series of flowers and stars onto the ceiling with slowly changing colors and designs. This is mesmerizing to look at and soothing for her to watch. Our son has a moon-light that comes with a remote control. He can switch the phases of the moon depending on his mood. A quarter moon if he feels safe, a full moon if he is feeling afraid, and a rotating phase moon to look at if he can’t sleep.
  4. Soothing Taste: Fruits and vegetables are always available for our children in the house. Our kids choose an apple or a clementine (Yuck! After brushing teeth?) before bed. Sometimes our daughter will choose to eat a lemon. I can’t explain that one! Tasting food before bed helps to ease the constant fear that there won’t be enough food and they will starve. This is another leftover fear from their bio-home.
  5. Calming touch: We have given our children physical objects that they can hold throughout the night in order to help them. One of these is a giant stuffed dog named “Mr. Luke” that my daughter has slept with since she got home. It always wears one of daddy’s dirty shirts (preferably from that day) so that she can hold it and feel like daddy is there, protecting her. We also bought Mary a large body pillow and our family wrote positive messages all over it. We used fabric markers but permanent markers might have been just as good. Then we wiped my deodorant all over it and dressed it in my dirty shirt from that day. This way Mary can feel like she is sleeping between mommy and daddy.
  6. ROUTINE, ROUTINE, ROUTINE: Every night we keep the same schedule so that our children know exactly what is going to happen. This gives them a sense of control over a world that was previously chaotic and unpredictable. Their bedtimes remain the same, even on weekends (with maybe a 30 minute difference.) While one child showers, the other child gets to choose an activity  with mom or dad, completely led by them.  Every night I say the same goodnight. I rub their backs, slowly counting down from 10. Then I touch their faces in the same pattern and say the words, “I love you forever, no matter what, and I am so glad your home!” Then we both make a “pop!” sound with our lips and hug each other.

 

At the end of the day, I wish I could tell you that everything is fine and our daughter has no trouble whatsoever sleeping with these strategies in place. Unfortunately, That simply isn’t true in our case. Ever since she’s come home from an inpatient stay, she’s been seeing “monsters” and hearing “talking things” downstairs. If I had a completely healthy back, I might sleep downstairs with her for a night to show her it’s OK. But I can’t. So we’ve moved the bedroll upstairs to the hallway right outside our bedroom. This way she knows mommy and daddy are close. My fingers are crossed that this stage won’t last long. Either way? She’s our girl and we will do whatever it takes to make her feel safe at night!

 

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

 

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Attachment Disorders, family

The Prodigal Son…Cancels?

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I would consider myself a fairly decent mom, even pretty good at predicting my children’s trauma-based actions. Not this time. I entirely missed the mark. Last week I wrote about Marcus asking to visit. After a lot of time and planning, he was finally coming this weekend. He sent me numerous messages about how excited he was. I really believed it was happening.

He is the oldest biological brother to our 2 adopted siblings. Our relationship with him is haphazard at best. At one time he lived with us. We wanted to adopt him. We tried. But the closer we got to him emotionally, the more he seemed to fight against that bond.

The day he left was the day his adoption worker from our state was coming to meet him. He was 17. On that day I truly believed he sabotaged his adoption because remaining in the foster care system was more familiar and easier to him than committing to being part of a loving family.

He threw an enormous tantrum, threatening to kill us and bury us in the backyard. (I guess he knew all of the best places since he had painstakingly cleared out an area of forest and landscaped it in our backyard the week before.) At our house, he had been the one to grab the tool bag eagerly and enjoy fixing things around the house with “Pops,” my husband.

He called me a whore, and a b**ch and a c**t. He told his younger siblings that he hated them and he would kill them, too. He slammed doors, threw things, kicked me and threw his iPhone at me, shattering it. I actually think he didn’t mean to make contact with me at all. His big scary tantrum was more along the lines of putting on a big show. Later he apologized to my husband saying, “You know I didn’t really mean to throw the phone at her, right? That part was an accident.”

He got his way that day. He had done this many times before. He would get really close to me, discuss his feelings about his biological mom with me, or simply let me in on an emotional issue with a girlfriend. For a few weeks we’d be closer than I ever thought a teen and his mom could be. Then, he would drop all communication and act as though he hated me and couldn’t stand the sight of me. He’d cut off contact, only to resume again in a few more weeks, asking to return or visit (we always said a joyful yes, but with behavioral boundaries.) But that was from 16-18. The closer he got to 18, the more he tasted his freedom.

Like so many other foster kids, he aged out at 18 and began life on his own. After that, our relationship actually improved a bit. Our communication was spotty, but when he had a problem, he always came to me. He bounced around to a few different places. I assumed, with a fair amount of certainty, that he was back on the streets hanging with his old crew. He’d put selfies on FaceBook throwing up the symbol for the “Bloods” a notorious gang. Whether he simply admired them, or was involved, I’ll probably never know. He was always wearing their colors of red and black.

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Over time, I began to think of him as the son who just left the nest early. He called and messaged us when he could. If I squinted my eyes really tight, and let my vision go blurry, I could almost see a son who was off to college, or the military, or the peace corps, and checked in when he could. He had asked for visits before, but this one seemed so real to me.

That was, obviously, a fantasy. There are many sides to Marcus. He loved family dinner we had each night. He took pride in our family and our home. He decorated his room immaculately with all of his favorite things. He played board games for hours with us, as if he couldn’t get enough. Our family took him to science centers, zoos, and museums. He was delighted and amazed by the reptile show at our local library.

These were all of the amazing memories I was reminiscing about when he called to cancel his upcoming visit. I had to stop and question myself. Why had I really believed he would show? He’s a few weeks away from moving somewhere new. We are trapped in this cycle where he gets close and then pulls away. His issues with attaching to a family are too complicated to let him enjoy a typical family relationship with us. This is what complicates his ability to allow himself to be loved.

My daughter told her therapist that she thinks he didn’t get adopted because he was “too dangerous.” This gave us the opportunity to explain that no matter what Marcus did or said, we would have gotten help and we would have adopted him. It just wasn’t what he wanted anymore, and we respected that. Mary agreed there was less swearing when he wasn’t in the house. She loved his happy, playful side, but was scared of his short-fused anger. Me, too, I told her. But no matter what, we will always love him.

The only good thing that came out of this was that he texted with both of the Littles and told them he missed them. They sent silly pictures of their faces back and forth. They saw the texts where he wrote, “I love you, Ma,” to me. Good or bad Marcus knows we are here for him. And maybe that’s all that really matters right now?

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Whenever he is ready, our door is always open. 

 

 

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

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family, Therapeutic Parenting

Anatomy of a Trauma Trigger: Responding to My Child’s PTSD

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I slept until 11:00AM! Instant panic on my part. Was Carl OK?! I went to bed at 9:00 PM the night before.  I was exhausted after the physical therapy session I had at my house. I took my first steps without my walker (2 in grand total.) Thank goodness my husband was awake to care for Carl in the morning and meet his needs. It doesn’t matter that Carl is 11 and not 5 anymore. This can set off the trigger alarm.

 You see, my kids come from a home with a junkie mom. She was an addict. She had mental health conditions. She would go to bed and not get up for weeks. Sometimes she would lock the kids out of her bedroom and let them take care of themselves. Mary was 4 and Carl was 5 when they were removed from her care during a drug raid.

I know it sounds harsh, but these are the facts. An unresponsive mom in bed has been a terrible threat to their survival in the past. It doesn’t matter how much of this trauma they remember. It stays in their brains and tells their bodies, “Warning! Fight or flight! This is survival!”

Later that day I ended up back in bed, crying from terrible back spasms. The pain ripping through my spine was nothing compared to the pain I could see on my son’s face. Minutes before we had been goofing around as a family, and my husband startled me. Somehow I jumped or moved in surprise and set off a series of merciless spasms through my surgical incision and deep into the muscles surrounding my spine. I took my pain meds, got on my ice pack, and reassured everyone that I was fine.

It didn’t matter, because in Carl’s mind suddenly his caregiver was unreliable. The following is the closest I could come to understanding the conversations we had with Carl the rest of the evening:

Carl: (whining,moaning and stomping around) I don’t want to take a shower tonight! I’m not as smelly as you guys think! I don’t have to shower!

Carl’s Brain: I must stay where I can see my caregivers. Something bad could happen to mom. No one would take care of me and then I could die. I must get some control over this scary situation. Control lets me feel like I can take care of myself.

When he is scared we offer choices to give him some control. He can pick to shower downstairs in his shower or upstairs in our shower, using my trendy new shower seat (you KNOW you’re jealous!)

Carl: (from inside our shower, where he has successfully showered many times before) “You guys have to help me! I can’t turn the water on! It isn’t working. I need help!!”

Carl’s Brain: Are my caregivers still out there? I’m scared I might be alone. What if they aren’t able to take care of me. I have to know they are still caring for me or I will be all on my own again. And then I might die!

My husband “fixed” the shower for him. Carl called out to us every so often and we responded from close by. Showers tend to soothe him. He came out of the shower and demanded (really close to bedtime, and quite rudely) to build the new crystal growing science kit he got for Christmas.

With soft words and soft eyes, I responded, “Are you asking or are you telling? Would you like to try that again? It sounds like you have something important to tell me but I need you to use your nice words.” (I am totally attempting to channel Karyn Purvis)

Carl: (Taking a deep breath) “Can we please build one of my crystal growing kits?”

Carl’s Brain: Are you still able to take care of me? Can I rely on you? If I cannot win your attention and care I will be all on my own again and I might die!

Me: “It sounds like you’re asking for something we may not be able to finish tonight. (Carl huffs and stomps and moans) Bring both kits up here and let’s see if we can make a compromise.

In the end, after lots of groaning from Carlos, one of the kits was a 15 minute project. I suited up in my back brace and got on my walker. Carl ran and got all of the necessary ingredients. Now we are growing crystals on top of a filing cabinet upstairs. We agreed the big glow-in-the-dark crystal growing experiment would be saved for Thursday.

As I said goodnight to Carl I could sense he was panicking again. I held him close to my chest in a big hug as we practiced our deep breathing. I looked him in the eyes and said, “Honey I know you were having some big feelings tonight. You were panicking a little bit.” He nodded in agreement. “It’s OK, honey, I will always be here. I am always going to take care of you.”

After another giant hug and our normal goodnight routine, he followed Dad downstairs without any further issue. It seemed like he finally felt safe. Not every night goes this smoothly. Fear is tricky, because it can come out looking like anger and defiance. Tonight I was able to translate the trauma trigger coming from Carl’s words. So tonight, I’ll take that as a win.

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

 

 

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mental illness, parenting

In-Patient For the Holiday

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I was so prepared this year. I was ready for anything. My husband and I had every therapeutic parenting technique we could think of at our disposal. Coping skills, body checks, sensory diet, check-ins, time-ins, you name it. We had our game faces on. Why? Because it was Christmas time. The worst time of year for many children from foster care. The worst time of year for our daughter.

We were so determined.We had it all figured out. We were on fire with new and wonderful connected parenting skills. I was even feeling a bit cocky, and posting things like, “Looking forward to our first Christmas with no in-patient stays!” on my parenting group. I was so very prepared this year. I was so very wrong.

Here is the hard truth about raising children with trauma and mental health concerns. Sometimes, it all goes wrong. Sometimes bad things happen anyway.  For several months we were working closely with Mary’s trauma team to adjust/change medications, increase therapy sessions, work on therapeutic techniques, etc.

Mary would be laughing one minute, then crying, then screaming. She claimed to hear what other people were thinking. She was lying more often, which is a pretty strong indicator of feeling deep anxiety and fear. Her emotions were spinning around faster than a tilt-a-whirl at the carnival.  She began telling us that she “felt like she was in a different world” at school. She heard voices that told her to hurt me and she didn’t want to. Welcome to the Christmas season.

Luke and I had contingency plans. We kept to a very regimented schedule, with no huge changes in the day to day routines. In order to alleviate anxiety we lightened the mood by having theme nights. One day the children came home and did their homework in a parisian cafe, while drinking “coffee” (mocha-flavored hot cocoa.) We all spoke in french accents while doing math.

Another night, our son yelled, “I wish everyone would stop talking to me.” So we did. We all sang our feelings rock-opera style. For an entire night. He had an air guitar solo, which he totally rocked, and Mary added some dance moves. I couldn’t talk the next day but he had gone from shouting to singing and laughing hysterically. We were having fun.

When Mary came home crying hysterically and told us she didn’t know where her sad feeling was coming from, we rolled with it. We set her up with sensory coping skills in her safe place. I stayed close until she was calm. Then my husband and I snuck into the kitchen to apply fake mustaches, turn on Frank Sinatra, and invite the children to a pasta dinner in our “Italian Bistro.” With accents, of course!

Typically, our daughter’s intense feelings can be acknowledged, named, and coped with. Mindfulness techniques and sensory tools work well for her. Then, as we lighten the mood and get playful, she can come back from the edge and her emotion will flip. It just isn’t always enough.

She began to rage on the evening of the 23rd and continued into the next morning. She claimed she could see people from her past that no one else could see. She screamed, she kicked, she beat her door. She writhed on the floor and yelled at us. She spoke to people that only she could hear. She lifted up her queen-sized bed and dumped it. She smashed everything in her room, or threw it.

All that work, all those skills, and she still had to go in-patient to be kept safe. She went into the psychiatric hospital the 24th and came home on the 26th. We are now referred back to a partial hospitalization program and Intensive In-home Psychiatric Child Services for her. We’ve done these a million times, rinse-repeat. It seems like starting over.

In the end I realize one thing. Our daughter isn’t a renovation project. We will never “fix” her or “cure” her. Mary is perfect because she is Mary. We want to help her heal but we also just want to be her parents.

When she grows up she won’t look back and remember magical parents that swooped in with all the answers and saved her. She will remember parents who cared. Parents who did the one thing that I believe really helped her. Parents that stayed with her. And if I’m being honest, I really hope she remembers the mustaches.

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

 

 

 

 

 

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family

I’m Not Sick and You Can’t Make Me! Adventures in Oppositional Defiance

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Anyone who has ever raised an oppositional child knows that they are very good at one thing: opposing you. It is like an unexpected special talent or bonus sporting event that adoptive parents were not expecting. This issue isn’t really about trying to drive us parents crazy. It’s really about gaining their own sense of control out of a chaotic life and a traumatic background. It’s just really hard to remember that after a night with only about 3 hours of sleep and an aching back.

Mary was sick all of Sunday afternoon. She took an unprecedented nap at a friend’s house. When Luke picked her up she had red puffy eyes, a runny nose, and the sniffles that wouldn’t quit. She forced herself miserably through dinner and then begged me for snuggle time. She fell asleep in my arms around 6:30. We put her to bed with some children’s cold medicine and called it a night.

Meanwhile, Carl was hacking up deep phlegm-filled cough from his chest. We gave him some cough medicine and sent him to bed at the regular time. He got up twice for extra snuggles and a cough drop. When both kids were finally asleep, Luke and I thought we were in the clear. We quickly wrapped Christmas presents like fiends  and before we knew it the time was 11:30PM. Very late for us old folks.

Of course, this was when the parade of sick children began. It started with a tap-tapping on my shoulder and, “Mommy, I need you.” Mary was throwing up, Carl couldn’t stop coughing. It sounded like a tuberculosis factory.  I administered medicine, checked temperatures, and held back hair. By 3:00AM my husband found us all in a pile with pillows and blankets sleeping right outside the bathroom door. After this, we traded places and my husband stayed awake with the sick little chickens while I got some sleep. It was a disaster.

What we did next might shock you. We kept the children home from school. Yes, we called them out of school and made doctor’s appointments for them. Carl was astounded and infuriated with our decision. Around 5 my husband crawled into bed for some shut eye. Big mistake.

Carl was ready to go to school at 6. Not to be deterred he came back at 6:30, then at 7. We just didn’t get it. “I am NOT SICK!” he started  yelling. He wanted to watch TV. He wanted to play (cough) outside (hack) in the snow (labored wheezing breathe.) Back to bed I sent him with Vick’s vaporub and the humidifier running. As he is crying and wailing about how (gasp, wheeze, guttural coughing fit) unfair and mean I am, Mary decides to join.

My vomitous daughter of the previous night comes out dressed in the full regalia of her sleeveless Christmas Eve gown. Did I mention that the gown is pure white? Or that she has been vomiting poison green phlegmy stuff? She tells us she is ready for school. If they can’t play in the snow or play video games then she is off to school. Carl agrees. Clearly I am crazy for ever thinking they were sick!

Unfortunately for these little chickens, the doctor did not agree with their self-diagnosis. After having both children change into warm clothing (It was 12 degrees outside this morning) Luke takes them in for a check-up. Both children have prescriptions and are ordered into bed for the day with plenty of rest and fluids.

We are all exhausted but I see a small victory. Last night, when they were in the worst throes of discomfort, they sought us out. They came to mom and dad for comfort. Our children have many issues from their past trauma, but one thing is for sure. They are attached to us. After almost 3 years, they trust us to meet their needs. Now if they would only believe us about what it is they actually need!

And home they are now. Despite how adamant Carl was about not being tired, he is fast asleep. Let’s hope we are all a little less grumpy after getting some rest.

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

 

 

 

 

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adoption, family

The Non-Argument: Adventures in Battling Trauma

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It’s been a year since Sean left. He’s 15 now. Marcus left in August of last year and he will be 19 next month. I can go whole days without thinking about them. The bone-deep grief that brought me to my knees is subsiding. But foster kids leave. Pre-adoptive placements disrupt. It happens all the time. Or so they say.

I’ve been dreaming about the teens all week. It’s usually about Sean. I dream that I’ve forgotten to pick Sean up somewhere. In this dream I try desperately to remember where he is before it becomes dark. And then I wake up to find that the angry, traumatized teens have moved on. Have I?

Mary has been having a difficult transition back to school. Her feelings are jumbled about most things lately. Her 9-year-old emotional roller coaster is on the fast track. She will cycle from maniacal laughter to gut-wrenching sobs within minutes. My husband and I are on high-alert for that intense “happy” reaction that is just a shade too bright, too intense. This is our signal that she is on the brink of losing control over her emotions.

Mary is disappointed over her own reactions.  Her perception is that others are disappointed with her as well. That fear bubbles over into her interactions with me. She has to share this intense discomfort somewhere. This leads to having what I call the “non-argument.” For example:

Mary: Mom? You’re going to be disappointed. I spilled my drink

Me: That’s ok, honey. Accidents happen. Just grab the cleaner under the sink.

Mary: I can’t clean this!

Me: We can clean it together.

Mary: (dumping the bottle of cleaner) I’m sorry! I spilled it all! It was an accident! I know you’re mad I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry! Please believe me! Why are you mad? Do you still love me????

Me: (gathering her into a hug) I am going to hug you for 30 full seconds and then we will clean together.

Another example:

Mary: Mom! Why won’t you look at me? You’re mad at me?

Me: I’m just tying my shoe.

Mary: I made that noise you don’t like, didn’t I? I’m so sorry! I’m sorry! I’m really sorry, Mommy! Don’t be mad!

Me: Honey I’m happy. Let’s have a happy hug.

Mary: Well what about this noise? How about this one?

And so on and so on. I’ve tried giving her extra attention to make her feel safe. I’ve been giving extra cuddles. Luke and I recorded our voices on a small device that she can play back whenever she needs to. We provide transitional objects. Both Carl and Mary pick out their clothes and  breakfast the night before school (like at a hotel!) so we can spend the mornings connecting.

But still she looks to fight, argue, then apologize. She cowers like I might hit her and cries. She begs fervently for my forgiveness so often I can’t get a word in edgewise. I have to admit something.  She asks me if I’m mad so often that it’s starting to make me mad. My logical brain knows it’s her anxiety and her fear. My tired brain wants a quiet room and some space.

I am supposed to be bigger, stronger, and always safe. My emotional regulation sets the tone for hers. I do show her my emotions but she is so terrified of her own feelings that mine send her into full panic. I won’t engage in her non-arguments. I offer love and support. I hold her until her breathing slows. Then I make her clean up the spills or do her chores or her homework. Because that’s life. I say, “It’s ok to feel your feelings. You can feel them while you take out the trash. I’ll be right here.”

She is testing that limit to see where I break. I know she is. I understand why. That doesn’t stop it from happening.

Out of nowhere:

Mary: “You didn’t love him enough!”

Me: “Who?”

Mary: “Sean.”

I try to explain that we will always love Sean. We respect his choice not to be with our family.  He will always be a part of us.

Mary: “You just should’ve let him quit school! You should have respected his choices when he didn’t want to shower or do his chores. You should have just given him electronics! You wouldn’t just forgive him and let him come home! Just because he did ONE LITTLE THING! He hurt you ONE time, Mommy and your bruises weren’t that big.  Now he’s gone!”

Mic drop.

Immediately she is crying and wailing that she is sorry she said it. She is such a bad kid and she’s so terrible that no one could ever love her. But by now I am crying, too. Uncontrollably and I miss my boy and I cannot stop. My grief hits me like a tidal wave and I am swept away in emotion so strong that I’ll surely drown.

The truth about Sean is very hard for me. It’s a bitter pill to swallow and I’m still not sure that I can process everything that has happened with him. We tried like hell to love him perfectly and be a good family for him. It was after he left that I saw the lying, manipulation, stealing, and damage he had done. Those were his survival skills.

It doesn’t matter. I miss him still. He’s made it clear he never wanted to see us again. Carl and Mary included. He’s changed so much I wouldn’t recognize the boy I knew. The boy I knew never existed. My logical brain knows this. But my emotional brain keeps dreaming about the son I’ve lost. The illusion of Sean is what I knew. The reality of my own emotions is what I have left.

And so Mary has found my Achilles heal. When I won’t engage in her non-argument she fights back. She’ll drop a comment that sounds as sweet as sugar but cuts deeper than a scalpel. I’ll be driving the car. “No mommy,” she’ll sigh. “You just don’t understand Sean. Sean is sweet.”

“Of course,” I’ll say calmly, “He is a sweet boy.”

I’ll be in the refrigerator. “You just don’t understand him,” she’ll say while ruefully shaking her head. I don’t argue. I won’t engage. I continue whatever it is I’m doing. The more she knows it bothers me, the more she will bring it up. The less reaction she gets, the less she’ll try this non-argument. But it cuts so deep. I plaster an innocuous look on my face while inside I’m bleeding out.

The more I agree we love Sean, the more open I am to discussing him, the more frustrated she becomes.  I wake up one day to find an 8×10 picture of him on the fridge. I offer to frame it for her. I ask if she wants it in her room, but of course she wants it where “everyone can see.” She looks pointedly at me. I nod in a noncommittal way and move on.

She pushes and prods and pokes at my tender spot all week. When I can’t take it anymore I retreat upstairs for a bubble bath. I leave Luke to serve dinner while Sean watches from the fridge. That’s when I realize something. It’s not Mary landing the blows. It’s her trauma pushing her into strong emotions. She doesn’t want to be alone in these feelings. It was Sean’s trauma that led him to do the things he did. It’s my trauma giving me bad dreams about my former son.

After my bath I snuggle up my little girl on the couch. She is wearing her pineapple  nightgown. We snuggle under a huge pineapple blanket her godmother made for her. She needs to know that she is not leaving no matter what she does. She needs to know she is safe in her forever home.  I’m going to love her through her fear. I will love her no matter what kind of fight trauma brings up. After all, someone has to retreat and it won’t be me.

 

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

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