adoption, family

Home Again: the Prodigal Son Returns

He’s home. He’s finally home. If I peek into his room I can barely make out his sleeping form beneath the covers and beneath the dog. The huge sense of relief I feel overwhelms me even now. I am not even sure where to begin with this post.

 Marcus, our “prodigal” son will turn 20 next week. Some of you may remember when he disrupted from our home after a tumultuous few months prior to what would have been his adoption. (Thank you, by the way, for all of your kind emails and comments.)

This happened rather suddenly. He’d just been to see us for a visit on his brother Carl’s birthday. I think it reminded him what being in a family looks like. I believe that in this trip we somehow managed to show Marcus we were really there for him. Despite the fact that we never officially adopted him, we are here in all the ways that really count.

It happened during a workshop I attended. There was a panel of former foster youth speaking about what they wished foster/adoptive parents knew. I will never forget the one young man who had moved “home” at 25 after the death of his biological mother. He affectionately referred to the couple next to him as his parents. He had no hesitation about belonging to more than one family.

I’m embarrassed to say that I started tearing up as he told his story. I mean, how on earth did they convince him that it was OK to love two families? How was he so well-adjusted? Did it come with time? Would we ever get there with Marcus? Because honestly? Dropping him off and leaving was the hardest thing to do.

Right in the middle of the panel I got a message from him: “I need a place to stay. Can you please pick me up?” Life is full of strange coincidences. I know it wasn’t ideal for him to get kicked out of the place he was staying. I know he can only manage a few months of love and family at a time. I know this may not Work out well at all. I know he is on his way to Job Corps as soon as his medical clears.  I’m happy about it all the same. Because I am not perfect.  Because I am selfish. Because I missed my son.

 

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

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adoption, family

Making Room for Bio Family 


The game of bananagrams is like Scrabble in the way that you make words out of letter tiles. It is unlike Scrabble in the way that each player is going as fast as they can, at the same time. Players are rearranging words to fit the new letter tiles they grab every time someone calls “peel!”

You start with 12 tiles. When you’ve connected all of them into words you can call a “peel” and everyone must add one additional letter tile into a word. You often have to break apart words you’ve already made and create something new.

Adopting our siblings was much like the beginning part of the game. We started with a bunch of unconnected letters and put them all together into a pattern that became “family.” Things don’t stay the same, though. When the two oldest disrupted and left for greener pastures, we rearranged our words once more into a new pattern. When my parents moved from Missouri to Connecticut to be with us, we added to our pattern.

Carl turned 12 last week. He wanted a few things. He asked for the usual things: Pokémon cards, Star Wars action figures, a card game called Phase 10 etc. Then he asked for something else. He wanted his biological father to come to his football game. I’m not sure if it was because he was a starter this year or because Bio Dad’s birthday card reminded him. Either way, it was his choice, and I was determined to make it happen, if I could.

A few days prior I had messaged Bio Dad on Facebook to remind him about Carl’s 12th birthday. BD forgets the birthdays unless I remind him. I think it’s more indicative of not living with the children, or having difficulties with organization than anything else. As soon as I remind him he sends a beautiful card and some money for Carl. The card says, “I hope you enjoy this day with your family.” Every card he sends reminds the children that he will always love them.

When I ask if he and his wife would be willing to make the one-and-a-half hour drive to attend the game, he immediately agrees. I give him the address to come to our tiny town with historic brick walkways and towering green forests. I’m hoping it looks nice and not boring compared to the city BD’s family lives in. After all, our “downtown” consists of only one street, albeit one with historical New England charm.

The game itself goes better than I could have imagined. It’s a close game, and we are up by one point until the fourth quarter, when the other team gets a touchdown and wins. BD comes with his new wife and a son he has from a different relationship named E. Luke is the volunteer EMT, sitting inside the fence, directly on the field. Marcus sits with him because he cannot stand Mary and Carl’s BD.

This leaves me in the stands with BD, new wife, and Little E. Eventually my mom comes to watch the second half. We all sit together. We all cheer together. I explain some of the plays (poorly.) Every time Carl’s name is announced on the loudspeaker all 7 of us go wild. He has the biggest cheering squad of anyone here.

The day is remarkably pleasant. Some of the interaction is strained but not nearly as much as I had assumed. They love the game. They love the town. Marcus and BD do not interact and therefore no one is required to break up a fight. BD and family compliment our little town and tell us they took pictures everywhere. I point out where Carl goes to school so they can see this too.

At one point I actually hit BD in the arm. Well it’s more of a back handed smack on his arm. Ok more of a series of rapid back-handed smacks on his arm. It isn’t my fault! I was so excited about a tackle that Carl made! I was overexcited and cheering and it just happened. Luckily he just laughed it off. I mean, what is the worst thing I could do in this situation? Hitting is definitely in the top 5 of things you should NOT do to your child’s biological family.

After the game Carl is studious about hugging every person who came to see him. He glows with pride over our compliments. Even though the team lost, he played very well. I leave Luke to handle the visit, exchange of presents, and good-byes. It’s time to drive Marcus back to his girlfriend’s apartment. The one she loves in with her mother, who is also Little E’s mother. BD seems unaware that Little E and Marcus live together. He asked me if Marcus lives with us. To make matters worse, Marcus’ BD and this BD do not get along either and Marcus is back in contact with his BD. Throughout the game, Little E kept giving me details about Marcus like his age and favorite color. Awkward.

Needless to say, I hasten our exit. I know how aggressive Marcus can be when he is angry with someone. The next night my Facebook messenger is flooded with pictures. BD has sent me baby pictures of Mary and Carl. Some alone, some with him, and some with Bio Mom. This is a treasure trove of items we have never been able to give them. I am overwhelmed with gratitude. BD did not give his children up willingly. But BD is forging this new relationship willingly. I am beyond grateful.

I’m pretty sure this contact means Carl is rearranging the pattern of his family. He is adding new tiles and fitting them in where he can. I don’t know where things will go from here. Two successful visits make me feel optimistic.

 

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

 

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adoption, family

Dear Teacher…


I often struggle with how to explain my child’s trauma-related behavior to new teachers. Being a teacher myself, I know that we don’t have time to review much at the start of the school year. We are too busy reading your childrens’ IEPs and 504 plans while filling out mountains of paperwork. I don’t have all the answers, but here is what I wrote to introduce Carl to his teachers. Please comment with anything YOU use at the beginning of the school year.

The Talented and Amazing Carl !

If you are reading this, you have the tremendous honor of teaching the death-defying, brave, and fearless (except for spiders) Carl! Congratulations! (Picture a crowd going wild.)

I’m his mom, and believe me, we got lucky too. I guess you’re in good company. We met Carl when he was 8-years-old and in the foster care system. We adopted him, and his younger sister, Mary.

Carl is an amazing kid. He hates spiders and vegetables despite what his mother tells him. He is sensitive to gooey materials, bugs, and the dark. When Carl first came home he couldn’t read that well. After a lot of practice, and the Wilson reading program, he is now an avid reader. When it’s time to pull him out of a Harry Potter book we generally employ the use of a fishing line or long cane to retrieve him.

In addition to being an avid reader, he loves history. Carl is a history buff with a strong interest in Betsy Ross and all things colonial America. Every season Carl plays a different sport. He’s a linebacker in football, a “middie” in lacrosse, and something-or-other I can’t remember in basketball. He’s very athletic and it’s a great way for him to manage his ADHD and blow off some steam. It’s also a great excuse for his dad to yell loudly at sporting events and wave his arms all around.

As a family we are active supporters of child labor. To this end Carl is now able to wash his own laundry, mow the lawn and vacuum like a boss. He can also brew me a mean cup of coffee on the Keurig machine! We pay him a small pittance for his efforts, of course, because…child labor.

Sometimes, due to his history of complex PTSD, Carl has trouble controlling his temper. His brain goes into fight/flight mode and it’s best to give him some space. If he feels cornered or pursued his body reacts as though he were in actual physical danger. If he needs a consequence or a reminder, it’s best to have him take a bit of space first. This way he can be calm enough to process what you’re saying. If he appears agitated or fidgety you may want to send him on an errand. I strongly suggest sending him to make you a cup of coffee in the teachers’ lounge. Or maybe to wash your car. Because…child labor.

In addition to athletic talents and the ability to work in harsh conditions, Carl is extremely empathetic. He loves animals, younger children and his grandparents. Papa is his best friend and they are always up to no good. Maybe if you ever meet Papa, you should preemptively give him a detention. Just trust me on this. Papa is naughty and has probably already pushed all the buttons on your school intercom.

Finally, Carl comes as part of a package deal. When you get him as your student (again, the crowd goes wild) you also get his family. He has Nana and Papa in town. He lives with Mom, Dad, and his younger sister Mary. He has 3 older teenaged siblings that come on weekend visits. We are all here to work with you in any way necessary. This is going to be a great year.  Trust me, I’m his mom!

   https://fulltimetired.com/roundup/?vote

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

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adoption, family

Cocaine Donut Mom

cooking.Y

I wanted to be the homemade chocolate chip cookie mom. Before the children were placed with us I practiced. I tried all different recipes. I used different ingredients. Organic flour, cake flour, semi-sweet chocolate chips and dark chocolate chips.

I practiced making cookies from scratch like it was my job. Then I brought batches of cookies to my actual job. I let everyone weigh in on the best kind. You see, I believed that having perfect homemade cookie skills was essential to being a good mom.

I wanted to be a cookie-ninja mom. I wanted to welcome my kids home with the smell of fresh cookies baking in the oven. I wanted to mix dough with my children and teach them to measure ingredients. We would wile away the long New England winters in our cozy kitchen, just baking away. Chocolate chip cookies. The ultimate comfort food. I wanted to be THAT mom.

How naive was that? I held on to that cookie dream until the kids came home. Acquiring three/sometimes four children at once is a bit like getting hit by a truck. Mary only slept for 45 minutes at a time. She and Sean both woke up screaming from nightmares all night long. Carl raged whenever I was out of his sight. He would scream and throw his food at me during every single dinner. The dinnertime meltdowns cost me many-a-meal. I lost close to 20 pounds in those first months! Carl would hoard croutons in his room to eat later. “I want my REAL mom to make me food,” he’d say.

I never slept. On the off night the house was quiet I would jolt awake terrified something had happened to the kids. I was so used to their nightmares I didn’t know how to sleep without them. Going to the bathroom started meltdowns galore. I couldn’t even pee, let alone utilize my cookie ninja skills.

At some point I gave up. It was a Saturday morning and I was dragging my weary carcass around on autopilot. We must have been out of coffee. With dark circles under my eyes, I shuffled the children into the nearest Dunkin Donuts. I figured everyone could have a donut. It wasn’t homemade comfort food, but it was something.

And then I did the bad thing. I ordered a powdered jelly donut. Gasp. Somewhere a trauma-trigger alarm sounded, unbeknownst to me. Carl looked askance at me and bellowed, “Don’t do it, mom! Don’t eat the cocaine donut! Cocaine makes you crazy!!!”

Record. Scratch. I blinked a few times. Then I glanced around at the shocked patrons all staring at me. I looked down at my disheveled clothes hanging loosely from my skeletal frame. I did indeed look the part. Cocaine Donut Mom. So I ordered a different donut.

And right then and there I gave up the dream. I gave up the fantasy. No, I wasn’t the cookie ninja mom. This definitely was not the parenting journey I expected. It didn’t matter what the white-haired ladies at the corner table thought about me. It mattered to me that Carl felt safe. Thus began my foray into chocolate glazed donuts. Which, by the way, I got to actually eat without anything being thrown at me.

Sitting in the coffee shop, eating my donut in uninterrupted bliss, I found my comfort food. Maybe we didn’t spend hours happily baking together as a family. But we did get eat our donuts (in their entirety!) without a single meltdown. It was something. It was a start. Being the Cocaine Donut Mom wasn’t the worst thing, after all.

Over the years we finally joined together on several family baking endeavors. Some were great, like our Christmas cookies. Some were a blackened mess of would-be snickerdoodles that stuck to the cookie sheet. I never again made the perfect chocolate chip cookie. But we made memories.

Yes, this is a different kind of parenting. It’s different from the path I thought adoption would lead us down. Accepting an alternative parenting journey has made all the difference. Plus, I have great stories to tell, like the time I was a cocaine donut mom!


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

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adoption, Attachment Disorders

Too Young to Die


“I don’t want to die yet. I mean, I’m too young to be dead. There is still a lot of stuff I want to do.”

This is Carl’s pragmatic view on why he doesn’t want Mary coming home for visits. Why he doesn’t want to see her. He is “not ready to be dead yet.” Currently Mary is at a therapeutic program for a few months. It’s a short term program and we are working towards home visits. The longer she stays away from home, they say, the harder it will be for her to transition back.  There is a danger she will become “institutionalized.”

So here we sit, at dinner to celebrate our adoption anniversary. I’m sipping a glass of sparkling moscato. Luke is holding my hand discretely under the table. If the kids see they will surely tell us to “keep it PG!” Catlyn and Seth are tucking into their creamy alfredo pastas. We are all in a happy bubble of contentment. Except…except….Mary isn’t here. I can’t decide how I feel about it.

We visited Mary earlier in the day. She was wearing her adoption T-shirt, but hadn’t realized it was Adoption Anniversary day. She was in a good mood, hugging us and snuggling into my hair. Mary had just gotten glasses. She picked the brown ones so they would look like mine. A part of me is melting over this. 

 In all the years we had her, she never would complete a vision test. Doctor’s appointments tend to leave Mary shut-down, mute and staring at the floor. By the time the vision test came she would be entirely unresponsive, not even attempting to stand on the marked line. Don’t even get me started on the scoliosis test.

But when the nurse from the institution took her? She was fine. Mary said she “felt safe,” and that she “had been telling us” she needed glasses all along. Color me confused. It seems that her trauma is always triggered by, well, us. Being in a family, with a mom is hard. Being in an institution with strangers? That’s easy.

Her clinician says they have seen a lot of the drastic mood swings. They notice when Mary’s speech is so pressured that her words blend together and they don’t know what she is saying. She’s had to be restrained once so far, for attacking staff members who tried to break up a fight she was having with another girl. There is no way I could restrain her like that at home. I have a (possibly permanent) spinal injury, and my husband is going back to work full time. We can’t afford for him to just work the odd shift now and again. He can’t stay home all the time anymore in order to protect us from Mary’s violent rages.

What on earth will we do? After the murder planning, Carl is traumatized. So am I. Things are just starting to settle nicely. We are sleeping without the deadbolts locked on the doors. We haven’t had to secure the locks on the kitchen cabinet where the cutlery and glassware is. Things are quiet. Things are safe. I can allow myself to exhale.

But there is another side to this. The side where I see one of Mary’s little stuffed owls lying on the floor. I am gut-wrenchingly sick with missing her and simultaneously glad she isn’t here. I, like Carl, feel that I am too young to die. There is so much left to do.

 

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

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PTSD

All the Pretty Stars: My Trauma

door

My heart is pounding so fast I think it will explode. My head is throbbing and I’m seeing black spots at the edge of my vision. Rage. I am feeling pure unadulterated rage. As if from somewhere outside my body, I hear my own voice screaming, “F*CK YOU!!! You will NEVER EVER touch me! No more destroying property. Don’t you dare make a fist at dad. You are an ANIMAL Only an animal hits people and attacks them. It’s OVER!!! NEVER AGAIN, DO YOU HEAR ME?!?!

My son is inches from my face, screaming at me, and I’m clutching his shoulders screaming at him. Yeah, not at all productive.

“You’re choking me!” he yells, “You said you’d never hit me no matter what! You LIED.”

I’m not choking him or hitting him. What I am doing is scaring him. This is something unprecedented. I have never done this before. I’m screaming back.

“You think you can hurt ME a grown adult?! You want to scream and yell and try to scare me?! How do you like it?! I deal with this all the f*cking time!” These words are coming out of my mouth.

His words are hurtful (they always are when he rages) and now so are mine. The out-of-body me is shocked and horrified that I am screaming in my son’s face. I can barely breathe for all the pent up fury I am spewing out.

“Do you think it’s OK to hit me because I’m nice and I don’t hurt you? Do you think you can KEEP GOD***N HITTING ME?!?!? F*CK YOU!!!!!THIS IS OVER!!!! I WILL NOT LIVE LIKE THIS!!! You are NOT stronger! You will NEVER F*cking touch me EVER again. You think it feels good to hit people? Too bad! NO MORE! Normal people don’t act like this. I am DONE.”

As if to punctuate my statement I angle myself to lean my weight on something while I take a swing at the door. With my cane. There is a loud crack and a hole appears in the door.  In the 4 years we’ve had our children they have attacked the doors many, many times. The bedroom doors have never broken.

All the closet doors were ripped off years ago. The children have punctured the walls and ripped apart the furniture. They have broken windows, and most of our screens are missing. This house has been under child attack for quite some time. Our bedroom and hallway closets hang on by a rickety rigging system. But the bedroom doors? They bend under assault but they have never, ever broken. Until now.

In that instant I can see that I am broken, too. I shuffle into my room with my cane and shut the door. He wasn’t actually trying to hit me. Carl was trying to punch dad. He didn’t actually come for me he was just screaming obscenities. I gasp for breath and curl up in a ball on the floor.

I don’t want to be the strongest. I don’t want to be the loudest. And I don’t want to try and be a better mom to the very people that want me dead. My 11-year-old son is shouting that he will leave and find another mom. He will never come home from school. A few weeks ago our daughter planned to kill us.

I don’t even care. I just curl up and try to breathe. I am still seeing stars. I don’t even recognize myself anymore. Even Luke is a bit fearful to approach me. He eventually gets Carl into bed and offers a quiet, “You ok?” along with an ice water. I cannot answer because I cannot breathe. All three of us are shocked. Mom never loses it.

I recently started EMDR therapy for myself. It’s supposed to be very effective but its bringing up a lot of triggers in the process. I understand triggers now. I can see it from Carl and Mary’s perspective, at least a bit. I startle when people talk loudly. I hate being touched unawares. I can’t even have the kitties snuggle me for long. Sleep is ever-elusive and my hair has started falling out in clumps. I see my doctor immediately after the incident, and she prescribes Ativan to help me through the panic attacks. She encourages me to continue EMDR.

I am like the bedroom door. I’ve bent for years, accommodating the trauma of my children. Parenting therapeutically. Writing safety plans. Downplaying holidays like Christmas and Mother’s day. Being hypervigilant to signs that they are hungry, having a sensory need, or simply tired. Bobbing and parrying and darting out of the line of attack. I have de-escalated more tantrums in my lifetime than I care to count. And I’ve always named the feeling. Practiced the do-overs. Practiced rephrasing messages. I’ve done it all. There have been improvements over the years. I think Carl is better, even if he can’t always control his rage. I don’t blame him. Apparently neither can I.

Now I have my own trauma. I have trauma that my children inflicted on me because they once experienced it. Mary is getting treatment in RTC now, but I still sleep with the deadbolt locked. It’s not because of some mysterious childhood trauma that’s come up. No, it’s the fact that every rage one of them goes into reminds me of all the years worth of rages. Sort of like Chinese water torture. It doesn’t matter that I’m not being physically hurt anymore. I remember being hurt. Drip, drip, drip. Every insult or obscenity reminds me of another, older one. Drip, drip, drip.

My neurosurgeon tells me I will likely  never be “asymptomatic” again. My ongoing work injury is just another part of the torture. Drip, drip, drip. We will have to wait until a year after surgery to know if the nerve damage is permanent. He avoids my eyes when I ask about the use of my right leg. He won’t answer me if I will ever drive again or walk without a cane. All he says is that we have to wait. Who am I? Who have I become?

When I later sit down with Carl I sincerely and thoroughly apologize. I explain to him that it’s never OK for me to grab him. I should never scream at him especially close to his face. That behavior is verbal abuse, and from now on Daddy will handle the upsetting situations while mom works hard in therapy. And also, I’m really really glad he didn’t just punch me when we were that close. That would have ended differently even a year ago. He was able to maintain more control than I was.

Carl says he thinks I am very strong and has decided not to throw things at me and smash them in my presence. He is sorry he ever hit me (even though its been a long while since) and he hugs me. To him screaming is nothing. It scared him because his typically-quiet mom screamed, but that’s about it. He moves on.

I cannot move on. I cannot be the broken door anymore. I need to live life as mom, not a hostage. Or a monster. So a few days later, I sneak into Carl’s room and gently wake him. I tell him to put on his shoes. His grin is instantaneous. “Where are we going? Is it a surprise?” It is.

This day happens to be summer solstice. My son and I creep outside to watch the sunset at 9:30 PM. We look for fireflies in the forest while waiting for the night stars to appear. This moment is just for us, just mom and kid time. Eventually, the longest day of the year is over. The sky is full black and filled with a sense of magic. I snuggle up with my boy and finally we count all the stars.

 

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

 

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adoption, mental illness

Mania and Matricide: It’s Not OK

cdadlock

Installing deadbolts

It’s not OK to hit me. It’s not OK to bite me. It’s not OK that I have a scar on my head from where you split it open with a high heeled shoe three years ago. It’s not OK that our son has to live at my parents house because he isn’t safe here. It’s not OK for you to plan on stabbing me and stabbing your brother. Not with a kitchen knife OR with a bottle opener.

It’s not OK that we’ve installed cameras with motion sensors and night vision in all the public areas of our house. It’s not OK that we have combination locks on the cabinets where we keep all the “sharps.” It’s not OK that we had to install deadbolts on the doors to our bedrooms. It’s not OK that the motion sensor alarm goes off to wake me up at 12:30 AM when you are wandering the house in search of a “stabbing weapon.”

It’s not OK that you told your therapist today that “Mom has to die!” and then threatened to kill yourself and your brother. You’ve been planning this ever since your last few hospitalizations. Last time they called you “depressed” and started a course of SSRI medications. Not OK!

When you came home your depression became a manic state. You became a child with pressured speech so fast that you stopped using consonants. You started your “hyper phase,” which means you never sleep. You laugh harder and harder until you are screaming and then breaking things. It is not OK that we had to “toss” your room and remove all of the hard furniture and sharp objects. It is not Ok that your service dog found a jack-o-lantern carving knife and gave it to us (well, actually it’s very OK with me that the service dog probably saved our lives.) Did you find it during a night of wandering around the house? Your hand was always holding things under your blankie, ever aware of the cameras. This is not OK.

dakota1

Dakota Blue, the service dog

You want to know what else is not OK? It’s not OK that the inpatient doctors refused to call your PHP, your psychiatrist, your trauma therapist, or your in-home service team. It’s not OK that they sent you home with an active murder plan and a spiraling state of mania that escalates into more grandiose and diabolical schemes. It is not OK that the state’s voluntary services program we applied for does not consider planning murder to be “clinically acute” enough for a short-term residential placement.

There are some other things that are not OK. It was NEVER ok for you to be neglected as a baby. It wasn’t OK that your pediatrician never reported to anyone that you were in the 12th percentile for weight and selectively mute. It is NOT ok that DCF had been involved with your bio family for 10 years before removing all of you. They were getting hotline calls before you were ever born! It is not OK that any attention you got from your bio mom often became abusive. It is not OK that you lived in terror and learned how to survive the ever-rotating bevy of strange men in your home.

It is NOT OK that I wasn’t able to be your mom in the beginning, when the bad things were happening. It’s not OK and it is not your fault.

Here is what is OK. It is OK that we knew about your mental health concerns when we adopted you. We chose you because you are more than a diagnostic label. You are an amazing girl. You are OUR girl. It is OK that you need to be somewhere safe right now until you stabilize. It is OK to need medication to help you do that. It is OK to grieve the first mother you ever had. God, I wish I could give some of that back to you. The good parts at least.

Our family is going to be OK. It isn’t easy getting there. Yes, we “chose” this life. But I still say we chose the best children. Nothing in life is easy. The best things are hard. I’ve seen parents with profoundly disabled children flourish. I’ve seen severely autistic children learn to read. So yes, we will be OK. It is OK to decide we are not going to try for a biological child. It is OK to stick with the family we have.

it’s OK that it takes an attachment-disordered child a long time to overcome the fear of love. It’s Ok that you inherited some of your bio mom’s mental health concerns. It’s OK because you will never struggle on your own the way she had to. It’s OK as long as we can all stay safe. And I pray that we can. We have done everything in our power. The rest is up to you, sweet girl. Don’t doubt yourself. Mental health can be a manageable illness. Love will always be there for you. No matter what.

ycameran

night vision camera

 

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

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