family

Monster Feet in the Night

The force is strong with Carl tonight. He is trudging up the stairs into our bedroom about every hour or so. I hear a quiet, “Mommy? Daddy?” and squint my eyes open. There is Carl standing in the doorway in Star Wars Pajamas and monster-feet slippers. Yes, the force is strong. The force of wakefulness.

All manner of emergencies happen. He has a stomach ache. He needs to blow his nose. He had a bad dream while he was awake  and he cannot fall asleep. I know exactly what this means. Mary has been gone for a week straight now. I believe that Carl is afraid because he was separated from his sister for so long in foster care. The 11-year-old boy who is a fierce athlete by day, has become a frightened child with monster-feet slippers at night.

What he really needs right now is a little nurture. What I really need right now is a little sleep. He asks to sleep with the cardigan I wore that day. I hand it over while realizing I’m missing about 8 cardigans because the children like to sleep with the smell of mom. I’m either going to have to go shopping, or go digging around under their beds. But first, I really need to sleep.

“Do you feel safe now? Do you have everything you need?” I hear Luke say this as he escorts Carl back to bed for the 6th time. And it’s only 1:00 AM. I do not know how people with infants do this! Luke then asks Carl to please stop coming up the stairs and knocking on our door. He explains that we all need to sleep. If Carl can’t sleep he can do one of his crossword puzzle books or read for a bit. Carl agrees in a sincere and determined voice.

2:00 AM rolls around. I am woken by something. Carl is standing at the bottom of the stairs (not going up) and whisper-yelling, “Mommy? Mommy!” Well at least he isn’t banging on the door to our room. He has a headache this time. I administer tylenol and take him back to bed. Hey, he attempted to follow Dad’s directions.

3:30 AM comes and, believe it or not, I am woken again by a little whisper-shout from the bottom of the stairs. “OK, Kid.” I say, “You’re scared. Grab the nesting materials from our closet and set up a place to sleep on the floor near our bed.” He agrees with palpable relief.

It’s that little high-pitched voice that gets me. Soon it will change and deepen. He will only be my little guy in Star Wars PJs for a little longer. Carl rustles up a soft bed made from a large down-feather quilt and several different kinds of “nesting” pillows we keep on hand for the kids. It’s usually used for watching movies. We don’t co-sleep, but whatever. Did I mention the part about 3:30 AM?

Finally, we sleep. The next morning I stumble downstairs like a bleary-eyed zombie. My face feels puffy. Carl is industriously putting his things in his backpack and getting ready for the day. I can’t seem to manage actual words so I grunt and mumble my way over to the couch. That’s when Carl hands me a fresh cup of coffee. Just the way I like it. My little big guy is now dressed in Nike sports gear and operating kitchen appliances.

Soon the days of monster-feet and the little voice will be gone. He is growing so quickly. Adopting kids from hard places is a long, difficult journey. But it’s amazing. It’s moments like these where It’s nighttime again, once more. These are the moments I can reflect and write about our lives. It’s all worth it. He has learned to show empathy. He has learned to trust. He has–wait…is he up? AGAIN?! Yes, he’s up.

What I meant to say was:

Please send coffee!!!!

 

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

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adoption, mental illness

When It’s Not Enough: Adventures in Getting Help

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It’s not enough. I’m not enough. All of the work we have been doing for the last 3 years is not enough to help our Little Bit. 10-year-old Mary is starting puberty. She is also starting to unravel in terms of her mental health. She is back inpatient again at the psychiatric hospital. So, yes, I feel like I am not enough for our girl right now.

During her last meltdown she locked the door to her room and then jumped out of her window. Barefoot. Mary then got into a fight with our outside garbage bin (she won) while screaming at me. I couldn’t stop her. She ran a mile to a friend’s house in bare feet screaming that she needed the police because her mom was trying to kill her. Of course the police came with the ambulance. But they came to take her back to the psychiatric hospital.

We have used up all of the local resources. We have In-Home Intensive Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Services (IICAPS.) She’s been through trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT,) Family Systems therapy, ongoing trauma work, Intensive Outpatient Treatment (IOP,) Partial Hospitalization Placement (PHP,) medication management, and many inpatient stays. Was that all one sentence? We’ve also read every book, checked all of the research we could find on developmental trauma, and parented therapeutically using the Trust Based Relational Intervention model (TBRI) No matter how many acronyms we throw around, she is still stuck in a downward spiral.

I am helpless to heal the deep wounds she carries from trauma. They will never be entirely healed, let’s be honest. But we want to get her to the point where she is functioning at home, as opposed to being in fight/flight mode most of the time. I think puberty has started to re-trigger some of the trauma that she had already come to terms with.

Our entire goal is to keep her safe. We want her safe at home, not inpatient. I did find a great model for attachment and trauma work done in the home. In-home services are the most effective for our daughter, but most programs are not specifically  trauma-focused. Even if they are, it is not for complex, developmental trauma. Thank goodness I found the Attachment, Regulation, Cooperation model (ARC ) through The Justice Resource Institute (JRI.)

JRI is dedicated to helping children and adolescents mental health. They are one of the leaders in the field of research on developmental, complex trauma. (Often referred to as C-PTSD. More letters, I know!) Unfortunately, they won’t take insurance. They won’t take cash. They only contract through the Department Of Children and Families (DCF.)

So we are asking begging for their help. We are in the process of applying for voluntary services. I’m not sure what will happen, but I’m hopeful. We are in the fight of our lives right now. It isn’t us against our child. It’s us fighting with our child against the trauma of her past. The question is not if we will continue the fight. The question is whether or not the state of Connecticut will join us.

So here I sit, typing away my jumble of letters and acronyms. Since when did the alphabet take over my life?! All that’s left to do is wait. And hope. Will you hope along with us?

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

**If you want information about ARC or JRI you can go to www.JRI.org or www.traumacenter.org to learn more.

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adoption

The Month All the Mommies Leave

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It’s March again, and I can never stop this month from coming! This is the month our children were removed from their biological home during a drug raid. It was a particularly warm March the year they went into foster care. I know this because I looked it up. Carl is 11 now. After living with him for a few years, we’ve noticed that his fear and/or misbehavior increases drastically every spring. As soon as it gets warm, Carl’s “traumaversary” kicks in.

In all honesty Carl’s been cranky in a pre-teen sort of way so far. He yells at us and stomps around, slamming doors. He reminds yells at us for being “stupid,” or “aggravating.” Then my sweet boy runs to me, head hanging down, for a hug or a snuggle. He admits that he is very angry and can’t figure out why. I’m hoping this is the worst of it. things seem to get a little easier every year. I really hope I’m not jinxing myself by writing this!

Anyway, as things get easier for Carl, we are noticing some significant separation anxiety in Mary. I’m not sure if this has happened every year or not. Have we overlooked her because Carl’s reactions were so extreme? Are her reactions more extreme this year because she has started puberty and gone through some medication changes?

All I know is that when I am out of sight, Mary starts to become agitated. At a recent doctor’s appointment my husband brought me to, they sat in the waiting room. When the nurse came to get me Mary started kicking the seat, trying to bait Carl into an argument, and being defiant to Luke. These are all signs that her fear is increasing. Her fight or flight response was taking over.

Luke took her outside to the car, where she could safely tantrum, and get all of her screaming and kicking out. It didn’t last very long and everyone was safe. She just really needed to let her big feelings out. She’s also having big feelings at school about missing me. I sent in a picture of Luke and I that she can keep in her desk, and look at when she is lonely.

Mary has also started to sit outside the bathroom door when I am showering. She is sleeping upstairs outside of our room. We’ve taped a picture of mom and dad on the wall next to her pillow. She’s like an extra cuddly  mom-magnet following me around everywhere. When I do my physical therapy exercises, she does them too. When I sit down, she plops herself as close as she can to me. Short of crawling directly into my ribcage, I’m not sure she could get any closer.

Somewhere, deep inside, they remember this as being the month that they lost a mother. This is why the month of March is a tough one for our kids. As my mom explained to me, this must be the month when our kids feel like “Mommies Leave.”  Every year, I hope their fear eases a little more, as they heal.

Too bad March. I’m not going anywhere! This mom is here to stay!

 

 

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

 

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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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parenting

Murder and Attachment: Bonding Games to Play on a Snow Day

“You’re gonna poke someone’s eye out!” is one of my favorite quotes from the movie “A Christmas Story.” In an ill-advised burst burst of mom-creativity, I did not heed this advice. Instead, I suggested that our whole family have a nerf gun fight today. Because of my back injury, I had to sit in one stationary position whilst my family ran around firing. Guess who got hit directly in the eye? Yup, that would be me. Who knew murder and mayhem could actually be dangerous?!

The reason I was so motivated (read: desperate!) to schedule some family fun activities is because we are snowed in with 18 inches. No school. No work for Luke. Two beautiful children who usually freak out when their schedule changes. Don’t get me wrong, I love snow days. I love the pure  white powder covering our New England stone fences. I love the deep quiet blanketing the forest in which we live. The only colors are the green Douglas fir trees and the soft white of freshly fallen snow. Ahhh…the silence.

Oh-wait. I’m the mother of two children with early childhood trauma. Replace “silence” with “shouting, whining, crying” and also a weird wolf sound that comforts Carl and is a kind of cute.  Days spent stuck at home snuggling by the fire or playing in the snow can trigger one thing in them. Stuck. If their fight or flight instinct is triggered their only option is to fight because they feel TRAPPED. This can show itself as anger, fights between siblings, and battles for control.

So today, I strapped on my super-mom back brace, my stylish old-lady walker, and organized some activities. It was great to turn this day into a bonding experience with family. Playful activities are often a super way to create happy, oxytocin-inducing interactions with a family. Silliness is often the best weapon against fear.

Luckily for me, the rest of our games went much better than the nerf guns. We had a great time. After murdering each other (mostly mom!) with nerf guns, we switched over to a gentler game. I call this one “Throw a wish.” Everyone gets 5 pieces of paper to write a wish on. Some of ours were:

“Kiss my cheek”

“Give a sandwich hug”

“Smell my feet”

“Hug Carl’s stinky shoes.”

“Sing ‘I’m a little teapot’ with hand motions”

“Let mommy eat your brains for 30 seconds!” (Author’s note: this activity is NOT to be taken literally. Pretend only!)

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Section off a room into squares using painter’s tape and crumble the papers into little tossable balls. Everyone picks a section and then set a 2 minute timer. During that time throw as many balls out of your section and into someone else’s section as possible. (Author’s note: you WILL lose this game if you are sitting in a stationary chair due to back issues. Just saying…)

The loser has to perform all of the activities listed on the papers in their section. You must perform the activity for the original writer. For extra fun everyone can perform the “wishes” in their section. This is why I smelled Mary’s armpit, Luke performed the teapot song, and Carl had to hug his own stinky shoes for a full minute!

Our next game was the “Worry Web” (or any kind of web at all.) Again, we used the painting tape so Luke could create a giant web. Then we tossed objects at it to try for a “bullseye!” This is not to be confused with the actual eye of an animal that Carl worried we may have lying around somewhere.

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We launched papers covered with extra painter’s tape into the web. If your child has lots of worries they can write them down and crumble them into balls. Then the worries can be thrown into the spider’s web where they cannot bother anyone and will surely be eaten by a giant, fictitious, spider! (I may have seen this on pinterest somewhere. If I ever find a source I will be sure to cite it. Apologies!)

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We ended the day with a movie night, complete with snacks. The activities were distracting and fun. They cut down on any fear-based misbehaving because everything was kept light and silly.

So please, enjoy your very own snow day (or rainy day) in a way that brings your family closer together. Calm their fear of being trapped, changing schedule, or losing control.  Also, try not to get your eye poked out!!

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

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family, adoption disruption

The Prodigal Son…Returns! (No, Seriously!)

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I would like to believe that love ALWAYS wins. It doesn’t. The past three years have humbled me and taught me that attachment and trauma are strong opponents. They plague children from hard places. But sometimes, sometimes, love wins.

This weekend was a win. Marcus, our prodigal son, the one we never got to adopt, came home. It was only a weekend visit, but it meant the world to all of us. (You can read about the struggle for this visit here and here in case you haven’t been following!) At the last minute (the day of) Marcus decided to come.

The former foster mom he lives with now told Luke truth about why she asked him to leave March 1st. As it turns out he is hanging out with friends that are not welcome in her home. The house rules are that he cannot bring these friends around. She told Luke that if his friends are more important than the house rules, he needs to leave. His choice. She’s not wrong, I just hope he chooses family over what are probably fleeting friendships.

Marcus was almost our son, too.  Love can be tricky for him. Too much is scary. Too little is devastating. We decided to surprise Carl and Mary, because we weren’t sure if he would change his mind at the last minute. When he walked in with Luke he got squeals of joy from both children. They flew into his arms and he looked almost surprised at the amount of big-brother-worship they still hold for him.

I had to choke back tears as I hugged him. It was the best weekend. I made sure we did all of the family traditions that he used to participate in. We played a million board games. He helped Luke move things around upstairs. He went to work overnight Friday on the ambulance with Luke (as an observer.) He slept in the next day and then the family (except for me. Stupid back injury!) went to the science center. We always have season passes.

Saturday night dinner was chinese food, a family favorite, followed by more board games. After the Littles went to bed, Luke and I played Bananagrams with him. When he lived here the teens and adults would always battle out this game after the younger children went to bed. Eventually it was just Marcus and I playing Monopoly Deal into the wee hours, and talking.

He proudly showed me a picture of his girlfriend on his phone (skipping past few nude ones.) He told me all about her, seeking my approval, but he is 19. He makes his own decisions now.  I just listened to him, late into the night. He made us both look like “The Joker” from with Snapchat. He told me things that me proud. He graduates in June and wants to be an electrician. He told me things that made me shudder. He smokes a lot of pot and no longer takes his prescribed medication. I just listened until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore.

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Scary Snapchat!

On Sunday Marcus had “sibling time” with Carl and Mary. He took them to Mcdonald’s in town for lunch. We told them “sibling time,” was just for them. As a bonus, Luke and I got a bit of alone time! (You can read here about why Luke and I aren’t getting much sleep!)

As he was packing to leave I realized that he brought along the fuzzy purple blanket I gave him 2 years ago. When I asked him about it he laughingly said, “I take that everywhere! That’s like my blankie, yo!” Once again, I choked back some tears and hugged him good-bye. He has a choice to make in a few days. He can choose to live with his former foster mom (family) and follow house rules. He can also choose his “friends” or this new girlfriend.

My hope is that this weekend reminded him about the importance of family. About the permanence of unconditional love. He chose love this weekend. I hope he makes the same choice March 1st.

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**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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