adoption, family

Paying for His Mistakes?

There is no middle ground when it comes to Marcus. He’s either in or he’s out with his perception about family. He can be up or he can be down with his emotions. He’s either with us in rural Connecticut or on the streets of a city slum in his old neighborhood. Marcus can be in a place where he makes a series of good decisions or a string of bad decisions. He is caught between his biological and his adoptive families. It doesn’t matter how often we try to get him to accept both.

When he came home from Job Corps for Thanksgiving it was great. He helped us with chores around the house.  He spent the weekend replacing light-bulbs and breaking down Carl’s bunk bed to replace it with a stand-alone frame. He hauled up the Christmas decorations from the basement so we could trim the tree and set up our annual zombie nativity scene (yes, really). Acts of service like this are the way Marcus shows us he cares.

Carl pretended to push Marcus off the ladder while he affixed the angel at the top of the tree. We played about 47 games of Phase 10 and Scattergories. Our house was filled with activity and laughter the entire week. It was wonderful.

Now Marcus is back at Job Corps. I’ve sent him a care package of Ramen noodles via Amazon Prime. He has what he needs and he’s in a place that is safe. He passed his return drug test so he’ll be able to go off-grounds for weekends (as opposed to Holidays only) starting this week. His life seems to be progressing in the right direction. I can feel good about the choices he’s making.

Except…except…I’m not confident he’ll continue to make them. When we discussed Christmas break he mentioned going back to the city to stay with a friend. He’ll be back in the thick of the drama that got him jumped in the first place. It’s so easy to slip into old habits in that environment. He’s 21, but when it comes to thinking choices through he’s developmentally around 6.

He sent me a message last night asking if we could cover a court fee for $50. When I pressed him as to why he said it was from driving with a suspended license. He claimed not to remember when or why his license was suspended, only that it was now reinstated. He sent me a pic of the re-reinstatement paperwork. Although he says he’s not able to cover the cost, I think he can. I know Job Corps gives him a little over this amount each month.

Honestly, I don’t want to pay it. When he left home the last time to live in his car and return to less-than-legal employment in the city, he got in trouble. He got stopped while driving an unregistered vehicle. His car insurance lapsed. He popped a tire doing donuts in a parking lot because he lives life like a Fast and the Furious movie.

I just can’t bring myself to feel like this is my problem. Luke and I did have his car towed to bio-dad’s house after it was impounded. He won’t give us the real reason why his license was suspended other than “it was the cop’s fault, man!” These are the natural consequences of his very bad choices. Part of me thinks when he leaves for winter break he will get sucked back into the city and skip out on Job Corps.

I don’t want to pay it. I don’t want to support his bad decisions. What I want to do is say, “I TOLD you so!!” However, I know it will cause a rift in our family. I really just don’t know what the right move is here.

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

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adoption, family

Death and Changes

Nothing reminds us of the sanctity of life as much as the finality of death. Luke and I went to a memorial service today. I didn’t actually know the woman who died. We might have met a total of two times.

Her husband is the one we are friends with. He volunteers with Luke as an EMT here in our little town. He’s a captain named K. Our relationship with K began before Luke ever volunteered at EMS.

My husband didn’t have time for any of that in the summer of 2014. We had just brought home 3 (4 when Marcus visited) foster children with plans to adopt them. That summer was filled with a series of crisis. Mary was having out-of-control violent episodes on a daily basis. They’d last for hours and leave a swath of broken furniture, broken walls, and a bruised up mother in their wake. Sometimes there was blood.

When it got too dangerous for us to manage we’d have to call for backup. The mobile crisis team would send out a therapist. Often Mary was much too violent for them to manage. The police and ambulance would soon follow.

Every time we had to bring Mary in for a psychiatric hospital stay I felt like such a failure. Why wasn’t she getting any better? Was our love breaking her in some way? Why couldn’t our family be enough to help Mary stabilize?

Here is where K came in. After the third or fourth hospitalization he began to show up first on scene after a 9-1-1 call. Luke was at work and I was on my own. K never judged me. He never judged Mary. K had a similar experience with a family member suffering from a mental illness.

Mary was terrified to be alone with men back then. She wouldn’t let anyone touch her. The only way to get her to the ER was if I rode in the back of the ambulance with her. When Luke was working I couldn’t ride with her. I’d end up without a way home from the ER. I couldn’t leave the other kids with neighbors overnight again and again as I stayed at the hospital.

On one of the worst days, K was there. Mary was heading back for an inpatient stay. Her violence was escalating. Marcus had called their oldest biological sister and their biological mother in a fit of rage. I don’t even recall why he was mad that day. My cell phone started blowing up with calls, threats, and comments about the terrible things we were doing to Mary who really just “needed her mother.”

At my wits end, I looked at K in despair. He gently asked me where my car keys were. That night he drove my car behind the ambulance to the hospital. I was able to go with Mary and still have a way to get home. I dare anyone to find an EMT that amazing.

Over the next few years Mary stabilized. We would see K around town and she’d run to hug him. Luke began volunteering at EMS as family life settled down. They became fast friends and K was always there for us.

At the service I brought him a brightly colored pink and purple bracelet made by Mary. I told him, “This may not be your style but you know who wanted you to have this.”

He put on his sparkly bracelet and wore it the rest of the service. When I glanced down at Luke’s hand I realized both of us were still decked out in our Mary-made jewelry, too. Luke never takes his off.

Sometimes things change. K’s wife died after a hard-fought battle with cancer. Mary went to a residential school after two years of relative stability here at home.

Some things never change. I know this each time I glance down at our wrists.

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

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adoption, family

The Quietest Mother

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I have to approach so slowly, so cautiously. Marcus is crying. It’s rare for him to ever cry out loud. Instead he will sit with silent tears streaming, unchecked, down his face. He is a statue of sorrow.

The well of hurt and loss inside him runs so deep. He isn’t like his other siblings. He hasn’t had the benefits of good therapy. He hasn’t had the benefit of a stable family, a place to stay longer than a few months. Foster care has trained him to be an island.

He’s crying. He needs his mom. He needs me. Marcus hates needing a mom. In the past, every time we have gotten close, he’s run. He will put as much distance between us as possible. He is a young man now but we’ve done this dance for years.

Eventually, he always returns. Then we continue the dance all over again. Perhaps, this time, he won’t notice me. I will be so quiet he won’t even notice a mother has crept up on him.

I try not to say “I love you,” too much. Even after the adoption I still tread lightly. I try not to show those deep feelings that so often spook him. I hug him sparingly and only if I warn him first. Keep things light, I tell myself. Don’t scare him off. Try to keep him this time.

In this moment I am so very quiet. I say in my softest whisper, “I’m going to hug you now.” Quietly, so quietly, I place my arms around him. And then suddenly he’s crushing his face into my shoulder. His embrace is fierce and tight. My sweater soaks up all his tears.

I stay like this, completely still, while he cries it all out. Later, he may resent having exposed this much emotion to me. Still, I stay. My legs go numb and my back is on fire. He is crushing me. I say nothing. I just stay here. I am the quietest mother.

Please stay, Marcus. I want you to stay.

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

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adoption

Out of Our Home


Where is she? Where is the little girl that stuck so close to my side that we nicknamed her “Barnacle?” She is at a short-term residential treatment facility. She isn’t home. Her bed is empty and her room is spotlessly clean. After all, arranging her things neatly seems to be about the only day-to-day “mothering” I get to do right now.

Being separated from my 10-year-old daughter makes me wonder about biological parents with children in foster care. Do they wander through their child’s empty room, burying their faces in a discarded favorite sweater? Do they wonder at every visit why their child hasn’t been prompted to use soap, or wear clean clothes, or why they are watching so much TV? Or maybe that’s just me. I am a walking cliche.

Mary has been at the treatment center for almost 3 months now. We see her three times per week. Two therapy sessions and one weekend visit. It seems like the program intends for children to go home on the weekends. Parents pack up their child, have a great sleepover, and then send them back to continue treatment. Only, no one can figure out how to do this with our girl. She still claims that she is afraid to hurt us. She acknowledges that she wanted to “kill us by stabbing,” but she doesn’t know why. We can’t keep her physically safe here.

We tried to have Mary home on a day pass. She cornered her brother and whispered death threats to him. He was further traumatized and Mary was dysregulated. Rather than being a productive bonding experience, it gave Mary the opportunity to keep me away from anyone else. Once she had me, she either pointedly ignored me or tried to say hurtful things. It is as confusing to me as I’m sure it is to her. After a few hours, we called it quits. So, no overnights for us. Especially not while she still threatens her brother.

Instead, Luke and I visit her in the community. We take her around to local places so that staff support is close, if needed. This has been relatively successful. Mary enjoys this full parental attention (so do we!) along with new clothes and fun activities. Although, I’m not sure at all how this is preparing her to come home.

“Older child adoptions can be hard,” the residential therapist says. I know this. “There can be attachment difficulties.” Again, I know. “I am changing her diagnosis to Childhood Bipolar Disorder.” Yes, she has been diagnosed with this in the past. “These issues may be ongoing.” Yeah, I got that part of the equation a long time ago.

“Maybe you should have her get an Occupational Therapy evaluation.” Done. And actually, unless you’re worried about fine motor or visual motor skills? It’s mostly an observation and maybe some checklists. Then you get some sensory processing information. Like, say, a sensory diet. Which Mary has. Which I wrote in the 30 page intake packet the residential therapist had us complete. (As an aside, I cannot tell you how much I miss her outpatient trauma therapist!)

Sigh. At the end of the day, I don’t think this place offers the kind of help Mary needs. Every day they go out to the beach, the movies, an amusement park, Chuck E. Cheese, or out to eat. I fear that all she will learn here is that she likes to be taken somewhere fun at least once a day. They don’t have any specific social or behavioral goals. They just go. They don’t have any kind of background in complex trauma and attachment. So I arranged for attachment therapy with a psychologist. It’s the best I can do.

This feeling of helplessness cuts me deeply. We couldn’t keep everyone safe so she needed to be there. Do bios feel this way when their child needs to go into foster care? It’s horrible, like having slimey day-old fish residue stuck in your throat. I don’t know what to do. I am looking for answers. And I am looking for my daughter. Always.

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

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Not This Time: Mood Disorder Warrior

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Sometimes I just know that I can do this. I am feeling the super-powers of being “mom” to some very traumatized children. I try to hold on to these feelings because, let’s be honest, every parent feels woefully inadequate at times. It doesn’t matter if you’re a trauma-mama or the parent of a perfectly behaved honor roll student. We all question ourselves.

Our little family has once again been faced with some big challenges. My back injury has returned. The disc that was operated on has re-herniated. I am out of work, on a heating pad, and just trying to manage my pain. In addition, Mary’s emotional cycle is on the uptick. This time she is in her happy place. Unfortunately, for Mary, that means that she is louder, laughs longer, and becomes wildly impulsive. She is in a manic state.  Eventually, her laughing  ends up as screaming. Then she cries and falls asleep.

Her emotions come before her thoughts. They precede any kind of cognition and she is left scrambling to figure out why she is feeling whatever emotion has taken over. It’s like she’s been hijacked by a feeling and can’t regain control of the car. When Mary cannot control her feelings, or her body, she is scared of herself. I get that. I can’t control the pain and/or function of my own body right now. All of us feel more comfortable when we are in the driver’s seat.

This time, Mary is able to verbalize if she feels unsafe. She tells me that she is afraid she will be hospitalized again. Mary can name her feelings and rate them on a scale of 1-10. She can ask for help. Mary is proficient on coping skill strategies to help her. I am so proud of her ability to handle this mood disorder that life has handed her.

She has been having intrusive thoughts about hurting me. To be clear, Mary hasn’t been hospitalized in almost 2 years. She hasn’t been physically violent with me since then, either. Mary is well-managed with a combination of therapy and medication.  But emotion this big does not know logic. Mary is terrified of the intrusive thoughts she is having. These thoughts tell her that she is going to hurt her mother. These thoughts tell her what the other girls on her cheerleading team are thinking about her. These thoughts are telling her, “I know where you live.”

While Mary is flying high in her manic phase, I am lying low. Literally. I am lying down on a heating pad or an ice pack. I am arranging lumbar support in the strangest sitting positions you’ve ever seen. I am feeling sharp, fiery, electric shocks down my right leg. That right leg isn’t working as well as it once did. I can’t drive at the moment. I can’t go to work. But I can still parent my daughter. I can be there to listen to her needs.

Mary is scared. But she isn’t alone. She is reaching out. She is asking for help.She can do this.  She is a little 10-year-old warrior who inspires me to face my own fears every day! Luckily, we have an amazing trauma therapist who is always there for us. We have a full sensory-diet plan to help her at home. Our state has a mobile crisis team that can send out a therapist when Mary says she is having suicidal thoughts. Her psychiatrist is adjusting her medication and it just takes time. Mary is scared.

We’ve been down this road before. I have neurosurgeons, and pain specialists, and MRI appointments. She has her therapist, her psychiatrist, and the mobile crisis team. We have my parents and our church. We have the support that we need, but that’s not all. The important part is having each other. We will get through this.  A 10-year-old warrior told me so.. So I’m not scared. Not this time.

 

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

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Your Holiday Might Stink, But You Don’t Have To!

Holidays for kids with trauma are a little bit like the apocalypse. All of the excitement and joy triggers an “end-of-days” type reaction withing them. There is yelling, lying, screaming, fighting, nightmares, rages, the works. I’m pretty sure a bunch of locusts just flew by the window. I might need more deodorant. Welcome to Christmas with children from foster care.

Thanksgiving starts the countdown. Christmas is on it’s way. It isn’t their fault at all. It’s not intentional. it’s simply their reaction to trauma. As parents, Luke ans I try to be as therapeutic as possible. We connect before we correct, we listen, we stay close, we are present with our children. We acknowledge their emotions. We give them choices. We give them a voice. Sometimes, we need to give ourselves a break.

Self-Care is one of the most important things we can do to support our kids. It is more important than making it to all their sports games, volunteering in their school, or even deescalating every meltdown. There is no way to provide the kind of parenting it takes to work through their childhood trauma, unless we get a break.

Luke and I rarely get out, so we take our self-care moments when we can get them. For example, last Saturday was one of those days. One of the days where our squawking little chickens are convinced the end is nigh! Carl spent most of the day arguing with just about everything anyone else said. He was loud, aggressive, and screaming. Even his hugs were leaving bruises. In short, his energy was off the wall. He yelled things like, “You’re ugly! I hate you! Your armpits stink!” See? I was stinking and so was this Saturday.

After a reapplication of deodorant, I doubled down on “time-ins.” I encouraged Carl to share his feelings. He shared that he was mad that Mary spit in his face. Mary shared that she was mad that Carl slapped her in the face. Carl shared that he was mad about “all of his mad feelings.” He shared them so loudly that I considered ear plugs. Nonetheless, I kept him close by all day. He wasn’t regulated enough to be away from his parents. He needed us to role play and practice “do-overs” with nice words.

After about 10 hours of the little chickens yelling at each other and shoving each other and generally just spreading their panic around in the form of anger, Luke and I were exhausted. Objects were flying through the air,  little chicken tears were mixing with little chicken screams. The end was indeed upon us, at least the end of our patience as parents!

We looked at each other and just knew. We both needed a time out. A mom and dad time out. Luke poured out two glasses of wine. I looked up at him adoringly in what can only be described as cinema-worthy romance. All we needed was background music.

Carl stomped by screaming, “And you know what else? I’m going to tell everyone that you pick your nose, mom! I’ll do it!! I will tell everyone that you stink!” Then I did something that we honestly try not to do. I sent them to their rooms to play for awhile. I phrased it as something along the lines of, “It seems like you might need some space. You two can play with the toys in your rooms for a bit. Go ahead and try out a couple of coping skills. Dad and I will check back with you in a bit. We will be right down the hallway in the living room.

Two doors slammed simultaneously. For a moment there was the sound of throwing toys. And then…blessed quiet…for about 2 whole glorious minutes. Luke and I bolted to sit in front of the fireplace with our glasses of wine. We snuggled in close and looked deep into each other’s eyes. From down the hallway Carl shouted, “I know what you guys are doing. Your kissing! You can’t trick me, I KNOW you are out there kissing!”

And then, for no discernible reason at all, Mary began belting out the Star Spangled Banner from her room. Finally, our romantic background music had begun! So right there, on the floor in front of a roaring fire, to the off-key tune of our national anthem accompanied by an enraged 10-yr-old boy, I kissed my husband. A lot. On the mouth!

Then we welcomed the kids back into the living room for a family art project and some real Christmas music. We were all ready to try again. And we all lived happily ever after. Without an apocalypse (at least not yet!)

The end!

 

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

 

*If you have ever thought about foster care or adoption, I encourage you to get started on your own adventure!

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“She Let Me Clean the Puke!” and Other Trauma Triumphs

This finally happened. Cue the drum roll and the applause, please. My daughter finally let me clean her puke! I’m actually not being sarcastic at all. This happened. I am overjoyed. I got to clean the puke. Finally! Victory is mine!

 

Let’s back up about 18 months. Mary was just 7 when she came to live with us from foster care. Although she had a good foster home, she had a distorted view of what a “mom” and “dad” were, and what they were supposed to do. Her experiences had taught her that parents get drunk. A lot. Parents leave. A lot. Parents may love you, but they will hurt you physically. A lot. Her schema for “family” was so distorted that she was at a loss as to what to do in many situations.

 

Mary hates getting sick. In her view, anything that makes her weak will leave her vulnerable and defenseless. She feels the most vulnerable in the bathroom and in bed, the 2 places you usually go when sick. Initially she hated sleeping because she would be vulnerable if unconscious. Mary never slept for more than 45 minutes at a time when she first came home. If she fell asleep in a random spot in the house, we would try to carry her to bed. This would cause her to awaken in a heightened panic, crying and screaming and swinging wildly. Being sick caused all of these things to culminate for her. I may not like the stomach bug, no one does, but Mary HATES it.

 

Last year, she got the stomach bug. It was the only time she had vomited around us, at all. She ran off of the carpet and bolted onto the tiled foyer, collapsing to her hands and knees. She vomited in great quantity in a pool on the tiled portion of the floor. She hadn’t said a word, or even indicated that she was sick in any way. I rushed to her side, only to realize that her panic was mounting and she very much needed me to back away. “I threw up!” she kept shouting. “Go away!”

 

I’m sure I muttered soothing nonsense to her, in order to ground her to this reality. “It’s OK, honey, Mommy is here.” I spoke my steps aloud so she would know my location. Mary was always afraid to lose me from her line of vision in those days. “Honey, climb into bed. I’m getting a glass and filling it with water. I’m getting you a wet wash cloth.” In this way, I gave her the physical space she requested while giving her the support of my presence. I could hear her sobbing and stumbling to her feet. I ran over with the aforementioned items saying over and over, “It’s OK honey, let’s get you to bed.”

 

I was shocked to hear her yell at me, “I’m TRYING, stop yelling at me!” My only view was of her little hunched over back. As she slammed her little fist against the ground, I could see that she held her own roll of paper towels. She was cleaning. Cleaning the puke and sobbing. Mary angrily got up and slammed the soiled items into the trash. “Leave me alone. I’m doing it!!” she yelled. Mary grabbed a spray bottle of cleaner and stomped back to the foyer. When I tried to halt her efforts she became even more enraged, yelling, “I can do this, I can!” through her sobs. I was befuddled, to put it mildly.

 

Was she angry? At me?  At the puke? Eventually she calmed down as I sang to her and bundled her into the couch with a bucket to puke in. I put on her favorite show and promised her she did not have to go to bed. As she nodded off on the couch, only to ferociously open her eyes a minute later, I paused to reflect. Why was she cleaning up her own puke? Why was she mad?

 

Her older brother relayed a story to me that helped me understand. He told me about a time that he had gotten sick in his bio home. He’d thrown up on the carpet in his bio mom’s room. She had been mad about the carpet so she yelled at him and held his face in it. Then she left him to clean it up.

 

All the pieces fell into place for me. Mary had interpreted the events differently than I had. She had been in a heightened state of fear because she didn’t want to ruin the carpet, and she hadn’t made it out of the door in time. When I urged her to come to bed, she interpreted it as my rushing her through cleaning and telling her she was too slow. She thought she was being punished and sent to her room, when I was urging her to go to bed. The poor little thing thought I was upset about the floor and punishing her.

 

When she had recovered, and was more regulated, I assured her that she was not in trouble. I explained that she was way more important than a carpet would ever be. Then I asked her who’s job it was to clean the puke. “Mine,” she answered definitely. “No, honey. You don’t clean up when you are sick. The mom gets to clean the puke.” We talked about this often, along with other “mom” jobs for the next year and a half.

 

Today was the day that it finally happened. She marched in a parade and was stuffed with candy and cookies and junk food all day. She was resting on the couch when out of nowhere, she bolted for the bathroom. “I need a hair tie,” she cried, “I’m going to puke.” I rushed over, just as she vomited onto the tile floor of the bathroom. She didn’t cry. There were no panicked sobs. She let me sit with her and hold her hair back while she vomited. I rubbed her back in circles and brushed the hair from her neck. I muttered soothing mom things, and she leaned into me.

 

When she finished, she let me guide her to bed. She accepted my nurture, and it helped her. Gone was the little girl who yelled, “Leave me alone!” I gave her water and tissues and fussed over her. Carl came, too, and he brought her things and rubbed her back. I gently queried, “Who cleans the puke?” Mary looked at me uncertainly, “You do?”

“Yup,” I beamed at her, “the mom gets to clean the puke!” And I did. Gleefully.

 

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

 

*If you have ever considered foster care or adoption, I encourage you to get started on your own puke-filled adventure today!

 

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