adoption, family

A Twist on the “Terrible” Teen Years

Sometimes I forget just how far we’ve come. It always happens on the Lacrosse field while I’m watching Carl play. I’ll find myself commiserating with the other Lacrosse parents about the difficulties of parenting a teenage boy. We roll our eyes as we recount mysteriously multiplying towers of dirty sports-socks. We cluck knowingly about the constant backtalk and the snide remarks we get. We nod to each other over the angst, the backne and the BO. “Oh yes,” our expressions say, “I feel your pain!”

I revel in these moments. I am one of them now. You know, the parents who worry over grades and manners instead of psychiatric hospitalizations. I embrace the times I can forget just how different we are as a family. I love that it slips my mind how Carl used to be so violent. I catch myself puzzling over patches in our drywall as I try to remember what happened there.

Every Spring since coming home has been difficult for Carl. He acted out, screamed for hours, destroyed property and generally seemed possessed by his trauma. The season used to bring intensive therapy, medication changes and calls to the crisis line. Heck, Springtime meant anti-anxiety medication for me, too. It was a LOT to get through for all of us.

This is the first year where I don’t have to explain why my child sleeps on the floor or eats until vomiting and then stuffs his face some more. I don’t have to explain the broken doors or the air conditioner that’s been thrown out of a window. This is the first year I don’t smile politely at other parents’ “problems” while my eyes well with tears behind over-sized sunglasses. This is the first Spring that we haven’t had a crisis worker in our home. I wonder if they think we’ve moved?

This year I am confident when I sympathize with the bleacher parents. I belong. We are now safely out of the woods of the Springtime drama. So what changed this year? We are still using the same therapeutic parenting techniques. Carl attends the same school. He plays the same sports.

We aren’t taking Carl to therapy anymore except for brief check-ins every few months. We honestly only do that because it’s a requirement for Carl to access the psychiatrist (which he continues to need.)

It’s Carl that is different. He’s grown. He’s matured. He believes in in this family. He believes in Carl. It doesn’t matter how much work as we have poured into our children’s healing. In the end they are the ones who fight their trauma. Truthfully, I am amazed by this shift. I was bracing for the worst.

Out here on the Lacrosse sidelines I join the other parents agonizing over the game. It’s gone into over-time. From the left side of the field, Carl shoots in out of nowhere. He swings his stick with a vengeance, sending the ball diagonally into the net. He’s just done it. Carl has just shot the winning goal from a seemingly-impossible side angle. We won the game in overtime. This team is going to the play-offs!

“Look at them!” another mom laughs amid the cheering, “They are all filthy! This is one mega-laundry load I have tonight!!”

I’m cheering, too, but I nod at her in sympathy. Now I can join the rest of the parents in moaning and groaning over the little things. Parenting a teen in our house is starting to look like…well, like everyone else parenting a teen! I’ve never been happier to complain.

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

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adoption, family

It Has Begun

These past few days have gotten warmer. Birds are chirping outside. A daffodil burst ostentatiously into bloom in the front yard. The air smells sweet and thick with the promise of new growth.

If only that chirping bird could be the soundtrack to our Spring season. I was starting to be hopeful that crickets and sparrows would comprise our Spring sounds this year. However, I was wrong.

Around here the soundtrack to Spring is the yelling of Carl. Sometimes it’s accompanied by smashing objects and broken drywall. It has begun. Last night he flew into a rage because his alarm clock needed to be reset.

Bedtime was filled with yelling about how Luke “ruined my puzzle on purpose! ” According to Carl, Luke also, “went after my remote and stomped on it on purpose.” There were some other bizarre statements about a conspiracy to steal the alarm clock manual. None of it made much sense.

Mostly Carl yelled at Luke a bunch to “shut up right now! He told me “shut your mouth!” He gave me the puffed up chest and leaned forward in the classic domestic violence/intimidation pose that pops up in Spring.

I did what any ridiculously ignorant-to-trauma parent would do and yelled right back at him.

“This is what you sound like: SHUT UP SHUT UP!!!” etc.

I also told him his statements “sounded crazy.” Good job to me for lighting that particular match.

It ended with all three of us arguing. Carl vowed never to go to bed because he would puzzle all night. Luke and I confiscated the puzzle and TV remotes in hopes that Carl would actually sleep. Carl ranted on about not “being crazy like Mary.”

This morning my throat hurts. I feel like a dope. The reason I got so mad is that I was actually starting to believe this would be a pleasant Spring. I really should know better. I should tap into my skills and address the trauma responses properly.

I just wanted to enjoy the damn birds! Oh well. For good measure (and because I wanted to continue digging my own grave) I sent Marcus a text. It said I’m disappointed in his choices but I love him. I would like to see him take responsibility for his actions. No response.

At this point the score is:

Trauma: 2

Exhausted Parents: 0

It has begun. Happy Spring, everyone!

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

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adoption, family

The Easter Explosion of My Prodigal Son

Well, it finally happened. Marcus got terminated from his Job Corps program. He’s not a licensed electrician. He didn’t finish with the job referral or the stipend to get his own place. He’s been kicked out for flying into a violent rage and (most likely) destroying property. He got into it with some girl at the program and lost all control. I’m so glad our conversations about respecting women had an effect…

All I know is that it isn’t about this girl. It isn’t even about this particular explosion. He was looking for a reason to sabotage himself even if he doesn’t realize it. This would have happened over the next thing to go wrong. A broken shoelace could have set him off.

This free program is now gone and an opportunity like this won’t come around for him again. This is Marcus. He won’t allow himself to have something good. He won’t allow himself to stay with anything or anyone. This is what he does.

Luke and I got the message from him today. It’s Easter. We were celebrating with the entire family except for Marcus. He wouldn’t come home this weekend because he wanted to sell his car and buy another. Instead of having the holiday with us, he is with his older bio-sister M back in the city. All he can talk about is “my car my car my car.”

M is recently out of the homeless shelter and in an apartment they procured for her. The program payed her a lump sum that was intended for a year’s worth of rent. I would assume she’s already blown through that money and now needs Marcus to live there. In the past he got a job and payed her rent. Eventually when he decided to move out she sold all of his things. However, she’s always looking to get him back. She’s always looking for that money.

Luke and I had been speculating that she would try to convince him to leave the program. After all, if he gets a job he can be with “his car.” He can pay her bills. He can party with her and all of the old crew from the city. He’s probably been thinking about this for awhile.

Marcus makes really dumb choices. He makes destructive choices. As far as we know he isn’t being arrested for anything he did. However, he hasn’t given us much information. I want to go up there and shake him. I want to yell at him and ground him and send him to his room.

I won’t do any of those things. It’s no use. It would do nothing to teach Marcus to make better choices. He wants to throw away his future so that he can have his car and get drunk with his friends. Eventually I hope he learns from the natural consequences of his actions. If not then I hope he at least makes friends with a bail bondsman.

All I can do right now is sit back and enjoy my mother’s famous cannoli cake. It’s Easter. Luke and I can’t quit on our holiday when there is so much joy here. I have no idea what tomorrow will bring but I know today brings cake!

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

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family

The State of Our Union

For over a decade Luke and I have made this journey together. This week was my 11-year wedding anniversary.  I was in my mid-twenties when I met him. It’s supposed to be a bad idea to date your boss but I guess I’ve never followed convention well.

Luke and I were married at town hall a year to the day of our first date. I stood there in a strapless black gown long enough to hide my signature flip-flops. Luke wore a matching suit. We said “I do” in front of six friends and celebrated with a river of champagne.

The next day we “illegally” bribed the DMV to issue a license with my new name before I’d even filed for a new social security card. Waiting has never been our thing. After all these years he’s still my best partner in crime.

It started out just the two of us in a shoe box-sized apartment in the city. Our view consisted of buildings upon buildings crammed into grid-lines of perfectly strait roads. Gun fire resounded like popcorn in the streets nearly every day. Luke never let me walk alone there. When we moved to the country the sound of hunting rifles echoed through the trees but never frightened me.

The road to our house winds through hills and thick forest. Our home is nestled in the middle of deep dark woods and green grass. Neighbors are few and far between.  Not every road is even paved. It can be hard to see sharp turns through the towering oaks.  We spread out here and grew into this house. Then we filled it with lots of children. Sean didn’t stay but the rest did.

We adopted three siblings. Sean’s disrupted adoption still haunts me. Marcus’ adoption eventually came full circle to finalize in adulthood. I lost one pregnancy in such a scary way I was too terrified to try again. I gained two great step-kids. Luke lost a job when Mary was too dangerous to be alone with Carl and me. I’ve had three back surgeries. Luke’s had several major eye surgeries. We both developed a serious addiction to caffeine.

Our marriage sometimes feels like Luke and I huddled down in a foxhole. We certainly didn’t pick an easy road. I like to think we chose the road most worthwhile. Adopting three children with significant complex developmental trauma has been challenging to say the least. Beyond a doubt our life together could never be considered boring.

This week we settled in to celebrate with a bottle of Prosecco on a wintry New England night. There are no streetlights in our forest. Here in the dark we can see every star.

There isn’t anyone I’d rather take this journey with. Here’s to the next decade of adventure. Perhaps the rockiest roads are the ones with the most scenery.

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

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adoption, family

Better Than Expected

I am pretty sure we just made it through our most successful Christmas season yet. I can’t say things went off without a hitch, but it was certainly better than I had hoped. Marcus arrived with Girlfriend and Baby in tow for three days.

I actually made it out to go to the bank and hit one store with Luke for last minute gifts. My back was hurting afterwards but at least I did it. We hadn’t realized the baby was coming without any presents so we stocked up on some extras. We also got a few additional things for Girlfriend because she isn’t on good terms with her mother. Without our Christmas she would have been alone. Even Nana and Papa got things for them.

Carl took having a baby in the house in stride. He was relaxed and calm for the duration of the visit. We managed to play some family card games and get Girlfriend to join in. The baby was the most mellow, laid-back baby I’ve ever seen. She’s a year old and she picks up her toys, listens if you say “no” and hardly ever fusses. Luke and I tried to help Girlfriend as much as possible so she could have a few minutes to herself.

On Christmas morning we went to visit Mary. Everyone handled the two-hour round trip car ride quite well. When we got there the kids were preparing for a gingerbread contest. Her residential school had even taken her shopping for some gifts for us.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mary so happy on Christmas. She seemed grounded in reality and relaxed. I didn’t observe even a fraction of that too-bright laughter that used to spiral into a screaming, violent rage. Her laugh was just…genuinely happy.

I was also amazed that Mary held it together around the baby. Typically she does not handle babies well. She gets rather anxious and jealous. She will start to speak in baby-talk and demand baby things. Sometimes she’s been unsafe in a baby’s space. Often times she’ll sort of commandeer the mother for herself. It can be difficult. To my surprise Mary just looked at the baby and said, “cute” before carrying on with her gifts. That was it.

It was a nothing short of a miracle that Carl voluntarily went with us to visit her. After that, he continued with Christmas day dinner at my parents’ house. It was Carl’s job to collect everyone’s coats when we got there. He was content to go along with the group activities or use his iPad.

The only drama this holiday had very little to do with our family. Girlfriend has an open case with DCF for the baby. She didn’t specify why but it had the restriction that the baby’s father was not allowed contact. On Christmas Eve he began sending threatening messages to Marcus and to Girlfriend. Then Girlfriend’s mother also began sending derogatory and threatening messages.

This led to Marcus staging a Marcus-style meltdown. He decided to mix a bunch of wine and bourbon (I threw it out) and storm outside leaving Girlfriend crying in my arms. Carl got scared that Marcus was mad at the family again. All he could hear was Marcus yelling outside while Girlfriend cried inside.

Girlfriend ended up having full panic attack. Luckily, this is the perfect house to have a panic attack. I showed Girlfriend her heart rate on the finger monitor. I showed her how to slow her breathing by blowing Jelly Belly bubbles.

Together we blocked Baby Daddy from her phone. I explained that without a custody agreement he couldn’t make her do anything. She agreed with me that she should just keep following DCF’s plan. I advised her to show the threats to her social worker but I’m not sure that she will. She is legitimately terrified of Baby Daddy.

Eventually Marcus came back inside to talk to me privately. It was mostly ranting/yelling about how he was going to “get” Baby Daddy whether or not he “had his Glock” (I don’t believe this actually exists!) Since Baby Daddy already jumped him and beat him up badly, Marcus is spoiling for a rematch. I let him wave his arms around and shout about how this affected him for about 5 minutes.

When he finally stopped to take a breathe, I told Marcus to grow up. His plan was really stupid. Who cares about being the toughest idiot on the streets?! He has younger siblings looking up to him. He has this little family with GF and Baby now. People depend on having him around rather than locked up.

Also, Marcus is safe at home and safe on campus. This other guy has no job, no money and no vehicle. It’s unlikely he’ll be near Marcus unless Marcus goes back to the city and confronts him on the streets.

I told him to get his act together because this was not about him at all. Then I instructed him to get downstairs and comfort Girlfriend. When someone is already struggling to breathe over their own terror no one should add more stress. I told him what to say and I had him start a hot shower for her. Under no circumstances was he to mention his issues to her in this moment.

Marcus has a long history of not taking advice. He usually does the exact opposite and then self-destructs in spectacular fashion. Not this time, however. I went downstairs to take the baby so Girlfriend could shower and calm down. You can imagine my surprise when I found him holding and comforting her. He was using the exact language I’ve used so many times to soothe his panic attacks.

Luke and I spoke to Carl and addressed his fears. He was OK once he realized Marcus wasn’t raging at the family. Eventually Girlfriend’s sobs quieted down. Luke and I put the baby to sleep. We were exhausted on Christmas morning but we still managed presents, a Mary visit, and then dinner with Nana and Papa. We did it! There was not one hospital visit!! I’m sure I’ll be mainlining Tylenol for a week but it was all worth it.

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

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adoption, family

Do You Get to See Her?!

It’s the second Christmas she won’t be home for. We will bring presents to her on Christmas Day along with some of the dinner. Mary is at a therapeutic residential school that specializes in complex trauma.

I’m glad. Every Christmas Mary experiences periods of psychosis and violence. This usually ends with an inpatient stay in the psychiatric hospital. Her command hallucinations are the worst at this time of year. Carl gets triggered in the Springtime and Mary gets triggered at Christmas time.

Last Christmas Marcus, Carl and my step-kids all got to have a regular drama-free holiday. Luke and I were not stressed out or sleep deprived.  This year will be the same except that Marcus is here his GF and her baby.

I’m not even sad Mary won’t be here on Christmas morning. Typically, even when she was relatively stable, she’d be in-patient at the psychiatric hospital this time of year. She’s been able to handle this holiday better now that she is in congregate care. Whatever trauma occurred in her biological home follows her into the holiday season with a vengeance. Something about being in a family situation at Christmas sets off her trauma triggers to a full blown decibel.

It’s strange to me that people ask if we “get to see her.” She’s not in another country or in jail. She’s at school. We see her all the time and we talk to her every day. The school bought a special staff phone so we can FaceTime 3 days per week. She didn’t leave the family when she left the house.

Truthfully, our relationship with Mary is better now. It’s easier to practice connected parenting when not worried about imminent danger. Without the violence,we can focus on fun. This is the best thing for us. I think people everywhere make the best decisions for their own families. In fact, for other cultures it can be normal to attend a boarding school at her age. Is it only in the U.S. we question if parents “sent their kids away” or “got rid of them?” I’m not sure.

I’ll not ashamed of this decision. I’m proud of Mary. I’m proud of all the hard work her treatment team puts in. I’m proud of the work she puts in. She does a lot of “body scans” to “check her energy level” now. This helps her determine if she is becoming dysregulated or getting triggered. I think it’s an amazing feet for an 11-year-old girl to be able to do this.

Like the little engine that could, our family just keeps on chugging. Someday we’ll get over that hill. Until then I’m satisfied with appreciating what we have right now.

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

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adoption, family

Late Night Texting With the Patchwork Kid

In typical Marcus fashion I got a late-night text message. My phone chirped with the image of a certificate. Clicking on the “Student of the Month” award picture with Marcus’ name on it made the late-hour text worthwhile. This was the first time he’d ever received the accolade. His childhood was spent missing out on, well, being a child.

When our kids were in their biological home they only attended about half of the school days. Even if they went to school there was often no one to get them off of the bus at the end of the day. They were all behind in academic subjects when they entered foster care. Mary wouldn’t speak in school at all. She would sit with her head down, her arms limp at her sides and her eyes averted for most of the day.

Carl and Marcus got into trouble often. They had physical altercations, tantrums and suspensions. Carl once famously (infamously?) told a teacher he couldn’t participate in reading because the “kids were ugly.” Marcus was more likely to get arrested in high school than go to a school dance. In fact, I know the former happened but I’m pretty sure the latter never did.

Carl couldn’t read when he came to us. He was at a Kindergarten level going into third grade. I worked with him all summer before school and he flourished. By the end of that year he was right on track. Now he’s made honor roll for two semesters. This coming semester he’s trying for high honors!

Mary struggles with her behavior in class. She is behind but it’s hard to keep her on track when her mental health prevents it. Now that she is in a great residential school for complex trauma, she’s making progress. Both Mary and Carl have received the “Student of the Month” award a few times.

For Marcus, it’s a huge deal. It took him until he was 21, and in Job Corps, to engage in academics. It’s suddenly very important to him that he does well. Seeing his younger siblings achieve accolades through the school years has been so difficult. Marcus never got the same support in elementary school.

So last night I made a HUGE deal about it. I posted his certificate on Facebook. Luke and Nana praised him. I sent him every celebration emoji in my phone! Go team Marcus!!!

Even though he’s older it  feels like he needs that approval. Marcus still has so many milestones yet to be experienced. His maturity is like a patchwork quilt that is continuously being made. Piece by piece we are filling in the missing patches.

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

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