adoption, family

Imperfect Family

When my daughter came home I found myself well out of my depth parenting the girliest of girly-girls. She loved pink and Disney princesses. She owned a pair of sparkly high-heels and wore them despite being unable to walk very far. She was seven. I hated those heels with a fiery feminist passion. They wreck a woman’s spine. They represent a misogynistic ideal and so on. However, she brought them with her from foster care. She loved them. They were hers and therefore taking them away would be a violation of her possessions and her past. I was trapped.

As a brand-new mom to a child already seven-years-old I struggled to bridge a divide. She’d already had seven years without me and now I needed to find a way to connect. I favored bare feet and Bob Marley over nail polish and tea sets. Light mascara and a bit of translucent face powder was the sum total of my makeup repertoire. Mary came to me asking about perfume, blush and something called “contouring.”

The boys were always easier in this way. They wanted to be outdoors exploring or working on projects. We’d all put on comfy sneakers and take off for the day to explore a museum exhibit, petting zoo, or aquarium. Inevitably someone would end up carrying Mary because her shoes were uncomfortable.

She’d wonder aloud why I didn’t have more “boyfriends” while her new feminist mom fretted about teaching her the truth behind a woman’s worth. (As an aside Luke was constantly baffled at her lack of understanding around the “marriage” concept. Poor guy!)

People would say to me, “All those boys! At least you’ve got your girl.”

I would think to myself, “Yes, but what do I do with her?? I hope I’m doing this right!”

Mary loved to wear matching clothes. She was delighted at thinking we looked the same. She said it marked us as family. We bought all manner of matching outfits in pastel colors. I happen to love long flowing skirts or dresses with flip-flops. Luckily for me, Mary picked up my penchant for hippie-clothes and Bob Marley music. It seemed like we met somewhere in the middle. Although I still gritted my teeth through “Barbie: Life in the Dream House” on TV, I found I could play actual barbies with finesse.

One of the cardinal sins in adoption is trying to order up your perfect child. Sometimes parents envision a certain kind of future with their child only to face reality  involving an imperfect child. I’m sure we all do this to an extent. We’d like for our children to take after us. Then we find we’ve created a unique individual with their own ideas. Letting go of my peace, love and political-activism ideal wasn’t exactly easy.

One day it all came to a violent end with those god-awful high heels. You see, from the time Mary came home she would experience intense, violent rages. Mary, like the other children, were always on high alert for danger. The slightest thing could trigger a volcanic eruption from her that resulted in blood, bruising, and property damage all around. Now I know that if she felt my attention was elsewhere, intense fear of abandonment would start a chain of destructive behavior.

It was startling and baffling to the rest of us. She’d begin to laugh in a loud and strange way. The laughing would reach an uncontrollable frequency and an ear-piercing decibel. Then the rage would start as the laughing turned to screaming, hitting, biting and head-banging. This could go on for hours.

The demise of the high heels came on a day like many others. It was a weekend, which was usually the time Mary found unbearable. Lot’s of close family time was difficult for her. Having a really fun time turned to intense fear and anger quickly. On this day, Luke was at work all day so I took the kids out by myself. We’d all done something fun like a trip to the park before coming home from lunch.

Spirits were high and everyone was laughing. I should have noticed then that Mary had begun the laughing sequence that never ended well. I was a new-mom though, and I didn’t. When I started preparing lunch, she couldn’t handle it anymore. She attacked me with full force hitting, kicking, and biting. She chomped into my exposed leg with the strength of a rabid racoon. Thanks a lot, flowing skirts!

Around this time I had been reading a book by Heather T Forbes that explained regulation and explosive behavior in traumatized kids. She had this suggestion that you contain the child in a room and get below eye level so they didn’t feel threatened. I took/dragged Mary into the safety of her room, speaking in a soft voice. I closed the door for the safety of the other kids. Kneeling down below eye level, I softly repeated, “you’re safe, I’m here,” while she raged.

And rage she did, in spectacular fashion. Before the adoptions were finalized we were unable to place her in a protective hold. The best we could do was mitigate the damage and wait for the on-call crisis worker to come.

After knocking over her book shelf she sort of flew at me and then BAM! something hit my head. It all happened so fast I couldn’t understand why red blood was clouding my vision. I (smartly) stood up and felt around at the wet patch on my throbbing, burning, skull. Mary stood screaming and thrashing with one bloody high-heel in her hand. She’d landed a blow with the heel of the shoe right on top of my head. I stood up and grabbed the heel while clutching my sweater onto the blood. Her rage went on for another hour and I fended her off as best I could.

By the time I was able to disengage, the storm had passed. Mary lay in a tiny 44 pound heap under her blankies. I cleaned up my head and applied ice. The emergency crisis clinician arrived to find a straitened room and a shaken mom with wet hair. She had gone mute and wouldn’t talk at all to the responding clinician.

This was maybe the fourth time they’d responded to a sad, quiet child and a shaking, nervous mom. I didn’t realize it at the time but so far as they could tell, nothing was wrong at all. When they asked Mary if anything had happened she would shake her head “no.”

“Was it just that she didn’t want to eat lunch?” the clinician asked, looking skeptical. I shrugged. I had no idea.

When Mary was finally hospitalized in the psychiatric ward, the therapists didn’t understand. I overheard one say to another, “Well, the mom didn’t get exactly what she wanted. She wanted a little doll to dress up and look like her. When these kids aren’t perfect playthings, the parents give them back.”

Four years ago I was stunned to realize that people didn’t believe our tiny daughter was violent and dangerous when dysregulated. At home she felt safe to let her feelings out. In public she was selectively mute, small and unassuming. People in public thought she was the sweetest thing and we just didn’t like her. It was quite the opposite. We loved her and she was beginning to love us. She was terrified.

Four years later and those high heels are GONE. Mary is still here. So is the tiny round scar on my scalp from the heel of her shoe. She may be in a residential therapeutic school, but she is in this family. Therapeutic school is what she needs for treatment. If she needed a kidney, I’d give her that. Instead, she needs intense treatment in a place she can be safe. She is still our beloved daughter. She is always a part of this crazy, imperfect family.

Luke and I did listen to Heather Forbes. We listened to Karyn Purvis and Deborah D. Gray. We learned about trauma and we continue to connect with our daughter the best we can. Mary has a psychiatric condition, though. Her trauma, like my scar, will always be there.

I don’t know what this means for our family long-term. We have a moratorium on heels now. We have the best relationship with Mary that she will allow. Maybe she thought she’d get a perfect mom. Maybe I did think we’d all have that perfect happy ending. I don’t know.

What I know is this: We have a perfectly imperfect family. For now, that’s enough.

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

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adoption, family

The Prodigal Son is Homeless

He’s been sleeping in his car, apparently in a cemetery. Marcus is in another state, in a slum, sleeping on the street in his car. I cannot understand this choice for the life of me. Why does Marcus prefer living in his car to learning or skill to help him get gainful employment? He honestly can’t visualize his future at all.

He’ll say/shout, “I told you what I want for my future. I want MY CAR! I need to work on MY CAR! That’s what I need for my ‘future.’ I don’t have a future if I don’t have MY CAR!!!”

It baffles me and I feel as if we are always speaking a different language. Either way, we aren’t supporting him financially so that he can buy more pot and “soup up” the rusting Honda Civic from the 90s that has become his whole life.

I made a throwaway comment the day that he left. I sent him a text message (because he refused to talk to me) trying to convince him to go to his interview with Job Corps. I was so mad that he blew it off to work on his car. I said, “Unless you want to LIVE in your car…blah blah blah.” I didn’t mean that Marcus should literally live in his car. He did it anyway.

Marcus took off. I only saw him once since then. One Friday morning I found him asleep with some guy, in his car. He’d spent the night in his car, in our driveway. His bed was right there and he chose to sleep in the car. Marcus was wrapped up like a burrito in the fuzzy purple blanket I bought for him when he was a teenager. He didn’t really pack anything from his room but he took that blanket with him when he left.

Now, he calls because his car has been towed in the city where he’s been staying. He didn’t switch his license plates over from his first junker to his second. This means he was (recklessly) driving  an unregistered car when he got pulled over.

So, now he is sleeping…?

Marcus called begging for us to pay for the car to be towed to his biological dad’s house. His BD is a mechanic and tries to help Marcus on occasion. Marcus had no plan to go to his court date for this infraction, or register his car, or deal with his overdue emissions. As usual he had no plan for the future, no matter how immediate. It wouldn’t be so bad if he’d let us help him plan these things but he refuses to plan. Instead he calls and yells awful things at us.

Despite the fact that he called swearing and cursing me out, we knew he needed help. Unfortunately we couldn’t quite understand what he needed through all of the yelling and the obscenities. He is, of course, still refusing to come home. Marcus is clinging to the  phrase, “I was kicked out!”

He still won’t agree to any certificate program or apprenticeship. He is determined to…? His only plan is about his car. He says he needs to, “Get MY CAR back!”

Luke says that Marcus is like the fox. He heard a quote by Voltaire (and I am heavily paraphrasing here) that fits our son perfectly.  Marcus is like a fox you’re trying to free from a trap that bites you:

“It’s difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.”

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

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adoption, family

When it Was Unwritten

How does one go about following a script that simply isn’t there? When there are no words left, how does one go about shouting into the void? When it goes unwritten for me it is difficult to process. When it goes unwritten, it becomes easier to ignore.

It was a nagging worry at the back of my mind. Have I misplaced something? It was a shapeless anxiety taking hold. Have I taken the wrong path after missing all the signs?Perhaps I should have written, “I’m not sure where things started to go wrong here.”

Most things can need to become writing for me. Or else they are barely brought to light in my own thoughts.

Carl has been de-compensating for awhile. I haven’t given this a voice on paper. I’ve pushed it away so far in my mind that it never came out in my typing. The unwritten truth was Carl’s deteriorating condition. His old fears and trauma triggers came back with a vengeance. Like Jack’s giant beanstalk, they have grown until I can no longer see where they end. I can no longer reach the solutions. I can no longer reach Carl to pull him down from the height of his fears.

In years past he’s always had a “traumaversary” in the springtime. We know it’s coming so we batten down the hatches. We up our therapeutic game in preparation. We just didn’t prepare for adolescence to add fuel to this fire. Still, I left it mostly unwritten.

When he screamed at me, and lost the dog, and kicked at the floors because he didn’t want to take the trash out, I didn’t write it. When my back was on fire and I hobbled down to scream at him to get out of the house with the trash, I didn’t write it.

When he shouted at me, “You freakin’ do it! I’m NOT going outside!” I knew he was scared. His fear masquerades as anger. I left it unwritten.

“The only thing you should be afraid of is ME!” I screeched back until he put on his shoes and grabbed the trash bag to stand in the garage. Then, in a fit of pure irrationality, I locked the doors and stood outside on the porch until he put the trash bag into the bin and came inside.

First, though, he hit and kicked the garage door so many times he left a dent. Eventually he came up on the porch and back inside we both muttered, “Sorry,” before we BOTH went to timeout.

I never wrote the words. How can I explain that his fear was so big it triggered BOTH of our responses? 

His bedtime became too dangerous. The wait list for his spot at the intensive outpatient program is two months away at least. He’s broken almost everything in his room (including his many nightlights) and then he almost broke me. He launched an 8lb hand weight  down the hall to where I happened to be standing. It missed me by an inch. He didn’t know I was there. He scared both of us.

Marcus helped Luke remove breakable and heavy objects after the incident. I went upstairs to despair quietly, all the while refusing to look at the problem.

The next morning I talked to Carl. He was quiet and subdued. He said that nothing in therapy was working. His meds weren’t working, he told me, and “Something isn’t right.” We discussed the option of inpatient treatment to stabilize him. To my utter surprise, he asked to go.

At the hospital he told the clinician he was afraid he could have hurt his mom.

My sweet, sweet boy is afraid to be so out-of-control. It’s been so long since he was like this. It’s so unexpected. He asked in the smallest voice if he would be like Mary and go away for a long time.

“No, Love. You will be home in a few days. We can do this.”

I should be doing many things. But for now I think I’ll stay right here. I’ll sit and write awhile.

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

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adoption, family

Keeping Our Teeth for Easter

We made it. We survived Easter, albeit with some causalities. Holidays never go off without a hitch around here. Sometimes the family togetherness triggers our kids. Sometimes all of the sugar sets off a chain reaction of, “Yikes!” Sometimes wanting a nice-holiday-where-no-one-screams-and-everyone-keeps-their-teeth triggers me!

The morning started out in typical Ester fashion. We hid the eggs and placed the Easter Baskets out. I brought Mary her Easter goods on Friday afternoon at her residential setting. We had things for both boys because, even though Marcus is really too old (20) he never got to have many of these experiences when he was young. Every time we have a holiday he gets crazily excited and says things like, “Me too? WOW!”

What went well: Carl ran around excitedly, squealing, and finding eggs. He even played outside with the kickball that was in his Easter Basket. I got my own basket with soothing essential oils for my diffuser, and a new coffee-maker. Coffee is my drug of choice…

What went considerably less-well: Marcus refused to get up and join the family festivities. He moaned and groaned and texted his newest Toxic Girlfriend instead. He didn’t acknowledge our presence or say one word to us. When I called Mary to wish her a happy holiday, she was short and angry with me. She did not call me back again.

Easter dinner rolled around at Nana and Papa’s house.

What went well: Luke made a great ham and my mother cooked delicious sides. She also baked an incredible orange cake. She gave Carl and Marcus each a chocolate bunny (I brought Mary’s to her on Friday.)

What went considerably less-well: Marcus refused to get out of the car for the first half-hour we were there. After we started dinner he came in, sat down, and stared morosely at his empty plate for another half-hour. He ignored all of us. He ignored his chocolate bunny. Eventually he texted me that he needed a “walk” and began the journey home all the way across town.

We started to pull away after dinner (with orange cake in tow!) to look for Marcus on the way home. I glanced at Carl and saw his eyes well up with tears. When questioned he admitted he missed his Papa and wanted to stay longer. 

What went well: Nana and Papa kept Carl for the evening. Luke and I found Marcus halfway home on the side of the road and picked him up. Then he went to work and we had….THREE WHOLE HOURS OF ALONE TIME!!!!!

Needless to say, by the time Carl was dropped off I was feeling quite refreshed.

What went considerably less-well: When it was time for Carl to leave Nana and Papa’s, he had a mini-meltdown. My mother is great about giving him advance warning to help with the transition. However, he still scribbled all over their game pad and whacked his brother’s chocolate bunny against the table repeatedly. I told Nana to go ahead and eat that poor bunny!

Once Carl was home he looked exhausted and we put him to bed. During this time he realized that the next day was a school day. 

What went well: After mom-and-dad time I was feeling pretty mellow. I also had a chance to use my new calming essential oils.

What went considerably less-well: Carl had his typical night-panic and got up over and over (and over) again. At first he got Mirilax in his eye somehow and felt he needed medical attention. Although laxatives to the eye may be uncomfortable, they don’t usually warrant a trip to the emergency room. Next, Carl induced vomiting three times. That didn’t entice us stay up and party all night, forgoing school in the morning. So he ripped out a tooth. Yes, you read that correctly.

He ripped out a tooth!

It was a baby tooth for sure, but it wasn’t loose. Unfortunately for Carl, his exhausted parents advised him to leave the tooth on the table and go to bed. Since it wasn’t to the level of accidental-eye-laxative-exposure we decided wisely to go to bed.

Here’s to hoping that next holiday everybody keeps their teeth.

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

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adoption, PTSD

A Safe Place to Land

Everyone seems to know how to live this life better. This complex and confusing life of parenting children with severe developmental trauma. The life where your kids may have extreme behaviors, and/or mental health diagnosis. This life. This is a life that others are afraid to live. 

The part that most don’t understand is how this particular life could be one that I love. One that I have chosen. This life is fulfilling and joyful for me. I can be a hard person to buy material gifts for because I honestly just don’t care. I already have everything I could ever want.

Sometimes, though, I am scared. How will I continue to handle aggressive rages and outbursts? After almost 3 years of physical safety from my daughter it is hard to go back to that place. The place where her most common expression is one of anger. Her reactions to the slightest disappointment become violent outbursts. She is 10 now, and much taller and stronger than when she was barely 7.  I wonder how we got back to this place?! 

Loving my daughter is never the question. Sometimes, when I am in my deepest, darkest place, surviving her becomes the question. No matter how much love we put in or how many resources we find, the trauma continues to plague us all. This past week I’ve woken up several times in terror, covered in a cold sweat. I feel as though danger is imminent and I cannot catch my breathe. Since when do I have such a  visceral response to basic nightmares? Probably since Mary started raging again. 

There could never be an expiration on my love for her. There could never be an expiration on my commitment to her. Is it possible there could be an expiration on my ability to handle her violence? 

How did this happen? I naively thought we had conquered the worst parts. We still battle past traumas alongside our children. They still go to therapy. But I thought the days of her physical attacks were long gone. Perhaps that is why my reaction is one of panic. We left this place so far behind. Can we get through it all over again? 

I understand that professionals have a different perspective. In fact, they often lack perspective entirely. This life that I have chosen is actually quite rare. Not many “older children” get adopted from foster care. In essence, there is less chance of a doctor coming across a case like ours. The goal seems to always be to change their behavior. Change my behavior. To fix it. To fix her. How ridiculous.

I cannot fix what is already beautiful. All I can hope for is a bit of healing mixed with trust. I can love until forever. And I can hope for a safe place to land. For all of us. 

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

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