adoption, family

Portrait of Pain

It hurts. Pain is a slippery thing to define. Like grains of sand, the words seem to slip through my fingers. At the doctor’s office there is a scale with emojis in various stages of frowning. This is how I am supposed to measure my pain. A scale from 1-10. How can a number convey what this feels like?

It hurts. I choose words like throbbing, stabbing, constant ache. I mention hot electric shocks running down the back of my right leg. The muscle spasms in my right side are grabbing, squeezing, deep and unbearable. My hips feel so sore that when it rains I walk the tin man without his oil.

It hurts. My daughter isn’t here. She doesn’t want to talk to me on the phone. We didn’t buy her a live white tiger cub for her birthday so she has found a new mom. Mary hasn’t called us since her birthday. When I call her she proudly proclaims her new “valentine” is who she will be with now. She calls her godmother every single day. It is always a woman she chooses.

It hurts. I am glad she has her godparents. I feel lucky they are understanding about attachment disorders. They don’t believe her when she says that we don’t provide for her, love her, or meet her needs. She still says it, though. Manipulation is her survival skill.

It hurts. The new Residential Center where she is now living understands. We are having a meeting with clinicians today to discuss her phone calls and how to set appropriate boundaries. One of the reasons she is there is to learn how to handle relational models. You cannot beat someone physically until they buy something you want. You cannot trade moms in for newer models.

It hurts. I am back at work full time. I sit in a chair. I walk down the halls. I always feel like my lower half is on fire. Every step I take is one step closer to convincing me I need the revision surgery my doctor is recommending. A constant, burning ache engulfs my lower back. It engulfs my heart. It hurts.

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

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adoption, family

Are You My Mother?

What is it like to love someone who doesn’t love you back? Or maybe the better question is what is it like to love someone who isn’t capable of loving you in a reciprocal way? I ponder this all the time because I live it. Loving my daughter with attachment difficulties is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

I’m her mom. To me, nurturing her comes second nature. I want her to be happy. I want her to do well. I so desperately want to help her after all she has been through.

For Mary the word “love” has an entirely different meaning. Nurturing in her experience means having a female figure who helps her to survive. The woman must give her attention at all times because even a glance away can mean death. Mary can remember what severe, chronic neglect feels like.  A woman who yells at her or hits her is still providing the attention Mary feels is necessary to survival. It no longer even matters who the woman is.

The “woman” is interchangeable. It could be anyone. Mary isn’t able to tell the difference between a healthy bond and an unhealthy bond. A woman who has just met her has the same value as one who provides food, shelter and affection. There is no standard here. The only burning need Mary must have fulfilled is that there is another woman and then another and another one waiting somewhere after that. This way Mary can never run out. This way she feels as if she can survive.

I do my best to meet the challenge of parenting a child like this. I always fall short when it comes to giving her enough attention. Having anyone else in my life is too much for her. My going to the bathroom is too much for her. When I watch the road while driving the lack of attention drives her into a panic. No one human person can provide enough for Mary to feel safe.

She will throw herself into my arms and snuggle and play and be happy for a time. I will feel like we are making progress. Maybe she is feeling safe. Then I will find secret letters she has written to strangers with nice jewelry. They will say, “I think you should be my mother now. My parents don’t want me. Maybe you can adopt me and we can wear necklaces.”

It sucks. I mean it is heartbreaking and sad. I know that the minute she can no longer see me I am forgotten to her. She’s moved on to another way of getting her needs met. She is a survivor and she will love the one she’s with.  I really hate this part of an attachment disorder. I understand it in a logical way. I just hate it.

Trying to explain attachment disorders to the staff at her last psychiatric facility (PRTF) is akin to nailing jell-o to a tree. “Please keep reassuring her that Family is forever. She has a biological family and an adoptive family that love her. We will always be here.” That facility let her call some of the staff “mom” and “dad.” A lot of them meant well, but were ill-informed.

They told her that her command hallucinations were “the devil,” and that she should keep him out. Don’t ask me how a psychoiatric facility has staff that aren’t familiar with auditory hallucinations, complex trauma or attachment disorders. They were the only PRTF for a child her age. Insurance gave us this or nothing. Mental health care (or lack thereof) in our country is a whole different story…

I found that some PRTF staff members had made secret pacts with our almost-11-year-old. They’ve told her they can call each other from Mary’s new RTC program. They told Mary it was alright not to mention it to us. They will find each other someday. They have known Mary for all of 7 months.

We moved her into the new residential treatment center (RTC) a few days ago. They specialize in complex trauma and use reserch-based treatment methods. I am pretty sure they don’t beleive the devil is causing her to hallucinate, or that she is collaborating with him etc. Instead, they greeted us with “Welcome Mary!” signs everywhere. They remembered everything from the information we provided. They kindly but firmly stated that staff are referred to by name and that only famililies have titles like “mom” or “dad.” Every staff member on the beautiful campus greeted her by name immediatley.

This is  a 45 day diagnostic placement to determine if she needs a residential setting to keep her (and us) safe while accessing her right to education. Keep your fingers crossed for us. We were beyond lucky to get her this placement  through an IEP with her school district. It’s almost impossible to do. Almost.

Impossible isn’t a word we use in this family. Nothing is impossible. Not even love.

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

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family, mental illness

The Hard Truths

Goodness knows I wish I didn’t have to face the hard truths. If there was a place I could hide from them I’d probably be there right now. Our daughter is not doing well. She isn’t getting any better. I’d like to protest and remember all the progress she had made. I’d like to remember the years where she was stable. I’d like to believe she is improving. Unfortunately that is not the truth of things. Her hallucinations are becoming stronger. I feel like our girl is slipping further and further away from us.

Mary is about to switch into a longer term residential facility. It will start with a 45 day diagnostic placement. Based on the recommendations of the program, she will stay with them for up to a year. We were lucky enough to get this residential school through an IEP. Without that we surely wouldn’t be able to afford this treatment. What we need is the truth of things. Will this next step help our Mary?

I also think we need to face a harder truth. Is there ANY treatment that would help Mary? Would anything else keep her safe at home? The answer is probably not. I think this truth is made so much harder by the fact that we had a few good years. She was relatively stable. She was relatively safe, at least physically.

I find myself seeking truths from other blogs. Does anyone else have a child who hallucinates voices that want her to hurt people? What do people do with children who are so mentally ill that they can never be left alone? Ever? People send me words of encouragement and I appreciate it. People also send some rather strange advice. I mean we have obviously tried in-home intensive treatment and every possible combination of outpatient programs, medication, and therapeutic strategies. (It seems unlikely that your magic oil will prevent Mary from stockpiling knives and trying to capture her brother alone in his room. I like essential oils but they are not a safety measure by any means.)

Truth is an evasive thing. I used to think almost anything could be found on the internet. This is not so. I simply cannot find stories of families like ours. Where are all the other parents of children with developmental trauma or attachment issues or Bipolar Disorder? Have they found any treatment that works? Or are we simply alone? This truth is a hard truth for me.

They are silent. Families like ours are silent in the truth of their struggles. They are silent about what they endure or how they fight against their child’s demons. I can find a hundred blogs about families with physically ill children. They are applauded for speaking their truth through the tribulations of cancer, diabetes, and rare genetic diseases. Not so for the parents of children facing mental illness. We are left in shadow and told to be quiet about our experiences. There is a shameful stigma to this kind of thing. People would rather not face this truth.

So I share our story. I don’t want others to feel alone on this road. It’s a difficult one but it exists for more children than just our daughter. We got hard news today in a meeting with the clinical director from the new residential school. They have an amazing, cutting edge program based on the latest research around complex trauma. However they don’t have good news. For a case like Mary’s the results are mixed. Many kids who are this dangerous need years of residential treatment to go home, if they ever can. Even the best treatment cannot work if she won’t try.

I have no answers. I have only truth. Only our truth. I share it with you so that hopefully some of you feel less alone.

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

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adoption, family, mental illness

At Least She is Safe

The holiday season is the WORST for our daughter. It always has been. This is when Mary is typically hospitalized. This year is no different, except that she is safe in a psychiatric treatment facility. When Mary is with others outside the PRTF or the home, she is happy and pleasant. When she is with her attachment figures, it can flip in an instant.

Mary’s already had multiple violent outbursts this month. Earlier this week, she threw herself backwards down the stairs during a meltdown. Now she is covered in bruises. She’s been running away from school.  Yesterday, at her PRTF, she threw a weight directly into plaster wall, leaving a hole.

Tonight the staff called me to help “support.” I am not sure if I was supporting Mary or the staff there. She had been in a protective hold twice for attacking the staff. She went after her primary caretaker there. When I asked why my daughter said, “She deserved it. I don’t care.”

But Mary DOES care. That’s why she goes after the mother figure closest to her. It comes down to triggers specifically about the shower and the holidays. Also, having a mother-figure is a huge trigger, in addition to being something she craves. Mary’s longtime trauma therapist says there may be some kind of pre-verbal trauma Little Girl doesn’t even remember. We may never know what it is. But somehow we must learn to deal with it.

I can’t eliminate shower/bathtime. I can’t eliminate Christmas. I can’t eliminate moms. And I can’t do the therapeutic work for her. EMDR, play therapy, IOP, PHP, TF-CBT, attachment therapy, psychiatric service dog and in-home services are just a few that we’ve done over the last 4 years. And we won’t stop trying…it’s just…well…

I hate to say this but I’m glad she is safe at her PRTF. I’m glad we are all safe here at home. Mary needs residential. It’s so sad to admit that. We’ve tried everything possible to keep her safe here. We cannot meet these needs in a home setting. Now she will be transitioning to a new program. We start with a 45 day evaluation and then see if Mary qualifies for the program. It’s a prestigious school that specializes in complex developmental trauma and relational problems. It was not easy to get her there.

Now we have to hope that her new therapeutic residential school helps. She will start there sometime this month. And, yes, I have to tell this story. Because who else will? This is what parenting through mental illness and developmental trauma looks like. If you are a parent out there struggling to help your child, you aren’t alone. If you are the praying kind then please pray for us.

 

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

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adoption

Fierce Trauma, Fierce Love


Any color of paint mixed with black will transform into something darker. Light, beautiful pink will transform into the rusted color of blood. Sky blue morphs into the inky black-blue of the deepest ocean. A dark blue where monstrous creatures hide beneath the waves.

So, too, does trauma color the love my daughter has for me. A drop of black paint distorts the simple happiness of love and acceptance. It becomes darker, more intense. Her love is fierce and possessive and frightening. It leaves behind a dull stain on our relationship, even in the happiest of days. Trauma is always there, coloring her world.

“Remember,” Trauma says, “Remember the love of your first mother. Remember how it hurt you.”

She has a deep entrenched fear that I will abandon her. I will leave, I won’t care, no one will take care of her. The second I turn away, her body tells her that death is imminent. She’s spent too many of her earlier years surviving a mother. How can she possibly enjoy one now?

When we discuss her brother, Carl, in therapy, she stares at me accusingly. She claims I love him more, I always have.  She complains heatedly that all I do are “mom chores” like dishes, when I should be playing with her all day. The psychologist queries if I should go to work, make dinner, or go to the bathroom. Her resounding “NO!” hits me like a slap. Hatred flickers through her gaze while her tiny manicured nails grip my arm in a stranglehold. She will not lose another mother. She will not let go.

But Mary’s not home. She’s in a short-term treatment facility. It’s somehow easier for her to live in an institution than at home where she’d have to watch me turn my attention elsewhere. I’m wracking my brain. How can I let her know that I am steady? I am the mom-that’s-always-here. I love her. I keep coming back, no matter what. The daily 15 minutes of one-on-one child-led play for each child comes to mind. The “Mom and Kid” days I spent with her ignoring mundane things like chores, responsibilities, or other people, didn’t help. Even then I’d look at the road while driving. I’d turn my attention to traffic signals while she screamed, “I said to LOOK AT ME!!!” from the backseat, her face turning bright red and splotchy.

I would like to think that nearly four years of therapeutic connected parenting has helped. In some ways, it has. Her trauma causes fear, which comes out as anger. TBRI, a model developed by Karyn Purvis and others at the Texas Christian University, has helped us to disarm that fear. But with Mary? That fear runs so much deeper. We have parented her at the developmental age she is. We try to return what she has lost. Still, even toddlers’ moms have to watch the road when they are driving.

She called me today in a flurry of righteous outrage. A little boy had been throwing rocks at the RTC program’s van while it was transporting children. When the staff pulled over to inform the boy’s mother, she wasn’t concerned. According to Mary she said she didn’t care and left her child standing in the road while she walked into a store. He fell and skinned a knee and was left to cry. Alone. Mary is incensed. Only, it isn’t directed at me. She is mad at this stranger for not being a better mother. I’m shocked. To my knowledge I am the only mother she has expressed any anger towards.

“She left her baby! He was only like 2 or 3-years-old,” through the phone I hear Mary’s outrage.

“What kind of a mother doesn’t care?! She is a bad mother. I yelled at her out the window. I told her that my mother would never leave me in the road. She would run to me even if her back was broken! No matter how old we get, my mother takes care of her kids! I have a good mom!”

As awful as it sounds, I am so glad my daughter was able to express her rage to this unknown mother. I’m so glad she didn’t somehow believe it to be my fault, and call me in anger. And I am forever grateful to hear that Mary sees me as a mother, she sees my dedication. That is beyond priceless to me.

Children often have nurseries painted in quiet pastel colors. “Baby Blue,” and “Baby Pink” are the names of colors designed for such a purpose. Nurseries are often like a sunrise with lightness and bright things everywhere. Our story is colored differently. We have dramatic shades of deep gold and royal purple. Perhaps we are the ferocious beauty of sunset.

Our daughter shines with all of the beauty of the stars in the night-black sky.

 

 

*If you’d like to hear me interviewed about parenting with trauma, check out my interview on “Adoption Unscripted” here:

https://www.voiceamerica.com/episode/102008/raising-kids-with-trauma-how-do-we-respond

**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.

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

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

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family

How Are You? 


It’s such a loaded question.

“How are you?”

“I’m in pain. I still can’t drive. I’m pretty sure the anesthesia from my surgeries has caused some major hair loss. A rare reaction, but then I am the Murphey’s Law of patients. And when I tuck my daughter in I have to do it via phone call because she’s in a therapeutic facility. Because we weren’t save when she was home. Because she wasn’t safe. Oh yeah and sometimes I have to ask my husband or son to tie my shoes.”

Ok, it sounds bad, I know. But adopting children from hard places can be…well, hard. And then the rest of life happens.

Let’s try this again.

“How are you?”

“Fine,” I reply. “Getting better every day. I’m working really hard in physical therapy.”

“How is your daughter?”

“She’s working hard in therapy.”

She is. And so am I. Only it’s really slow going.

But that’s not all that is happening. My parents are here with me. They moved halfway across the US to be near my family. Luke and I got to adopt the most amazing kids. We really did.

I have great friends. We have support. And they never give up on me. I have rides. I have encouragement. We are not alone.

And get this, I am a mom! Yeah, that’s me, the proud Mama milking every last moment for family-goodness. Sorry about all the pictures, Facebook. My family is CUTE!

Our son is flourishing. Carl has become a topless chef. Yeah it’s true. He cooks dinner without a shirt. He bakes pies and cakes without a shirt. Who needs an apron?!. We fill our days measuring and mixing in the kitchen. Then we spend the evening playing card games like Uno, Skip-Bo, Monopoly Deal and Exploding Kittens (that last one is, believe it or not, is a real game.)  Oh yeah, and there are no meltdowns. I mean, none. I hope I’m not jinxing this! 

Having peace in the house has had an amazing effect on all of us. We aren’t walking on eggshells. For the most part I’m sleeping at night. And when we visit Mary our time is spent having fun rather than struggling to get through.

The truth is that developmental trauma sucks. It’s an ugly beast. Disorganized attachment patterns suck. Mental illness? It’s so hard. And our daughter deals with all of these things. And we deal with all of these things, too. It kills me that I cannot protect her from any of this. When I became her mom, it had already happened.

So how am I? That’s a tough question. Right now I’m just counting my blessings.

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

*If you’ve ever struggled with “How are you?” I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

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