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

Home Visit!

Mary finally came home from her residential school for a an hour-long visit! Her therapist Q prepared her and came with her. This school is uses the research based “ARC” model to treat developmental trauma. It stands for Attachment Regulation and Competency.

The entire visit was about helping Mary acclimate into her home setting and strengthen her attachment to us. Q brought sensory tools, a coping plan and “body scan” strategies. Q also brought a series of activities to add structure to the visit. We prepped Carl with the same tools ahead of time. We gave him the option to participate or retreat into his room if he needed to. His room was the designated ” no-fly zone” where no one was allowed to enter his space.

The trip was a resounding success for Mary. She ate a Mediterranean salad made by Dad, which is obviously the best kind. We went into her room and chose some things she wanted to take back to her school. We sorted through a mountain of Barbies and put away the overflow of toys she brought back from the school.

Next I gave everyone some banana bread that Luke made. We created a stuffed avocado pillow from an art kit. Carl came home halfway through the visit and mumbled a quick “hello.” He turned down my offer for banana bread and snacks. Then he took off into his room rather quickly and remained in the safety of his “no-fly zone.”

Mary’s school therapist, Q, mentioned that they were considering Mary for a special program at the school. It would be a smaller residential setting within the school that was structured more like a group home. The students would have more freedom to move around on the campus and participate in the outside community. They would also have more of the responsibilities someone would have in a home as part of a family.

It’s a pilot program for 3 girls and 3 boys. Mary is a good candidate right now because of her improvements. The program is designed to teach independent skills for students who would be transitioning either out on their own or back to a family setting. I feel excited and a little scared about this prospect.

Will they have enough supervision to keep her (and the other kids) safe? Will this structure trigger her or will it help her adjust to feeling regulated in family situations? Growing up in hard place where her biological home was dangerous made Mary fear family settings. So much of her trauma impacts how much family-time she can tolerate without becoming disregulated. Will this help her?

After the hour was up my parents came to get Mary. We drove her back to the residential school together. I sat in the back seat and cuddled with Mary for the hour long trip. Once we dropped her off I realized how much of a toll the drive had taken on my body.

A muscle relaxer had me sleeping the entire ride back home. Luke ended up having to pry my stiffened body out of the back seat and into bed after the trip. I could barely move the entire next day. At least I am now aware that 2-hour car rides are not tolerable for me even with medication. Lesson learned.

With the exception of Carl, everyone was pleased with the results of the home visit. Q said she would be willing to set up a regular schedule to continue these home visits. When we have Mary’s treatment team meeting this week we will all discuss it.

In the meantime Luke and I are giving Carl some room to process. We don’t want to force any interaction with Mary on him. We want to give him some space and then gently feel out his response to this whole process. It’s complicated so I think we need to give him some time.

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

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adoption, family

Putting Humpty Dumpty Back Together

“Maybe he gets better. Look at Mary. She’s getting better!”

These are words I didn’t expect to hear from Carl. We were, of course, watching Once Upon a Time. It is rife with both redeemable villains and impossibly terrible adoption stories. Thank you, ABC! I was making some comment about a villain not being worth all the trouble. This was Carl’s reply to me.

After everything he’s been through with Mary I am so thankful his heart is still open. I often wonder how we will ever put Humpty Dunpty back together again. How can we transition her home from residential?

We all suffered a great deal of trauma from Mary’s instability. This past year that she’s been gone is the safest we’ve had in awhile. No more bruises. No more blood.

Yesterday Carl chose to come with us to visit Mary. We took her off grounds and we had lunch followed by some window shopping. She was making a Herculean effort to include Luke and Carl in conversation.

For the most part Mary only wants to talk to me. Her love twists into something possessive and controlling. She feels she needs to have a female figure (any female) to belong to her alone. Any gap in attention from this female figure can spark rage and dramatic violence.

However, she’s been open to talking about this a bit. The last few months have seen an increase in this Mary-Mommy only dynamic. She was only calling me on the phone unless she couldn’t get an answer. Then she’d call Luke and ask “Where’s Mommy?”

During a meltdown at school she mentioned missing me and Sean as the reason. After that we had a tough conversation where I told her in no uncertain terms that it will never be just the two of us. She needs to accept the entire family. It’s an all or nothing kind of deal. Mary didn’t like the conversation but I could tell it got her thinking.

Fast forward to yesterday’s visit. She would start a sentence with, “Mommy guess what?” Then she would quickly add, “and also Daddy and Carl. Guess what?”

The four of us really did have a great time. It’s been over a year-and-a-half since we’ve all gone out somewhere together. The best part for me was that Carl seemed more relaxed. He didn’t have his guard up. I didn’t notice any flinching or defensive body posture from him. Mary also made an effort to let me talk to Carl which is something I told her she would need to accept.

I am so hopeful that this continues. After all, like Carl says, she’s getting better.

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

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adoption, family

I Don’t Want My Daughter

I don’t want my daughter. I don’t. It’s sad and it’s horrible but this is true. We’ve been discussing what steps to take to help Mary when I have my next surgery at the end of September. Luke will take over the day-to-day interaction with staff and clinicians for at least a month, maybe two. He will continue to visit Mary every week. Luke will play point-person while I recover.

The family clinician at the RTC thinks that perhaps Mary can come home to visit me on a day pass following surgery. He thinks this would be good for her. His theory would need her to safely manage a one-hour car ride back to our house. There she could visit with me while my spine is healing from the latest fusion. Then I guess she would safely make the hour trip back to her residential school.

For whatever reason I nodded and smiled while calmly discussing this.

“Maybe,” I said.

“She might be triggered to be at home.” I said.

“She might be triggered by my post-operative-using-a-walker-taking-pain-medication state.” I said.

She might she might she might she might…..

Then I got home and promptly had a panic attack. I woke up from vivid nightmares the following three nights in a row. Each time I clung to Luke shaking and struggling to breathe. The thought of having her here threw me into a dark place emotionally.

The thing about having a spinal fusion is that it is HARD. My body takes forever to recover. I’m exhausted. I’m in pain. It throws the entire family off. The kids revert into fight/flight mode.

I’m not talking about how hard it is on Mary. I’m talking about how hard it is on me. 

My last spinal fusion had the added difficulty of maintaining physical safety from my violent child. Mary was triggered when she saw me in a weakened state. Mary came at me hard. She came at me frequently.

Carl and I spent a lot of time hiding behind a dead-bolted door waiting for the police while she attempted to break it down. Luke had to switch to part-time per diem work so that he could be home when she was home. Carl and I needed him to physically protect us from Mary.

I don’t want that stress again. I don’t want to be reminded of how vulnerable I was. I don’t want to be reminded that I was helpless to protect Carl. He has always been terrified of her. My strong line-backer son cowers in a paralyzed fear when his little sister begins to laugh/scream. I don’t want her here.

A lot of what we do is to help Mary’s healing process. All of the therapy, the meetings, the research. We bend and contort our family life in intricate ways to control her world. If we can make her feel safe then she can recover. If we can manipulate all the variables perhaps she won’t rage as dangerously etc.

How would a home visit work? A staff member could accompany her. Luke would be here. We would probably be safe. I doubt she would try to attack me with an “outside” person present.

I still can’t do it. I went back and said no.

I do not care if that makes me a bad mother.

This time it isn’t about Mary’s recovery. This time it’s about my own.

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

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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 have 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, and 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. 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 for 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. Mary 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

A Mouthful of Dirty Socks

Why does it always come to sweaty, stinky socks? On the hottest day in the summer of 2014 I was in the back seat of my Honda Pilot with a mouthful of Carl’s dirty, sweaty gym socks. Mary was having an all out meltdown in the parking lot of the first outpatient therapist we took her to. She hadn’t even spoken in session. It was a getting-to-know-you visit. After session she punched me, screamed nonstop and ran into traffic. The other three children and I eventually corralled her into the car. Sean, at 13, was in the driver seat and Carl was next to him. Marcus and I had Mary contained in the third row while she raged, intent on running into the busy street. At one point a well-meaning lady stopped to ask Sean if his “mother had left him in the car.” Mary promptly screamed obscenities at the woman and she backed quickly away.

Her tiny, 7-year-old fists pummeled me with fury. She had ripped out some chunks of my hair, and my chest was bleeding from scratches and bites. Mary hit, kicked, slapped and bit for over 45 minutes. Even with the AC at full blast it must have been over 80 degrees in the car. There was a strong odor akin to cooking armpits wafting from the trunk area. Mary yelled at Marcus to go away. Marcus yelled at Mary to quitting hitting me. I prayed silently to a higher power.  I imagined a cooler place where it was quiet and didn’t stink. Almost every day that summer had been exactly like this.

I couldn’t figure out how to child-lock the hatchback-style trunk, and I couldn’t drive with a raging child. We were stuck trying to hold her safely, as far away from the other two boys as possible. Mary kicked at the windows and screamed, “They’re murdering me!” to passerby. Eventually bystanders called the police. It was around this time that Mary grabbed a pair of extremely ripe socks that Carl had hidden in the trunk, and shoved them into my mouth. My eyes watered and I gagged on putrid Carl foot-funk. This was a maneuver I hadn’t anticipated!

When the police came I had managed to spit out the offending socks, but my mouth was still full of foul sock fibers. Luke had come. He met us in time to answer the officers questions while I picked putrid sock fuzz out of my teeth. Finally, after over an hour of screaming, Mary subsided and cowered behind me. The sight of the officers transformed her rage into fear.

Four years later, and Sean is gone. Our daughter is in a private therapeutic school. It’s a residential school that focuses on complex trauma. They’ve been absolutely amazing with Mary. She hasn’t needed to be restrained in over a month. They continue to stress the importance of family to her. They help her check her own energy level for regulation. She is making a conscious effort to be involved in her care planning and goal setting. I couldn’t be prouder of her.

Meanwhile, Carl is going to intensive outpatient therapy. He has a daily group that focuses on coping skills. He is struggling with uncontrollable bursts of anger. The good thing about Carl is that he doesn’t intentionally attack us. His rage is limited to property damage, mostly in his room. He did try to put his shoes on the other day by chucking them across the kitchen. This technique was unsuccessful, but at least he’s trying new things.

Marcus is homeless and sleeping in his car, in a cemetery. He chafed at living here because he was required to take a class, start a certification, or go to job corps. Essentially, he had to invest in himself in order to be supported by us financially. He chose to quit his job and run off to the next state where all of his friends are. He claimed the only thing he needed to secure his future was this rusted out Honda Civic circa 1995.

I was surprised to see him on Friday morning, fast asleep in his car, in our driveway. I attempted to talk to him but he buried his head under a blanket and then drove off when I walked away. He had a buddy with him, someone I’ve never met before. As far as I can tell they came home to grab some gas from the emergency cans in the basement and then go to grab his final check. We didn’t hear from him for a few more days after this.

Marcus continued to insist that his only goal was his car. The car died in a dangerous city and there he now sleeps. He refused to let me pick him up because, in his words, “No matter what, I’m not leaving without my car. I’m going to stay with my car.” So there he now stays, in a cemetery, with a dead cell phone battery. It’s been three days.

Driving home from Mary’s family session the other day, something odd occurred to me. I asked Luke, “Did you ever think there would be a time when Mary would be our most stable child?”

“No,” he admitted. We sat in shocked silence for a few moments to process this. In the silence I became aware of pungent odor emanating from the back seat. It was a mix of rotting skunk corpse and teenage sweat. Glancing behind me I spied a pair of Pokemon sport socks.

I sighed. “Carl took off his lacrosse socks in the car again.” Luke nodded sympathetically.

It always comes back to the socks.

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

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adoption, family

When the Grass is Greener: Residential Treatment

That old adage about the first year of marriage “being the hardest” is a myth. When I married Luke ten years ago, I had no idea what it would really be like. It was a whirlwind of anticipation. At the time, I wondered what the grass really looked like on the other side.

The first year of marriage wasn’t hard. The first year was delightful. It was filled with blustery New England storms. They’re called “Nor’Easters” and I love them.

Luke and I would curl up together in front of our apartment’s floor-to-ceiling windows. We listened to the wind howl as a soft white blanket covered the world. We’d sip hot, exotically flavored, coffee Luke would brew. I’d clutch my mug of “almond toffee” or “coco-mocha” and tuck my feet underneath my new husband’s lap. My hands and toes would warm me into a languid, dreamy state of contentment.

Old folk sayings never do these things justice.

“Everything happens for a reason.”

Then why did all of these terrible things happen to our children before we knew them?? Why weren’t we there at the beginning?

“The grass isn’t always greener on the other side”

It is greener. Being married to Luke is sooo much better than before-Luke. Our daughter’s residential treatment center is sooo much better than the psychiatric treatment facility where she was. 

I didn’t realize how effective the residential school would be. I didn’t realize how much good they would do for our daughter. I didn’t realize how supportive they would be to our whole family. I didn’t know how much it would hurt. They are doing what we could not.

Mary is finally in a place that truly understands developmental trauma. The non-profit that runs this residential school specializes in adoption-related difficulties. They know complex trauma inside and out. They use effective, evidence-based treatment models. They all communicate. The staff are all well trained and on the same page. Mary is being kept safe.

I’ve never heard her take ownership of any part of her treatment. Lately she’s been talking about what she can do to reach goals that she has set for herself. She’s responding to the structure and boundaries of this place. Hugs are for families, not staff. Mary cannot call any of the staff “mom” or “dad.” She doesn’t sit in laps or snuggle the staff. They gently remind her about what her family is there for.

She isn’t allowed to call me between 10 and 30 times per day to scream at me when she is unhappy. Instead, she is encouraged to build better family relationships. She may call once a day and she is explicitly taught about how to speak to her parents respectfully.

The best/worst part is that it is all working. We are having pleasant visits. We enjoy our phone calls with Mary. She is making connections about what they are trying to teach her. I know we are only at the very beginning of residential treatment but I have such newfound hope. So far it’s everything we weren’t able to help her with and more. The grass is so very green here.

“Jealousy is a green-eyed monster.”

I am so jealous. I am this monster. Why couldn’t we have accomplished this at home?

Their program is nearly identical to what the kind of therapeutic parenting we practice. The relational model we use is the same. We don’t have their staffing. We didn’t get their results. It hurts.

This first year of RTC is shaping up to be so successful. Will it be the hardest? I don’t know.

“Hindsight is 20/20”

What I do know is that ten years into marriage, I can look back and laugh at my worries. Perhaps, when she’s been safely at home for ten years, I will look back and see the same. Until then I will curl up with Luke while the wind is howling. I still have a warm place to tuck in my feet while we wait out the storm.

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

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