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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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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