adoption, family

Christmas Crisis

Christmas is upon us. This is one of my favorite times of year but also the most stressful time of year for Mary. We don’t really know why. It is some history of trauma and all we know is that this time of year is HARD for her. Therefore, one of my favorite holidays has become hard for all of us.

Unsurprisingly, Mary has been having tantrums. For the most part she only destroys the things in her room. She isn’t violent towards us right now and I am grateful for that. However, it is still a struggle to maintain a cheerful outlook amid all the screaming.

A lot of Mary’s anger is directed at Carl. She can be incredibly cruel to him. That normal sibling stuff turns into something darker here. For the most part, Marcus and Carl spend lots of time in the teen basement lair, avoiding her. Since she is terrified of the basement it works out. Unfortunately, this has the unintended side effect of separating Luke and I from our boys.

A large part of parenting Mary involves therapy. We have an in-home program now for 8 hours per week of in-home support. There is a therapeutic mentor who takes Mary into the community. They work on social skills, independence, and regulation. This component of the program is worth it’s weight in gold. Therapeutic Mentor is a young intern working on her Master’s degree. She has great ideas and insight when it comes to complex trauma.

Then there is In-Home Therapist. She comes out once a week for individual session with Mary and once for family session. She is quiet, unobtrusive and about as effective as old dishwater. Through a series of long pauses, meandering half-finished metaphors and general silence we usually complete some kind of art project.

None of us is particularly clear on what we are working on or how it pertains to family life. We never EVER discuss how we can all function or work better together as a family. We never bring up any unpleasantness that has happened. In-Home Therapist cuts that talk off immediately with phrases like, “Mary, no one is mad at you. We are here to support you.”

In short, In-Home Therapist is useless. Luke and I are struggling with the idea of remaining in this program. Should we try to ask for a different family therapist? Is there one available at all? That’s actually unlikely as the program is spread thin around the state. If we leave this program we could get in-home services from a smaller program with fewer hours and no in-community mentoring. Should we?

The other night Mary screamed in her room for close to an hour. We called the on-call emergency line for her therapy program. Oddly enough, that turned out to be just an answering machine. It took close to an hour for them to call us back. By that point Mary had screamed herself to sleep. The on-call provider gave us the sage advice to let her sleep.

I am questioning if this program is even helping. At one time I thought intensive in-home services could divert Mary out of residential. Now I realize they never would have been able to help with Mary in an unstable psychological state. At least I know we did the right thing at the time.

Now, I have no idea what to do. They are here for a few more months. In-Home Therapist isn’t the worst clinician we ever encountered. She isn’t doing any harm. She also isn’t helping. I’m not sure how we will handle things.

All I really want is a cup of hot cocoa and some time with my boys. I may just venture into the basement today.

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

adoption, family

Harder Than I Thought

It’s hard not to feel like I’m failing at this. Each day I wake determined that today is the day I will have a positive experience with my daughter. Today I will spend time with her and let her know she’s special. I’ll be the type of mom who makes her feel loved. I’ll be the type of mom I used to be.

“Today is the day.,” is the line I repeat to my reflection in the mirror.

Except it’s not. It never is.

Most of Mary’s behaviors are designed to get my attention. They stem from a place of deep trauma and fear. Terrified of abandonment, Mary latches onto me in a death grip. She’s too loud, too close, too rough, too forceful. It’s all based on fear.

Logically I know this. It’s my job to soothe those fears and calm her storm. My presence should regulate her. Time together should reassure her that I love her. I will never abandon her.

Except that’s not what happens. It never is.

These days I think she sees how I avoid her. I reflexively flinch away sometimes when she surprise-hugs me. I’m critical and snappy. I’m always in a state of frustration or exhaustion.

Long ago I had endless amounts of empathy and patience. Somewhere along the way it seems to have dried up. I’m too tired deep in my bones. Therapeutic parenting seems out of reach. Parenting in any form seems out of reach. Between the kicked-in doors and smashed Christmas lights, I’m worn out before family time even begins.

I stumble through each day gritting my teeth and trying not to snap at Mary. She argues with Carl nonstop. She’ll bully him when she thinks she won’t be heard. She’s attempted to pretend he pushed her or took something of hers. She yells and stomps and slams things. She’s Mary. She’s just living her trauma.

Most of all, she never wants me to interact with him. I feel so isolated. So tired.

Mary yells random Christmas facts directly into my face if I start speaking to someone else. Mary will aggressively shove herself between me and any cashier/bank teller/barista I start talking to. In a desperate attempt to be heard she’ll begin rapid-fire speaking without breathing. Her body will jump up and down and her volume will increase until she’s shouting and grabbing at me. People stare in the grocery store. I should be used to it by now.

“Is your daughter alright?” They’ll ask me.

The in-home family therapist has been doing weekly sessions with us since September. We haven’t once addressed any of this in a session. I recently requested we work on coping skills to help with sharing mom. At least something to keep Mary and Carl from killing each other. It seems like the transition home from residential should include therapy around how to work together in a family setting again. Why 4 months have to go by before this occurs to the therapist is beyond me.

In-Home Therapist thought about it and agreed. She was very proud of herself for an idea she researched. We were all going to (finally) address family interaction. It was something about a river as a metaphor for family life. Every member drew a tributary and we all connected them together in a large art project.

The session was a bust. In-Home Therapist was quiet and timid. She let Mary yak over her completely with an incessant monologue about school adventures. The therapist quietly let us “lead” session and then asked a few questions about beavers and fishing. She never fully explained the metaphor or related any of it to family life.

Later I asked Carl what we learned in session. “I don’t know,” he shrugged. “It was something about agriculture.”

I know that Mary deserves better. She carries deep shame with her. She fears being unloved. I know I need to be mom enough to give her unconditional love.

I do love my daughter.

I’m not showing it well. I have to do a better job.

I’ll try again tomorrow.

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

adoption, family


Pinching a metal machine as hard as I can with my thumb and forefinger seems like an exercise in futility to me. We have been at this for about four hours. Fifteen of the last minutes have been filled with various types of pinching. The combinations include pinching with three fingers, pressing with just my thumb and also a full hand grasp. Then the evaluater checks my pulse and blood pressure and we repeat each exercise three more times in the exact same way. This poor man now has more information about my grabbing and pinching abilities than anyone could ever possibly want to know about.

Except they do want to know. This is a functional capacity evaluation, or FCE, to determine my physical capabilities. The insurance company has ordered it for unknown reasons. This is supposed to be useful information for my employer. They can now be satisfied I am fully capable of a great deal of sustained grabbing and pinching. Rest assured that as an elementary school teacher, these capabilities should not be used at my job!

This process exhaustingly long. In addition to pinching it also involves pushing, pulling, lifting, walking, screwing in a variety of round knobs and (rather mysteriously) climbing up and down a ladder. Typically these are done in work injury cases where the employer is trying to determine if an employee can return to work. Sometimes the FCE determines if more treatment is needed. Since I’ve been full time for many months, and I am not seeking further treatment, it just seems weird.

Will this snapshot from a few hours really give a picture of my complete physical capabilities? How do I stack up against, say, Betty White? What about someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger? Would he be a better thumb presser than I am? Who would rate higher in the random ladder climb?

I wonder what foster care training would be like if it included a functional capacity examination for parenting skills, For instance, what if a family was given a sibling group for about four hours and asked to address various needs and behaviors? And also probably their pinching skills because…priorities. Would that somehow help with placement determinations?

These weekend visits we are having with Mary are going well. I do wonder what they are telling Luke and I about our capacity to parent her at home. Obviously, they last for longer than four hours. Clearly, we haven’t tested out any newfangled pinching or ladder climbing techniques. Still, I wonder if these visits are proving our capacity to function as a safe family. There isn’t a test to determine it. Instead, we just have to have faith.

Last week Luke and I requested to start Mary’s transition home from residential school. She’ll still attend their specialized trauma-informed day school but she will be come home to us in the evenings.  The discharge will take about two or three months. We are filling out all of the paper work to jump back into the community-based service model. We are gearing up for a big change.

Are we up to this challenge? There isn’t really a way to know. I can say with certainty that we want to be capable of it. Mary wants to be capable of it.

I do know we are far more capable of taking care of Mary than anyone else (I’m looking at you Betty White and Arnold Schwarzenegger). We are her parents. I don’t need an evaluation to tell me that.

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

adoption, family

New Beginnings

“What goes on first: the tomatoes or the Parmesan? Do we always toast the bread? Is this your favorite food, Mama?”

Mary’s earnest little face is staring intently at me. Although, I suppose I shouldn’t say “little” face anymore. She’s 12-years-old. She is almost my height and looks more like a teenager than a child.

We are sharing a bit of late-night tomato Bruschetta at the dining room table. I’m showing her how to spread it onto the slices of toasted Italian bread before sprinkling thin shavings of cheese on the top. Being an enthusiastic eater from day one, Mary is very intent and serious for this activity.

I couldn’t sleep tonight. So much is changing.  I feel as though I’m bursting with unanswered questions and possibilities. This is what caused me to venture into the kitchen after 11:00 PM.

Mary saw the dining room light on and padded out to join me. Her pineapple pajamas brighten the semi-darkness of our quiet house.

“What’s wrong, Mama? What are you thinking about?”

When I am lost in thought, Mary wants to know why. When my facial expression changes, Mary wants to know why. She sincerely asks me what foods I like, what my favorite music is, and who my favorite authors are. I feel like she’s re-learning me somehow. Maybe she’s trying to soak up as much as possible on this summer vacation. She’s memorizing the things that make me…me.

Mary is trying so hard to be my friend.

I’m grateful for the 16 days we have spent together here at home. She goes back to school tomorrow to start the summer class schedule. It’s really hard to take her back this time.

Mary is a lot of work and can be high-maintenance. She is desperate to have a lot of attention. It can be intense to constantly monitor her stress, moods and reactions. I won’t sugar coat it: that amount of attention can be a LOT to take over time.

However, she hasn’t been violent at all. She hasn’t been aggressive. She’s handled disappointments and frustrations with her coping skills. All of the attention-seeking is her way of handling love. Relationships are tough for her to navigate but oh my how she is trying!  Mary is making huge progress. She’s nothing short of amazing.

So I offer her some of my late night snacks and try to explain what I am thinking about. My job position is changing. I had a meeting about it last week. They let me know that due to my back injury I can no longer teach special education. Instead, I am now going to teach a fifth grade regular classroom. I haven’t been a classroom teacher in years. It’s sad for me. It’s also a relief. At least I have a job.

The unknown can be scary. Change can be unnerving. I try to explain these feelings to Mary while the rest of the house slumbers on. She nods wisely as though she completely understands.

New beginnings are not so new for Mary. She’s already experienced so much change in her young life. It can be easy to forget that such a young thing has had to be so brave.

I smile at my daughter over a mouthful of sweet tomato and cheese. Here’s to new beginnings.

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

adoption, family, infertility

Stop Making Your Brother’s Bed

Mary is on some kind of audition. Each weekend she comes home from her residential school for a visit. She stays from Saturday morning through Sunday evening. Mary is trying out for the position of Youngest Chicken Family Member. Her efforts are nothing short of herculean.

She makes me coffee when she wakes up on Sunday morning. She asks to do chores like cleaning the cats’ litter box or taking out the trash. She helps me cook and then sets the table. Mary hugs everyone and professes her love constantly throughout the visit.

This weekend I noticed that she was spending more time with Carl. He was emerging from his designated “no fly zone” (his room) and hanging out with her. They were watching YouTube videos and playing basketball together. I heard him ask her for a drink or snack a few times. Each time she complied and brought him whatever he asked for.

“You don’t need to do that, Mary,” I told her. “He has legs.”

Her reply each time was, “I want to.”

The oddest part came when I walked past his room and noticed that his bed was made. This never ever EVER happens. For a minute I was certain that I must be looking at a mirage. When I questioned Carl, he explained that Mary had done it. It took me by surprise that he’d even granted her entrance into his “no fly zone.” I went into a spiel about how he couldn’t treat his sister like a servant and she wasn’t his maid etc.

Mary came rushing over to defend him.

“He didn’t ask me to do it!” she proclaimed. Looking slightly panicked she rushed her words out. “I just wanted to! I promise!!”

It is a very sweet gesture on her part. I can tell that she carries guilt for the physical attacks and the murder plan and all of the things that occurred when she wasn’t stable. That all happened several years ago. There really isn’t a way to make up for it. She doesn’t even truly remember every scary thing she did during periods of psychosis.

It probably sounds weird but I want them to argue. I want her to become upset. We all really need to see if we can actually handle conflict in a healthy way. Mary may not realize it yet but this would be an important step in our healing.  Trusting a family to meet her needs doesn’t come easily for Mary. I want so much for her to see that our family is different from her biological family in this way. I don’t want her to fold my laundry. I just want her to be my daughter.

We need to test our ability to work together and weather a storm. All families fight. I want her to feel safe enough with her feelings to let them show. Could we all be safe if she got upset? She would have to get upset first in order to find out. She’d have to stop apologizing for every perceived error. She’d have to stop making her brother’s bed. She would have to trust that our love is unconditional.

Honestly, I just want to tell her there is no need to audition. It’s not necessary. She’s already got the part.

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

adoption, family

Do You Get to See Her?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.**