adoption, family

The Prodigal Son Makes a Decision

Marcus is here in the house, fast asleep. Just writing those words is like a having a weight lifted from my chest. Last night my living room was full and so was my heart. When Mary FaceTimed she got to see all of us.

At the wise old age of 21, he’s made a decision about his future. Marcus came home without the GF, her baby, and her extra friend. I’m not sure where they are staying exactly. I did manage to ship a package of warm winter baby clothes to GF at a reliable address.

Now it’s just my son. He’s back in his room among a pile of suitcases, boxes, and trash bags full of clothes. I wonder what happened to the other luggage he had. Where are all of the plastic bins he previously used?

Trash bags are the currency of packing in foster care. Just seeing them full of clothes sets my teeth on edge. I can assume his luggage went the way of his electronic keyboard and Beatz headphones we got him. Marcus must have bartered or sold them to get by on the streets.

He isn’t he here to stay. He’s here to do all of his laundry and store some of his things. Then it’s off to Job Corps! Marcus starts on Tuesday at 12, for the Electrical program. Victory! He can come home for holidays and some weekends.

Job Corps is a lot like the the regular college experience except they also teach basic life skills and schedule medical appointments. This is great because our son is behind on everything. Luke and I tried to cram a lifetime’s worth of “life skills” into a boy we met when he was already 16. It didn’t exactly stick. Needless to say, he still requires guidance.

I have no idea how Marcus finally, FINALLY, came to this decision. Like most things, he’s had to make the choice on his own by learning through a multitude of mistakes. Experiences, usually bad and had on his own, are Marcus’ only teachers. If you tell him the stove-top is hot, he’ll have to reach out and burn his hand before he believes you.

I don’t know what’s really going on with GF. He told us she said “hi” but that he doesn’t care what she thinks of his decision to do this. Marcus says “no one can hold him back” from his future. I’m pretty sure this is the same kid that told us “no one could make him” decide things about his future.

I want to say, “Honey sometimes you hold yourself back.” But I don’t.

I want to say, “When did you realize you need to consider a future?”

I want to say, “Hey, by the way, how come you ripped the doors off of the closet last time you packed your stuff?”

I don’t say these things because he’ll never even be able to explain. He probably doesn’t know why. I don’t even really need to know the “why.”

Here is what I do know:

1. My son is safely home in (approximately) one piece. He’s still a bit bruised and broken from the beat-down he got on the streets.

2. In 48 hours Marcus will be living on-campus in a program teaching him skills to be a licensed electrician.

3. He had to pass a clean drug test to get into this program.

4. I will love my oldest son forever, no matter what. Someday he may actually trust me on this one. He’s certainly tested it a few times.

 

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

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family

My Escape

It’s nighttime when I escape. This day has been a hard day. Bad news, back pain, and an oppressing sense of defeat have followed me through the house today.

After tucking Carl into bed I creep out of the back door. Luke is working on splitting each of my pain pills in half. I’d like to try a lower dose if I can. They always make me feel so sick.

Now I seek freedom. Once outside, the darkness is complete, blotting out all else. My footsteps are amplified by the tapping of my hot pink cane

The back door clicks softly shut behind me and I’m enveloped in blackness. On our porch, deep in the New England forrest, there is nothing but the night. It embraces me.

Slowly, so painfully slowly, I hobble down the back steps. The cane clicks along with my weary feet. Thump-clip-thump-clip one step at a time.

I ease onto the graveled driveway and marvel at the smells of pine and maple. I double check the stability of my sneakers on uneven ground. I’ve affixed a flashlight to the cane only to show my feet the way. It does nothing to detract from the sanctity of my night.

I love this time of year. My cheeks are rosy, chilled and crisp. The silence is complete save for the rustling of tree leaves

The air here is cold Enough to see my breathe. Everything is so fresh. In the darkness, even my scars are hidden.

After what seems like an hour I reach the end of my driveway. Here is where I can turn and look back upon the house Luke and I have made a home. The soft yellow light seeping from our windows barely makes an impact on the night.

I’m finally alone. In the quiet. In the dark. Here I can raise my head as high as my spine will allow. Here is where I can see all the glory of the stars above. They twinkle and dazzle against an expansive canvass of black.

No streetlights exist out here in the woods to steal their glory. Headlights do not appear to marr the brilliance of my stars. This New England night-scape belongs only to me and to my stars.

Out here I find the peace in my world. Out here it is quiet enough that I can listen to my own thoughts.

“Keep going,” they tell me. “There is beauty in everything, even in the dark.”

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

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adoption, family

It’s Time

I’ve spent this past week tying up all of the loose ends I can find before my surgery.  I wonder if I’m ready. No matter how much I’ve prepared I can’t be sure that I’m ready. Also, my mother-in-law is coming to help out for a week so this should get very interesting.

I do love my MIL. She isn’t one to show affection with hugs and kisses. She will make me a cup of tea when I’m stressed. When she visits she cleans everything and cooks dinner for us. I absolutely love it. She fills our house with the savory smell of Spanish rice mixed with lavender Fabuloso cleaner. However, she has a great deal of anxiety and is scared to be out here in the countryside. Once she asked me fearfully if the deer ever came into the house!

When we first brought the children home my mother-in-law came to visit. It was great to have someone to help with household tasks because the kids were desperate for my attention. If foster care had taught them anything it was to be afraid that moms were actively trying to escape. The house was in turmoil and the kids raged, tantrummed, fought with each other and generally did whatever they could to hold my attention. They were so afraid then that their new mom would get away somehow.

My MIL was scared of them. While they were terrified of the world around them she was terrified of their violence. She didn’t want to be alone with them. She slept with her bedroom door locked. When Mary would begin to rage she’d run to her room and lock herself in. Her anxiety was pushed to the limits. She really didn’t understand why we would want to grow our family this way.

At one point she told me that foster care had “better kids” than these and that we needed to “send them back.” It wasn’t spoken with malice. She was afraid of what our lives would be like with these children. My MIL told me a story about someone who adopted troubled kids and ended up divorced.

After this, Luke jumped in to gently, yet firmly, establish some boundaries. She was only trying to protect us but it wasn’t helping. Over the years she eventually became very close to Carl. He loves her Spanish cooking which is truly the way to my MIL’s heart. When she talks about our family these days, it’s with respect. She brags about how far the children have come.

Now that she is coming I feel like things can run smoothly while I’m in the hospital. The only thing she fears at our house currently are those pesky deer! Under our kitchen sink I have organized the cleaners and miscellany so she can find her cleaning supplied. I’ve purchased her favorite cleaning gloves and a bottle of her signature Fabuloso. She has two boxes of her favorite cereal available.

The SUV just had an oil change and it’s burnt out bulbs replaced. I’ve prepared and frozen a few casseroles just in case. Luke and I rounded up three dead vacuum cleaners and other useless stuff from the basement to make a dump run. I can guarantee my MIL will still clean the basement, but at least this way she can get around.

Carl’s appointment with the in-home therapist is all scheduled and his rides for football practice are arranged. In short. there isn’t much else I can do. Is it enough? Have I prepared my family?

All I know is that it’s time.

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

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I Missed Open House…Again

I seriously, honestly, for real, no excuses planned to go to Carl’s open house this year. It’s a great opportunity to meet your child’s teachers and see their work. I didn’t make it last year. I’m pretty sure it’s because Open House conflicted with one of Mary’s visits.

This year I had it circled on the calendar. My best laid plans were derailed when Luke needed surgery. I still thought I could go if my parents could just drop Carl off at football practice, I could pick him up after the open house. In my imagination Luke went home to bed and slept without my help for a few hours. Since Luke needed to be in at 7:00AM the day of the surgery I was sure I’d be home for the 6:00PM open house. Wrong!

I didn’t make it. We got home around 7:00PM. Luke was completely blind and in pain. He needed me to take care of him the way he’s taken care of all of us a hundred times before. So I skipped Open House. Again.

Carl has two band events coming up that I can’t make, either. Worse, he can’t go because there are a lot of moving parts and tight schedules around my surgery. It really stinks. When we started the adoption process I didn’t see myself this way.

In my before-mommy strategies I saw myself at all of the PTA meetings and school events. I thought we’d go to all the outings put on by the foster care association. I’d volunteer for things. I’m a teacher so I assumed I’d be involved in all the school things.

Reality was different. I hope we didn’t let these guys down. I think it’s OK, though. Maybe I didn’t make it to every school function. Maybe I didn’t get to every sporting event. But I did other things. Luke and I sort of triaged what the kids needed at any moment. He’d take Marcus to another court appearance while I took Mary to another therapy appointment. Luke and I haven’t ever missed a week visiting Mary. We’ve never missed a PPT or a treatment meeting.

I manage to be there at the times my kids need me but maybe not all of the times both of us would like. Last night Carl was up on three separate occasions in the night. Sunday nights are difficult for him. I think he experiences anxiety about starting the school week again. The first time he woke up he was stressed out that Luke (in the shower) had left or decided not to wish him goodnight. Our kids are always freaked out about people potentially disappearing from the bathroom.

The second time Carl woke me up to ask for help. He was holding a wad of tissues to his nose and dripping red blood down the front of his shirt. A bloody nose had awoken him to a crime-scene worthy amount of blood on his sheets and pillow. He was understandably panicked.

I stripped the bed, and tossed the soiled sheets and jammies in the washing machine sanitary cycle. I cleaned up Carl, and put fresh sheets on his bed because he was shaking too badly to do it. Once he was calm we tracked down and plugged in his humidifier.

The third time Carl woke me up by banging against the wall in an urgent call for help. The insistent BANG BANG BANG(!!!) pulled me out of a deep sleep and right to my feet. When I got to Carl’s room he was hidden under a mountain of blankets, stuffies, and our 109 lb therapy dog.

He poked his head out and tearfully told me that the power had flickered. To Carl this automatically means the power will go out which he places right next to “terrorist attack” and “nuclear bomb detonation” on his fear scale. He needed a battery powered nightlight. He was frozen in terror at the thought of being alone in the dark.

Even at 13, my teenager needs me to chase away the nightmares. So here I am. I didn’t make it to the open house (again) this year but that’s probably OK. I show up when it counts.

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

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adoption, family

On the Frontlines of Food Insecurity

I heard the most ridiculous thing at a training given by the Department of Children and Families. The session was about health and safety for kids in foster care. The speaker was a registered nurse whose job it was to approve all medical treatment for the foster children in her region. Don’t even get me started on the times she described vetoing a medical doctor’s recommendation based on her shoddy anecdotal evidence.

The comments that irked me into feelings of mild violence were her views on food insecurity. “Oh that’s not really a problem. I don’t why people come to me with this. Just offer a variety of foods at dinner time.” She called this a “food tour” and opined that it always worked.

Seriously?! Ummm…no.

All of our children, to some degree, suffer from food insecurity. Because they spent large amounts of time without food, without enough food, or without appropriate nutritional fare, they have food insecurities. Two of our children don’t even feel safe unless they have a stash of non perishables in their bedrooms.

When the kids first came home, Carl couldn’t handle family meal times. His behavior escalated to what seemed like bizarre levels. We would sit down to a meal and politely pass the food around from plates in the middle of the table. Carl would grab between 3 and 6 dinner rolls and then scream at anyone else who tried to take one.

“Stop it! There will be none left!!!”

Carl would sit on his feet in a crouch with his arms protectively over his plate. No amount of cajoling or reminding got him to sit on his bottom would last for more than 30 seconds before he hopped up and perched protectively over his plate again.

His pupils would dilate and his heart rate would pick up. His voice got louder and his words were more oppositional. It was like watching someone handle being the victim of a hostage situation. Pure panic.

Inevitably the dinner stress would be too much for Carl. He would start by complaining he hated the food and would never eat it. This would progress to trying to grab all of the remaining food on the table. ALL of it. At some point after that he would throw his plate/cup/meal directly at me and run away screaming that we were starving him. Sometimes he would punch me.

At the same time, Sean would gobble huge amounts of food as if it were a race while Marcus and Mary sat turned away from the table, staring at the floor. They would not respond in any way, even if spoken to. It was as if they weren’t even there.

After everyone left, Mary would take her plate underneath the table, or to the floor, and finally eat her dinner. Marcus would eat whatever was left over when he awoke in the middle of the night.

None of it made any sense to me at the time. We did everything we could think of to manage this behavior. We put limits on the amount of ___ the kids could put on their plate at one time. We proactively switched over to paper plates and disposable plastic cutlery. My apologies to the environment but experience has literally shown me it’s better to have a plastic knife hit you in the face than a steak knife. After Carl’s outbursts he’d have to finish eating in his room. I didn’t know at the time that he felt much safer eating there.

Eventually we learned that our kiddos had a past history of stressful mealtimes. We already knew they spent a lot of time fending for themselves as toddlers and young children. Hence, Mary developed a taste for dog food and would sneak it whenever no one was watching. Apparently when bio mom was manic she’d begin cooking at 2 or 3 AM. Then she’d wake the kids up and insist they eat. Other times they existed on the Monster energy drinks and Jolly Ranchers they stole at the local corner store.

To this day, when Carl is feeling stress or anxiety it flares up. He will binge eat in the middle of the night. There is a far off, unfocused look that comes over him while he stuffs huge amounts of food into his mouth at an alarming rate. He’s often crying at the same time.

Have you ever seen a hamster stuff it’s cheeks full of food? This is sort of what it looks like. Carl will swallow without chewing. His cheeks swell to an unusual size yet still he keeps going. He stuffs more and more food into his mouth even before he swallows what’s already in there. This leads to choking and vomiting. As soon as Carl finishes puking, he immediately resumes guzzling food. Then he vomits more and eats more and so on. He chokes a lot when he gets like this because he forgets to breathe.

Last spring he suffered scratches to his esophagus because of the sharp edges of un-chewed food (think crackers or nuts.) He had also vomited so much that the acid was eroding soft tissue in his esophagus and stomach. He threw up so many times a day that eventually he was vomiting blood. The wait to see a specialist for pediatric GI took forever. We ended up in the emergency room at the children’s hospital four times in one month.

In the meantime we would wake up in the morning to find vomit, blood, and food wrappers of one kind or another all over the house. It was terrifying. This is when we got combination locks for the fridge. Our cabinets were already locked overnight to keep Mary out of the cutlery. Finally we got him in to do a series of tests, including an endoscopy.

The specialist concluded that Carl was reacting to his past, so it couldn’t be medically treated.  He asked me, completely straight-faced if we’d ever considered Cognitive Behavior Therapy. He told me that sometimes children who were traumatized need therapy. I burst out laughing. Yes, we’d been working on that for 4 years.

After the first winter together, the snow melted and revealed a surprise. Carl had buried all of his school snacks in the snow. Every day at school he would tell the teacher we refused to give him snacks. Meanwhile, he built up a stock in case he ever ran out of food again.

Carl would ask strangers for food at the store, at parks, at the lake, basically anywhere. While I stood behind him with a rescue-bag of goldfish in my hand I would hear him beg strangers desperately.  “Please,” he’d urgently whisper, ” Can I have some of that? My parents NEVER feed me. I’m starving!!!”

Once a well-meaning older lady kindly explained to me that children cannot go for long periods of time without eating. She kindly suggested that I consider snacks for the children. In response I pulled gently on Carl’s outside coat pocket. Imagine her surprise when three granola bars and a bag of almonds fell out!

Some things have helped. We developed a calm dinner routine where we take turns appreciating one person at the table for something they did that day.  Our goal was for Carl to feel safe at mealtimes. His therapist, L, helped him develop a self-talk manta. It goes, “I will have enough to eat. I will have these foods again.”

We let him keep boxes of power bars and granola  in his room. For years he slept with them in his bed. This was preferable to the chicken drumsticks and other perishables he used to hide in his pillow case!

We got frozen pizzas that Marcus could prepare and eat in the middle of the night. We stopped buying “high-value” foods that would trigger Carl into a binge. This included peanut butter, Nutella, candy of any kind and cream cheese. During the stressful spring season we padlock the fridge to prevent Carl from getting hurt while out of control at night.

Some things have never changed at all. For example, Mary literally does not know how to drink water.  If a glass is placed in front of her she will chug it as fast as possible without breaking. It doesn’t matter how much liquid you put in front of her. I tried to give her a huge water bottle once to see if it would slow her down. It didn’t. Instead she threw her head back and guzzled until I was sure she’d drown.  Instead she began choking and crying while continuing to gulp. Mary wouldn’t put the bottle down until I physically pryed it away from her mouth.

When chugging her water Mary still tilts her head as far back as she can. She also flings her left arm out straight to grab and hold onto whoever is nearest. She will clutch onto them until she is done rapidly swallowing everything in front of her. It looks exactly like a baby drinking from a bottle. Mary is stuck in this phase.

Unfortunately this also makes her vomit. Because of how unpleasant it is for her to chug liquid down and then puke, she usually refuses it entirely. She claims she is “allergic” to water and it always makes her sick. She physically cannot sip from a cup. That skill simply isn’t in her repertoire.

Eventually we learned to pour out two fingers of liquid at a time for her to drink or else we’d give her a straw. She was able to appropriately use the water fountain at school.

My point is this: food insecurity is terrible.  If a professional gives advice on this they should have some actual experience with kids exposed to starvation. Healing takes hard work and years of patience. Even then, that trauma is always with our kids to some degree. Because, really a “food tour” is NOT going to fix the problem.

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

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adoption, family

The Myth of Secondary Trauma

As an adoptive parent of children with complex trauma, I hear about “secondary” trauma a lot. I find this to be…reductive. I’m not sure why we would diminish anyone’s trauma but it happens.

Supposedly, secondary trauma happens when a caretaker develops compassion fatigue. As in, your child is anxious and views the world as scary. Due to their anxiety, you take on these anxious characteristics and experience your own anxiety. Your new anxiety is “secondary” to your child’s.

I disagree. If you are anxious then you are anxious. Period. If you are sad and depressed over the difficulties of raising a complex kiddo, then those are your emotions. We all have our own feelings and I fail to see how they are secondary to anyone else’s. We can be quick to identify our children’s trauma. They often experienced it at the hands of biological family. It’s strange that we don’t consider this to be secondary trauma. After all, the perpetrators here most likely experienced their own trauma at some point, and are now acting on it.

Our daughter has been extremely violent. Often. She’s been homicidal. She’s been dangerous. She’s physically hurt herself and the rest of us, especially when she first came home years ago. Our adopted sons can also be violent. They caused property damage and personal damage. Our drywall is full of holes and every single closet door is dented and off the tracks. We don’t even bother to try and repair them anymore.

Don’t get me wrong, our children act this way due to their developmental trauma. My daughter is a beautiful, precious girl with a significant mental illness. Regardless, these acts of violence caused their own trauma.

Before I was a mother, I had never been beaten. When I became a mother in 2014 I was hit, kicked, punched and assaulted with objects on a regular basis. I scoured websites of domestic violence survivors for tips on how to hide the bruises. This isn’t because I was some kind of afterthought to someone else’s trauma. It’s because I, too, was living through domestic violence. In my case, it was hard to get support. Getting help for a dangerous child is ridiculously difficult.

Eventually, with therapy and medication, our kids got better. Not completely safe, but better. Our daughter stabilized for a long time. When she relapsed, it was that much worse for me to live with. I have my own PTSD. If a spouse physically hurt me this way, I’d be considered a victim of domestic violence.

Believe me when I say, it isn’t secondary. Having trauma after multiple beatings is just plain trauma. It’s that simple.

I jump at loud noises. I cringe sometimes when people make arm gestures while standing too close to me. The door to our bedroom sticks in humidity. When my husband pushes it open I jump. Every single time.

It’s gotten better for me over time while Mary has been in residential treatment. It’s gotten better now that Sean no longer lives here. My bruises may have faded away but my fear lingers on.

My point is, I don’t really believe in secondary trauma. My trauma is primary. If you’ve been living in a violent situation then so is yours. I think it’s OK to claim something as our own. I think it’s OK to take care of ourselves, too.

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

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adoption, family

The Storm Has Passed

I wonder if 13 is a fun age for mothers to enjoy their sons. Carl is less than a month away from turning 13 and so far we’ve been having a blast. Springtime is his annual storm of violence and rage. Thank goodness that season has passed.

I remember a similar phenomenon when Mary was 8. She was finally stable on medication. Her violent rages were gone. We went everywhere together and just enjoyed life. Shopping trips, singling along to Taylor Swift in the car, and sharing little jokes comprised our days.

At this time, Mary was really interested in whatever I was interested in. Rather than playing “school” over and over until exhaustion, she wanted to accompany me to set up my actual classroom.

Carl and I now seem to be hitting the same stride. With summer came an end to his emotional storm. Springtime brings out his fiercest trauma-related behaviors. Summer seems to bring calmer, more rational, times. His age brings out a new set of unexpected bonuses.

For the last two weeks we’ve been taking some time to hang out. We’ve been to the local lake. He’s started to watch more interesting PG-13 shows and movies. I’m finally able to bid Spongebob Squarepants adieu!

I think part of this happy period is that Carl can separate from me a bit. Generally, he can be very anxious as to my whereabouts in the house. I’ll often find him sitting right outside the door when I exit the bathroom. If he looks up and doesn’t see me he will shout a panicked, “Ma-ma? Ma-ma??? MA-MAAAA!!!” much like a toddler. It can all get a bit overwhelming.

At almost 13, he now wants to spend some time with his friends. They don’t necessarily think it’s cool for Carl’s mom to join in the Pokémon game every time. His poor friends don’t have to wait on playing with the matchbox cars while I finish dinner. Gone are the days where Carl says, “Wait for my mom. She has to be the yellow car!”

Not having to participate actively in all of his social interactions is freeing. As a mom, I’m supposed to want to spend every second with my child. I don’t. I enjoy alone time to pursue my own interests. Carl’s doing just fine navigating on his own. This gives me a bit of much needed breathing room.

Football season has started again. Unlike last year, Carl is able to accept that I’m not going to sit and observe a two hour practice each night. He isn’t so scared to be without me. I get to shop, grab a coffee, or catch up on some reading. A bit of me-time makes it easier to be a calm and happy mom.

Oddly enough, Carl seems to have entered the stage where he’s interested in what I’m interested in. I like reading horror novels, so he wants to explore the genre. I bought him a few of the young adult R.L. Stine books to start with. I don’t actually want him to be too scared. I like to read the news app on my phone, so he regales me with the news alerts that pop up on his tablet.

I’ve been watching “Once Upon a Time” on Netflix this week. It’s the ultimate girly-show. Carl has started to watch with me. He asks a lot of questions because he doesn’t know any of the fairytales referenced. Before adoption, his early childhood consisted of “Chucky” movies rather than books.

As we watch he’ll say, “Does everyone know about Excalibur? Who is the girl in the red hood that brings things to her granny? Why do they keep mentioning a glass slipper? How do people know this???” It gives me an opportunity to tell some of the stories he might not be otherwise interested in. I can catch him up on a bit of what he missed in his younger years.

When I make a cup of coffee in the morning he’ll sometimes brew himself a decaf one. He’ll sit and watch the morning news with me and share his thoughts on the topics.

Don’t get me wrong, I like playing matchbox cars as much as the next mom. It’s just sometimes fun to do more “grownup” things!

The most important thing is that Carl isn’t acting out violently right now. This soothes some of my own anxiety and PTSD symptoms. I’m not sure what adolescence has in store for us.

All I can say is that I am really enjoying this part.

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

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