adoption, family

Winter Storm

In the dark, he is afraid. Carl’s panicked voice calls out, “Dad? Mama?? Mama!!” sounding more like a toddler than a teenager. My children learned at an early age that monsters are all too real. Some lessons cannot be unlearned no matter how many years go by.

Today I woke up early and crept downstairs. The New England sky had already dumped seven inches of powdered snow outside. The ice storm portion hadn’t yet begun. In the darkness of the winter morning I brewed fresh coffee and listened to the howling wind. New England ice storms can be fierce in their fury. Ice will pelt the roof like gunfire, taking old down branches as collateral damage. The assault causes power outages more often than not. One can never avoid the winter storms, only prepare for them.

On this morning Carl calls out to me with his nervous, “Mama? Mama!? Mama!” He can’t hear my replies over his escalating calls. It’s no matter. I’m here, even when he can’t see me.

Finally he bolts into the kitchen and breathes a sigh of relief. Here I am in my kitty-cat fleece slippers, illuminated by the flickering fireplace. Carl relaxes once he sees me. In my pre-storm glow I allow him a slice of cake for breakfast. My largess is due to the enjoyment of family and electricity before the storm. With no school and no place to go, what does it matter? Let him eat cake!

Luke and I have weathered these storms a hundred times over. Preparation is key. We heat the house extra on days like this just in case. The forecast says the high for tomorrow is only 5 degrees with the windchill making it feel 25 below. If we lose power we will hemorrhage heat rapidly.

It’s best to gather what we can, while we can. Up here in the rural forest area everyone has four wheel drive. When we “batten down the hatches” we literally stop up drafty doorways with towels and close our insulating blinds against the cold. We shutter in tight to wait it all out. Still, I am content to enjoy my hazelnut coffee and prepare during the early morning darkness.

I am impressed with how well Carl is holding up these days. Mary was home for a visit on Friday. It was her longest home visit yet. Her therapist drove her and got her situated. Usually the therapist stays for the entire visit and structures it with activities. Friday was our first dry run. We were ready for anything.

Mary stayed for Papa’s birthday dinner. My parents came with spice cake and pork roast to celebrate. After dinner Luke cleaned up the kitchen while I took Mary and Carl outside to play some basketball. The air was thick with the frosty smell of coming snow. Soon the forest seem to promise.

The children laughed and frolicked while passing the ball. I can’t remember a recent time where I’ve seen them laugh together this way. For a few minutes I can forget all the damage trauma brought on this household. For a short time it’s as if we could be any other family enjoying the fading sunlight of a winter’s evening.

Up here, the world seems most welcoming before a major storm. The pre-blizzard trees sway merrily in the winter wind. Their branches wave a cheery hello to my happy little family. The glow from our front windows illuminates a lawn free of snow. The bite of frigid breeze only brings color to our cheeks. These memories of calm are the times I hold onto in the darkest storms. I have to take what I can, when I can.

The entire visit with Mary went off without a hitch. She was with us for close to 5 hours. No therapist needed! We drove her back to school before bed. Carl came along voluntarily and the siblings didn’t even fight in the car. I hold these Instagram-family moments dearly. They have been so few and far between over the last two years. Yet here were both of my babies, together in peace. There was not a cloud in the sky.

Today I can sit with my coffee and replay that happy evening in my mind. The wind picks up outside, moaning and rocking against the house. Yes, I know the storm is coming. It’s all worth it. I wouldn’t trade a piece of New England for all of Florida. Not even the storms.

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

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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.

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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

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

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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