The Point of No Return

I vowed some time ago to be an honest voice in this sometimes dark world of foster care. I’m deflated and my focus is weak. Sometimes this journey hurts like hell. But these things need to be said and they need to be said now while they are real and raw.  Maybe I’ll delete them later.

Yesterday, a path came to end. Many lives forever traveling in a different direction. We’ve spent many years saying “yes” after many before us said “no.” We are not afraid of the tougher cases. The raging. The aggressive. The disconnected. The system savvy. The long time travelers. The children in which all others have lost faith. Until we are.

Just when it seemed we’d broken through, we got a horrifying glimpse of what lay on the other side. For safety’s sake we threw up the flag and turned away.

I am heartbroken. I am a bit more jaded. I will get back up again–I always do–but right now I’m just going to sit here for awhile.

At the point of no return just cross the line in the sand, I watch a lost child disappear into the dark, dark night. We were sunk before we sailed. Nobody really expected us to succeed–we were repeatedly given permission to fail. The wounds were too deep, the time too long, the wall too thick, the path too dangerous.

We spent seven months teetering between fear and hope, reassessing, digging deeper, employing new tools, searching beneath the fury for the hurting child…believing. Until the scales tipped on the side of danger and it was instantly clear that he was beyond our reach.
In this moment, the relief of restored safety is dulled by the weight of the grief. Grief for the knowledge of where his path now leads, grief for never having found the right tools, grief for giving up, grief that I live in a world where such a very small child can dwell in such a dark place. Grief that I couldn’t save him. Grief that my grief will not be understood or even recognized.
Tonight I’m going to collapse beneath it because tomorrow I have to throw it off and carry on. Before I’d even signed the final line, the call came with the next desperate plea.

One perfect moment in time

imageIn sixty hours, I will place her in her father’s arms, turn, and walk away. I’ll cry. He may too because he’s kind and gentle like that. I love her. It’s going to hurt. A lot.

For the past eight months, I’ve been her mother. At the end of the week, the choice to keep me in her life is exclusively his. He tells me he wants me there, but I know that desire may change in time. As his confidence grows, I may come to be an intrusion, a walking reminder of a time he’d like to forget. He is a good man and I will always respect whatever choice he makes. Although I hope our relationship will continue, I accept that my work here may be done.

I walked eyes open into the fire and knew all along this day would come. Reunification was always the plan-as it should have been. I’d do it a thousand times over if only I could always reach this end. I would love and lose again and again for this finish. For once, I walk away knowing a system wrought with corruption that so often harms children more than it helps them has, this time, properly served a child. A family has been protected and a child has known immeasurable love. Always.

Here’s where many will tell me that they could never travel this path and will offer me accolades. Please don’t. The gift is mine. I am ever so grateful for this moment of light along this sometimes dark journey. I’m no hero. Over the years, I’ve done as much wrong as I’ve done right. I have regrets. I am often weak and scared, angry and impatient. I am never as good as I want to be. I never stop educating myself, I’m always striving to improve, but did not have the skills years ago that I have now. In nearly eleven years as a foster parent, thirty children born to another woman have called me “Mom.” I failed some of them.

This time with this child, this opportunity to serve, and be an instrument in the preservation of a family is one of the greatest rewards I’ve ever received. There may be a hundred  reasons to be here, but this is why I came. To help. Giving my heart to a child who may never know my name, and supporting her father through her journey home has restored my faith in this work. It has granted me one more chance to know love, eight more months of time mothering an infant that I thought I would never know again, countless memories to feed my soul, and one moment in time when all is right in the world.

Blindsided

More than three years ago, for a few weeks she called me “Mommy.” Last night, I saw her face on the adoption photo listing. My stomach has been burning ever since.

I was forced to surrender her after her brother who was also placed with us experienced a violent psychic break and had to be hospitalized. I advocated for their separation. I explained that their relationship was toxic and he was a threat to her, but no one would listen. I was told that I was being unreasonable and a new home was found.

I tried hard to control my emotions as I strapped that tiny sobbing girl into the backseat of her worker’s car as she clung to my neck and begged me to make sure the other kids and Daddy knew that she loved them. I failed and could not contain my tears. Her time with us had been short, but her impact was huge. She was so clever, sassy, mature, resilient, compassionate, and loving. I never could get her out of my mind.

Little Guy and New Guy hiding. I like it when they hide--they're quiet.

Little Guy and New Guy hiding. I like it when they hide–they’re quiet.

Now there she is a lost child listed alone and as a severe risk. I want to inquire, but fear she is no longer the child I knew. Three years is a long time to stumble through the minefield of CPS foster care and separation from siblings usually only happens after they’ve done terrible, often unspeakable, things to each other. Even the most resilient children ultimately break down.

We are already battling ferociously to reach another small child whose time has been long and pain is deep. Another victim of a system that very often does far more harm than good. I don’t honestly know if I could handle another child of this intensity. Just a few days ago, I tossed our struggle in the message below to the Facebook universe as the weight has become to much to bear alone. I fully believe the prayers and positive energies of my friends that followed afforded us a peaceful weekend, but am not so sure I want to tempt fate.

I’m not whining. Really. I chose this path and take full responsibility for all the strife that’s come my way, but fuck it’s been hard lately. This work is hard. Harder than I could ever explain. Harder than you can imagine unless you’ve traveled this way yourself. It comes at great cost. A price, again, that is difficult to explain. A constant vigil, chronic stress, old traumas bubbling to the surface for all my children, honest introspection, committing every day to do better than the day before, finding the strength to never take the assault personally and always see the wounded child beneath the rage, unwavering perseverance when everyone around you shakes their heads and asks why. Because the price is greater if I don’t. Blowing out of here–this place where we will harbor the children that many before have turned away–is a ticket to an institution and all hope lost. Because if I don’t do this work, who will? Because I don’t want one more child to graduate from foster care to prison. Because I want to walk the talk and be the change. Because my inner warrior queen believes when all others have lost faith. It’s still really fucking hard sometimes. This would be one of them.

All that is rational and wise within me says to let this one go.

But the heart won’t hear reason.

I once told this child that I loved her and if I had a choice she would have stayed. I have never stopped thinking about her. I can’t explain what motivated me to browse the photo listing last night–the thought of adding another child now was not even on the radar.

Part of me wishes that I hadn’t looked, never knew. I could have gone on believing that she had remained with a relative as I had heard at last update years ago. But I did look and I do know and now I have to choose. Do I risk losing the ground we’ve gained with this small wounded warrior who just today summoned all his courage and laid his weapons and broken heart at my feet? Or do I turn my back on a child who I once vowed to always love?

A Whiney Self Indulgent Puke Post

It’s been a suckass week beginning with six hours of violent vomiting Sunday, rising to a mid-week farewell to my Sailor Boy, and culminating with Little Guy’s fist in my stomach Friday afternoon.

My illness triggered the avalanche, my slow recovery and Sailor Boy and his precious Love’s departure AGAIN, kept the boulders tumbling. My adopted kids do not cope well with me being anything short of vivacious. For them, any show of weakness is a warning that I may just disappear completely. The slide into their primal brains where they know only flight or fight is quick and easy and I wasn’t able to throw out any rescue lines from my nauseated puddle on the bathroom floor.

Little Guy has been aggressive and uncooperative at school and Little Sister has been honing her thievery and demolition skills while not sleeping EVER and resultingly becoming increasingly irritable. Throw in lingering nausea, malaise, and a teething baby and welcome to my week. Did I mention that it sucked ass?

I thought things peaked the morning Little Sister decided to chew up her fish oil capsule and spit it all over me–nothing like the smell of fish oil mixed with someone else’s saliva  in your hair to soothe an upset stomach–herself, and the kitchen then throw a fit in an effort to avoid going to school and facing the music for getting caught stealing the day before.

I was wrong.

Earlier this week, Little Guy had his Nintendo DS privileges revoked for being aggressive at school. He was told he could earn it back with three days of good behavior. The third day came and he reported all was well. In fact, his teacher had taken the time to write “Great Day” on his behavior log. I returned the DS, went to check the log and the festivities began.

Turns out he had failed to mention a physical altercation with a classmate the day before. I confiscated the DS and he attacked. He came at me with closed fists and seething rage. He screamed for half an hour. I haven’t seen him act like this in almost two years. It shook me. It hurt my feelings and left me wallowing in self pity.

It’s dark in this place at times, but I’m not supposed to talk about that. At a recent training with our Foster care agency, I was asked to comment on working with children diagnosed under the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, but was quickly shut down when I mentioned the static nature of these kids’ issues and the need to change the environment rather than trying to change the child (because in most cases of FASD it is not possible.) That doesn’t fit into the sugary sweet rescue model and heaven knows we wouldn’t want to frighten the new families with, well, the truth.

I’ve attended trainings focused on the need for respite and assistance to prevent secondary trauma and compassion fatigue to caregivers of special needs children.

Lovely sentiment, but these services do not exist.

I can’t even find an occasional babysitter for my infant foster daughter and in 2.5 years, I have never been able to find respite for my 8-year-old with FAS. My attempts always yield responses, but said responders slink back into the night when I begin to talk about the issues.

The neurologist is sympathetic and validates my woes as I let down my guard and weep in his office, sharing that his other parents of children with an FASD describe all the same behaviors, he pats my shoulder tells me that I’m doing a good job, and writes out prescriptions that we both know will likely do no good.

I subscribe to a Facebook support group for families parenting children with an FASD. Our stories are all the same. We are in chronic crises. We are exhausted. Our other children are suffering. Some of us are being physically abused by our children. There is no solution and outsiders often undermine our efforts. Just this week, my daughter had a teacher lie to cover for her after she stole school supplies from another teacher. The second teacher claimed to have given them to my daughter even though my daughter confessed to having stolen them. The teacher who was the victim of her theft failed to require my daughter to make amends with a service or chore, as I directed, for reasons I cannot explain. She hasn’t responded to my requests for a team meeting so that we can all revisit her IEP and make sure it’s being followed–as required by law.

It is a never ending battle on every front. Usually I’m a mighty warrior, often even enjoying the quest for victory, but this week when my internal forces came under attack, as well, I was defenseless and threw up the flag along with my guts.

I’ve cried. A. Lot. I’ve been unforgiving. I’ve been angry. I’ve confronted my family about their failings. I’ve asked “why me?” I’ve cursed every aspect of this process that has often left me lonely, afraid, powerless, and at the receiving end of blows from a child who I would give my eyes to save. I’ve been pissed off at their birth parents, their workers, a system that runs on deception, a lack of services, a lack of understanding, uneducated educators, inept practitioners, and the fucking rain. I allowed myself a long overdue meltdown.

I’m done now. My appetite returned on Friday relieving the weakness I had felt all week. By Saturday I was able to resume exercising. After a meltdown of his own, Little Guy was overcome with remorse and eager to regain my favor. I’ve never been able to resist his charms long and we are good again. We forgot to set the bedroom alarm last night, and Little Sister raided my purse in the night to which I responded unemotionally accepting this is a product of her disability and not a personal attack.

It stopped raining.

Navigating the Minefield

The last two weeks with her have been torture and I am feeling defeated.  I no longer believe that my adopted daughter will ever attach to our family and the misery of the effort is becoming unbearable.

We’ve been dealing with escalating behaviors that nobody wants to hear about, but I’m going to talk about anyway.

imageShe hates me. She hates our family. She hates herself. I can’t say that I’m her biggest fan right now, either. Her internalized sense of worthlessnes manifests as rage. Her brain damage keeps her from recovering. Too many moves, too many broken promises, and a brain damaged by in utero exposure to alcohol and narcotics have broken her.

This is where most people want to offer encouraging words about love and time. Please don’t.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome results in static encephalopathy. Simply stated: unchanging brain damage. It is not going to get better.

Ever.

Throw in a heaping dose of Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)–mental illness caused by a breakdown in early parent-child attachment–and the already gloomy picture darkens. In her recent Yahoo News story about adoption dissolution “Giving away ‘Anatoly Z.’ author Lisa Belkin called RAD and FAS “the twin land mines of adoption.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

She’s gone and she’s not coming back. In fact, I can only realistically expect her behaviors to worsen as she ages. The general consensus is that despite usually normal IQs, kids with an FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder–an umbrella term for all diagnosis related to in utero alcohol exposure) tend to operate at about half their chronological age. This means an ever widening gap. Most have learning disabilities and deficits in executive functions. They have problems with impulse control, self regulation, memory, judgement, cause and effect, and abstract concepts. This translates into a child who is measurably “normal” exhibiting out of control behavior, is academically delayed or stagnant, and never learns from past experiences. There is a need for someone to always act as an external conscience because they never internalize one.

For many there is also a hypersexualized element surfacing at a very early age. There is an expression in this bizarre world in which I now reside that summarizes the outcome-“The boys get locked up and the girls get knocked up.” We already must keep constant vigil with my 8-year-old to prevent inappropriate behavior with boys and men–including her own brother.

Although kids can sometimes recover or at least improve from RAD with therapeutic parenting, those with the dual diagnosis FASD/RAD usually do not. There are exceptions. They are few and far between. The norm is thousands of families living in crisis with children whose behavior is difficult and strange at best and dangerous at worst with no hope of ever getting better.

I live with it everyday and I hear the stories from others on the support boards I belong to. Every time I begin to believe we have made some progress, I am slapped in the face with a reminder that things are actually worse than I thought. Although her overt raging tantrums have subsided, she simply traded them in for more subdued and more disturbing passive aggressive behaviors. She’s becoming more skilled at dysfunction.

I empty the pencil shavings and shredded paper she hoards from her pockets and pillowcase. I keep constant watch. I can never leave anything unattended within her reach or she will break/shred it as soon as my back is turned. I must send her to her room and set the alarm so that I can use the restroom. I must ration toothpaste and soap or she will fingerpaint all over the bathroom with it. I can’t leave a toilet brush in the bathroom or she will use it to play with her feces. She spits and urinates on the bathroom floor. She steals school supplies and hair clips from her classmates. She raids my purse. She discovered that if she opened and closed her bedroom door quickly enough, the alarm wouldn’t sound long enough to wake anyone and was prowling the house at night. I discovered this when I found a video on my phone she had made of herself singing and acting seductively. That was pretty disturbing to watch.

I regularly “flip” her room to find scissors and countless other stolen items and rotting hoarded food wrapped up in clothing hidden in her drawers. I also find the shredded remains of items destroyed by said scissors under her mattress and mounded in strange piles in the corners. She never expresses any concern or remorse when confronted about these transgressions. I feel like I live in a prison.

Save the other families who live in this world, we are alone. Many of our kids are master manipulators and we deal with an ever shrinking circle as those within it buy into the performance and become convinced that we are either lying or crazy. The concept of mental illness in children is so disturbing that we’d rather call it anything else and blame the caregiver. I rarely talk about any of this to anyone but her therapist because I really can’t handle the empty future projections or judgement.

My daughter’s personality is so fractured that she can become a completely different person with a change in audience. She is the master of doe-eyed feigned helplessness in the presence of other adults, a controlling bully with her peers, and wildly extroverted and sassy with older kids/young adults. A favorite behavior of hers is to follow me around at a gathering making repeated requests for me to get her food. After the fourth or fifth time when I tell her “no more” she’ll wait for an audience and ask again so she can appear to be the victim of the heartless mother who won’t feed her.

This was especially delightful when at a recent gathering round the fire, she stood to make sure she had everyone’s attention and said in her best polite innocent voice, “Mommy, may I have a kiss?” She was talking about a Hershey’s chocolate kiss and had already been told “no more” after several servings, but the shocked response was palpable when I told her to sit down. I gotta admit, it was a pretty clever tactic and we all had a chuckle when I explained. Later, at the same event, I had to physically move her after she nestled up next to an adult male friend.

Our efforts to protect other people and property from our children who lose all control when unsupervised is perceived as fanatical and controlling. I watch my daughter always and her IEP requires constant supervision at school. This is for her protection as well as other children’s. She cannot control her impulses when unsupervised and is also very easily led. Although not inherently aggressive, another child convinced her to throw a rock at a classmate on the playground last year. FASDers are rarely the masterminds behind the crime, but are easily convinced to drive the getaway car.

We live with locks and alarms. Some are afraid of their own children–the boys, especially, but also many girls tend to be aggressive and I’ve read countless stories of parents and siblings being seriously harmed by their children/siblings. I’m talking broken bones. Some parents sleep with weapons bedside.

Our lives are full of acronyms like ARD and IEP. We can’t find any resources for help (because except in tiny corners of the planet, they do not exist.) Therapists fire us. Knowledgeable practitioners are rare and overbooked. My daughter has waited nine months for her three month follow-up with the neurologist because his schedule was full. I made 29 calls and spent hours on hold before I could find a pediatric neurologist an hour away who accepted her insurance and was accepting new patients to begin with. In the time that we’ve waited to see him again, her sleep medication prescription has expired twice and I was never able to get them to call in a refill the second time. I now have a sleep deprived mentally ill, brain damaged child under my roof. It’s very bad.

It’s not going to get better. As all parents of children with an FASD eventually do, we are about to venture into the world of psychotropic meds to try to mitigate some of the behaviors. Most of our kids wind up on a cocktail of a sleep aid, stimulant, and mood stabilizer after much trial and error and often worsening symptoms. Even when a workable combination is found, it is ever changing as children grow and meds cease to be effective. Always a proponent of an unmedicated approach, it is with deep sorrow that I find myself here.

Her sleep deprivation and resulting foul mood, the unpredictable holiday scheduling, and visitors creating a parade of new audiences has had her spiraling out of control. She has told me point blank many times that she does not want to be here and is doing everything in her power to break my will to make her stay. As I worry about her treatment of my younger son who was also adopted, but is attached and thriving, see her glare at the new foster baby who just joined us, and look down the endless road to nowhere, surrender seems more and more the rational decision.

Trauma Doesn’t Tell Time

The time has come for bifocals. There’s really nothing remarkable about this in and of itself. Most of us find ourselves here sometime during our fifth decade on the planet. But for me it’s complicated.

imageI have amblyopia–more commonly known as a lazy eye. Simply stated, my left eye does not work. This also is not, in isolation, a major deal. These days it is usually discovered in infancy and corrected by preschool –the perfect window of opportunity for training an eye that can, but inexplicably won’t see.

For me, the discovery came at the tail end of kindergarten  and the window was only left cracked. But try they must and a series of interventions were launched. Unfortunately, this process happened to directly coincide with the breakdown of my parents’ marriage.

It started with a patch over my good eye to force the bad one into action. In an instant my vision went from 20/20 to 20/200–legally blind. My mother was home less and less and nobody would tell me why.

About this time, my mother decided to cut my thick wavy hair short resulting in a perpetually disheveled look. Corrective lenses with a frosted lense and then a red colored plastic film were added to the regimin. I was told daily that I was ugly and people would stop and stare. I couldn’t see.  My parents were fighting bitterly.

My left eye began to weaken and cross under the strain and corrective surgery was scheduled. I was dropped at the hospital the night before and left alone. It was a different time when it hadn’t yet occured to the medical profession that children might recover better if they felt safe and supported. I was afraid and alone. Then I was sick and in pain.

I returned to school bandaged. I was scolded for removing the bandaging and showing my curious classmates my gorey eye. I was disgusting. I was a problem. I didn’t see my mother for days or maybe it was weeks at a time.

I removed the patch every chance I got. I wanted to see clearly.  I was considered oppositional. A strange woman moved into our house. I didn’t know where my mother was. Then my sister was gone too. Nobody would aswer my questions. I couldn’t see. I was terrified.

Then I lost it. One day in class, I had taken off my patch again and the teacher directed me to the hall for a scolding. She attempted to put a new patch on me and I blew. I fought her off with every ounce of strength my little 7-year-old body could summon. I screamed, I kicked, and I clawed. She had to call in reinforcements to control me.

I was angry, scared, and invisible. I was desperate for a modicum of control as my universe crumbled around me.

Soon after, my mother gathered her forces and absconded with me and my older brother, but not before the other woman lunged at her with a pair of scissors. Perhaps it’s fortunate that my eye was patched  and my memories of the incident are blurry.

Suffice to say the divorce proceedings were handled with something less than sensitive maturity. But this is not a blog about my parents’ divorce. Not really. Nor is it a blog about my vision.

This is a blog about trauma. This is about how it creeps into you in complicated ways and never goes away. We can bury it, integrate it, face it or try to forget it, but it’s always there. Forty years later, the thought of  visiting an eye doctor is sending me into a panic.

Forty. Fucking. Years.

Two unrelated traumatic events have become irreversibly intertwined and each a trigger for the other. Revisiting the pain has been paralyzing.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not walking around every day under the weight of any of this…. usually. About fourth grade, my vision was declared as good as it’s gonna get (which although improved to 20/40 in my left eye it was functionally unchanged because although the eye could now see it still wouldn’t)  and further interventions were abandoned.

By then the divorce was final and both of my parents had remarried. Their rage had quieted or at least they’d gotten better about concealing it.

Other than when I caught balls with my face courtesy of my faulty depth perception or I saw a picture of myself with my left eye looking not quite right, I haven’t given much thought to my vision, the process to improve it, or my parent’s divorce until very recently.

I’ve been surprised by how powerful the pain still is and how easily It found its way to the surface as the realization set in that the over the counter cheater glasses I’ve come to depend on aren’t cutting it anymore. Trauma is a twisted bitch who jacks reasonable processing and I am again an alternatingly ugly and invisible little girl terrified of losing her mother.

As I’ve been reduced to tears on many occasions over the past few days as this post was taking shape in my mind, I’ve had cause to consider what my adopted kids are silently enduring only a couple of years out from the depths of hell.

Their traumas are fresh, tremendous, recurring, and embeded in triggers none of us recognizes. It could be the scent of a candle that was burning when they witnessed or experienced violence. It could be the television show that blared in the background when they felt fear. It could be a holiday when festivities erupted into conflict. It could be a sight, a smell, a sound. It could be anything that sends them back and makes that buried pain vital and present.

Complicated by the fact that so much of their trauma occurred pre-verbally, they may never be able to attach words to their feelings. Their demons will always lurk in the dark places of their minds waiting to catch a ride to the surface on an unsuspecting trigger. This will never look reasonable to anyone around them and they are going to have to work harder than most to be the masters of their own minds.

And I know I need to set the example. I’m going to leave this mess in the sun a little longer and bleach out some of its vigor, then I’m going to fold it up neatly and put it away. I’m going to surf the Internet in search of beautiful, mature women wearing glasses. I’m going to laugh out loud that my kids will never again get to make fun of me frantically searching for my cheaters resting a top my head. Then I’m going to make the appointment.

 

 

 

Nothing Gonna Tear Me Away From My Guy

Image

She put her flat hand up in front of my chest to stop me. “We’re not allowing parents on set,” the production assistant told me matter of factly. My heart immediately began racing and I felt the mama bear rousing.

image“It’s not legal to separate children from their parents,” I replied bracing for battle while not entirely sure that I was speaking the truth.

I’d heard the announcement prior to the children being escorted from the room. We had been instructed to wait here despite an earlier email promising that we would be positioned in a place where we could see the children perform. I considered, for a moment, obeying as every other parent in the room did. It’s never my desire to stir up conflict. But then I looked at my wee small boy who had turned around in the line to find me eyes smiling and curled his fingers toward his body gesturing for me to follow. “C’mon, Mom,” he said with every confidence I would. There was no other choice but to go.

The director was called to handle the problem mom that I had just become. She reiterated the policy that parents were not allowed on set and I reiterated the law. She told me I could watch through the window, went into the room with the children, and closed the door in my face.

From my position, I could only see my son from behind, but could hear him loud and clear. He was in a strange place, surrounded by strangers, a flood of foreign sensory input, not knowing what to expect, and he couldn’t see me. He was slipping into his primitive brain and I was powerless to stop the slide. He was bouncing wildly in his seat, speaking in a loud obnoxious cartoonish baby voice–trying desperately to drown out his anxiety with noise and movement– and though I couldn’t see his face I knew exactly what his crazed expression looked like.

His bouncing was obstructing the camera view and the camera operator asked for him to be moved to another seat. I don’t know what was said to my bouncing boy, but he was escorted from the room and collapsed in heaving sobs in my arms.

“We’re having problems already,” the camera operator told me. “He’s being a disruption.” camera guy explained that they had asked him to move to another seat and he refused and then camera guy disappeared back inside the room.

Certain neither camera guy nor anyone else was interested in a lesson on trauma’s effect on a developing brain, how years of chronic cortisol baths had left my sweet boy’s stress response wacked, how this wackedness caused him to perceive mildly stressful and sometimes completely benign situations as severely threatening and react accordingly. I just had to fix this quick.

He wanted this so badly–to perform as his idolized older sister does. I had put him off for so long for fear of this very situation. It seemed unfair to set him up for failure. But it evolved into seeming unfair to not let him try. He’d auditioned for and booked a role a few weeks earlier that with me by his side to help him maintain control had gone off perfectly. It hadn’t occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to be there for him this second go round.

Little Guy having a blast on the set of his first film.

Little Guy having a blast on the set of his first film.

He just needed me to squeeze him, look him in his eye, explain why he had to be moved, and tell him what he needed to do. He needed me to ground him–To help him regulate and regain control of his body. After a couple of deep breaths, he explained that he wasn’t refusing to move, he had never heard anyone tell him to. Heart rate slowed and oxygen now flowing to his brain he returned to the room–in a new position where he could see me–and carried out the assigned tasks beautifully.

But the stigma had already been attached. He had become that kid and I that mom. Surely his behavior was a product of my overprotective and permissive parenting. I don’t really blame people for these judgements. He doesn’t wear his life history on his sleeve. No one would ever question whether we are biologically related and he has been blessed with a sharp intellect and a mostly engaging personality. I understand how this could appear to be my failing to those who don’t know. Unfortunately, we get it from those who do, as well.

At the parent teacher conference earlier this week, I was told he’s leading the class academically but “it’s just the behavior.” Discussions of my familiar friends “self-control” and “disruption” commenced and his young teacher looked completely surprised when I suggested that he be helped to calm down before he loses control rather than reacting punitively after it happens.

And this is the torture of this journey. Bright, articulate, witty, and fun, but burdened with sensory processing issues, and a broken stress response, I have to send him into a world that doesn’t understand. There is an assumption that adoption immediately cures the pains of the past –stopping the trauma makes it all better. If you can’t see the absurdity of this notion talk to a war veteran struggling with PTSD. This is not a choice he’s making. He hates it far more than anyone.

This became gut wrenchingly clear as we strolled the school halls on the way to meet the teacher. The children’s projects were posted on the walls and his class had a section dedicated to their hopes for the school year. While other children wrote about having fun and making friends, my boy’s desire was to “learn everything and not act crazy at school.”

Call me what you will, but he needs me and I’m going to deliver.

I didn’t get to be there from the beginning. I didn’t get to quickly and lovingly meet his infant needs. I didn’t get to gaze into his eyes as he drifted off to sleep full of warm milk and love. I didn’t get help him internalize that he is valued and protected and I will always be there for him. Every other kid in the room had a five-year head start on him and dammit I’m going to do whatever I can to close the gap. Because he believes I will, I must.

After the shoot had wrapped, as we walked to the car, I finally had a chance to talk to Little Guy About what had happened.

“So what was going on there at the beginning?” I asked gently, his tiny hand clasped in mine.

“I was feeling uncomfortable and anxious,” replied my precious child. I told you he is articulate.

Full of pride for this tiny brave person, I shared with him how performing often causes me anxiety too and we discussed ways to cope and stay in control of our bodies. We walked silently for a bit while he seemed to ponder this with his eyes cast downward. Then he suddenly looked up to me, determined and said,

“I’m going to do better next time, Mom.”

A Dark Day

All I want to do is slump over head in hands and weep–deep mournful heaving sobs from the depths of my soul. A cold front rolled in last night, the sky is grey, and my heart is hurting.

Last night as I tucked her in, Little Sister informed me that she wanted to leave our family and go back to the last family because they gave her candy filled Easter eggs. It’s that simple for her. To pick up and go to another home for the purpose of acquiring meaningless objects–never mind the fact that said family asked for her removal after four months because they recognized early what took me longer to see. I felt like I’d been kicked in the teeth. I just got up and walked out.

It had already been a bad day. She announced proudly at school pick-up, that she “only” got two behavior marks today. She’s made zero progress behaviorally at school and is in no way bothered by this. She has even informed me that she likes upsetting her teacher. We had some errands to run which gave her opportunity to flirt with strangers, wiggling her fingers in a little wave under her chin, tilting her head to the side while grinning doe-eyed and everyone who passed by. It’s a behavior that makes my blood boil and sickens her siblings.

She’s ever ready for departure. She packs emergency bags. She lines up her belongings for quick access in a sudden move. She shops for caregivers everywhere she goes. She purposely annoys others for the thrill of seeing their distress. She fancies herself the center of the universe and is disruptive or sullen when others don’t share this view. She demonstrates no attachment to our family. Most of the time, I cope without taking it personally. I’m not doing that so well lately.

I’m up to my chin in academic and behavioral assessments as we work to find a system that will help her reach her full potential. We waited six weeks to get in with a specialist for FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder) evaluation only to have her wake with a fever on the morning of the appointment and have to reschedule. We now wait another six weeks. I’ve filled out a mountain of paperwork for school assessments and go in for a third round of meetings this week.

I recently attended a webinar on Attachment Disorder where I explained her history and asked the lecturer–an expert in the field whose name is escaping me at the moment–if it were realistic to expect my child to heal. His answer:

“No.”

At every turn I am informed there isn’t much hope for this child. We’ve already been “fired” by one therapist who said she wasn’t making any progress. We have another who is supportive of me, but offers a dismal prognosis. Add FASD to RAD and we’re looking a lifetime of management of a disconnected being whose behavior is often downright hurtful, and whose judgement, and moral compass are so skewed that they will certainly lead down dangerous paths. All the markers of a more successful outcome were missed. Early diagnosis and intervention are the key and even then the future is not bright. I am afraid. I am lost. I am hopeless. I am angry.

I’m angry at her birth mother who drank during pregnancy and failed to take parental responsibility. I am angry at the system that took her from her birth family only to toss her around from placement to placement for years systematically destroying her ability to form a normal human attachment. I am angry that despite the fact that an estimated 70 percent of kids who come into foster care are affected by Fetal Alcohol Exposure, there is no system for serving them–simply finding a knowledgeable practitioner is a battle and add the need to find one who accepts medicaid and you’ve got a full on war. I’m angry that it has been a never ending uphill climb. I’m angry that I can’t get any help. Although Post Adoption Services will help fund respite care, it is up to the family to find a caregiver and then ask said caregiver to submit to FBI criminal background checks. As you can imagine, people aren’t exactly lining up to help you when you treat them like criminals. I am angry that this effort to do good has done my family so much harm. I am angry with myself for not being stronger, kinder, better. I’m angry that I’m angry.

So I asked Little Sister this morning on the way to school as she chatted cheerfully with no awareness or concern that she had hurt me, “Since you don’t want to live with us, perhaps I should find a sitter for you when we go on vacation?” “I wouldn’t want you to be stuck in the car all that time with people you don’t want to be around.”

Her eyes grew wide, suddenly aware that she may have misplayed her hand and risked acquiring some “thing,” and she quickly responded, “Now I do want to live with you.”

My dark-haired duckling

Half-way through the little kids’ dentist appointment this morning, I was feeling pretty accomplished. Little Guy has a hypersensitive mouth and a gag reflex that approaches a super power. He can even puke on cue. Suffice it say, a regular check-up is borderline torture for him and he made it through without a single tear.

The dentist was patient and followed my lead, warning him about what was about to happen and praising his efforts. This dentist and I were going to be great friends and I began to envision a future together–me and the dentist each holding Little Guy’s hands as he hopped smiling into the chair and willingly opened wide. All was right with the world.

Then it happened. Little Sister took her brother’s place in the chair and the dentist made some comment, but through her thick accent I could only understand the words “her hair.” Still aglow with the warmth of my newfound partnership, I assumed she was complimenting Little Sister. Her hair is thick and glossy and people often comment on it’s beauty. I’m always happy to hear people tell me how beautiful my children are so I asked her to repeat herself.

“Her hair is so dark, how is she sister?” Asked my no longer friend pointing a finger back and forth between Little Sister and Little Guy.

I was caught completely off-guard and probably stared at her with my mouth hanging open. The assistant looked at me awkwardly apologetic, I mumbled something about adoption and my heart sank.

I mean seriously what the fuck? This scenario which has been happening more and more lately really bugs the crap out of me for so many different reasons. First of all you have to be a complete idiot to not figure this out on your own. I am white, my husband is white, our first four chidren and our sixth child are white, and are fifth child is a dark skinned raven haired Latina, how do you think this happened? Secondly, what kind of insensitive pig asks a question like that in front of a child, and finally it’s not your business and I don’t owe you any explanations. Oh there’s more, but I’ll stop to prevent this from becoming a maniacal rant.

We had a similar experience not long ago. We were celebrating a birthday at a local Japanese restaurant when the hibachi chef who’d been very entertaining up to this point suddenly asked Little Sister, “Why you look different?” Not quite satisfied that he’d thoroughly offended us he pointed his utensil one at a time at each the kids seated around the grill saying “See, blond hair, blond hair, blond hair, blond hair, you black hair.” Yes, really, I can’t make this shit up.

I’ve been teaching the kids sarcastic retorts alternating with shocked dismay–I’ve told them to gasp, look at each in horror and ask “What happened to your hair!?”–to the persistent informants at school who like to remind them that they don’t look like each other. I’ve considered adopting four more kids of various races so I can simply respond that all of my children have different fathers and I like variety in the bedroom.

Okay jokes aside, it pisses me off and it hurts her. She is reminded at every turn that she is different. A difference she is acutely and painfully aware of. The rest of us look ridiculously alike. Even Little Guy looks like we fished him straight out of our genetic pool. Unmoved by so many compliments on her glossy black hair, she has told me many times that she wants to dye it the same color as mine. She rejects and even destroys her darker skinned dolls and barbies while doting lovingly on her white ones. She is asked day after day by everyone from classmates to strangers to explain how her very existence can be.

My journey pales in comparison to hers, but I can begin to understand how painful this need others have to draw attention to her differences is. As a child I was very blonde, fair skinned, and freckled while my older brother and younger sister had brown hair and eyes and slightly darker complexions. I endured endless jokes about being the mailman’s child. As funny as these jokes were to the adults around, they were hurtful to me. So much so that it still stings to bring those memories to the surface. Like I said, a cakewalk in comparison.

For so long we were so caught up in managing the behavioral and cognitive differences that the physical differences didn’t even register on the radar…for us. We failed her. We won’t anymore. I’ve written to her teacher asking to help her develop an adoption awareness/sensitivity program that I can help administer to Little Sister’s class and hopefully beyond. I am writing letters to the owners of restaurant and dentist office, I’m preparing for the next occasion whenever it comes (and it will) so that I won’t be left with my mouth hanging open again.

A New Holiday Story

The tree is down, lying pathetically shedding tinsel at the curb waiting for a pick-up that I’m not sure is coming. I should probably look into that. The garland has been unstrung, the new possessions assimilated and properly placed, the lights hung Christmas 2012  finally tugged from the rooftop (don’t judge, we’ve had bigger fish to fry) and we’ve quietly returned to our not so normal existence.

The kids are in bed and will return to school in the morning. I  can finally heave a sigh of relief.

I went into the holiday season braced for disaster. Last year was Little Sister’s first Christmas home and it wasn’t exactly a time of holiday cheer. We had finalized her adoption just days before–an action that flung open a  hatch sucking her  into a dark abyss. I can’t say for sure why and there probably isn’t a simple explanation—perhaps the realization that this was the last stop and she could no longer get by on superficial interactions, the disappointment that we were not the fantasy family kids in need dream of–we don’t have a pool or a horse, eat ice cream for every meal, and grant her every wish–the fear that we would abandon her as everyone had done before, the integrated belief that she was not lovable and did not deserve nice things, or all of the above and so much more. But either the finalization itself or seeing her sister by birth who wept through the process awoke the trauma she’d been keeping sedated. Little Sister set out on a mission to push us far, far away beginning Christmas morning..

She complained about her gifts then  destroyed them one by one–painted nail polish all over the new baby’s face, dumped out all her new perfume, smeared make-up all over her bedding and the bathroom,slammed her new camera around the room and picked the plastic coating off, you get the picture. When she’d destroyed all her new possessions she turned to the old ones writing all over her furniture with a marker, breaking her blinds, and pulling the curtain rod out of the wall. In the coming months she cut up her sheets, smeared gum all over the floor, climbed the rails of her day bed and wildly rocked it slamming it into the wall while screaming and raging about what a terrible family we were, and on a few occasions physically attacked me, all the while batting her eyes, smiling sweetly at, and throwing her arms around strangers.  The screaming could last for hours, but only happened when Big Sister and I were home alone with her. She would stop immediately when Dad or one of the boys walked in. It was a bad, bad time that did not improve for 6 months.

With this being Little Guy’s first Christmas home, not knowing what trauma triggers were wrapped up along with those pretty packages for him or whether the demons that haunted Little Sister were  gone or simply sleeping waiting for the holiday wake-up call, I was ready for a repeat performance.

It didn’t happen.

We put up the tree and decorated and nobody lost their mind. Over the course of a month we amassed a mountain of gifts under the tree and everyone stayed calm. We hung the stockings and there wasn’t a single meltdown. Unable to find an exact match to our existing stockings, I had to settle for a similar stocking for Little Guy and tentatively told him ready for the tears. “That’s okay, Mom,” my sweet angel replied. “I like it.”

Throughout the month, we went to several holiday festivals and parties and visited Santa five times in five different locations with nary an uncooperative moment. Christmas morning came and went full of smiles, genuine appreciation, and lots of joy. It made me a nervous wreck. I was still waiting almost wishing for the explosion for fear the longer it took to happen the worse it would be.

It didn’t happen.

When all of our warm family activities failed to ignite the fuse, I was sure their time at day camp would. After all, Little Guy had been expelled from this very camp just six months earlier after he repeatedly attacked the staff. And Little Sister always copes with new situations with regression and oppositional behavior. Too many changes, too much unpredictability, too much sugar, too little sleep, too much of all that sets off traumatized kids would surely be the final push sending them over the edge. I dropped them off and  waited for the staff to call and demand I come retrieve my little darlings.

It didn’t happen.

Here’s what did.

New Year’s Day we took down the tree. The little ones watched silently as I removed the ornaments one by one and packed them up for next year. When I took the candy cane ornament that Little Guy had made from the tree, his lip began to quiver. “That’s mine!” he demanded in a tone that always precedes his loss of control. I knew I had about one second the figure out the root of the crisis and derail it or the express to Rageville was coming through.

We stopped what we were doing and explained we were just packing it away for next year and showed him all the ornaments that the older kids had made in years gone by that we got out year after year. The one that Firstborn had made in preschool and had a picture of him around Little Guy’s age and looking so very much like him did the trick. Breathing and heart rates returned to normal, but the trauma gates were open. As he continued to talk, the roots of his anxiety became clear.

He needed evidence of our shared journey. He needed to see the past connected to a future. He needed the physical proof that he belonged here and that wasn’t going to change.

He’s too young to fully understand what adoption means, but he knows that it’s the means by which he joined the family. He doesn’t remember his first Mother, but knows it wasn’t me. They don’t call it the primal wound for nothing. For all his inability to comprehend, he knows one thing. It hurts and he wishes it were different.

With words that at once filled me with joy and anguish, he told me,

“I wish I grew in your tummy and came out and was always here.”

I’m not so vain as to think it’s about my magnificence. He only wants what we all want. To belong. To be a part of we. To feel secure that we are one and will venture into the future together. Most of us get this security through biology and a shared past that begins without trauma. It begins in a warm embrace and grows by the second with loving touch, smiling eyes, nurturing, and shared joy. For us the story began very differently and I arrived five years late–after many sad chapters had already been written.

After hugs and assurances that we would get it back out next year, he agreed to let me pack away the candy cane ornament. The day went on and all of my fears continued to not happen. Instead, the beginning of a new story did.