Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Loss and Learning

My beloved 20 year-old kitty passed away this week. It was heartbreaking for me, and interesting for the three of us as a family. In the midst of my grief, I noted a few things that I thought I'd record here, to do with traumatized kids, grief and loss.

When T. was a young child, he lived in a chaotic home. He and his cousins had a kitten, and the kitten died while they were giving it a bath. The kids were very young at the time - probably ranging from 3 to 7 - and they were left unsupervised and told to bathe the kitten in the sink. He blames himself for what happened.

This is one of the first stories that T. told me about himself when we were getting to know each other. He told me more than once, which is very unusual for him. I understood in a visceral way that one does with a child that this story functions for him as evidence that he is "bad". I have always had the sense that this is his "origins" story, the original fall from grace that, in his mind, brought about his subsequent very bad luck.

Ironically, I met him at an event where we were volunteering to wash shelter dogs. I was struck by his extreme tenderness and careful attention to the animals. I realized only many months later when I heard the kitten story that he must have been terrified and traumatized, reminded of the kitten story and afraid that he'd drown the dogs. I recall that his hands were shaking.

When T move in with us he was, at first, very gentle and attentive to my cat. Over time, as he grew more comfortable, she began to annoy him and he let his annoyance show more freely, but he was still generally tender toward her. As she neared the end of her life, and I became more sensitive about her impending passing, he stopped grumbling about her mess and distraction. In the last days of her life, he build a little fort for her out of couch pillows, and monitored her heating pad to keep her as comfortable as possible. He did all of this quietly, with natural authority, when we were not in the room. His goal was to ease her suffering, not to impress us.

I rarely cry but I sobbed the night before she died. T. told me some time ago that he hates to see people cry and it makes him angry. I said, "Sometimes adults can cry in a way that feels out of control and its scary. And sometimes they can cry in a way that is meant to manipulate you. Maybe that's when you get angry. Otherwise, crying is just crying." He nodded.

It turns out he doesn't really mind when people cry. When he caught me crying he nodded in a forgiving way and gave me some hugs. Then he patted me on the head and said, "It's good to let it all out."

We sent him out of the house for the final hours while kitty passed away, because we felt that the atmosphere was too stressful for him. We talked about what would happen, and gave him permission to spend the day at a friend's house. He blew the cat a kiss, and headed out to do teen things. I think he was a little disoriented and upset when he came home and found her gone, but we didn't talk about it much. Her loss has a big impact on the general spirit of our home and it's a big change to absorb. But we all sat down to dinner.

I like to think that this was an opportunity for him to experience one of life's small catastrophes in the context of family, and gain some knowledge of how we help each other through tough times. I saw him learn another lesson, when he realized this week that I have feelings that are independent of him. We are so closely bonded now that sometimes he thinks he controls my feelings, or that all of my feelings are about him. It's hard to develop compassion until you understand and can respond to someone else's experience as separate from (but related to) your own. He did a good job with compassion this week, in his own child-like way.

I think it was also a healthy opportunity to experience what it's like to be in an "adult-led" household; we made the decision to let the kitty go without involving him, and took care of the arrangements quietly on our own. We told him exactly what was going to happen and when, so that he could be prepared, but we didn't ask him to do or feel anything in particular. We tried to show respect for his teen routine, even in the midst of our upset.

I know his experiences of loss have been devastating, traumatic and chaotic - in his young life, he's lost many close relationships, through circumstances he couldn't control. I like to think that this week, he got to witness grief and loss free of trauma and confusion. I like to think also that this experience is one more memory we share, one more private family matter than we will use as a touchstone and reference point in the story of us.

Friday, December 17, 2010


At our office Christmas party, an African American colleague unexpectedly asked me the question I dread: What made you decide to adopt an African American child?

It was uncomfortable in a number of ways, not least of which because she has never met my kid, and I never referenced his ethnicity, so it came out of the blue and it indicated to me that the composition of my family had been the topic of some discussion outside of my earshot. We had been chatting about the high cost of groceries and I had mentioned the vast quantity of juice that T consumes every week when she popped the question.

Of course it also made me blush because there really is no right answer to that question. The short answer is: Because we "clicked" and he felt we were the right parents for him. One could also explain (and I do believe I babbled on about it) that there simply are not enough willing parents to adopt older children who want a permanent family, so successful matches are often a bit idiosyncratic. In fact, T. attended adoption fairs and searched for an adoptive match for two years before we met. But that sounds apologetic - as if he would have been better off with an African American family but we were his only option. I don't think he feels that way and we don't either--like any family, we like to feel we are a match made in heaven, not a compromise wrought by a bureaucracy.

Of course there are complexities we can't begin to address adequately when this topic comes up. There is a painful history in Los Angeles regarding the way the child welfare bureaucracy demonstrated prejudice in removing African American children from families at various times. There are also strong feelings amongst some African American people that white parents may be unable to properly teach African American children about how to navigate racism and prejudice. And there are many people, white, Black and other, who question whether white parents can properly convey the richness of African American history to Black adopted children. All of that is fair.

My awareness of and sensitivity to that history caused me to babble on and on in a most awkward manner. I mentioned how, with a younger child, I would have worried about my ability to help him fully connect to the richness of African American identity, but given his age, what really happened is that he arrived with a very full and multi-dimensional Black identity of his own. He just assumes that we support that identity and even share it. We do talk about race and racism on a regular basis at our house. We are not naive as parents - when he was, for example, assumed entirely without cause to be illiterate by a white teacher this semester, we did not hesitate to call the school and ask them to address the obvious stereotyping going on in that classroom. And of course, we felt confident that, because of our own personal histories and relationships, our parenting would not be compromised by unconscious racism or stereotypes hiding in our own unconscious.

And yet, any attempt to explain that I think we're doing an okay job sounds a little...defensive.

I think next time, when someone asks me "why did you decide to adopt an African American child?" I might just say "because we loved him."

Monday, December 13, 2010

The No Good Awful Very Bad Week

Last week, we had an epic eruption of misbehavior. In fact, we three decided that it goes down in family history as the No Good Awful Very Bad Week.

Truly, we got it all, within the span of a few days: suspension, substance abuse, absent-without-leave, petty theft, personal insults, you name it. It was as if T. gathered every shred of mental health he has so carefully cultivated and ignited it all at once in a bonfire of self-destruction.

It also just happened (coincidence?) to be the one-year anniversary of the date he finally moved in with us (the date T. considers himself to have "left the system" as he puts it); the week prior to our adoption court hearing, and, of course, the midst of holiday season. In other words, a Bermuda Triangle of triggers.

Then, as suddenly as it arrived, it blew over. By Saturday, he was communicative and affectionate. By Sunday he was apologetic, warm, and engaging. We went to the Korean spa together, where T. insisted that he needed a salt scrub, to overcome dry skin. "I think it will help me relax and turn over a new leaf!" he said brightly. On Monday, he willingly and without struggle joined us for a meeting with a new counselor who specializes in substance abuse treatment for adolescents (thank God for community mental health clinic, and they will be receiving all my spare laundry change when I quit this life), and signed up to weekly meetings. On Tuesday, he brought home weeks worth of neglected school assignments and asked for help in getting caught up.

When we were preparing to be parents, I did a lot of reading about attachment disorder. But my experience with T. is that he has something that strikes me as the opposite - call it detachment crises. When we have to separate (because we have to go to work, he has to go to school, for example) things go amok. He is not able to regulate his own behavior, despite his intelligence and gentle nature. And when he gets overwhelmed, he doesn't go mildly amok, in the way that peer-influenced way of most teenagers. He goes dramatically erratically amok, like a toddler in a 6'4" body. As we were reflecting on the Awful No Good Very Bad Week, we all agreed that the worst part (and there were many) was that we came disconnected; once we were able to come back together and be close, even though we didn't have any answers, things started to improve.

He said, "I just want you to know, I wasn't having FUN when I was being so bad." I understood exactly what he meant: he often appears to be having a wild time and even smirks when he is in the midst of a meltdown, but it's not because he's enjoying himself. Early on, we learned that a certain smirk actually means he's in full on panic mode.

I find that being his parent requires constant simplification of priorities. There are really only a couple things we can offer. The first is that we can show him over and over again that no matter how difficult his behavior might be, we will not "give him back." I know this, and yet I constantly underestimate how significant it is to him, and how long it will take to confirm once and for all that this is for good.

Recently he said to me "In the system, I had to be good, or I'd get given away." That is his fundamental reality: show your true colors, and nobody will want you anymore, and you will lose your home, your friends, and everything that is familiar. That causes him tremendous stress (his word) and his inability to manage stress in turn causes him to come unglued and do things that, in the end, cause him (and us!) more stress.

We were taught in our parent training classes how to prepare for the grief kids like T. feel at being separated from their families. But I don't think we were prepared adequately for the elevated expectations he had about being adopted. As we were telling our history to our new counselor, I was struck by how proud he is that he is adopted. When he moved in a little over a year ago, we expected him to be bothered that we are white, grieved that we aren't his relatives, alienated by our unfamiliar habits. What I missed, at least in part, is that he was terrified; terrified that we would uncover the real him, or he wouldn't live up to our expectations, or he wouldn't be able to change to fit in. Perhaps unlike the majority of kids in foster care, T. never lived with a parent. Getting adopted was a very big deal for him, a goal he set for himself late in his childhood. That's great, but it also put tremendous stress on him: to be wanted by someone, to be good enough to be someone's precious child. He doesn't really understand that we fell in love with the real T.; we could see him in there all along. We loved him for his intelligence and his complexity and his delicious smell, not for being "good".

Every time we survive one of these episodes, we experience a great leap forward afterwards. He trusts us more, comes closer, and confides more. Tonight he curled up on the couch and leaned against me while we chatted and his whole face was alight.

And just in case someone who is going through a tough time with a complicated teenager reads this and feels like it all sounds easy: it wasn't, and I was not a very good parent at times last week. I lost my confidence, got angry and sad, and had absolutely no idea what to do. I lost my composure and even avoided him for a couple days. By the end of the week, all I could say was "I love you and I don't know what to do." By Monday, I could say "I love you and I don't know what to do but I found someone that I'd like to ask for help," and he trusted me enough to come along.

T. teaches me all the time how little I control and how flawed I am. I am humbled by my own shortcomings, and daunted by how little I can actually do for him. But I do know that when he sees us falter and get overwhelmed and angry, and then find ways to reconnect with him afterwards, he finally understands how much we love him. He sees that he is not the only one who is overcome sometimes, and that family isn't really so fragile after all.

Monday, December 6, 2010

To Be Real

Before we became parents to T., I didn't know it was possible to wake up fully convinced of one point of view, and go to bed fully convinced of the opposite. But that happens fairly often now. Just when we think T. is doing well, he falters. Just when we feel completely bewildered by his behavior, he gets it together. Just when we think we've grown accustomed to his extraordinary qualities, he blows our minds anew.

I am reminded lately of something we learned in our foster/adoptive parenting classes: "Parent the need, not the behavior."

Somehow I forgot that little bit of insight. The behavior can be dang distracting. Last week, we were dealing with broken curfews, marijuana use on school days, faltering (well, actually, failing) grades, angry teachers, and rude, surly, sneaky behavior at home. ("A lot of that is pretty normal for teens," my mom said, nonchalantly.)

The problem with parenting the need rather than the behavior in such situations is seeing the underlying need in the first place. By midweek I had no idea what was going on, and our family life had become a tangle of broken rules and half-dealt consequences. (It's very hard to follow through on consequences when they keep heaping upon each other! Did I take his phone for cussing at me, or for refusing to come home on time? Did he lose his x-box privileges for cutting class, or for refusing to show us his homework assignments? If I take his phone, how will I track him down when he refuses to come home on time?)

I think T. was more disgusted with his behavior than we were. One night midweek, he came to us to talk. He started with with a rambling, introspective description of his time in foster care. He described how in "the system" as he calls it, he felt he "had to be good" because "if you weren't good, you had to go." "I used to do better in school," he said. "But I think that was because I had to, or something bad would happen." We talked about 7-day notices and foster parents who called the social worker when you misbehaved and how hard it can be to trust adults when that's been your experience.

In our parenting classes, they often talked about how kids would "test" any adult who got close to them - pushing boundaries and buttons, perhaps convinced that nobody could truly love them. In our experience, this "testing" is extremely complex. In some sense, we "passed" the test. And yet, that isn't the end. T. isn't just testing us and our loyalty to him; he's testing himself, and the world. The fact that he can count on us raises a host of other questions he never had the luxury to consider. "What happens if I relax?" he seems to be wondering. "What happens if I'm not the good, responsible older brother anymore?" "What happens if I get angry?" "What happens if I refuse to do things I don't want to do?"

It took a full year of living with us (and that was preceded by six months of steady weekend visits) for him to gain enough trust to act out this much. And while he's indulging in bad behavior, he's simultaneously growing deeply attached. He snuggles and tickles, blows raspberries and naps in our bed. I often see him very much like a toddler with tantrums and faulty self-regulation skills, except that he's a toddler who can drive.

Last week, in the midst of a discussion about schoolwork, he said, "You think you know me?"
"Yes," I said. "I do. Ever since the day I met you, you have felt very familiar to me. You make sense to me." He nodded. "I guess you could say that we're similar," he said peacefully.

And therein lies the need, I think. Everyone needs to be precious and to make sense to someone. The utter loneliness of being "good" because otherwise you won't have a home anymore is subsiding in him. In its place, there's confusion, of course. And anger. But there is also authenticity, and the opportunity to love and accept love in return.
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