Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why Be Happy

Recently, on vacation, I read "Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?", a memoir by Jeannette Winterson that a colleague, who is also an adoptive mom, recommended. "I should warn you, it takes a dim view of adoption, though," she said. "It makes it seem like a really terrible thing."

That's not how I read the book at all. It's a frank account of a traumatic childhood, beginning with being given up for adoption at six weeks old, and then adopted by a troubled couple, including a mother with a fixation on the Apocalypse. I read it as I think it was intended, as a non-linear, insightful memoir about an adult who survived and was formed by an extraordinary, stark, distorted childhood and went on to become an accomplished artist and a fragile, resilient adult. I was not tempted to draw any comparisons between myself and Winterson's mother, or to ponder whether T's adoption was or was not a "good thing", as my colleague had been. (As I often write here, parenting T has taught me not to worry about whether things are "good" or "bad". We have only the choices we have, when we have them.)

The starkness of T's pain, beginning with being abandoned by his birth mom, doesn't have anything to do with me and I never imagined that adoption at the age of fifteen would take that pain away. Winterson writes well about the feral, volatile, enraged, suppressed self that lives inside an abandoned child, developing in parallel with, and often sabotaging, the developing adult self. That perfectly suited my experience of T, and my sense of the demons with whom he's wrestling these days.

I often have the sense now that he is experiencing an unavoidable crisis, one that awaits anyone who has to work so hard just to survive (in the most literal and extreme terms) their childhood. The other day, T wrote (on Twitter, for all the world to see) "I wish I could just go back a couple of years" and I asked Tim what he thought that meant. "He doesn't want to be grown up and responsible for himself," he said. I think that's true, though I'd add slightly more nuance. I think he's not ready for his childhood to be over. It doesn't feel "done" for him yet. I can imagine that a soldier might not feel prepared for the end of war in the same way. He's not ready to look back and remember what happened - it would be easier to keep fighting than to reflect on everything that's been lost. Also, I think sometimes that he feels that it's easier to continue to live as a soldier (someone "in the system", as foster children are) than to join the civilian masses, where conventions of friendship and family that he doesn't understand are the norm.

Winterson describes a moment in her adulthood when, confronted by some bit of information related to her adoption, she found herself reduced to an infantile state, most unexpectedly and dramatically. It comes on her like a physical illness. T has that vulnerability as well. It's not the same thing as the sort of fissures and flaws that mark most personalities. It's more elemental and all-consuming than that. A shock or an extreme disappointment can reduce him to a pre-verbal, infant state, and it always strikes me at those times that babies are very wild things. They just happen to be small - when a person isn't small anymore, and they are still subject to the overwhelming sensations of need and want and frustration of infancy, they can be scary, even to themselves. I worry most that his youthful romances will trigger the howling agony of his early childhood abandonment. There's nothing I can do about it. They either will, or they won't. Most likely, they will, particularly because he is drawn to young women who help him reenact the drama of abandonment and rejection. I hope he'll survive and achieve some wisdom and comfort. At one point in the book, Winterson writes about how she not only had to learn to love, she had to learn "not to punch love in the face" when she saw it. I laughed out loud with recognition. I think in that sense, I might have had my love for T punched in the face by him quite a few times. I can take it, and I "get it". But I hope that as she did, he learns how to invite love in and not fight it some day.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Looking for Yes

In T's first year with us, we were puzzled by the difficulty of getting him to school. More specifically, being first-time parents, we were puzzled by the fact that he would set off, apparently calm and prepared for the day ahead, only to diverge from his path somewhere en route. I remember talking to my mom (he was a sophomore in high school), and her saying "Well, it's kind of like he's three years old, and you wouldn't put a three-year-old on the bus alone in the morning and expect him to arrive at school without a mishap."

That struck me then and now as exactly true. Intellectually, T has always been his chronological age or well beyond. But like other traumatized kids, his development stalled or circled back on itself at critical junctures.

And why wouldn't one put a three year-old on the bus to school alone? For one thing, of course, they would be physically vulnerable, which T is not. But you also wouldn't do it because they would be too easily distracted, readily exploited by others, incapable of independent judgement, and prone to wander off on some escapade of self-gratification and self-endangerment. Which is pretty much how one might have described the daily risks that pertained to T being out and about in the world.

Upon reflection, it strikes me that he has not yet learned to accept "no" as an answer. He won't accept it from himself and he won't accept it from others. "No", in almost any form, often makes him very angry, sometimes vindictive. With us, in good times, it made him confused. We once had a stunning conversation; he came to me puzzled, after some disciplinary discussion, and said this: "Having parents is hard for me, cuz I used to not care what anyone said, but now I do care what you guys think! That makes me feel controlled and that feels weird!" Wow. Yeah. He was doing okay with that struggle until his substance abuse worsened, and then it was as if he decided to hell with the discomfort of attachment and self-governance, and sank into a craven cycle of pursuing short-term sensations.

I watch my young nephew, and the toddler-aged children of friends. I see those little kids asserting their willpower, trying to get a "yes" - whether by charm, willpower, or force - to whatever they want in the moment. And I see their parents giving them calm redirection, and "no"s, for their own good. Not only did T not attach to anyone in early childhood enough to accept their discipline; he also received very confusing attention from adults. He was in an extremely abusive environment, so much so that to this day, he still had very noticeable physical scars on most parts of his body, including his head. Over the last few years, I've come to understand a little better the wounds that abuse inflicted on the inside.

Whereas one might think that an abused child hears "no" all the time, that is not necessarily the case. I think he rarely heard "no" in any sensible way. Rather, it seems like he rode the rollercoaster of extreme ups and downs of the adults around him, hanging on by his fingernails. In our foster parent training classes, we learned how a human being develops along a timeline that begins with intense dependency and therefore attachment, and that such attachment is vital in many ways. Beyond mere survival, attachment builds the basis of trust and dependence on which a parent can later construct discipline. Those raging toddlers of my friends hate hearing "no" and yet, they love and need their mom or dad, and so they begin to accept limits and, eventually, to set those limits themselves. A kid abused as T was lacks that vital attachment and trust, and therefore lacks the opportunity to move beyond a cycle of craving and self-gratification. It strikes me as a most pernicious form of neglect, to fail to teach a child how to delay gratification and accept appropriate "no"s. Abuse is not discipline, and is, in many ways, its opposite.

All of that is extremely fertile soil for the type of compulsions he has now as a young man. This is part of why I feel resolved that we have to hold strong to the loving "no" we've given him. He is raging against it, pulling out all the stops to try to persuade himself that he can continue to have what he wants, and that anyone who tells him "no" must not love him. That is, of course, the cycle of addiction. He's now beginning to hear a firm "no" from the handful of other people in his life who truly love him, people that he thought he could fool in order to continue to get what he wants.

Observing his struggle from a distance is like watching someone in a fun house full of mirrors trying to steady himself while surrounded by distorted reflections. He keeps looking for "yes", mistaking it for love, or at least love's cheap substitute, while all around him a chorus of voices of people who love him is getting louder, telling him the opposite.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

"It Didn't Work"

One thing that saddens me a bit as we adjust to T being out of the house is the degree to which Tim and I refrain from telling friends and family the truth, almost unconsciously. Our reticence stems not from grief or lack of anything to say, but rather from the simple fact that most people we know don't understand our choice to be this type of parent in the first place and so, over time, we've grown tired of being misunderstood, or of lengthy explanations and awkward silence. (I have mostly found resonance and true empathy from the readers of this blog.)

This sense of alienation started well before we were T's parents, as soon as we announced our intention to be foster/adoptive parents to an older child. Everyone had a story. One acquaintance felt compelled to tell me about her neighbors who adopted a child who later got arrested. My mom told me quite a few times about the woman at church who decided to fill a void in her life by foster parenting a teenage girl who eventually brought her to her knees with her habit of running away and dating much older men. A longtime client told me a long, rambling story about a friend-of-a-friend who grew up with a foster/adoptive brother who later left home and never talked to the family again. The stories all had a pernicious similarity; the enduring theme was "it didn't work out."

Somewhere deep in our culture, we want to hold fast to the belief that hurt children just need love and opportunity, and that, given enough of both, they will be magically happy and resolved, even grateful. When a traumatized young adult finds a stable home, but then continues to struggle, we say that "it didn't work out".

Such stories are warnings. Warnings about children who are too wild, damaged, angry or remote for parents to "make a difference." Such warning stories make it hard to be honest when things are rough. I have grown wise and cynical enough to know that in casual company, answering a question about T's whereabouts and well-being is more likely to lead to a polite expression of pity and regret than genuine friendly compassion. And so we simply sidestep the subject, in order to avoid the great implied "I told you so".

(Occasionally we encounter another type of response: overblown admiration, as in "it's so amazing what you've done for him." This response strikes me as the flip side of the same coin described above, because the implication is that we have somehow been radically charitable, rather than simply parental.)

I'd like to think that I am being paranoid and cynical, and leave it at that. However, the other foster/adoptive parents of older children that I know have all acknowledged a sense of isolation similar to what I'm describing here. I have thought long and hard for the last few years about these dynamics. I understand that the thought of thousands of children who cannot return to their parents and are caught up in a dehumanizing child welfare system is very uncomfortable. It disturbs one's sense of justice. Stories about well-intentioned foster parents for whom "it didn't work out" serve as a justification for remaining distant or disengaged from the problem.

I also think that we understandably resist accepting that some of the wounds of child abuse can be psychically disfiguring.  There may be no ready "fix" for such pain. Depending on your own relationship to suffering, that can be hard to accept. I think as a culture, we often believe that therapy and a change of scene should be enough. As a result, we shy away from children like T who are like dazed war veterans.

I wonder if discomfort with mixed race families also plays a role. I have heard so many times, from colleagues and acquaintances, variations on the "I know someone who knows someone who adopted an African American child, and...." What follows is a variation on the "it didn't work" theme described above. The implication, sometimes explicitly stated, is that "it didn't work" because the child was of a different race than the parents. I find that to be a superficial and uninformed explanation, usually given by someone who knows little about the complexities of older child foster/adoption, is uncomfortable with biracial families, or both.

Here is what I have to say to all of this: it is unfair. It is unfair to the kids, who are not a problem to be "fixed".  If our kids crawl out the window at night, struggle with impulse control, bury their feelings and memories in drugs and chaos, that is an expression of the overwhelming despair they are feeling. They can't just STOP because someone loves them, or because they live in a nice home, or because they have adoptive parents who look like them. Nevertheless, they are more than the sum of their behavior. Our job isn't to control them or stop the madness; it's just to be there and be clear-eyed and calm, and bear honest witness to their experience. And of course, to love them.

And I really wanted to write this, because I hope someone who is thinking about being a foster/adoptive parent of an older child will read this and realize that all the warning stories they are hearing and all the skepticism they encounter from friends and family just might be misplaced. You could easily read this blog and take my story as yet another warning story about a foster/adoption that "didn't work out". But I want to make sure it's recorded here that I don't feel that way - at all. If you can read my blog and understand why I feel otherwise, and why I would do it all over again, then I hope I'll be a helpful counterpoint to all the warning stories and perhaps you'll consider being a foster/adoptive parent yourself.

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