Sunday, September 20, 2015
In light of the fact part one was shared nearly a thousand times in 48 hours I feel like I should take a moment and say that I am not a professional of any kind. I’m not a psychologist (though I did major in psychology for two years at community college ;) in the early 90s), not a doctor, and not a professional in any way. Please don’t substitute my experiences as an adoptive parent for real help from a professional when it comes to the stuff we will be discussing today.
This post was harder to write, or to even know how to approach. A lot of what I have to say plays in to the individual issues that these boys struggle with, and that seems so personal. On the other hand, it isn’t really, because so many of these things are universal. I am electing to focus on just the two most shocking things I experienced when they first came home. You will no doubt have different experiences, every child is an individual, but I share to help you expect the unexpected. I will also use initials to refer to my children, although many of you know my children, and it’s a little silly. I’m going to do it anyway.
In my last post, I said their behaviors in China vanished on American soil, and that is true. However, the root cause of those behaviors, pain and loss, didn’t. It came to wear a different mask, and in their lives I suspect there will be many dozens, if not hundreds, of times that these roots will rise up and try to strangle whatever they’re growing.
Last night, someone posted in the comments section of the IN CHINA post that no amount of Disneyland and soccer lessons would erase where they came from or what they’ve endured. This is so much truth. No amount of living, even a healthy, happy, life, will ever erase their past. The language of adoption is fear and loss. Even when they’ve ‘moved on’ there’s no pulling a Lady MacBeth and trying to wash that past away. You don’t want them to. The healthiest life for a person with a trauma past is to accept what they have been and love themselves, as they were and hopefully as they will be. Their growth to emotional health is their journey, not yours. You’re just here to help walk them through it when they need a hand. However, make no mistake that it will certainly impact your journey to hold their hands through theirs.
The thing I most wish I'd known of life at home before getting there would have been this. You may think you are adopting an older child, say a 6 and a 12 year old, but this is not exactly true. I felt, almost immediately, that I should have babyproofed the house. Though the boys came in 12 and 6 year old bodies, they were ridiculously naive, completely unaware of cause and effect, and almost totally without developed executive function. As babies, we learn these things early. You make a poor choice, bad things happen. Mom and dad are upset. We accidentally hurt ourselves. Our new toy is broken. Cause and effect creates a training system in our brains.
Orphanage living is a bizarre juxtaposition. Children are largely left alone, even at the best orphanages. This means they are part tiny adults, and part clueless babies. The most common babysitter in an institutional setting is routine. She’s a rigid nanny who tells our children when to get up, when to eat, what to do and where to go. That may keep them alive, but it doesn’t allow for the cause and effect brain training mentioned above. Orphanage life is a vacuum. It doesn’t allow for choices, good or bad. And no choices means no consequences.
If you get nothing else from this post today, please understand this. Your child hasn’t got a lick of sense. Just none. They don’t know a good choice from a bad one because they’ve never made any. Your bio toddler may know you shouldn’t touch an angry dog. Your adopted twelve year probably doesn’t get that. You are starting with a blank slate in this respect and your number one biggest tool is PATIENCE. You will need stores of it. Patience to remind yourself that an adopted 6 year old sticking a fork into a toaster isn’t a suicide attempt. It’s a kid who doesn’t know any better. Don’t punish them as though they know better, and don’t leave them alone, as though they have the capacity to make good choices, because they don’t.
Within three days of coming home, J and F had managed to actually do that, stick a fork in a plugged in toaster. They also managed to: Run in the house with a butcher knife that should have been too high to reach. Try to eat plastic fruit. Make multiple phone calls to neighbors, and a couple to 911. The list goes on and on. Try to imagine you are adopting a toddler, even if you’re not. Because in essence, emotionally, you are. We don’t have matches in our home and haven’t for fifteen years, since before our oldest was born. Yet, somehow, F kept getting matches from somewhere and he started multiple fires. I am absolutely convinced his reasons for doing this were not malicious. He was doing it because he could. Because it was exciting and different and after years of experiencing nothing, they wanted to experience everything. We finally discovered a stash of matches hidden among his things and a little research showed a family member had left them behind while staying at our house during the trip.
Age is literally just a number with these kids. Please do yourself a favor and do not expect a child who is anywhere on par with your bio children at the same age, your sister's kids, or even that other adopted orphan from down the street. Your child will be very delayed emotionally. Often, they will be delayed physically, cognitively, and most certainly in terms of education and formal learning. You can expect a twelve year old who may have more in common with your bio seven year old. Adopting an aging out child may mean you have a child who is in no way ready to spread their wings and fly at 18. Or 20. Or maybe even ever. You may have more luck with a toddler, because they have more time to make up for that deficit of real world brain building, but then again, you might not.
At the same time, you have a very old soul in a child’s body. They are naive, but scarred. They’re childish, but mature in negative ways. Many children from institutional settings have been exposed to abuse, physical, emotional, and, yes, sexual. Many of these older boys have carelessly exposed to porn, or indoctrinated by other older boys in the building. You may see a child who will clap delightedly at ducks and then display hypersexualized behavior ten minutes later. Even without abuse, they’ve been exposed to trauma most of us will never have to endure. Things that many adults would have no chance of surviving emotionally intact.
They first few months are HARD.
Not just because the boys were always into something. They were hard because the boys had no clue how to live in a family unit. They had no concept of give and take. No concept of sharing, because they’d never owned anything. They were hypervigilent and constantly overwhelmed. Nice events like small family parties led to total hysteria. The process of living outside of the orphanage fishbowl was absolutely alarming and completely foreign. Every day was hours of struggle from the moment they woke up until we fought them into bed. They were wildly overstimulated just by existing, but at the same time, they had no clue what to do to entertain themselves.
Both of them would return to orphanage standbys and pass the time by harassing our bio children or each other. Every child in the orphanage pecking order learns early on that they are either the bully or the bullied. Unless they are the favored one, the golden child. We were dismayed to discover that J was a bully and it was clearly engrained in his personality from long years of aggression. He harassed his sister closest in age until it bordered on torment. He bothered people just for fun, like poking a stick into an ant hill. If they got bored at all, they’d find someone to harass. F was the favored child, the one who lived a life of relative privilege as far as orphanages go, but even he would look for someone to bother if he got too bored. They couldn’t sit through a television show completely, in even in Chinese. They had ADHD simply from never having been exposed to anything.
The first three months were a daze of trauma. Ours, theirs, and that of our bombarded bio children. It’s more living in the trenches, like China, but with more creature comforts for you, not for them. Don’t expect to be able to do much of anything. Your house will be a mess. Your kids will be a mess. Most of all, your emotions will be a mess. It will probably be six months, maybe more, before you begin to emerge from the haze of dealing with the backlash of adoption.
I want to share the two most shocking things we dealt with early in our adoptions. One with J and one with F. You may experience something similar, or something different, but both were very alarming in living color, rather than on a page in training.
Because of the emotional vacuum he lived in, J had absolutely no ability to regulate his emotions. That was okay in the orphanage, because there were very few strong emotions. When he got to America, he discovered that this wasn’t at all what he expected. As an older child, he was required to sign a piece of paper, more than once actually, agreeing to be adopted. I am firmly convinced that, had he understood how hard he would grieve for his homeland, he would have said no. His grief was profound.
I don’t know how many days I cried for his pain. He ached for familiar sights and sounds, for familiar language, for foods and scents he knew. He grieved for his ‘brothers’, the seven boys he’d spent his first twelve years with. He was in agony. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen true agony up close before that, except when a friend lost her child years ago. He was in the depths of torment. We have many friends who speak Mandarin, so we tried to make sure he had someone to talk to. We gave him books, movies and shows in Mandarin. We played Chinese music for him.
I’m sure it helped, but it wasn’t enough. His pain was more than I knew what to do with, but, more to the point, it was far, far more than he knew what to do with. He couldn’t regulate even simple emotions. Acute agony was far beyond his abilities. He’d start by crying for his brothers, or just for China, for the orphanage and the life he missed. It would escalate, because he had no idea how to internalize and regulate what he was feeling.
Eventually, he would end up screaming in his bedroom until he was hoarse. No one could talk to him or approach him. And when I say screaming, I really mean it. Blood curdling, high pitched screaming, until he lost any voice at all. He threw things, rocked through the screaming, or, most alarmingly, hurt himself. Something I didn’t at all expect. He was screaming and rocking, and when that didn’t help, when throwing everything he could reach didn’t help, he’d start pinching and scratching himself. Gouging flesh from his arms or face. I don’t even think he realized he was doing it. It was just all so much more than he could deal with. He had to have some kind of outlet.
It was both scary and so, so devastatingly sad. This is the product of a child who has never learned how to feel, or what to do when they do feel. You may very well experience this in your child. This kind of behavior is not uncommon. Once again, these kids are blank slates in dealing with life outside the orphanage. They have to be taught how to deal with their emotions. Most of us learn that from an early age. These kids have not.
F was a different experience. He comes from a history of significant trauma. Truly terrible things have come his way in his few short years. He’s been through things that would absolutely DESTROY the majority of us. He’s still kicking because he’s a fighter. A hard core, knock down, drag out, butt kicker, take no prisoners, fighter. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have been alive by the time we got to him.
However, that insatiable will to survive comes with its own set of issues. F never stops fighting. Not in his sleep, not playing a game. Not ever. He no longer even knows how to turn off his fight. When we were in China, we put him in a grocery cart and he freaked. Panicked clawing desire to get out. Of course, we laughed because who’s afraid of a shopping cart. In our heads, it was just a silly detail we see in our kids sometimes. We had literally no idea that it was a component of something so much larger that was about to own our lives for months, maybe forever, to be honest.
Once we were home, F was a relatively mellow kid, UNLESS we tried to force him to do anything. We had to be somewhere and I pulled a shirt over his head because he refused to get dressed. He went berserk. He screamed, he scratched me, he tried to bite me. To be honest, I just thought he was being a brat. F, like many children from a post-institutional background, glories in battles. He wants to fight often. Refusing to get dressed, refusing to eat, or refusing to go are not uncommon. These kids will make power grabs, wherever and whenever they can. This was excessive, however.
Fast forward to two weeks home. F has a chronic, and very dangerous if untreated, genetic disorder that left him physically very fragile and really tore up. He started to show signs of a physical decline, and it wasn’t unexpected. We knew he was going to end up in the hospital eventually, and we were glad for the two weeks we’d had to bond before he became symptomatic.
I already had everything set up with the specialist that deals with his special need and we headed off to the hospital, with literally no clue what was about to happen. Even if I had read about it, even if I heard someone talk about, possibly even if I had seen it myself in another child, nothing at all could have prepared me for what was about to happen. We sat in the room and F was a little suspicious. He didn’t like being there, and he had a bit of an attitude, but that’s not unusual with him.
Then it was time for a blood draw. The F we knew, funny, charming, energetic, fun loving F, was gone. In his place was a completely hysterical child. It took, literally this is not a joke, eight nurses to hold him down to get his blood draw. I’d like to remind you this is an incredibly sick child who is nothing but skin and bones and wilted away from years of sub-par treatment of a fatal disease in a foreign country. He fought like an animal.
The nurses wanted to restrain him in something like a straight jacket, which I wouldn’t allow, because I knew something was wrong. No child acts like that for no reason. This was way beyond fear. The examination and blood test wasn’t good news, so he was admitted. Thus began a nightmare for all of us that I can’t even begin to explain. I will try, but my words have no meaning next to the reality.
F fought constantly. He screamed like he was literally being murdered when he was put in a wheelchair or the metal hospital bed. I remembered the shopping basket. He physical fought anyone who tried to touch him. He bit, kicked, punched, scratched and head butted every doctor or nurse that approached him. He tore off his own clothes and ran the second he could get away. He tore things off the walls, off tables, off the carts. He pulled IVs and monitors out of own body. Multiple times. He had to be reaccessed I don’t know how many times. He broke everything he could.
A note advising caution was placed on his hospital room door like he was a wild animal. Pregnant and elderly staff were advised away from his room. He wouldn’t sleep. Ever. He didn’t sleep for three days. He refused to get in the bed. Neither would he eat or drink. If he accidentally fell asleep in his chair, he would wake up screaming in terror.
I still wouldn’t allow him to be restrained. By this point, it was easy to guess that he’d been restrained before in a medical situation, and I didn’t want that again. (Now that he can speak English well, he’s told us stories that would make you sweat, but at the time he was two weeks home and it was all guessing for us.) Because I wouldn’t allow him to be restrained, I was the one who had to hold him still for all of these procedures. Every night, after the first few days, I held him in the bed because the staff would not allow him to be anywhere but the bed at night, crying silently beside him while he screamed himself to sleep. He took his terror out on me because I was the one holding him. I had, literally, black eyes, arms torn to shreds from his nails, bite marks up and down my arms, bruises and scratches on every exposed area of skin.
There’s no explaining the pain that comes from knowing your child is in that kind of terror. Pain and terror that are bigger than anything you could ever begin to touch with all the love and security in the world. The only cure for hysteria like that is lots of time, lots of therapy, and maybe lots of medication. He was in agony and so was I. It was the worst two weeks of my life in that hospital. Of course, two days in, the hospital’s child psychologist came to see us and eventually gave us the diagnosis of severe, acute, medical PTSD. It wasn’t a shock.
The psychologist later admitted he’d come expecting F to be psychotic, given the description the staff had sent him. Fear like that isn’t something we can love out of our kids. Sometimes they are so far beyond anything we can do to help them, that all we can do is love them and hang on for the very bumpy ride. After day three, after dozens of attempts at using smaller forms of anti-anxiety drugs, F spent much of his time getting IV Ativan, a powerful drug that killed his urge to fight, but left him almost catatonic. When it wore off he’d be hysterical again, and in the end it probably didn’t help, but there’s no winning in a situation like that, and he needed medical care.
Your child will likely not have exactly the same issues after getting home, but know they will have something. There’s no escaping a life of trauma without some kind of scars, and you will not escape their trauma either without bearing a lifetime of scars. Their pain is now yours, and that’s what you sign up for when you bring a child with a scarred past into your home and heart.
As months go on and we begin to move into years, F is the one who still struggles the most. J has settled in. He’s learned to control his emotions, he’s learned he doesn’t always have to fight with his siblings. He’s learned resources don’t just disappear because he didn’t fight hard enough to get them. F still struggles. Every day. Petty power struggles are the air he breathes. He has behaviors, lying, stealing, fighting, that will haunt him when he is older if we can’t help him to control them. J is the older child. The one we feared might never be able to function without issues. He’s much more stable already. He’s a good kid. A solid kid. He loves America now, and he loves having a family. F is much younger. Half J’s age at adoption.
Like so many people we believed he’d be easier to parent because he was younger. This was not true. Younger doesn’t mean easier, because you never know what they’ve been through or how they’ve internalized those events. F has considerable trauma in his past. J was abandoned as an infant. There’s loss inherent in any adoption, but he doesn’t remember. He was raised in a small orphanage with good friends. His memories aren’t always lovely, but they aren’t deeply scarring. F was abandoned by a trusted family member, who said he would be back, at the age of around four. He remembers many details of his birth family, and EVERY detail of being left at the hospital. He had a tremendous background of other horrible events to bog him down.
I hope he will make it past those things, but maybe he won’t. Maybe he never will. Age will not protect your child from trauma behaviors. Don’t adopt a two year old thinking it will. And don’t make the mistake I did and assume that just because a child is 6, he will be less scarred than one who is 12.
So here’s my advice in a nut shell, learned the hard way.
Be kind. To your child and yourself. View these first months as the months with a new baby. It’s VERY like that. More than you will ever guess before experiencing it. Don’t leave your kids unattended. Don’t lose patience with them, just because they ‘should know better.’ They don’t know better. They don’t know anything.
Try to consider these kids as a shell empty of knowledge and real life training, but filled with memories, some good, most bad. Your job is to filter all these things through until theres a balance that works for them. I figure if someday either of my boys can have some kind of healthy, meaningful, relationship with someone at all, we’ve done our jobs to the best of our ability.
Hang in there. Once again, be kind. You have months, probably years, of hard work in front of you. It doesn’t have to happen tomorrow. And no matter how hard you try, it won’t. Adoption is long process. A life long process. Stay the course and good luck!