Saturday, July 26, 2014

Birthdays and Progress

Yesterday was Joe's birthday. It also marked one week since we returned from Georgia with our boys after they spent a month with their grandma and we spent a month recovering from the trauma and chaos of the past year, reading up on attachment disorders and therapeutic parenting methods, and preparing to "begin again".

The reunion in Georgia was actually pretty sweet. I was bracing for strange behaviors, hiding, avoiding, etc, but instead we were greeted with big hugs, real, genuine ones, even from Joe. A few days later he was dropping to the ground when I tried to hug him, but the first couple of days we were together he was so hungry for our love and affection, and I think truly missed us enough, that he let us love on him.

It was a good reminder that deep down inside this really is what he wants.

Over the last week we have seen many of his old behaviors start to reappear, especially the minor ones, like excessive talking, nonsense questions, arguing, resisting physical affection and eye contact, disrespect, manipulation, and stupid lying (lying about something obvious). But we are dealing with all of this differently than we did before (at least trying our best!) and adding in some new tricks from our studies, and it seems to be making a difference.

Perhaps we are simply just in the honeymoon phase and the crap is about to hit the fan any day, but it really does seem like he is responding to what we are doing and getting better.

Joe's birthday was a pretty big milestone in the getting better category. Last year, his birthday, just two weeks after the adoption, was one of the first major indicators that something was not right. He seemed completely unable to enjoy himself. We were so excited to celebrate him and did everything we could to make him feel special...a special birthday breakfast (pancakes in a 10!), decorations, tons of presents, and a fun day planned out. But to our dismay, it seemed like no matter what we did he was upset, wanting something else, wanting something different.

We had always known him to be obsessive and impulsive, but we had never seen it quite like this. The only thing he wanted to do was go to shops and spend the birthday money burning a hole in his pocket. We had other things planned that we thought he would enjoy, but we finally gave in, desperate to make this kid happy on his birthday. Still, he wouldn't decide what he wanted to buy, and he just wanted to keep shopping. All day, he was never, ever satisfied. He argued, he whined and complained.

He cried so. many. times.

We were shocked and appalled at his behavior. We got angry with him, we scolded him, we tried to reason with him. Looking back, I feel terrible. Now that we understand what was happening and how his brain works, the whole thing makes a lot more sense.

First of all, it was his first birthday with us, and birthdays are a trigger for lots of kids like Joe. The boys came to us in August of 2012, just after Joseph's 9th birthday, which he spent in a shelter. His CASA volunteer (amazing woman that she is) and her niece came to visit and brought him his only present that year. Not a word or a gift from bio mom who was still in the picture, not to mention the foster parents who had promised to adopt him and his brothers and changed their minds.

Of course, we knew all of this when his first birthday with us came around, but it seemed like a kid who had gone through all of that would be so happy to have a family now, to be celebrated by his family, lavished with gifts, and taken out to do fun things! We thought he was going to be thrilled! We expected him to be giddy with excitement and full of smiles to finally have the kind of birthday he deserved to have all along!

But Joseph was too full of bad memories and fears of being disappointed and hurt again, so much so, that he couldn't open himself up to just enjoy the day and the love that was being lavished on him. He didn't trust us. Everything was a surprise or a new place he had never been, and he didn't know what to expect, so he felt the need to regain control. He was functioning in survival mode.

And thus he continued, throughout his tenth year of life, grasping for control and pushing us away, a little more each day, until we all found ourselves in a very tired, angry, hopeless place.

(Big sigh…)

BUT, this year…after a week and a half back together, tons of effort to reestablish trust and respect with careful love and nurture and a much better understanding of his needs and how to respond to his behaviors, Joseph truly had a happy birthday.

Don't get me wrong, it was not a perfect day, not even a great one, but compared to the year before, it was amazing. The birthday trigger was still there and emotions were on edge, but this year he knew much more of what to expect. We continued our birthday tradition of a special birthday breakfast. He was excited and smiling when he opened his door to balloons and came downstairs to see presents on the table. He loved helping his dad make pancakes. He was super thrilled about his gifts, especially the remote-controlled fork lift he requested.

Unfortunately, he couldn't find his tiny screwdriver set, or any appropriate tools for that matter (as he has managed to lose or break most of the tools in the Chapman household), so we couldn't put in the batteries (believe me, we tried!). There were some tears, but we got through it, shifting his attention to the upcoming trip to Petco to pick out a new aquarium for his tadpole.

We had told him about this a few days before, so he was already expecting and looking forward to it (Parent win! We are learning!). There was a little redirection needed at the pet store, but he took it well and kept a pretty good attitude. We got the aquarium and picked up a new screwdriver set on the way home.

To make a long story not quite as long, the fork lift ended up not working. As you can imagine, there were more tears. (Total parent fail! I will never again give a battery-operated item for a gift without putting it together first and making sure it works!) But again, we got through it. We got the aquarium going and he loved it. He played video games all afternoon. I let him decide what we would do for dinner and he asked if we could get Taco Bell and go to the lake. This is what we did for dinner on my birthday back in October. I love the lake. When he made this request, it felt like he was my kid.

He had a blast trying to fish for turtles, and then we went home and had a movie night complete with snacks he chose from Walgreens and his choice from what was On Demand. It wasn't anything extravagant. It wasn't perfect. There were true disappointments. But he smiled a lot, even at me. I felt like we succeeded in making him happy and that is a really big deal. We were in control, enough for him to feel safe, but also gave him enough control that he didn't feel the need to fight for it. We were attentive to his emotions and able to comfort and redirect rather than scold. And instead of feeling afraid, I think he truly felt loved.

Maybe 11 is going to be a good year for us.
They say things get much less hopeful for kids with RAD at 12, so it needs to be.

I believe the prayers of many, many friends, family members, and hopeful supporters have had much to do with the success of these first couple of weeks, and we are so very thankful.

Please keep praying.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Time to Begin Again

We just celebrated the one year anniversary of our adoption ceremony, when we gathered with family and friends before God to make sacred what was made legal the day before, a great celebration, a beautiful new beginning for our family.

It really was a great day. But it hasn't been the best of years.

Have you ever had a day when you woke up feeling awesome, the sun was shining, birds were singing, you had bright hopes and big dreams and all was well with the world…and then you stubbed your toe, and spilled your coffee, and then you were late for work, and then you got a terrible phone call with really bad news, and a bill in the mail you didn’t expect, and then you got food poisoning and spent the whole night hugging the toilet?

This last year was kind of like that.

Granted, there were some wonderful, beautiful things about this year. Our younger son, Michael has made some incredible changes. His behavior drastically improved, he had an amazing school year, and he is truly a delight most of the time. Adoption, belonging, being part of a real family, being loved and nurtured, cared for and protected, all of this has made a huge difference in his life for the better.

Our older son, Joseph, has had a different experience. Despite his eagerness to be adopted, once it happened, everything seemed to fall apart for him. He started spiraling…awful behavior, terrible attitude, rejecting our love and grasping for control, and he basically took both of his parents down with him.

We tried every kind of discipline technique and parenting method we could find. Our therapists said we were doing everything right and it was just up to him to decide to change…or not. People gave us their advice about what they thought he needed and we tried a lot of it, but he just kept getting worse…running away, cussing at us, completely defiant, manipulative, triangulating, making suicide threats, lying, stealing, the list goes on and on.

Even with all of that awfulness, I think the hardest part has been the inability to make him happy. Nothing I do for him makes him smile. He is not enjoying any of his childhood, even when we are doing things that should be fun. He is miserable and angry and sad and we feel like prisoners in our own home.

A friend of the family, our boys’ CASA volunteer, recommended we read a book by Nancy Thomas called “When Love is Not Enough”. As I read the introduction I took in each paragraph like a gasp of fresh air after months of holding my breath.  It was the first time I felt like anyone had any idea what we were going through.

The book describes a disorder called Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Basically, children who experience abuse, neglect, or disruptions in care during their first three years of life, who were not nurtured and cared for adequately as infants and never properly attached to their mother (or anyone else), miss out on an essential part of human development. They are kind of stuck functioning in the emotional/survival part of their brain. They do not know how to give or receive love, only how to manipulate in order to survive. They do not trust. They seek to control. This is the only way they feel safe. We think this is what is going on with Joe.

Super sad. Heartbreaking. Absolutely awful. Yes, I know.

And the worst part about it is that once these dear children finally have a family to accept and love them, care for them and keep them safe…they reject it. They literally fight against being loved, to the point of abuse. The abused becomes the abuser. And his abusive behavior makes him hurt even worse.

John and I are in an abusive relationship with our son. It is mostly emotional, and verbal, but it is abuse nevertheless, and it is deeply painful. It wasn’t until recently, as we began reading about RAD, that we were able to recognize it as such. Before, it just seemed like really bad behavior. We knew it was sucking the life out of us, but we had no idea what to do.

“When Love is Not Enough” offers a method of therapeutic parenting to help children heal from attachment disorders (and also addresses issues like Oppositional Defiant Disorder and ADD). The basic theory is that in order to attach to us, in order to heal, Joseph needs to be nurtured and loved in the way that he should have been nurtured and loved in his first three years of life. He needs to be looked lovingly in the eyes (even though he only makes eye contact when he is angry). He needs to be cuddled and hugged (even though he resists). He needs to be cared for as if he is helpless to get his own food or drink or make decisions about what he will eat or when he gets a snack, so that he can learn to trust. He needs to be supervised like a toddler, who doesn’t understand how to use things correctly, how to be responsible or take care of things, or that his actions might harm himself or others.

If a toddler hits you in the face, you look at them with loving eyes and say, “It’s not okay to hit mommy” and then go on sweetly playing with them or caring for them without any anger or resentment. This is what we need to do when our 11 year yells, “F*$% you!”

We are supposed to use humor, to stay positive and kind in the face of abuse, to be strong and patient and help him learn to respect and to trust.  

It's not going to be easy, but we are going to try it. We are going to begin again.

We found a therapist who specializes in attachment therapy and met with her for the first time tonight. She said she doesn’t take many cases like ours because they are usually pretty difficult, but she decided to take ours. (Thanks be to God!)

Tomorrow (I guess it's today at this hour) we drive to Georgia to get the boys after a month long break that was absolutely necessary for our sanity and survival. (We are so very grateful for grandmas and cousin camp!) When we return home, I will begin a 12 week leave from my full responsibilities at the church to focus on beginning this method of therapeutic parenting and helping our son to heal.

Please keep us in your prayers!

It’s not going to be easy, but I have rested and read and prepared. I have put away my anger and frustration and found compassion again for this son who is so very broken. I am determined to give it my all, and I am depending on God to take, break, and multiply what little I have to offer.

I am hopeful, very hopeful. I am ready to begin again.