As we know, all adoptions come from loss. It’s a sad thought, but a truism nonetheless. Many adoptions also come from traumatic early years. And every one of those situations is heartbreaking! So when we hear of adoption dissolution (that is, a child is adopted, then the adoption is dissolved when it can’t be made to work) it’s easy for those of us already hurting for the child to jump on the judgment bandwagon. Some of us get angry! Most of us can’t understand how an adult could possibly give up on an already traumatized child. I asked a handful of questions of a group of mothers who have experienced adoption dissolution. This series will open our eyes (and hopefully our hearts) to the maternal view of this horrific reality.
THIS IS THE EXPERIENCE OF CARRIE
Why do you call yourself a “survivor” when it is the child who has been traumatized?
I didn’t realize parenting a traumatized child would be traumatizing for me and the rest of my family. We all ended up with PTSD, and didn’t really understand why. We weren’t the ones with the trauma. As I’ve continued to study trauma, what happens in the brain, [and] how we get stuck in fight or flight, I’ve learned that my personal trauma is just as real as my child’s.
I just returned from a weeklong training to be a certified crisis responder. During the training, I learned that repetitive trauma, especially trauma that happens in the home, is more likely to produce PTSD than a one incident trauma (such as a car accident, fire, rape, etc.). When your home isn’t safe, emotionally, physically, or psychologically, it is traumatic. I have recovered from my PTSD through therapy, prayer, medication, and lots of hard work. I continue to pray for my son to heal as well.
How could you possibly expect me to feel anything but anger for you when you gave back a child who really needed you?
I totally understand the anger. I knew someone who placed their adopted child with another family as well, and I was angry. Until it happened to me, I could not have understood. I got to the point where I realized my child’s trauma was triggering my own trauma (as well as everyone else in my home). We could not figure out how to calm it down. Everyone was very reactive. The anxiety was through the roof. We actually did not give our child back. A family we knew had him to their home for respite several weekends in a row. His anxiety was much less severe at their home. When he came back home, it would skyrocket. It felt like we watched our son move into a new family and it was horribly painful. We came to the realization that for him to heal, he needed to be away from us. He was 12 at the time he was adopted into his new home, and the social worker interviewing him asked where he wanted to live and why. He said he wanted to live with his new family because he felt a little less nervous there.
You’re an adult – how could a little kid be so hard to love, discipline, etc.? They’re just children, right?
Several friends asked me this very question. It was very painful, because I asked it of myself. He was just a child. I had never experienced a child who was so traumatized that he could not calm down. I could not reason with him. Month after month, we lived with chaos, manipulation, lying, non-stop chatter and noise, gas lighting, triangulation, and [him] pushing me away. Day after day. Year after year. The chaos happened 24/7. My body began shutting down. I couldn’t calm the anxiety. He could appear to be calm to the outsider, but for a mom who deals with it every day, I picked up all the cues. He looked charming, but I could see the manipulation. People thought I was crazy, and I began to question my own sanity. I couldn’t sleep for months at a time. There was no break, ever. Over time, I just couldn’t do it anymore.
Why didn’t you seek help sooner so that you could keep your family intact?
I sought help the moment we decided to adopt again. I had already adopted once, and learned as much as I could about trauma, adoption, special needs, etc. I saw an attachment specialist for six months before we brought our son home. I drove an hour each way, once a week for four years for therapy. The therapist came to our home for eight hours on two separate occasions. I tried several different counselors, and found myself explaining what Reactive Attachment Disorder to them. They would say, “Do they really do this?” “What do you mean by…?”
I work as a coach for moms like me now, and tell them if they are looking for a therapist, they need to find one who can finish their sentences, so they know they understand. We continued seeking counseling, sought help from psychiatrists, special education, vision therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, entered our son into a Day Psychiatric Treatment Program at The Children’s Hospital, sought respite, prayer, and anything else we could find.
Our combined belief is that some kids need more than one family to help them heal and get to adulthood.
Were you adopting for the wrong reasons, and that’s why it didn’t work? Were you seeking to gratify your own need to be loved, rather than to love and care for an innocent child?
I had an adopted Vietnamese brother. I always had a heart to adopt. We adopted our first child, and had a good experience. We had definite struggles due to his adoption and trauma, but nothing too difficult. We also have a biological daughter. We had our share of normal parenting struggles with her. Our youngest was adopted from a Vietnamese orphanage. We were drawn to this because of my brother. We parented for eight years. We didn’t just give up. We also didn’t abandon our son. We placed him with another loving family who could continue to process we began. They told us, “We never would have been able to do what you did the first eight years, but we can do the next eight years.” Our combined belief is that some kids need more than one family to help them heal and get to adulthood.
At what point did you realize that the situation was beyond anything you could do? Did it take a while to get to that understanding? How did you choose dissolution?
It took us eight years. I knew I was struggling and needed more help than we were receiving (along with the weekly therapy for my son, for me, for my marriage, as well as for my other children). I felt like my body was shutting down. I told my husband I thought he was going to end up being a single parent, because I thought I would eventually die.
Did your adoption dissolution make it impossible for you to trust or love another child? Did it cause you to give up on motherhood?
I still have an adopted son and a biological daughter! I am still a mother. I am still an adoptive mother. I also believe in my heart that I am still the mother to some extent to the child we relinquished. This story isn’t over yet. Our relinquished son contacted me a few times this year. Even wished me “Happy Mother’s Day.” I don’t know how our story will end, but I continue to pray for healing and redemption.
We assume you felt completely alone. How are you getting past that? Where do you go for help?
I absolutely felt alone. We lost our church, our small group, many family members, and lots of friends. It took a lot of hard work to heal. I saw a counselor who helped me through the bulk of it. I made new friends, and took some time away from judgmental people. I returned to school and got my graduate degree in counseling. I studied attachment and trauma, and began a more in-depth process of understanding what happened with our son, and what happened to me. Now I work with other families going through what we did, so they will not think they are crazy, and know they are not alone.
What if I’m in a situation similar to yours? What would you suggest I do differently than you did, and what worked for you?
I would suggest you get respite, and see a trauma therapist for your own PTSD. I would educate you on Reactive Attachment Disorder to help you understand the reason you feel crazy, is because you are living in a crazy situation. No normal human can live in that environment, and not begin to feel crazy. When you are not feeling traumatized, I would try to help you understand your child’s trauma, so you could begin to not take it so personally (even though it feels, and sometimes is, very personal). I would help you find resources, and remind you that the reason you’re struggling to think of options is because your brain is in fight or flight mode, and the thinking part of your brain is shut down.
You need to go through a grief process with someone who understands it.
If I experience adoption dissolution, how can I hope to love and trust again? How can I move forward with my life?
You can hope to love and trust again after you have fully grieved all that you have lost: motherhood, your child, your family, possibly your marriage, your friends and family, your hopes and dreams, and so many others. This is an ambiguous loss, and not fully understood. You need to go through a grief process with someone who understands it. Before you can begin to grieve, you need to heal from the trauma. If you can’t remember what happened, or you don’t want to feel it, you won’t be able to grieve. Trauma can prevent grief and keep you stuck in fear and anger. As you heal, your heart can become very compassionate and you can open it to love again. Work with someone who gets it, and can help you find new meaning in your life.
You can also read the next part in this series here.