There’s this song originally from the 70s by a band called Nazareth that Cher covered in the 90s. It goes like this:
“Love hurts, love scars / Love wounds and marks / Any heart / Not tough or strong enough / To take a lot of pain, take a lot of pain. / Love is like a cloud / Holds a lot of rain. / Love hurts. / Ooh, ooh, love hurts.”
To be honest, this song is not my jam, but I remember hearing the song on the radio while my parents drove us to whatever activity we were headed to, and I thought it was a stupid sentiment. I was a kid at the time, in early elementary school, and my mind was full of fairy tales and happily ever afters. Love hurts? I didn’t want to believe that. Regardless, for whatever reason, the first part of the first verse has just always stayed stuck in my brain.
Despite chronic–sometimes crippling–lifelong depression, I somehow managed to hold onto a ridiculously optimistic idea of what love means. I’m the sucker that absorbed every single dumb cliche about love that exists. The overarching one–the one that has burned me more than any other–is “love conquers all.”
Lies. Terrible lies. Let me elaborate before you think I’m just a jaded middle-age-ish nihilist.
There are some things that love can’t conquer, at least not on its own. Things like addiction, depression, and attachment disorders stand at the top of the list of harsh realities that smacked me in the face. It doesn’t matter how much you love someone; if they don’t want to change, they won’t. Furthermore, situations that have a mental health component are especially complex. Trite sayings and plain hopefulness will fall flat every time.
The thing I want to be clear about is that people who are struggling need love. Of course, they do. But we need to acknowledge that sometimes, love just isn’t enough. And sometimes love means letting go and letting the professionals do their job.
Attachment disorders merit more discussion than they currently receive. They make it difficult for a person to feel a deep connection to another person due to a perceived need for self-preservation. They usually develop from early childhood trauma such as long hospitalization, neglect, abuse, or even in utero trauma. Such trauma disrupts the normal bonding time that happens immediately after birth or during gestation, and the child’s brain learns that they are unsafe.
Let me give you a very real, very personal example. We adopted my oldest son at age 11 after he experienced two years of foster care, and he was the size of a 4-year-old. His guardians horribly neglected and abused him his entire life. When he came into our house he was sugar sweet; “Yes Ma’am,” “No Ma’am,” “Thank you,” and “I love you” were regular for him. However, after he realized he was staying with us for good, a switch flipped inside of him. He would scream, cry, and throw things. Sometimes, he would smack his head against a wall.
Then, another switch seemed to flip. We thought he was settling in. We thought that love conquered all and the warned-about attachment disorder had healed. Unfortunately, what we thought we knew turned out to be a lie. His behavior on the surface appeared loving and attached, but behind our backs, he abused his siblings and people at school. Reports of my son screaming racial slurs at his peers, ignoring his teachers, and refusing to cooperate shocked me to no end. He told us he was bullied, but no adult around him saw it. We were enraged at the school–until we were proved wrong. Terribly wrong.
Helping him heal–-loving him the way he needed to be loved=–meant letting go entirely, despite how much it hurt. He now lives in a treatment facility, and we are lucky if we see him once a month. He has been depressed, angry at us, and uncooperative, but he can’t hurt other kids anymore. To say we were blindsided would be a drastic understatement. I honestly don’t know what I could have done differently besides paying attention to the other people around me who said he made them nervous. I thought it was prejudice. It wasn’t.
Later on, we adopted another child suspected of having an attachment disorder, and I learned once more that love hurts. Case workers assured us that with therapy and at-home help, she would eventually succeed at receiving appropriate affection. That’s one hallmark of attachment disorder: a kid will happily crawl into a stranger’s lap and tell them how much they love them, but shy from their parent’s touch and refuse to say anything resembling “I love you.” It’s agonizing to love a little person so much, wanting them to have a good, safe, happy life, and receive hate in return.
Thankfully, we adopted her when she was younger, and she had therapy for a much longer time. She still steals sometimes and lies often, but she asks to sit on her dad’s lap to watch movies and doesn’t shy from hugs from us. She doesn’t push us away, even though it’s clear she is uncertain of our love whenever she’s disciplined for her actions. We have an in-home helper who helps take the heat off of us so much. It helps to have someone besides us correct our children’s behavior.
Proceed with Caution; Proceed with Love
Why do I tell you all of this? It is certainly not to dissuade you from adoption. I love my kids. I’m thankful for my kids. The things they experienced in early childhood are horrific and nightmare-inducing, and I don’t fault them for that in the slightest. I just don’t want you to walk into a situation thinking it will be a walk in the park simply because you love your kid so much. It doesn’t work that way, unfortunately. Be aware: love doesn’t cure mental health disorders. Sometimes, your children might try to use your love against you as a self-preservation tactic, causing real damage to your family and others. Wounded lives and broken hearts can result from a child’s misplaced lie. But proceeding with love, caution, and patience will never be the wrong move, even if that love, caution, and patience means you ensure that your child receives plenty of outside help.
I guess what I’m saying is don’t go into adoption blind. Know that love, though a crucial component of care, won’t take care of all of the problems. Therapy, in-home help, video cameras in the home, and other safeguards are important. For our family, sometimes that has looked like providing teachers with information about our child’s history or warning them that our kid can be manipulative. Alerting one of our girl’s teachers in that way saved us no less than three CPS investigations. My adopted daughter was angry at me and knew from her past that if she made enough noise, she could move to a different house. So, she’d go to school and say I hit her or didn’t feed her. Because her teacher and school were aware that such accusations were a possibility, they were able to quickly deal with the issue. They could see she wasn’t being abused or neglected. They saw the lunches we packed, the clean clothes she wore, the lack of bruises where she swore I hit her. Eventually, she’s learned that she’s not going anywhere. We love her and want to keep her forever, and she knows that now, even though she sometimes needs reminders.
Yes, love hurts. But if you’ll allow me one stupid cliche that I stubbornly hold onto: love is worth the pain.