He was asleep.
I was typing in the dark, listening to the Mozart he puts on when he is seriously ready to sleep (as opposed to the endless Seven Super Girls YouTube videos or the various Little Mix albums he escapes into during the quiet evenings in his bedroom). I had just been scrolling through Facebook one-handed while rubbing his heels and feet and scratching his calf according to his very specific directions. He told me he loves me. I know he loves me.
I knew he loved me earlier that day as he was running away from home too – about 50 meters ahead of me and barefoot. This was the third time in a week that he ventured out like this, his frustrations breaking the previous boundary of the front door. This time he went the furthest, storming away, around the corner. My husband and I were not far behind him, though our minds were travelling years ahead. We were scared, thinking of all those stories we read about of older kids with FASD who take off – their frustrations running far beyond their reasoning regarding safety. If we got too close to him, it propelled him further away, so we hung back.
He eventually stopped – a siren and some sudden traffic slowed him down. I told him to stay where he was so I could help him cross the road safely. He waited, torn between his instinct for flight and his insecurity. We finally made contact, and side by side we crossed the road and headed toward home, my husband trailing behind us, ready to help if need be.
That’s when our little one started a new conversation:
“I don’t belong in this family. I don’t belong here.”
“I want to find the woman whose tummy I was in. I love her. I should be with her.”
“She should love me.”
“I belong with her, not you.”
And there it was. The conversation I knew we would have at some point, even if I was not expecting it at that particular moment when our resilience was low, after all the upheaval, chaos (and fun) of our recent holiday, a visit from overseas relatives, and simmering concerns regarding the upcoming start of school.
“You are right. She did love you. But she knew she couldn’t look after you. She wanted you to have a good home.”
“You always will be a part of this family. I love you no matter what.”
“I want you to be safe. I don’t want you to walk away like that.”
“We are a family. We can solve our problems.”
“It’s okay if sometimes you feel frustrated. It won’t always be like this. Someday you’ll be better able to handle how you feel.”
And then ten minutes later, back home, he wanted me to be with him when he was upstairs, when he was outside. Where ever he was, he wanted me near – the running away was forgotten and my maternal back scratching duties resumed. This is not unlike the early days, when he wanted me all to himself – biting and kicking at others to be sure I was with him only. Is it regression? Is it because I am not reassuring him enough?
This other woman, wherever she is, is missing out on a remarkable young being. It would be easy to be bitter and angry toward her, but I am not. I feel a great sadness that he has an emptiness inside of him that I will never be able to fill, I would never try to fill. I wish she had been able to look after herself better, that she had been able to better protect him while he grew inside her womb. I hate that her alcohol seared its way into his future in ways I doubt she ever understood. I hate that he spent those first days critically ill, fighting alone in this cruel world, abandoned in a hospital, crying without comfort. Nothing I do or say will ever, ever fill those days, those weeks, those months, that nearly year-and-a-half when a tired and overburdened system did its best – inadequate as it was – to keep him healthy.
During our adoption process, we came across a couple of helpful books that I pulled off of the shelf again after this long day – they are not about FASD, but they reminded me that being adopted is complicated enough, let alone with the added challenges of FASD on top of it all.
“Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self” by David Brodzinky, Marshall Schechter and Robin Marantz Henig focuses on the fact that coming to terms with being adopted has different phases as one goes through various developmental stages. This book was important to my husband, as he too is adopted. Looking through this again made me think that while our son knows his adoption story at a basic level, the way he owns that legacy will change as he grows older. This too will become another challenge of this hormonal decade he is entering (and it will be made more difficult because his emotional comprehension will be that of a child much younger and his ability to absorb it all will be confounded by the hidden disability of FASD).
“Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew,” by Sherrie Eldridge, deals head on with the sense of loss that every adopted child carries with them throughout their life. I skimmed through this book again, to see if I could find some answers for our son’s questions and comments. What I found was comforting, in a sad sort of way. I was reminded that some things I cannot change.
“[T]he truth is, the very act of adoption is built upon loss. For the birth parents, the loss of their biological offspring, the relationship that could have been, a very part of themselves. For the adoptive parents, the loss of giving birth to a biological child, the child whose face will never mirror theirs. And for the adopted child, the loss of the birth parents, the earliest experience of belonging and acceptance. To deny adoption loss is to deny the emotional reality of everyone involved….Grief is the natural response to loss, and those touched by adoption must be given permission to revisit emotionally the place of loss, feel the pain, scream the anger, cry the tears, and then allow themselves to be loved by others.” (p. 4-5)
Raising an adopted child with FASD amplifies these challenges immensely, since the underlying brain injury makes abstract concepts harder to understand and emotional triggers are much closer to the surface. The fact that our 12-year old son was able to voice to me his thoughts about his biological mum in the way that he did is progress. It doesn’t hurt me, though I did feel a thud in the pit of my stomach. But I am concerned over how the various dots get connected in his head.
I was struck, skimming back through this book, at another of the points: “I am afraid I was ‘given away’ by my birth mother because I was a bad baby. I need you to help me dump my toxic shame.”
Toxic shame. That phrase keeps going over and over in my mind.
The world is confusing and overwhelming for our son. He knows he is different. We have started the process over the past years to help him understand his diagnosis. In the past few pressure-filled weeks he has had some of the most devastating meltdowns he has ever had. Bewildering for us, they must be so scary to him (even if in the moment he presents as manically triumphant in his wild abandon).
I believe this new urge to walk away is wrapped up in his confusion over his own behaviors and the rage he sometimes feels inside of him. I know he feels different from others around him – different in his abilities, in his interests, different in his desire to sparkle and shine in a world that wants boys to be flat and blue. I hate to think he may be unconsciously carrying a ‘toxic shame’ about who he is and how he acts.
I am oddly comforted to re-read some passages in this book – to skim again what I once thought I understood. It is important to be reminded that his experience of this world is so entirely different from my own extremely secure childhood. I sometimes get lulled into our daily routines (even if the days are never ‘routine’, our ‘norm’ has become ‘the norm’). I forget just how unusual a family life we do have until something (like the recent holiday) makes me shine a light a little more into our life. We tend to forget that ‘special needs’ are in fact out of the ordinary and there is a very good reason why things are sometimes so difficult, why sometimes the pressures pulling us apart are so great.
It’s good to remember that there are conversations we should have, and will have, again and again as our son begins to grow into the man he will be: deep questions about who he is and where he has come from, discussions that acknowledge his differences and celebrate his considerable talents and wonderful qualities. Hard conversations, made more complicated as it is difficult to understand how much he understands.
I cannot fix the physical damage his brain has suffered. I cannot change the way our family came to be. I cannot force the world to embrace him gently (though I can do all I can to try to make it more pliable as he crashes into his future). I cannot stop the pain and confusion and hurt he feels but is largely unable to voice.
I can’t do any of that. But I can love him.
I can create a safe place for him to test boundaries. I can, with the help of my husband and elder son, build with him a strong family unit that can withstand the forces that push and pull him. Extended family and friends and professionals can all help buoy us all during these stormy years ahead.
I will not soon forget the moment I saw the defiance in him melt as he stood on that street corner, realizing he went a bit too far – the uncertainty that washed over him. He shrunk into himself as the world suddenly seemed bigger and more overwhelming than the overconfidence and anger that had driven him to ‘run away.’ He looked so small. So vulnerable. I was aching inside. This time we were there for him. He let me take his hand and he let me guide flip flops onto his bare feet so he could walk home without pain.
Every time after a rage, after a storm, he looks to see if we are there. Every time. Every child needs that security. Every child. Most especially adopted kids, and particularly adopted kids who may or may not be fearing another rejection borne out of the ‘toxic shame’ buried inside of them, a fear they are ‘bad’ when really they are little superheroes as our adult friend with FASD, Lee Harvey-Heath says. I just worry about that day when he might go too far, too fast and I might not be there when he needs help crossing the road or finding his way home. I know I shouldn’t borrow trouble. What will be will be. We can do all that we can do, and we can hope it makes a difference. This love means something. This bond will help him in times of need. I know that, deep inside, I know. I know he knows too, somewhere deep inside.
Our little guy fell asleep, with me sitting next to him on the bed. Mozart washed over us both. It was all so peaceful and close – so far from that chasm I had felt earlier staring across that very wide street. I sat there in the dark next to him in the bed for another 30 minutes. I guess I needed that connection and calm reassurance as much as he did.
We all do.
P.S. – This post feels so heavy. We must never lose sight of the ‘ups’ as we try to understand and minimize the ‘downs’ – here’s a little glimpse into his joy.