Healing Wounds and Leaving the Past Behind

Through healing herself, one adoptive mom learns how to heal her daughter.

Mommy makes everything betterAbout 10 years ago, my husband and I decided to adopt. We started researching, and contacting various adoption agencies, and asking questions. We thought maybe we were too old, or wondered if we would still be allowed to adopt even though my husband had a medical condition. The answer was yes, we would.  After careful research, we chose Holt International.

We were contacted by a social worker, and began the long journey of adoption.  We knew we wanted to adopt from China, and we were accepted into that program. Afterward, though, the wait to be matched with a child through the standard program began to grow longer and longer. We decided to go with the special needs program.  Within weeks, we were matched with the most incredible baby. The first time I saw her picture, I knew she was our daughter. Two months later, we were in China bringing our 11-month-old baby home.

The bonding process with her happened within weeks. If a stranger came into a room, she would immediately seek out my husband or me. She would no longer go to a stranger. She had accepted us so completely, and we were so captivated by her. She was a very happy and loving baby, so easy to love. At this point, I want to say that I think God knew I needed her first, in order for me to learn to love the other daughter he was to entrust me with.

My husband and I knew we wanted to adopt a second child, but the rules of the China program were changing. We no longer qualified because of my husband’s age. So we turned to the Vietnam program, and were accepted. Within weeks, we received a packet about a little 2-and-a-half-year-old girl.

She was diagnosed with epilepsy. After research, I felt confident that I could handle her condition. My concerns were the consistent reports about her behavior. The report indicated that she bullied her caretakers, and was jealous of her friends if they got attention first. She would often scream, and throw temper tantrums when she did not get what she wanted. I was concerned that this child was mentally ill. That is what I wasn’t sure I could handle.

We felt comfortable after many discussions with our social worker and the waiting child committee, however, that her behaviors were being addressed. The biggest change for her was that she was being placed in a foster home. She would now be getting the help, and attention, she needed. The reports on her behavior did seem to improve.

So we quickly completed our paperwork. We sent it in, and then waited for seven months before we had permission, and acceptance, to bring our daughter home.

When adopting through Vietnam, you first meet your child, spend time with her, and then the next day you officially complete your adoption.  The first day, we knew something didn’t feel right. We brought our baby with us to meet her new sister. The first thing our second daughter did when meeting our baby was to start slapping her across the face.  We left wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.

The next day, after the adoption ceremony, when they said “she is your daughter now,” I felt my heart sink. They handed her to my husband, and she started to scream.  That day our daughter continued to scream, and pound the floor — so hard her body lifted off the floor — for nine hours. She continued to scream like this every day we were in Vietnam. My husband and I took turns staying with her in the apartment so we and our other baby could have a break.

We came to realize that those sad eyes were also eyes of rage, anger and deep fear. My daughter continued to scream like that for the next year and nine months. We used to run around our house, and shut windows, and turn on loud fans to hide the noise. We were just sure that our neighbors were going to call Child Protective Services.

During the next four years, we helped our daughter heal physically, and we thought emotionally.  She started talking at 5 ½. She was 3 ½ when we adopted her. We had her in speech and occupational therapy. She seemed to be making real progress. All the therapists and teachers who worked with her said she was a sweet little girl, and a joy to be with.  That was not our experience with her at home. At home she was defiant, and often hostile to me and her little sister.

When she was 4 ½, we took her to see a child psychiatrist, who diagnosed her with a reactive attachment disorder.* RAD is a rare but serious condition in which an infant or child doesn’t establish healthy attachments with parents or caregivers. Some of the symptoms include oppositional defiance, frequent and intense anger outbursts, manipulative and controlling behavior and little to no conscience. Over the next four years, my daughter displayed many of these symptoms and more. She was also indiscriminately affectionate with strangers. She would run and throw herself at strangers, laughing and climbing on them. As you can imagine, this provided for some very awkward moments. My daughter became very covert in her behaviors, and was very careful not to display behavior in front of me.

The child psychiatrist had us see a social worker who had some experience working with children with this condition. After several sessions with her, she recommended we treat her like we did our other daughter.  She was still not talking at this point, so we decided to continue to do research and take care of her the best we could.

When she turned 7, and for the five months following, it became apparent through a series of heartbreaking events that it was not longer safe to have our daughter at home. At this time, I also learned that my daughter could speak a lot more fluently, and clearly, than she led us to believe. She wanted me to know what she had done, and that she would no longer do what I said. I called my mother, and put her on speakerphone so she could listen to my conversation with my daughter. My mother was shocked, and could hardly believe this was the same child she had been spending time with. She had never heard her speak so clearly.

In July of that year, we had our daughter removed from our home. It took another 3 months to get her into a residential program that specialized in her condition.

I was heartbroken, and so angry with God. How could he do this to me, my husband and to my other child. God had made a mistake.

At the time, I read a book by renowned developmental psychologist Dr. Karyn Purvis, and one of the chapters was on healing yourself. It resonated with me. What did I have to lose? At that point, I felt I had lost everything. I immediately sought therapy for myself. I also took advantage of the weekly therapy sessions through my daughter’s residential program.  There, I learned about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and how that is a personal experience.  I also learned about Post Traumatic Adoption (PTA) and how it affects inter-relational experiences in the family. The way we interacted with each other was affected by the trauma of our second adoption, I learned, and the distrust, anger and the stress we had with one another would never have happened otherwise. So we were able to have compassion for ourselves, and each other, when we started to acknowledge how deeply we were affected by this change in our lives. We then began the long journey of healing as a family.

During my personal journey of healing, I learned about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which is a psychotherapy developed by Francine Shapiro that emphasizes disturbing memories as the cause of psychopathology that remains unresolved. EMDR is used for people who have experienced severe, unresolved trauma. This is how it worked for me. During my months of therapy, I recalled issues of abuse from my childhood. When I was growing up, abuse wasn’t talked about. We were told, “It is over now, so let it go.” So that is what I did, or so I thought. When I brought up the abuse, we used the EMDR technique. Rapid eye movement occurs during deep restful sleep. To recreate the rapid eye movement of EMDR, I would follow my therapist’s finger form side to side with my eyes. While doing this, I was to focus on something positive while also focusing on how my body was responding to the memory of abuse. What I learned to do was to change how my body was responding to the memories of abuse — the rapid heart rate, the overwhelming sadness, etc… What happens with unresolved trauma is that all those feelings are present when you experience new trauma. So you are not acting on new situations, but reacting to every experience you’ve ever had, and you are not aware of it.

This brought a whole new awareness of understanding for me about my daughter. I now knew why she wasn’t responding to her new environment in a positive way. I now understood that she couldn’t, not that she didn’t want to.

During my daughter’s stay in residential treatment, we had monthly visits, as well as daily phone calls. During our phone calls, my daughter would share experiences she had with the staff and other kids. She talked about making good choices and learning to understand and identify her feelings and emotions. She was learning to ask for support from the staff instead of trying to handle it on her own. This was huge progress for my daughter, learning to trust that the adults in her life would meet her needs. Learning to trust adults was a vital part of her therapy. Children with her condition have learned that adults can’t be trusted to meet their needs, both emotionally and physically. The best part of the phone calls was when we would just have fun. We would talk about things we would do together, about fun things we had done together in the past and sometimes we would just play games. We were beginning to have a deep and meaningful relationship.

In May of 2013, the day before Mother’s Day, we visited our daughter. We brought our youngest daughter with us. This was their first contact since July of the previous year. My husband and I were very concerned with how this would affect our youngest. She did very well, and was relieved to see her sister again. I was the one who had anxiety. I remember walking and holding both my girls’ hands when a feeling of peace and relaxation came over me. I was overwhelmed with gratitude that I was given this gift of having both my daughters with me for Mother’s Day. Something I thought would never happen again.

After this visit, when talking to my daughter’s therapist, I was told that a change had happened with my daughter. Everyone who came in contact with her had noticed a change. This included her psychiatrist, the residential staff and her therapist. They said it was as if she had become unfrozen. She was beginning to have genuine emotions. To show emotions for a child with her condition is to leave themselves vulnerable. They also never learn about how to have positive emotions through experience.

I believe this happened because I had changed. I had learned to let go of my “hard places,” as Dr. Purvis refers to unresolved trauma, and was able to truly be in the moment. I became a safe place for my daughter. One thing that had resonated with the therapist was that my daughter had maintained a connection to me. They realized she tried so hard to follow the rules, and learn to trust so she could come home. This was different for most children with her condition. She cared.

Another part of my daughter’s treatment was for her to understand why she did the things she had done. She came to understand that her behavior resulted from the lack of care and affection she should have had as a baby. She was shown pictures of children experiencing nurture and affection and then compared those with pictures of children in orphanages. She was also able to observe the staff interact with their own children who were in the on-site daycare. We talked about this often, and I reassured her that she deserved this, and that my heart ached for the little baby she was who didn’t receive that care. I let her know that she deserved this loving care, and that I was here now, and would give her all she needed. She also learned to have compassion for the little girl she was, and to forgive herself for the things she had done. She now understood that to move forward, she had to make better choices for herself. To ask for help and support when needed, and trust that Mom would be there to help her.

Was it right to have placed my daughter in residential treatment? Yes, it was. She desperately needed the type of treatment only they could provide. It gave us an opportunity to heal as a family without the daily stress and anxiety.  My daughter said she was scared at first to be in treatment, but it taught her how to make good choices, and how to be part of a family. We all chose to work hard to heal. This is what is so important. We as parents need to look at ourselves — not to judge, but to nurture ourselves and acknowledge our own vulnerability. To heal our wounds, then leave the past behind.

I read this today on a Facebook page called “Dream Catchers for Abused Children”:

“Hurting people hurt people. Working through our own issues in pursuit of healing is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children, and one of the most important steps we can take as parents.” This has proved to be true in my life.

My daughter has been home now since March of this year. The biggest change for her is that if she has any issues that come up, she is now able to talk about them and decide on the best course of action. She comes to me whenever she needs support. She will say to me, “Mom, I need support,” and I will listen and take her gently into my arms, where she now feels safe. What has changed for me is I have a deep understanding of her, and have forgiven her for any mistakes of the past. She has forgiven me also and we are leaving the mistakes behind us. I love her in a way I was not able to before, and I know she feels this and is content.

All her teachers and her therapist say what a joy she is to be with. This time, we experience it too. She has become a loving, respectful child who wants to please her parents. She is a delightful child to be with. My child was “Student of the Month” for her third grade class this September. Two years ago, I would have not thought this would be possible.

Did God make a mistake? No, he knew that of all the mothers in the world, I was hers. That in healing myself, my daughter too would be healed.

Stacy Presley | Medford, Oregon

* In recent years, psychologists have moved away from the term “Reactive Attachment Disorder” as new understandings about the relationship between trauma and attachment have emerged. Click here to read more about this shift and the research-based approach now recommended for parenting children who have experienced abuse, neglect and trauma.

Interested in learning more about mindful parenting and the relationship between healing ourselves and healing our children? Click here to read a companion piece to this story by Holt’s director of clinical services, Abbie Smith.

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