Dark Enough: When Adoptive Families Struggle

The relationship with Rebecca, my adopted 15-year-old daughter, is in a winter season. The terrain between us has changed from a safe testing ground into an icy, windswept tundra of distrust. It feels as though nothing can thaw the frozen caricature of our happy family picture.

Alone, I feel sadness for her; for us. She is a wounded little girl in a young woman’s body. I feel tender and protective. When she’s near, my skin wants to crawl off my body. My breaths get caught in my ribs. My face hardens and my muscles tense, ready for war. Sharp words cut deeply; I keep mine in a chokehold so only a few escape.

I have my faith, but Jesus is not what I reach for when fleeing is the only relief. Everything I do, think, feel or say is wrong when I’m with her. These captive words are knives tumbling inside my head and belly.

And then she walks out of the room.

I take a shuddering breath. The knives fall with a clatter inside me. Blood seeps from the interior cuts. Guilt rushes into the suddenly relaxed spaces in my body and vigorously rubs salt into those wounds. My heart weeps. I weakly vow to do better next time; vow to leave more room for grace.

How did we get here?

Paul and I married in 2006 and became foster parents in 2007. We strongly felt God’s calling on us to provide sanctuary for children. In late 2009, Child Protective Services (CPS) placed 7-year-old Rebecca and her 15-month-old half-sister Alina with us as foster-to-adopt.

We officially became a family in March 2011. Ali was only 9 months old when she went into foster care, but Rebecca endured almost six years with her biological mother.

At 19 years old, their mother was pregnant with her first child, Rebecca. Street drugs only amplified her untreated depression and bipolar disorder, and her abusive boyfriend abandoned her shortly after Rebecca was born. She went on to have three more daughters with two other men in the next five years.

The girls were neglected in a home charged with static fear. Nothing was a given: meals, diaper changes, baths, a clear bit of floor on which to play. When a boyfriend was left in charge of the house, things got even scarier. The men were abusive in all ways.

When Rebecca was 6 years old, CPS had enough evidence to remove the children. Since Rebecca had a strong bond with her maternal grandmother, CPS initially tried placing the children with her. After a few months, it became clear that their grandmother was unable to meet the children’s needs. CPS removed them again and divided them into three separate foster homes. Rebecca had multiple placements but eventually joined Ali and her foster family. A few months later, we got to meet them.

Rebecca stood close to her foster mom as we drove up to their house. Huge green eyes peered out from behind thick glasses, and a short bob made her head seem too big for her little stick body. Top teeth had gnawed her lower lip until it was raw and chapped. A too-wide smile stretched across her face. My throat instinctively tightened with fear; there was something wrong with her. Protective instincts roared up and smashed the thought. I introduced myself and invited her in for a gentle hug. She clung to me.

Paul was immediately smitten with 15-month-old Ali, but she regarded us suspiciously. She protested when Paul took her from her foster mom’s arms, but quieted quickly, studying his beard. She touched it and smiled, big hazel eyes meeting his deep brown gaze. Love at first tug.

Early on, the discord between Paul and Rebecca looked like shyness on Rebecca’s part. Hoping therapy and love would change things over time, we kept her with the therapist CPS had chosen. Paul did everything he could to show her he loved her. Her gallant prince escorted her to the second, third and fourth grade father-daughter dances. He treated her to daddy-daughter dates at the State Fair, baseball games and chaperoned her field trips. He even volunteered to be the Girl Scout troop’s cookie dad. Through it all she remained passive, never volunteering recognition, much less affection. Yet with me she was too clingy and dependent, always seeking my approval and attention.

When Rebecca was 8 years old and in second grade, she struggled so much with homework that we scheduled a neuropsychological evaluation. After a full day of testing, the results showed she had some lower scores in areas of logical problem solving but nothing alarming.

By the time Rebecca was 11 and in fifth grade, her avoidance and disinterest in Paul grew confrontational. At first it was small things; when reminded to do her chores, she reluctantly or partially did them. When Paul invited her along to the grocery store, where a treat was guaranteed, she declined. She also decided she didn’t want to go to the father-daughter dance with him, which broke my heart.

As she entered sixth grade she began telling wildly improbable and easily disproved lies to everyone at the middle school, such as her classmate died of cancer yesterday. Or Rebecca herself has cancer. Or Rebecca missed school yesterday because she spent the night in the ER after stabbing herself in the stomach with a knife.

I quickly got on a first-name basis with the school counselor.

When I think back to my sixth and seventh-grade years, they were filled with exhilarating new freedoms; being allowed to ride my bike across town to a friend’s house, or spending afternoons walking around our small downtown with a few friends. When we tried to allow Rebecca a few freedoms, she took advantage of our trust. Her lies caused such problems with her friends that we ended up apologizing to their parents. She fervently denied everything until cornered with the truth. Her world got smaller and smaller and damage control became our daily routine.

We held her accountable for her actions, and we never threatened consequences we wouldn’t enact. She wasn’t interested in striving for goals and rewards, even as she complained and blamed us for her restrictions. Frustrated, we found a new therapist, Theresa, who specialized in early childhood trauma and its effects on brain development.

Rebecca saw Theresa through eighth grade. Things got worse at home and school. She went through circle after circle of friends, dropping quickly through the social rungs. Her behavior toward Paul became confrontational rage; soon his attempts at communication came to all but a complete stop. He literally couldn’t say a word to her without her turning on him. I was afraid to leave her alone with him.

By November 2016 she was in the middle of eighth grade. Her behavior was so unpredictable and vicious toward Paul that I began to suspect Reactive Attachment Disorder, or RAD. I contacted our former social worker’s department supervisor, another woman we’d worked with during the adoption, and presented my reasoning and research.

She assured me it could not be RAD because Rebecca had a strong attachment with both me and her maternal grandmother, as well as her former foster mother. She strongly recommended that I get her tested for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) since many of the symptoms overlap with those of RAD. I promptly scheduled Rebecca for an FASD evaluation. All of her test results were in the normal range.

I felt frustrated and defeated. Everyone was telling me my child was normal when I knew something was terribly wrong.

It was August 2017, the summer before Rebecca started high school as a freshman. I came home from work as Paul was taking out some recycling. He found some of Rebecca’s old school papers, half-burned, in the bin. Alarmed, we confronted her.

Rebecca initially lied to us about when and where she’d burned the papers, but eventually we found that she’d lit them on fire on top of the dry wood mulch approximately six inches from both our house and our wooden deck.

I immediately sent an email off to Rebecca’s therapist and our former social worker. I stated that I didn’t feel safe with her in our house anymore, and I didn’t know what to do. The following week we were assigned a social worker who opened a case for us. She found a psychiatrist who would be able to do a full mental health evaluation on Rebecca, and CPS covered the cost.

The results showed symptoms of PTSD, major depression and anxiety, as well as poor coping skills for stress. It also showed she couldn’t process emotions, resulting in her bottling them all up. She also tested with clear symptoms of attachment disorder, specific to father figures. Wait a hot minute — attachment disorder specific to father figures? My understanding of attachment disorder was that it was all or nothing, either a child could attach to caregivers or they couldn’t. Since Rebecca was attached to me, did all of the mental health and social services professionals around her also assume she could attach to Paul? How did everyone miss something so crucial?

In January 2018, Rebecca’s new attachment therapist Cheri diagnosed her with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). BPD is not curable, but it can be understood and managed. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, BPD sufferers have an unstable self-image and their actions display that uncertainty about how they see themselves. Unsure of their worth, they will go to extreme lengths to avoid real or imagined abandonment. They also feel victimized by the world and have great difficulty taking responsibility for their actions. Therefore, by the very nature of the disorder, BPD sufferers are blind to their role in the troubles surrounding them.

Recent studies show strong evidence of the connection between insecure parent-child attachment and the increased possibility of developing BPD later in life. Unfortunately, it is difficult to treat. The National Institute of Health states that long-term psychotherapy has been shown to have more effect than medication. However, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests targeting specific symptoms of BPD with medication may be helpful (such as those prescribed to treat depression or anxiety). Whether medication is prescribed or not, BPD sufferers must be willing to become more self-aware and learn to regulate their emotions through techniques learned in behavioral therapy.

Ideally, we would have gotten Rebecca and Paul working together in attachment therapy the day she came to us. I didn’t know that a child’s attachment-related behaviors may be very different with one caregiver than with another. I also had no idea that the disorder lies within the relationship and interactions between the child and the caregiver, as opposed to existing as an aspect of the child’s personality.

Rather than dwelling on opportunities missed, I choose to focus on the joy in our house. Ali is 9 years old and thriving in fourth grade. She loves Rebecca deeply, but knows how to disengage from her when Rebecca starts throwing verbal daggers. Paul and Ali are buddies. Since her first day of kindergarten, he has waited with her at the end of the driveway for the school bus every single morning. She talks to him easily about anything on her mind. I love spending time with Ali. Her creative storytelling and sense of humor slay me.

I hope our family’s journey into the “dark enough” is redeemed by many other puzzled parents learning from our story and providing attachment therapy as early as possible. Collectively, we continue to do the hard, good work of holding brokenness together.

Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the children and family.

Minnette d’Ori (whose name has been changed to protect the privacy of her family) is a happily married, full-time IT professional in the upper Midwest. Her passion for child advocacy led her to become a foster parent 10 years ago, and an adoptive parent eight years ago. She hopes sharing her experiences can help other foster and adoptive parents.

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