I have thought a lot about how I could share what it feels like to parent a child with RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder), and having time distance me from the worst of it made me realize how much I actually WANTED to put distance between myself and the experience. Writing my post about "fears" and then visiting with my mom a couple of nights ago made me search my soul a bit, and I finally admitted to myself that my experience as Josh's mom those first couple of years altered me in ways I never expected, and it colors my expectations of my future relationship with Toktogul. I wonder if it will make me a better mom, or a more tentative, cautious one.
I knew in my heart, from the first couple of visits with Josh, that he had a serious problem, and that most likely it was attachment related. We had been so excited about adopting a second time, about adding to our family when we had thought we might only have Matthew, and this was an event that was supposed to be filled with the greatest of happiness. I remember after the second visit, which was by myself with Dominick back at the rented apartment in Uralsk with Matthew, and I got in the back seat behind our driver and interpreter and couldn't stop the tears from welling up. I was feeling helpless, out of control of the situation, and very, very sad. I was scared too, scared that God was holding my hand to the fire to tackle something I felt very ill-prepared to handle. In fact, it was my greatest fear. My heart was so heavy during those subsequent visits, and yet surprisingly there wasn't a moment when the thought entered my mind to not move forward with the adoption of this specific child. For us, God made it clear that Josh was ours and He had planned it that way all along, so whatever lay ahead was what we were supposed to go through.
We had a very, very difficult time traveling home. Josh did nothing but cry and sob and scream with very few exceptions. It was so bad that after almost an hour of non-stop screaming while in the hotel in Almaty, the Russian maids actually used their key to gain access to our room in the middle of the afternoon while Dominick took Matthew out for a walk, and there I stood in my PJ's, bleary eyed from lack of sleep, frustrated beyond all belief, feeling like the worst possible mom that ever existed...I was impotent in the face of Josh's dispair. The frowning, growling maid soon found she too had no control over it and after 30 minutes of attempting to prove that this incompetent American mother didn't know what she was doing, she too gave up and handed him back to me, leaving me feeling somewhat vindicated and much more at a loss as to what to do to calm him down.
A month and a half after returning home with him, Christmas afternoon that year was not spent with smiling happy faces surrounded by gift wrap flung everywhere and joyous celebration over our newest addition's first Christmas, but instead found me "Googling" everything I could find on infant attachment disorder, and finally landing on a web site with a check list that I printed out. As I went down the list, I was stunned to find behaviors I hadn't even related to attachment disorder staring me down in black and white. It was Joshua all right, my suspicions were no longer suspicions but were indeed fact, and my heart felt like someone was squeezing it so tightly I could hardly breathe. There was something about having my gut feelings confirmed that took my breath away. This was no longer something I assumed or that I thought, this was fact...my deeply desired precious new son had a disorder that can lead, at it's worst, to him becoming a Jeffrey Dahmer or a Ted Bundy...a child who could grow up to set fire to cats tails and laugh about it, who could graduate to far more sinister and cruel behaviors than that. This may sound a bit over-the-top to those who have not gone through it, but believe me, it is not at all out of proportion when you have a 12 month old child who can dissassociate for hours at a time or who is unable to tolerate human touch. It was frightening and disturbing...and motivating as well. For now I had a firm label to attach, and that was at least a starting point.
Day after day, week after week, and most especially night after exhausting night I struggled with so many emotions. I had never in my entire life been rejected in such an in-your-face way. Josh's behaviors were so intense and unrelenting, and I never felt that in his eyes I was his mom, or even someone whom he would tolerate having around. The first 6 months I have very few photos of him, partly because I didn't have the energy to take pictures of him, and partly because he never had a pleasant look on his face to want to capture. He alternated between anger and sadness, and was so uncomfortable in his own skin it was easy to see why he was further disturbed by touch from others.
And I was so afraid. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to get through to him, to crack through the thick layer of ice he had encasing his heart. I was scared that we would never, ever connect...that he would never allow me to comfort him or cuddle him. That I would live the next 18 years with someone who was a virtual stranger, who would never be able to have real eye contact or meaningful relationships. I was afraid I'd never have a decent night's sleep again as he was waking up 8, 10, 12 times every single night with screams and sobs, nightmares haunting his sleep.
But honestly, what I was most afraid of was that I would eventually give up and settle for what was instead of working towards what could be. The thought went through my mind over and over again that I didn't know how much longer I could hold on to the hope that things would improve. I could see my heart one day just shutting him off, and once I got to that point I knew I could never turn it around. That frightened me because I couldn't dare give voice to those feelings. I mean, how can any decent mother admit that she might never love her son the way she should? That she was only tolerating his presence? How long can a person who has never really felt the reciprocity of affection with a child continue to bang their head against a wall, all in the hopes that one day that child might decide to let them into their heart?
And yet hold on I did, for what other option did I have? Joshua needed me more than ever to stay committed, to not take his rejection personally...and man did that involve hours of self-talk...to be the mommy his first mommy couldn't be for whatever reason - the mommy who stayed rather than walked away. Sometimes I felt like I was seriously involved in a battle for his very soul, and I guess in many ways I was. I cried more that first year he was home than I had cried my entire life. I was humiliated in some ways, feeling so inadequte, so tired of being used as his emotional punching bag for something I had not even done to him. I was challenged in ways I had never expected to be, nor ever wanted to be. I had to restrain myself when things were at their worst, I had to learn to lean on others when that was something I was loathe to do in the past. I had to smile when acquantances asked me how things were going and pretend that all was good, and I resented the fact that I couldn't wallow in the joy that most mothers feel with their infant and toddler children. I grieved for the passing months of his toddlerhood that were being spent locked in anger and controlling behavior.
Slowly, ever so slowly, before I even recognized it, something began to shift. The stress level began to ratchet down a bit, a smile or giggle would appear unexpectedly in between the temper tantrums. Things began to mellow out a little and there were longer and longer stretches between tantrums. Joshua began to acknowledge my existence in his life, and then made the first tentative steps at accepting affection. He finally called me momma, and if I hadn't been so stunned I would have collapsed in tears. This amazing little boy began to reach out to others, to allow emotional connections.
Then, finally, came laughter...hugging....kissing.
And my heart began to sing again.
I experienced some of the very lowest lows of my life with Joshua, and also the very highest highs. I gained a measure of confidence in myself I otherwise never would have had, I faced the most feared evil and stood toe to toe with it, slaying the dragon within. He and I have traveled a very different path to becoming mommy and son, one that has in fact drawn us closer to each other than we might have otherwise been if all had been easy and simple. I had to walk a mile in his shoes, feeling the same sense of rejection and fear that he must have felt upon being abandoned, so I could better understand his pain. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
My love for my son knows no bounds, he is...along with my other sons and my husband...my everything. It is as if he crawled inside my heart and kicked around inside of it for awhile, stretched it almost to the breaking point with his struggling, and then finally nestled deep inside it after burrowing a nest of his very own.
Joshua has grown to be the most engaging, empathetic, tender child...he is also dynamic and deeper than many his age too at times. Not doubt his earlier life touched his soul, and not just with sorrow but with the strength to forge ahead despite fears.
It was during the conversation with my mom the other night that a light bulb went on for me, I realized that part of my fear and worry about whether Toktogul will ever really love me and accept me as his mother goes back to what I experienced with Josh, for that very thing actually did happen once already so I guess that fear is not unreasonable. But I have to push myself out of this and recognize that this is not about me, but about him, and I have to be mature enough to keep that in the forefront at all times. I also have to remind myself that this child is different, that he may struggle with attaching, but it is not a given that he will.
Regardless of what we go through with Toktogul, there will be so much I will learn, mistakes I will make, and new paths to discover...paths that will lead to another child's precious heart. My journey with Joshua may have served to well prepare me for what lies ahead.