Thursday, 26 January 2017

A Resilient Onion

Resilience is like an elastic band or a rubber ball. You can stretch so far before it pings you back with a snap to reality. It keeps you from going over the edge. It's an important key to the survival of trauma. The bouncebackability. It's a bit like the story of the tortoise and the hare, the tortoise keeps going and going until he reaches the end of the race. Resilience keeps your feet taking each step, walking towards optimism.    As someone who has experienced trauma and loss and suffered with challenges to her mental health throughout the years as a result I remain ever curious about mental stability and optimism and resilience. I believe that mental stability is tightly intertwined with optimism and resilience, well it certainly has been that way for me.

The other thing that fascinates me is how our layers of mental health peel away throughout our lives. Just when we think we know who we are circumstance peels away another layer bringing more learning and more healing. A period of stability is like a reprieve before the next layer is peeled, or ripped, away leaving you raw and finding ways to smooth the edges again.    Mental health is something we fear in our culture. We talk about it in hushed voices. We brush feelings under the carpet in a desperate attempt to cling hold of normality and stability. We see mental illness as a weakness, something to apologise for, something to hide from other people. The inevitable crash when it comes from hiding all those feelings is often a surprise. What I've learned in my life is that crisis, healing and learning come in waves. Some of the waves are like tsunamis and some are ripples. The important thing is to never delude yourself that you are healed. Being healed implies a journey that is completed, a final destination, an end game.

We are sold an ideal of reaching self actualisation, the pinnacle of self learning but maybe self actualisation comes with acceptance. Being able to accept that we are an onion, ever peeling, ever learning, ever changing and riding those waves with the knowledge that each wave teaches us more about who we are, who we were born to be, what we are here to learn about being human. Not being fully healed doesn't mean you can't still be happy either.    As adoptive parents we live in a world brimming with trauma. Our trauma, our children's trauma. We may be well on the way to healing our own trauma but slowly they intertwine like laced fingers and it's hard to see where one stops and the other one starts. It offers empathy but can also bring out the worst in us all as we react and take on their trauma and come to understand our own triggers. We see our darker side and that of our children more than we care to admit.

Trauma and fear are travelling companions. We fear the future, we fall into the trap as parents of feeling we have to cure our children, heal their trauma as quickly as possible, forgetting that their onion layers will continue to peel throughout their lives as well and that time really is the greatest healer of all.  Their experiences, past, present and future will expose their inner rawness piece by piece and they will heal each layer as it is revealed to them. If we are able to accept this journey takes a long time some of the fear is able to dissipate and we can focus on creating a stronger elastic band to help pull us back from the edge in times of need. That elastic band might include family and friends, support groups and a good therapist. It might include favourite songs, books and movies that help bring perspective and healing and hope. A period of time on antidepressants may be needed. A favourite smell can bring comfort.  It might include the knowledge that experiences are ever flowing, ever changing. Nothing stays the same forever. The sun rises and the sun sets. The tide flows in and out and the beach is never the same two days in a row. That knowledge and understanding is what opens your eyes each morning in times of distress. The hope that the landscape will change and we will see things differently and feel differently about what we see.   

As parents I feel we need to help our children develop resilience. Each of us are born with different amounts in our personality I think. Many of our children have experienced challenges beyond our understanding yet still they are able to smile, to laugh, to open their eyes each day. The trauma they have experienced may bring them daily challenges that seem insurmountable and are slow to heal. Too many layers of that onion were left ripped open when they arrived with us. We worry about how to help them. We live with the reality of leaking trauma. We love them and want to heal their pain. We have high expectations of what we can achieve in a short space of time because we have so much nurturing love to offer. We feel sad and angry when trauma stands in the way of attachment and our own trauma stands in the way of understanding. We feel scared that we cannot help and sometimes sadly we can't in the short term. Our own resilience can become tattered and torn but it's still there. If you look carefully you can see it out of the corner of your eye and it's important to nurture it, to take time to look after yourself so you can share with your children how to help yourself stay strong.  We can be the best teachers of this.

One thing I've learned in my life is that I have resilience in bucket loads. It came as a flash of realisation recently. It's something I've always had. Is it just my personality or is it something more? Personality does play a part but for me it's being able to hang on to the love I experience from my Grandmother. In the never ending storm that was my earlier years she stood there and loved me. She loved with without fanfare or requests for recognition. She gave me the biggest gift a person can give, unconditional love. I didn't know that during the turbulence of my childhood. It is only with the wisdom and clarity age has brought that I can see my life and the experiences that shaped me along the way.  I can see the gift she gave me and how it gave me a layer of protection. I also had the ability to tune everything out. Nowadays we would recognise that as an insecure attachment disorder but don't knock it. That kept me safe throughout my childhood until I was mature enough to peel that layer away. Actually I've discovered there is more than one layer to examine on that subject but I keep that wave in mind and get out my surf board when the waves build up. Becoming a parent to adopted children has ripped a few layers off just at a time in my life when I thought I'd peeled and examined most of them. It turns out I had some big layers still left to deal with and being a parent was necessary to face some of the big ones. I fought them with my armour of optimism. I've been brought to my knees as I've faced some of the darker elements to myself. The ones I swore I'd never be but trauma and fear does that. It sneaks into you and impacts on your reactions. I've had to face the demons my own abusive childhood as my daughter expresses her anger. Unresolved trauma sees fear in many situations. Living with that violent anger taught me I'm still afraid of anger, my anger, her anger so it was time to peel that layer off and get to work in it. Learning to pause and feel and hold my inner child before reacting is an ongoing lesson that I'm really getting to grips with. I thought I'd dealt with that issue but my daughter has taught me that there was more work yet to do. I've had a few light bulb moments and I've also started to learn I have to accept that this never ending personality peel is part of the journey.

I'm learning about myself all the time. I'm learning that I've still a long way to go. I'm trying to accept that I make mistakes and there are parts of me that weren't what I thought they were. Most of all I've realised that parenting isn't a race against time. As adoptive parents we need to be the tortoises. We need to set our children up for the whole of their lives, not just for their childhood. Helping them develop their resilience is a big part of that. As Buffy the Vampire Slayer once said "The hardest thing in this world is to live in it". Once we know that it won't come as a surprise or a disappointment so we can slowly teach our children how to self soothe and nurture, help them find what works for them, and to find perspective amongst the perceived crazy inside their heads and how to take care of that elastic band and whilst we're doing that we'll learn some interesting things about ourselves too.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

The Highs and Lows of Adoption...

When you write a blog for a long time it becomes part of the family; a part of who you are and how you express yourself. I've been writing this blog since the day before we met Katie for the first time. It has evolved and grown, originally intended as a method of updating eager friends and family about our introductions with Katie.  Since then it has documented our journey as adopters through the highs and lows; a second adoption; a search of a diagnosis for Katie; life, the universe and everything.

I use this blog as a way of expressing how I'm feeling and making sense of what is going on in our lives.  I share our lives and feelings now as a matter of course.  I hope that at times it helps other people who are thinking of becoming adopters or who are maybe struggling with adopted life. Mostly I work my own stuff out.  I write about everything, not to moan or complain but simply to share and try and make some sense of what is going on in our lives.  It helps me enormously to just sit and write and I often find a sense of clarity by the time I have completed the blog piece. At the very least I'm usually breathing a little more calmly by the time I've finished writing. Over the past few years life has been very chaotic in the Life with Katie family for a variety of reasons, some of which I share here. For me chaos is very difficult.  I like a more ordered life.  My own childhood left me with a profound need for order.  I can try and soar on the wind when I have to but mostly I prefer to know when the wind is going to blow.

Probably not the best personality type for having two crazy children and four cats and an often disorganised husband and a universe hell bent on throwing all it can at me.

I muddle through as best I can.  I am a habitual over-analyser so I drive myself to the point of exhaustion questioning my reactions and feelings.  Growing up in a house where chaos reigned and exaggerated emotions were shared daily left me nervous of big, out of control emotions.

Then we adopted Katie and Pip and our house and my life is now a plethora of big, out of control emotions.  Many of them belong to the children and many of them belong to me.

I get on with it.  I deal with it. I manage as best I can with it.  I eat too much chocolate on the days when it's really difficult and I drink more wine in the evenings than I have ever have in my adult life. I shout more than I would like and this is one of my biggest issues I am desperate to sort out. I know I'm not alone. I know it's not ideal but really, you try living in our house and never get so frustrated you could literally drive away and book yourself into a hotel for a week! Arguments can literally break out before I've opened my eyes from a vaguely restful sleep some mornings and I feel adrenaline course through my veins before the dream of a cup of tea has even formed.

One of the things I touched upon in my last post on the truth about modern adoption was the pressure on modern adopters to be aware of all the issues our children face as a result of being adopted and respond to them appropriately.  There are now various parenting models available to try out and adopters spend lots of time discussing these strategies and how to implement them. I notice in myself and in other adopters a fear of getting it wrong and making things worse. Because of the lack of support from agencies like CAMHS adopters are often left to it themselves to implement strategies without proper support.  Strategies like Non-Violent Resistance are becoming more publicised but such strategies need careful planning and lots of support to work properly so adopters who are going it alone often wind up feeling more frustrated and a failure when the strategies fail to work. Adoptive parenting is like normal parenting with a Brucie bonus.  Our children often do things louder and for longer and with more breakages and shouting than children working through their emotional development with fewer pressures. It is one thing to understand what their emotional challenges and development are but another to manage the expression of that in a perfect way.  I read longingly the writing of Bryan Post and nod long enthusiastically and promise myself I will be more in the moment and be able to reflect back to my child that they are feeling angry or be able to walk away and ignore items of furniture being thrown at me without feeling angry but I just haven't found a way to do that just yet.  I suspect I will have to dig down deep into my own childhood experiences yet again to slay the dragon that wants to protect me from all those big emotions and flying missiles.

Is it must me or is that easier said than done?

I remember reading Bryan Post talking about the blueprint that we are given as children about parenting.  Our parents parented us with the blueprint of a garden shed whilst being sold the ideal of living in a castle.  I think about this often because of that ongoing irritation with myself of not being able to rewrite my blueprint sufficiently to enable my children to get the blueprint they need for their future lives. How much therapy does one adoptive parent need for heaven's sake?

I've been feeling a shift just lately though.  A desire to say to hell with all these parenting books and
the fear of failure they instill.  To hell with being able to solve all their problems in a month.  It's unachievable. We have to be ready for the long haul flight, not the quick hop across the channel.  As adopters we spend our lives trying to help our children overcome their own fears yet we seem to be doing it in a desperate swim against the tide of our own fear. What's that all about?  Just as regular parents are bombarded with an onslaught of "this is how you do it" parenting books I fear adoption parenting is heading the same way.  That's not to say some knowledge doesn't help and isn't desperately needed and I'm grateful for all the pioneering authors out there but sadly I feel the benchmark they set often isn't achievable either at all or without the right support from the right services. Therein lies the rub as they say. Mental Health services in the UK are very under-supported by the government.  I almost laughed uncontrollably at the new Prime Minister's plans to add more money to community mental health support which amounted to effectively 97p per person! That won't even buy you a bar of chocolate let alone the ongoing support which we so desperately need.

I don't have any solutions to offer.  I'm on a long waiting list for an ADHD parenting course (who knows when that will arrive!) so what do I know? All I do know is that I am slowly letting go of reading endless adoption books that sell me an ideal and a benchmark that I feel doesn't exist.  It all feels so intense - do you  know what I mean? More recently I've been going back to basics - tight boundaries and a clear message about acceptable behaviour.  I'm trying to pick battles but there are often many to choose from and I need to get better at soaring on the wind and going with the flow and any other metaphor you care to inject. I'm not expecting that to be easy though.  Katie is currently full of angst and is rarely able to accept responsibility for any of her behaviour but just lately has started to actually apologise which is a big step forward.  We use natural consequences where we can and more specific consequences when a clearer boundary needs to be set (like teaching your 4 year old brother the "F" word). Reward charts don't really work here for long but I'll take any incentive that has some benefits, even the old fashioned parenting "go to" tool of bribery. I am trying not to fear my daughter's diagnosis of FASD so much and my anxieties about where that and her oppositional nature will lead her.  I'm going to try and stop correcting some of those issues and simply side step them a bit more instead of feeling this overwhelming need to help her overcome all these issues right here and right now.  I'll forgive myself and them a whole lot more and I'll continue to try boosting their confidence wherever I can and hoping that chipping away at their feelings of inadequacy with things they are good at will help round out their self esteem as much as I can. I am reassured as I watch friends with older adopted children who seem to be maturing out of some of the early intense and stressful behaviour and I'm hoping we might see some of that here too.  I'm hoping if I stop trying so hard, keep it simple and emotional maturity appropriate and worry less about the future it might help feel calmer in the here and now and maybe then I can be a bit more present and in the moment and maybe even respond accordingly. Hopefully I'd like to just feel a little less stressed about it all which really isn't a great feeling to live with and makes me a dour faced mummy and not one who wants to relax and enjoy them a little more.

One thing I do know though is that I will continue to write about it in this blog and probably continue to chase my tail for some considerable time to come.  You're very welcome to join with me and continue to share your thoughts on my ramblings!

Thank you for all of those who do contact me and share your stories and thoughts and suggestions. It is wonderful to link in with you all and helps me as much as I know this blog can help others at times too.  We are a wonderful community and supporting each other is something we do well. xx

Thursday, 12 January 2017

The truth about modern adoption?

 Following on from the Daily Mail's article about the behavioural atrocities faced by modern adopters which caused an emotional storm in social media, The Guardian has published its own piece on the "realities" of modern adoption. Over the past year the media have moved from presenting adoption very positively and encouragingly (just like the politicians the Guardian piece chastises) to now jumping on a band wagon of inferring that adoption and fostering is a disaster zone that will leave you either dead, or with a nervous breakdown. Both are extremes (and I'd query the figure of 38,000 adoptions being this extreme cited by the Daily Mail) but there is a middle ground for many where life is incredibly challenging.

I know many adopters and I feel confident in saying that very few of our children are straight forward to parent. All of the adopters I know have noted that our children are emotionally younger than their peers at the very least so their behaviour reflects that delay. Many adopters cope with persistent lying and stealing (often food. Katie constantly takes my belongings quite simply because she wants them. Her FASD brain just doesn't seem to grasp that they belong to me.) This is common with FASD. Persistent rule breaking may not sound overly challenging but believe me it is. I've told my children probably more than 1,000 times not to go into the utility room. I've put signs on the door to enforce this rule but they disregard it daily. Many adopted children push the boundaries of regular family rules. It's not surprising that our commitment as parents is so tested after all what guarantee do the children have that we will stick around? That hasn't been their experience before coming to us. Sadly that constant pushing may not ever stop and love might not cure the insecurity within. If I drew a line in the sand and told Katie not to cross it she would immediately jump over it. I asked her recently why she always immediately does what I've asked her not to do and she said "It's so I can see what will happen". That makes sense but it's so frustrating because she is expecting a consequence and I'm just mostly trying to keep her safe and would like to have to stop giving tough consequences.

Child on Parent Violence is coming a term heard frequently in adopter forums. I am regularly slapped by both my children. We're still at an age where we can respond to these issues with parenting strategies but the fear that it might never stop and where it might lead dances around in my brain. Even at aged 9 and 4 years I find this element of daily life challenging and very stressful. Pip is now going through what I hope is just a phase of hurling things when he is angry. Reminding myself that at age 4 he is really around 3 years in his development on emotional issues this fits in with the expected behaviour of a 3 year old so I'm keeping everything crossed that he will calm down but the learned behaviour from watching his older sister (including hearing her swearing and copying her) means he is growing up thinking these behaviours are both normal and acceptable, even though there are consequences to his behaviour. We don't think he has been effected by FASD so are hopeful that learning from consequences will be easier for him than his sister.  I definitely feel important background information was withheld from us or glossed over during our first adoption particularly and we didn't understand enough about all the disorders. We now have a child with FASD as well as her other ADHD label and I worry about how oppositional she is and where that might lead. At the point of being placed with us at 2 years old Katie had met all her developmental markers. I think, with hindsight, the behavioural markers that highlighted the FASD were present at that point also but they were minimised and brushed aside as typical 2 year old behaviour. It wasn't until Katie got older and we challenged the age appropriateness of them that a clearer picture was obvious.  The daily behavioural challenges push me to my emotional limits. We've had input from our local authority but our case has been closed unless we "need life story work". I've chased CAMHS and paediatricians myself. I asked our SW for funding from the Adoption Support Fund for an Occupational Therapist's assessment which was given and provided a lot of information. We are waiting for a parenting course via CAMHS from Bernardo's but I've not heard anything more on that for several months leaving us still unsupported. Several months where my husband and I are goaded constantly. My husband is currently being targeted being called an "f***ing dick" and I'm asked why I married him. Everything Katie is asked to do results in a 'no" or a door slam as she marches off. We are thumped constantly when she feels she has nothing to say about an incident is angry with herself. I have to do battle to get her to eat yet she steals food constantly. I have to lock treats away. The build up to Christmas was unbearable at times.

The stress of a simple school day can push her over the edge some days. She needs time after school on her own with her iPad and the cat to calm her senses down and breathe a bit. Too much iPad time makes her aggressive though so I know use Our Pact to be able to remotely block her iPad and cleverly avoiding the ensuing argument for additional time....most of the time. I have to be able to read the signs of her mood as she comes out of school. Mostly I'm pretty accurate but some days, especially if she comes out of school with a friend, she can seem happy right up until the moment she walks in the front door when suddenly Mr Jekyll will be hiding under her coat.  These are some of the realities of life for us that would lend credence to the two articles above.

Conversely my daughter can be fun and sweet, loving and kind. She can be cute and cheeky and lovely to be with. She adores doing gymnastics and spends a lot of her homelife upside down, doing cartwheels and walkovers. She loves me helping her to improve her skills. She learned to play charades this Christmas which she loved along with endless rounds of the Yes/No game and my Buffy the Vampire Top Trumps. She will snuggle up on the sofa to watch TV and embrace feeling close to us.  Shes like a hedgehog, sometimes the prickles are in and sometimes they are well and truly out.  This could be said of many of us and it's hard to explain that what we experience goes beyond what most parents consider "normal".  Positive and loving behaviour cannot generally be encouraged through rewards or discouraged through penalties however. If acknowledged the lovely behaviour will mostly stop immediately or will quickly be sabotaged. I soak up those wonderful moments like a butterfly in the sunshine and try to work out how to encourage more of the same.  I find ways of expressing my pleasure in different ways i,e, "I've really enjoyed spending time with you today" and "Didn't we have fun doing xyz".

Life definitely isn't as I'd imagined it. I'd like to be able to "find the fun" a bit more. I do feel I get too stressed some days about the negative behaviour. I feel confused a lot of the time about the balance between consequences and just letting stuff go and trusting more in the impact of Katie maturing and shedding some of these behaviours as she is able to understand herself better. Reading articles like these ones in the Guardian and the Daily Mail don't exactly help either as they hype up the fear and anxiety.  My concern is that despite a plethora of adoption parenting experts and theories in recent years adopters mostly feel very deskilled. We are expected to deal with the worst kind of behaviour imaginable with unrelenting calmness and love (which is hard when having objects thrown at you or when being hit or kicked or a room is being trashed). Of course I feel angry when I'm anxious about my own safety. We are anxious about getting it wrong and making things worse and I'm  not sure that helps our children. All children need to know there are limits and to understand that a vast majority of people on this planet are dealing with issues around attachment.  I say that with a big degree of confidence having worked as a Counsellor for both adults and teenagers. Parenting traumatised children with little back up from Children's Services or support for implementing strategies is our reality as adopters but we also buy into a huge amount of fear created by adoption parenting authors. It's hardly any wonder we're stressed and confused and feeling isolated and lonely. What we need is support, proper support.  Easy access to diagnosis and therapies to help our children overcome their start in life and support to implement strategies with backup.  Reading a book doesn't offer enough support when parenting in the trenches I'm afraid.  We need to be able to speak to real people who can offer real strategies and who can hold our hands and reassure us, not the paltry pretend play therapy Katie and I had that didn't really address any of the issues long term.

My advice to potential adopters is to get savvy about all these issues. Know the right questions to ask and read up on FASD, drug withdrawal. and attachment disorders, ASD, ADHD, ODD and every other acronym ending in D! These disorders aren't necessarily insurmountable but you need to know your personal limits and understand what the child you are adopting might bring to your family dynamic. I will say however you can't predict your limits until you're facing them. The patience you think you have in bucketloads has probably never really been truly tested and the theories on parenting you may start the adoption process with will probably fly out the window very swiftly never to be seen again. When you read articles like the ones above do understand all this isn't the norm for all adopters however there is more than an ounce of truth here as well. We are parenting children who have often been to hell and back, even if you're told they've been in foster care since their birth. They don't deserve being born with a crack dependency or being exposed to alcohol in-utero. They are reacting to their life experiences. It can be easy to demonise their behaviour at times but how might we react to those experiences? As adopters we can offer the life experience that helps our children heal and thrive and live a better life which enables them to fulfil their ambitions and potential however I won't lie it can be very hard for us as parents. I'm not the mum I dreamed I would be, a fact that saddens me daily. I try hard to be the mum I have to be to help my children. I get it wrong a lot but I recognise that I often parent in a war zone. I learn daily, I have moments of despair and also happiness. Many parents of children who aren't adopted might say the same and there is a common ground sometimes. Our children generally do things more spectacularly and for longer than other children though. If you can understand that and be prepared for it and leave your expectations at the door then you'll get through. Sadly for some (and definitely a higher percentage than advertised by Social Services) it will go wrong and that is a travesty for the child, the adoptive parents and the system. I would say though that the truth about modern adoption isn't as strraightforward as either extreme presented in the media over the past 5 years. The truth is a very individual story but that rarely sells headlines.  Regular readers of this blog will have seen how our story has changed since we first met Katie and have faced the realities of her past, present and our hopes for the future.

I'd like to end of the side of optimism though.  I am always as honest as I can be in this blog.  I don't regret adopting either of my children.  They teach me so much about myself as I learn about them. They need what I have to offer and I hope and pray I don't screw them up too much when I react as a human and get things wrong. I get up and show up every day though and try again and hope and pray that it will be worth it in the end, for them.  Their future is so important.  They were born into circumstances that were not of their doing or choice. They do not deserve to be demonised or treated by society as less than anyone else.  Like any of us facing a traumatic experience some people are able to flourish and others aren't.

Please don't be put off adopting because of all these horror stories but do be aware of what the future may look like.  My heart breaks for all the children out there who need stability in order to have any chance of realising their potential.  What else goes with that need will be an individual story. I would like to leave with a thought though.  If adopters were better supported by the agencies who place the children with them and if there was more transparency about the needs of the children being placed maybe that would build more trust between adopters and adoption agencies and ultimately work in the best interests of the children involved.

Just a thought.......