Parts 6 and 7 of the story continue with some of the details of our first adopted child's life. We adopted Heather when she was six years old. We first met her on January 16, 1999. She passed away in a car accident - still chasing her dreams - on January 16, 2011. She lives on through her story.
The Rest of the Middle of the Beginning: Heather’s Life
When Heather was younger, we spent countless hours having long talks on my bed. She had a huge gaping hole in her heart. She had this strong, impossible to ignore feeling that she had been abandoned by her birth family and the one failed adoption and all the families in between. She felt unloved. Unworthy. Like she was too much trouble for anyone to endure.
She also had questions about whether she had ever been physically or sexually abused. She had no specific memories, but she was so young she didn’t expect that she would remember anything. Over the years, lots of experience with other sexually abused children in our family led us to believe that her conduct was consistent with a history of sexual abuse. But the adoption records weren’t clear about the time or circumstances – just vague allegations. I had read her adoption file and asked lots of questions during the adoption process, but no one had any clear answers. So we were just left with the thoughts. These thoughts haunted her for most of her life.
We did know that she lived with her birth mom and dad for the first 15 months of her life. Her mom eventually was placed in a mental hospital for the seriously mentally disturbed where she stayed for many years, but the adoption records gave us no diagnosis. Nonetheless, I think it is fairly safe to assume that if Heather’s birth mom was mentally ill enough to be institutionalized for a long period of time, it is unlikely that she was capable of providing for Heather’s basic needs in a way that we could say was normal during those 15 months.
In between, Heather lived with at least five other families –mostly family members who attempted to keep her in the family. But in each home, there was a problem. Another child was too jealous of her. The family wasn’t really prepared emotionally or financially to raise another child for the long-term. Heather was too challenging. Her grandmother adored her but she was too old to raise her. Family conflict in the extended family was disruptive. It wasn’t a lack of love for Heather that caused the problems, but nothing was ever quite right.
Heather’s memories of those moves from house to house are conflicted. She had some very specific memories of certain incidents that she attributed to her leaving. In every case, regardless of the actual reason, Heather somehow believed that she was abandoned and unloved because she did something really bad that caused her to be sent away.
Heather was not a model child and it’s natural for her to assume she was to blame. Having talked to most of her family over the years, no one ever said it was because Heather was a bad kid. But that’s what Heather always thought - she was bad and they didn’t love her enough to keep her. Those thoughts consumed her most of her life – until her 18th birthday, when she and I took a trip to visit her birth family – primarily so that she could ask the tough questions she had always needed answers to. That was the first trip back for a visit that seemed to give her some much-needed resolution to her internal conflict. She discovered that she was loved and there was a place for her in her birth family.
We also know a little about the first adoption, which was disrupted following a psychiatric evaluation after a few short weeks. I never spoke to the psychiatrist, but the first adoptive mom told me that he had diagnosed Heather with Attachment Disorder, which is the diagnosis given for children who are so abused or neglected in their first three years of life that they fail to form a human bond with anyone. They never learn to trust. And for many, that failure to trust lasts a lifetime.
The psychiatrist’s prognosis was grim. He said that children with Attachment Disorder are the kind of kids that grow up setting fires, hurting people and animals, and eventually committing murder. He was serious. His words were compounded by a made for television movie called “Child of Rage” based on a true story of a six-year-old girl with Attachment Disorder that did horrible things to her adoptive family without remorse or the appearance of a conscious. The movie was also about the then new idea of “holding therapy” which was designed to recreate the child’s early life and teach the child to trust. His recommendation to the adoptive parents was to get rid of Heather as soon as possible.
And they did. I don’t blame them for following the advice of the psychiatrist. They were young and inexperienced. They had no children. They were taking the advice of a seemingly well-meaning professional. It seemed logical to listen to a man who told you that if you kept this child, your world would become a living hell.
I doubt that when they decided to adopt, they thought they were signing up for that. They were looking for a child to love and lavish. I’m guessing they thought love would be enough. They were enamored by this adorable little blue-eyed girl who knew exactly what to do and say to make someone fall in love with her.
Often, kids with Attachment Disorder develop wonderful coping skills and appear on the surface to be loving, lovable, happy children that will seemingly go to anyone – even a total stranger. But this is simply a tool for survival. A way to meet their immediate needs for food, clothing, shelter and human contact without actually being in relationship with anyone.
The reality is that these kids believe that the only people that can be trusted are themselves. But many don’t even trust themselves over time. Without trust, there can be no real relationship. And that becomes the core of all future manifestations of the problems in their lives.
We most often hear about Attachment Disorder because of International Adoptions. Before people really understood this Disorder, foreign orphanages had so little money and so many children that babies were rarely held. Bottles were attached to ropes strung across the bed. Cries went unanswered by human touch. Babies were left to themselves. God said it wasn’t good for humans to be without others of their kind. And you can see the truth in that when you see the consequences that occur when innocent, precious little babies are left alone.
It seems like the solution would be simple. Place that same little child into the loving arms of a mom and dad who desperately want to be this child’s parents and all will be well. And for some, that is possible – especially if they are still in the life-stage where they are formulating their beliefs about trust and human relationships. Experts say that this happens before age 3, but I really don’t know. God is bigger than an age limit. But he did create us in a certain way and so many times, the outcomes are predictable.
If only love were enough. But it usually isn’t. The love of parents is not enough. Can never be enough. Because this child doesn’t know how to accept love. This child doesn’t know how to give real love. Everything is a façade. A way to “act” to get needs met. In a weird sort of way – kids like Heather learn to do and say and be whoever they need to be at any given moment – but it is for the purpose of getting something. Not for the sake of the relationship.
I’m not an expert in Attachment Disorder. I’m not here to give you a clinical definition and clinical answers. I speak simply as a parent of an adopted child who was said to have suffered from it. Over the years, I read and learned what I could. But mostly, I just engaged in life with my child, knowing that an inability to trust was at the core of all her problems - regardless of the cause.
So, this couples’ dreams was turned upside down by her prognosis. They contacted the adoption agency that placed Heather and told the agency they couldn’t keep her. They wanted her out of their house immediately. After all, they had already seen signs that the psychiatrist was right. Heather held their beloved cat too tightly. She wasn’t gentle enough. She screamed from nightmares. They had caught her in lies. She intentionally destroyed things that were important to the adoptive mom and then pretended to have no idea how it happened. Heather remembered all that and told me about it many times.
The truth is, Heather was not the right child for this family. And God knew that. But that didn’t stop Heather from feeling abandoned once again. From feeling like one more family couldn’t handle her and didn’t love her enough to keep trying.
I didn’t tell Heather what the psychiatrist said about her until she was about 15 and we began reading her adoption records, which contained some of her psychiatric evaluation. She knew the diagnosis when she was six, but not what the psychiatrist said she would do. Truthfully, I didn’t think it would help and I didn’t want to give her any ideas or expectations!
Looking back, the first night Heather was at our house, we let all four girls sleep on our bedroom floor so that we could all be together. The next morning, we woke to find that our entire front yard had been burned in a brush fire. Apparently, the fire trucks had even come and put it out. None of us woke up through any of it.
I never suspected Heather because she was in our room with us and I usually hear everything and everyone in my mommy sleep. Not to mention, she had only been in the house for a few hours before going to bed and didn’t know where anything was kept. We certainly didn’t have matches accessible to her. But there was never any explanation for the fire.
It didn’t occur to me until just a few years ago that Heather could have done that. Fire starting can be a problem in children with Attachment Disorder. I never asked her and I will never know now. But thinking back, I wonder if I had thought she started that fire, would I have fallen into the trap of believing she was too dangerous to be around my other kids? I think God protected me from that thought. It seems so obvious now to believe that Heather was the logical person to blame, but it totally evaded me then. Thanks God.
Come to think of it, God always protected our family from what we didn’t need to know. I don’t know how, but the kids especially, knew nothing they didn’t need to know – even if they were sitting in the room while it happened or while we were talking about it.
So, I’m not here to cast blame on Heather’s birth family or the first family that tried to adopt Heather or any of the families in between. That isn’t my job and it won’t make one bit of difference in the outcome. My only job was to try to understand what might have happened so that we could try to figure out how Heather could learn to trust. I’m not sure we ever fully succeeded in that quest.
Sometimes, our long conversations led to short-term relief from her misery, but nothing permanent. I knew that her only hope was in her relationship with God. As she got older, I knew that relationship needed to be with Him. Directly. I frequently told her that the hole in her heart could only be filled by Him, but she kept trying to fill it with me or some other person. And we weren’t good enough. We would never be good enough to make her truly happy. She hated when I said that.
When I realized that I didn’t have many more answers for Heather. When I knew that I had filled her with Truth – even though she couldn’t quite grasp it all. I knew it was time. I had nothing new left to offer, so I urged her to engage more fully in her relationship with God.
Part 7 continues Heather's story. I will post it immediately following this entry.
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