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Warning: Some of the following uses some colorful language. Apologies to those with sensitive ears/eyes.
You have a small child who has a chubby little face with a precious smile and kissable cheeks. At this stage you don’t know what the future holds and occasionally you’re getting kisses from this button mouth and he’s funny and curious and charming.
Fast forward a few years and you’re sitting in a restaurant in Hollywood, CA where you’ve paid a lot of money to go and you’re trying to have a special moment and you get this:
Much of it is normal sullen teenager but changes have started happening that are not what you expected. There is rage. There is hatred. He’s on medications that treat the symptoms but the cause lives in his body like a parasite you cannot kill.
And words come out of him sometimes like he is possessed. And you wish that he was because then you could blame the devil inside him and not the sweet boy you wish he still was who is now saying he hates you.
When August first got diagnosed I thought, “If I’d just never put him on the school bus…” He learned a lot of his colorful language there. His father and I were very careful not to curse in the house though as his RAD emerged that got harder and harder! When he would be raging and want to push our buttons he would just say, “shit, shit shit” over and over again. That’s when I learned from his psychiatrist that putting soap in a child’s mouth isn’t appropriate any more. As I have mentioned in past blogs we did as much harm as we did good early on in learning about RAD and how to parent August effectively but in that instance it was the only thing that made it stop. This was when he was maybe 10. He went on to use many more curse words but for some reason early on that was his favorite. He seemed to like the sound of it best.
As an adoptive parent you fear hearing your child say, “You’re not my real mom.” It’s like a dagger to the heart. Children have the ability to fill you with more love than you ever thought possible and also take it away in one breath. With August, for better or worse, that became one of the least horrible things he said. He talked in his middle school years about killing us, killing himself, wishing we were dead, all of which prompted his placement in the residential treatment center in Missouri. When we got ready to leave, I hoped for a tearful goodbye to show some signs of attachment and he was able to provide another kick in the gut with, “If you’re not going to take me with you then just leave.”
As a high-school age man-child he felt entitled to use all the curse words he knew. Which were plenty. “Fuck” became a punctuation mark, an adjective, a exclamation, you name it. He didn’t care that it upset me, that only made it more fun. He didn’t care about using it at school or with the police. That adorable face became unrecognizable to me whenever it spoke because it spewed hatred-filled, awful words. He manipulated and threatened and spoke with no feeling in his voice at all. But you could feel all the hurt in every word that came out of his mouth. All the pain he didn’t know how to process. All the loss and anger he feels and doesn’t know what to do with. It’s all in there trying to find an outlet and he is trying with every horrible word to control it. Not letting anyone else help him and making it worse every time he pushes someone away with the hurtful things he says.
Since he’s been in prison much of that has not changed. He’s tried some amazing cons on his father and I to get money. When we don’t fall for them the tirades are pretty amazing but at least now I can hang up the phone.
But more often there are these pleasant, calm phone calls. He asks me first what I’m doing and how I am. We talk about books and movies and my garden and my job. We talk about the family. When we visit together we talk about the past and things we used to do. He tells me about things that happened when he was living on the streets that both scare me to death and break my heart. Both of the phone calls and the in-person visits end with his saying “I love you” first. With a tone that says he means it. Hard to know for sure but I think so.
I’ll take it.
“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
There are many different combinations of people visiting. Some are obvious; boyfriends/husbands and girlfriends/wives, parents/sons, families and fathers. It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking to see children visiting their fathers here. They have pictures on the wall obviously drawn by children who have visited and there are murals painted all around to make the place seem less sad. Nothing about the faces or demeanors of the people seem hopeless or tragic. Everyone has on their, “Everything will be OK” looks.
August finally walks in. He’s wearing a khaki jumpsuit. He’s always been skinny and other than a few more tattoos he looks basically the same. The hug feels great. We sit down and chat. It’s not really awkward because we talk all the time. But it’s slightly weird. We haven’t been in the same room in almost 1 1/2 years other than a courtroom. He’s recently gotten a tattoo on his neck-a cross in the middle with a devil on one side and an angel on the other. The angel is naked. I guess if your son is going to have an angel tattoo on his neck it’s good that she has a nice rack.
I try to talk about important things. He tries to listen. I try to get him to think about his life. He tries to say the right answers. What he thinks I want to hear. We keep things civil. I hope that these visits will propel him to want to get out and do the things he needs to do to make that happen. He has come into the visit having to go to the bathroom so the visit gets cut short because as soon as he gets up the visit is over.
We are together about an hour and a half and it is glorious. As horrible as so much of parenting him has been, I miss him every day. I miss seeing his face and his smile. I miss going to movies with him and when he liked to help me with things. They were such brief moments but they were glimpses of who he could be. I get to go every two weeks will be so helpful for me and I hope for him.
Again, not a place I ever thought I’d be. Amazing the lives we find ourselves living.
And all I was told was, “Something happened.” I was afraid to go downstairs. But there were three yogurts and the three of us laid in bed and ate yogurt together and had a great breakfast. It was wonderful.
Of course I did have to go downstairs eventually and I found this:
But the fact that they tried this hard made my heart melt even more.
August will never understand how much Mother’s Day means to me. That for seven years I didn’t think I’d ever be a mother. That getting the call with his court date the week before Mother’s Day in 2001 (and finding out I was pregnant two days later) was the most amazing 48 hours of my life. I wish he could feel how full my heart is when I think about being his mom. And how much it breaks that he can’t. If he could I know his life would be so much different.
Mother’s Day is a time for celebrating our mothers, or those who have served that role. Remembering the mothers we’ve lost and acknowledging what a vital role mothers play in the development of every human. Understanding Reactive Attachment Disorder brings the role of mother to a whole new level of importance now for me. I have been robbed of much of that bond with my child but nevertheless I would not be a mother without him and for that I am truly blessed.
Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers and mother souls out there. Thank you for caring.]]>
But I digress. So the boys are almost four years apart in age. And arriving so close in time we didn’t know much how to parent either one of them. But we felt like we did things pretty much the same with each one and August hadn’t been identified as RAD yet. We didn’t know we were going to need to parent him differently. Of course they had different interests. But we read books to both, sang songs at night, said a prayer at dinner time, went to church, tried to carve out time for each of them individually.
August was always more independent. When he was three and four years old he could leave his bed at night in total darkness and roam the house with no fear. He’d fall asleep wherever he got sleepy and we’d be terrified trying to find him under the guest bed or behind the living room couch or wherever he landed. He could sneak down into the kitchen and get food and take it back to his room without us ever hearing him. The food hoarding started way back then. His brother went to bed and never woke up.
As the RAD behaviors started to emerge we probably made a lot of mistakes in how we addressed them. Hours and hours trying to calm August’s rage and keep him from hurting himself or us. A lot of it including us yelling too. A lot of time with him in his room and learning later that separating him from us was the worst thing to do. And then all the time we were spending trying to help him. Teacher meetings and psychiatrists and counselors and extra time with him doing homework and taking him to tutors.
All the time this was happening his brother was also growing up. And everything came so easy to him. He was smart, gentle, easy-going. He had several interests which we were able to fit in. He was fine being alone and developed a love for reading. When I had to spend hours dealing with August’s rages, he could occupy his time. I felt terribly guilty about what having a child like August who required so much of my time and who created so much chaos in the house was doing to him.
So fast-forward. It’s 10 years later. I continued to raise two sons with the same love and caring. As I learned about RAD I did parent them differently, understanding what would work for August. They both dealt with the end of my marriage and seemed to handle it much the same. I moved to Indiana, away from both of them, something I hated doing, but needed to do.
I have already talked about August’s path. School never worked for him. IEPs and homeschooling and constant behavior issues and run-ins with the law. A residential treatment program then more arrests and eventually his current time now in prison.
And his brother has been in advanced classes, won awards, starred in school productions. Doesn’t need to be told to do homework, overachieves on projects, goes to a gifted and talented high school and will graduate with almost a year’s worth of college credits.
Two children, raised identically except for the first three years. Given all the love and caring and opportunity two parents can give. And even when problems arose, all efforts were made to help and heal. August’s brain was altered before we ever met him. The abuse and neglect of his first three years had set his course. And while he could have healed and overcome his demons (and still can), the psychiatrist that diagnosed him said that the angst and discomfort that bonding feelings cause makes the RAD child fight like crazy against it.
So it seems that I was waging an uphill battle against nature with August. I don’t know if I did everything right (probably not). It seems to have helped with his brother (or maybe that’s in spite of me!) I hope I’m not out of time. I love both my boys so very much.
Most of the stories describe them as “mentally ill” with a lot of interest into what kinds of medications they had been taking and how many times they’d been treated for psychological disorders.
I am part of several different groups of mothers and families of children with RAD and there was much talk about whether the boy in this latest shooting had attachment issues or what might have precipitated his choices.
And when these things happen there is always a lot of blame to go around…the gun, the child, the parents, the school, the law enforcement, the government, the mental health system. And I’m not going to get into any of that here.
But here is how it looks from where I sit.
I’m pretty sure, “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” was invented for Moms of RAD kids. Even if you aren’t religious. Because most of the time you fear there is nothing your RAD isn’t capable of. And as details of the lives of the individuals who commit these awful massacres are revealed, you hear stories that sound so eerily familiar. The smart child who just didn’t achieve his potential. The child who had trouble making friends. The child who had a disruptive childhood.
And you can’t help but wonder if your child could be the next one. And the anxiety that you live with every day grows just a little bit more…
Now of course every child with RAD doesn’t become homicidal. And not every person who commits one of these massacres had RAD. But this is the world that families of children with RAD live in.
My heart breaks for the parents and relatives and loved ones of the families of the people who have committed these horrible acts. Because they have to live with one of two things. Either there were signs all along that they saw and could do nothing about to help those individuals feel whole. Or there weren’t signs and they feel like they didn’t see the pain their loved one was experiencing right in front of them.
When August first started getting into legal trouble in some ways it seemed like the natural progression of his lying and stealing behaviors at home. So it wasn’t so surprising. And initially he was remorseful and frightened. And I thought maybe it would be a good thing in the long run–sort of a scared straight moment.
But then it happened again. And again. And it escalated. And he turned 18. And he got arrested as an adult. And after a while the court system stops caring about any mental health issues that might be at play. And this last time involved guns. Something I never thought would ever happen. We never even bought toy guns when he was little.
So now I have to hope that the treatment he will receive in prison may reach him. I have to hope there is something in me that can still reach him. I have to hope that continuing to mature and eventually make better choices may kick in as he gets older. I have to hope he gets older.
Till next time. Peace and safety for all our children.
The newest guide to diagnosing mental disorders is the DSM-5, classifies this as a Stressor-related disorder which can only be caused by social neglect during childhood (meaning a lack of adequate caregiving). Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder is similar to Reactive Attachment Disorder but presents with externalizing behavior and a lack of inhibitions in behavior, rather the internalizing, withdrawn behavior and depressive symptoms present in Reactive Attachment Disorder. :265 It is also recognized as an emotional disorder which begins during childhood. ,  Reactive Attachment Disorder DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria Code 313.89 A. consistent pattern of inhibited, emotionally withdrawn behavior toward adult caregivers, manifested by both of the following:
The child rarely or minimally seeks comfort when distressed.
The child rarely or minimally responds to comfort when distressed.
B. A persistent social and emotional disturbance characterized by at least two of the following:
Minimal social and emotional responsiveness to others.
Limited positive affect.
Episodes of unexplained irritability, sadness, or fearfulness that are evident even during nonthreatening interaction with adult caregivers.
C. The child has experienced a pattern of extremes of insufficient care as evidenced by at least one of the following:
Social neglect or deprivation in the form of persistent lack of having basic emotional needs for comfort, stimulation, and affection met by caregiving adults.
Repeated changes of primary caregivers that limit opportunities to form stable attachments (e.g., frequent changes in foster care.)
Rearing in unusual settings that severely limit opportunities to form selective attachments (e.g. institutions with child-to-caregiver-ratios.)
D. The care in Criterion C is presumed to be responsible for the disturbed behavior in Criterion A (e.g., the disturbances in Criterion A began following the lack of adequate care in Criterion C.) E. The criteria are not met for autism spectrum disorder. F. The disturbance is evident before age 5 years. G. The child has a developmental age of at least 9 months.
So what does this all mean? It boils down to this. Children who were abused, neglected or traumatized or in some way had inadequate caregiving from birth to age 5 may develop an inability to form healthy relationships. And this will continue even if an appropriate caregiver is introduced later on.
Doesn’t sound so bad maybe. But here’s some more common terms for how RAD looks:
lack of boundaries
acts much younger than chronological age
underdeveloped conscience, lack of remorse
inappropriate responses (laughing or smiling when something is sad)
fake, not genuine
difficulty showing affection
aversion to physical touch
tantrums or rages
sensory issues or sensory processing disorder
lack of eye contact
not asking for help when hurt, sick or needing assistance
manipulative (can be excellent at triangulating adults)
blames others for their mistakes
physically and verbally aggressive or abusive
The ones in purple are the ones I have experienced with August over the years. Most of them consistently.
The doctor that diagnosed him when he was nine explained it to me like this. When children are little, babies and toddlers, they cry and a caregiver does something to care for them. As an infant this is mostly meeting basic needs like food or sleep or a diaper change. But it is also providing soothing and comforting even when the infant doesn’t understand. This is a critical time because on both an emotional and physiological level they are learning how to trust. They learn when they are suffering, someone will care for them and they can trust that this care will happen every time. Their brain also is forming connections as it grows that help them learn that it is OK to trust.
If this constant caregiving isn’t present during these crucial formative years then the child does not develop the ability to trust. They have no assurance that when they are hurt or hungry that anyone will care and provide for their needs. The synapses in their brain are actually “pruned” and the brain does not learn that trust is something they can develop with any caregiver.
This is what August experienced. He was born to a teenage mother, from all accounts a prostitute, who didn’t know who the father was. There was no record of any pre-natal care. From infancy, August was left with friends, relatives or neighbors while his mother continued her life. He had a grandmother living in the home who moved away when August was one. At the time August was removed from his birthmother, records indicate he had probably been alone in his home (an apartment) for maybe up to two weeks. Neighbors alerted the authorities and he was found. He spent a month in the hospital with pneumonia before being placed in an orphanage. He was two years old. His information indicated he was the height and weight of a one-year-old. He couldn’t walk, talk or sit up. The doctor we had review his information when we were considering his adoption said if she’d seen this information she wouldn’t have expected he’d survive. He’s a fighter!
So after a year in the orphanage he was walking, talking, beginning to learn, and on the charts for height, weight and head circumference (though barely!) But even though the orphanage saved his life, he didn’t have a dedicated caregiver. So his emotional healing was not as successful.
So this is what happened and what I didn’t know would set the stage for many years of tears and laughter, heartache and joy, anger and frustration and feelings of hopelessness. But mostly feeling so sorry for this poor child who had no say in what had happened to him and now was burdened with not even being able to enjoy the life that he should surely be ecstatic to have.
One of the best descriptions of what it’s like to be a child with RAD came from Nancy Thomas, who is considered one of the leaders in Attachment Therapy. She writes:
THE FROZEN LAKE By Nancy L. Thomas
“In order to understand what an unattached child feels like, one must understand his perspective. Imagine that you are the young child who must cross a frozen lake in the autumn to reach your home. As you are walking across the lake alone, you fall suddenly and unexpectedly through the ice. Shocked and cold in the dark, you can’t even cry for help. You struggle for your very life, you struggle to the surface. Locating the jagged opening, you drag yourself through the air and crawl back into the woods from where you started. You decide to live there and never, never to return onto the ice. As weeks go by you see others on the lake ice skating and crossing the ice. If you go onto it, you will die.”
“Your family across the pond hears the sad news that the temperature will drop to sub-zero this night. So a brave and caring family member (that is you, the parent!) searches and finds you to bring you home to love and warmth. The family member attempts to help you cross the ice by supporting and encouraging, pulling and prodding. You, believing you will die, fight for your life by kicking, screaming, punching and yelling (even obscenities) to get the other person away from you. Every effort is spent in attempting to disengage from this family member. The family member fights for your life, knowing you must have the love and warmth of home for your very survival. They take the blows you dish out and continue to pull you across the ice to home, knowing it’s your only chance.”
“The ice represents the strength of the bond and your ability to trust. It was damaged by the break in your connection to someone you trusted. Some children have numerous bonding breaks throughout their young lives. This is like crashing them into the ice water each time they are moved, scarring and chilling their hearts against ever loving and bonding again.”
This has been much longer than I expected but I hope it has given some sense of the starting point of life with August and a reference point to understand how this beautiful child came to us so broken and unable to heal. I will add some additional references for those who might want to learn more about RAD.
Until next time,