Meet Casey

The Early Years

Casey Photos 1991-96_0024

Casey’s life and death, soon to be released in my book, The Girl Behind The Door, is the entire motivation behind this blog.

She was born on May 3, 1990 in Giżycko (pronounced Gih-ZHITZ-ko) in northeastern Poland near the border of Byelarus, a repressive dictatorship in the mold of the old Soviet Russia. Her birth sign was Taurus the Bull which described her to a T – tough exterior but a warm heart, the most loyal of friends, but also stubborn and inflexible. She was six weeks premature weighing only three pounds, a dangerously low birth weight for a preemie in Poland at the time.

She was likely delivered first followed by a twin sister who was stillborn. Because her lungs hadn’t fully matured she probably went straight from the delivery room to an incubator, where she stayed for two months. She was then sent to a state orphanage in nearby Mrągowo where she lived for the first year of her life before we received her. I don’t know if her mother even touched her; she relinquished her parental rights. Casey was given the name Joanna – by who I don’t know – her surname was Niełacna.

Though we had seen a fair amount of the countryside in a cramped, five-hour car ride from Warsaw to pick her up at the orphanage, it wasn’t until after Casey’s death that I Googled Giżycko and was amazed at what I found. I pictured a poor, rural backwater, but it’s a lovely resort town of 30,000 (nearly four times the size of my town in the San Francisco Bay Area!) in Poland’s Mazurian Lake District, also known as the “Summer Capital of Poland.”

I can understand why.

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The orphanage in Mrągowo was pleasant enough; it looked like a boarding school for an estimated 100 children cared for by a staff I estimated at about a dozen. The caretakers were unfailingly polite and friendly, perhaps also nervous at the sight of the two American visitors. When they brought Casey in to the visitation room she was quiet, weak, lethargic and, oddly enough, she wouldn’t take her eyes off me. I think she’d seen few if any men in her short life, just women in white lab coats.

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We tried testing her motor skills but she failed everything – couldn’t sit, stand, walk or do much of anything a 14 month old should do. She was more at the level of a six month old. But to Erika and me she was perfect!

What was so astounding about Casey was that in a few short days in our hotel room in Warsaw, she was sitting up, alert and engaged with us. By the time Erika brought her home to the U.S., a few weeks later, Casey was walking the furniture – a miracle! Everything would be fine. But there were other disturbing moments – her uncontrollable crying and screaming fits, her rocking on all fours to settle herself down. The rocking went away but everything else plagued her and baffled us for the rest of her life.

That first night in Warsaw was a foreshadowing event for what was to come.

The Middle Years

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Casey’s middle years were pretty normal. In fact, when I interviewed her last psychiatrist after her death, he reported that Casey told him, in effect, they were pretty good years. She was into  Legos, Beenie Babies, Pokémon, video games, Harry Potter, fashion, music and lots of TV. Thank god she wasn’t bullied. She had plenty of friends, but she always wanted a best friend all to herself, and her friends kept getting stolen away by other girls, leaving Casey angry and lonely, crying it out in her room.

When she was ten, she begged us for a dog, a loyal friend who would never betray her, a right of passage I suppose for most kids.

“Dad, I’ll feed him. I’ll walk him. I’ll pick up after him. I’ll do anything. Puh-leez!!”

Erika, and I stalled for time. We let Casey satisfy herself with a pet rat named Banjo that didn’t live very long, a Tomagotchi digital pet, online dog sites and books on breeds. We set parameters – the dog couldn’t be too big, too furry or too loud, he could be athletic but not aggressive, he couldn’t dig up the yard and had to be good with our cat, Grimsby. She devoured those books, falling in love with one breed after another – the Cavalier, the Shelty, the Tibetan Terrier. She nearly ran through the alphabet before landing on the Whippet.

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Often mistaken for small-ish Greyhounds, Whippets are sighthounds from England. Because of their size they were unsuitable for racing or hunting, so they were used to catch rats and rabbits. Whereas Greyhounds are track runners, Whippets are sprinters, yet they have all of the couch potato attributes so beloved in Greyhounds.

It was through Casey that Igor came into our lives. He was a striking, brindle colored puppy born to two champions. With his long snout, deep brown eyes and flappy ears, he resembled a friendly deer, attracting attention and confusion wherever we went.

As for Casey’s promise to “do anything?” As if. She appeared to ignore Igor much of the time, leaving the dirty work to Erika and me. He followed her everywhere, prancing behind her to her room almost as if he was floating. He kept her company when she was sad, angry or lonely, sleeping under the covers – her foot warmer – ambrosia for a Whippet.

Casey and Igor were in love.

High School

Casey in Car 1

Like so many kids, Casey had a rough time navigating through high school but eventually found a sense of equilibrium. Redwood High was roughly five times the size of her middle school and, like most kids, she struggled to find her social slot among the crowd while keeping her grades (historically consistent A’s) from wobbling.

The screaming, crying jags and defiance continued, so much so that we were afraid the neighbors would call Child Protective Services on us. We took her to therapist after therapist – all of who knew about her infancy – yet they treated her as they would any teenager acting out. They focused on her behavior and lectured us on parenting.

“You need to set boundaries.”

“Don’t let her sass you lack that.”

“You need to be tougher with her.”

Right. Thanks for nothing…

IMG_1115_2She joined up with the musicians and artists, people her last therapist labeled with disdain, “THAT crowd.” But in fact, since Casey’s death, we’ve gotten to know that crowd intimately, and they are anything but a “bad” influence. They are warm, sensitive, caring, authentic and mature beyond their years.

After Casey’s death, that crowd was essential to keeping us alive.

Her Facebook page was an illuminating look into her life.

Political Views: Very liberal.

Religious Views: Atheist without the negative connotation that comes with it

Favorite Bands: Grateful Dead, Radiohead, Beatles, Eek-a-Mouse, Cunninlynguists, Andre Nickatina

Favorite TV Shows: Would claim she doesn’t watch tv, except for: Nip Tuck, Family Guy, America’s Next Top Model, Project Runway, CSI, South Park, American Dad.

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Favorite Movies: Every Disney animated movie, Garden State, Fight Club, Scanner Darkly, i ♥ huckabees, Anchorman, Zoolander, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Cruel Intentions, Sin City and anything starring Will Ferrel or Johnny Depp.

Favorite Exercise: Dance Dance Revolution

Random: Acts paradoxically, was a lefty (i.e. left handed and left leaning), could out-sarcastic you, hugged trees, could not decline to party if she tried.

Astrological summary: Casey was born a Taurus (Earth sign) with her moon in Leo (Fire sign). Thus, easy going yet very goal oriented, steady, forceful, independent, go getter, insightful, sees opportunities and has perseverance to achieve them. Inherent conflict in their expressions; especially between what they need and want and what they think and feel. Such conflict can provide great strength and motivation. Often resents authority of any kind.
Famous Taurus/Leo’s: Barbara Streisand.

I was particularly worried about Casey’s college applications. She was a gifted writer but didn’t show nearly as well on paper – so-so GPAs, grades and extra-curriculars. But she knew herself very well, applying to tiny, prestigious Bennington College in Vermont for early acceptance. She got in! We figured soon she’d be off on a whole new adventure, one she’d always dreamed of.

But as her friend Julian astutely pointed out, “I don’t think Casey had any intention of going to Bennington. She just wanted to prove to everyone that she could get in. She was somebody.”

As I was to learn later and too late, how right he was.

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23 thoughts on “Meet Casey

  1. Thank you for opening up your story to share. I respect and appreciate you. I am in the midst of trying to help my son help himself so that he can have healthy relationships, have a sense of value, and, frankly, not live a life of crime. It would seem that 7 years in a Russian orphanage did him some significant harm.

    • Unfortunately you could well be right, but I qualify every thing I say since I’m not a professional and each child has so many variables and unknowns that we can only speculate. At least I can.

  2. It breaks my heart that so many professionals failed you. As a therapist myself, I apologize deeply that you were met with so many therapists that did not fully understand your daughter and the unique struggles of adopted children.

    • Thanks. To make matters worse Casey’s last therapist essentially blamed Casey for the failure in therapy, but of course she couldn’t blame herself without risk of a lawsuit from me.

  3. John,
    Thank you so much for sharing Casey’s life story with us! I can only imagine the heartbreak you and Erika have suffered. At the same time, I really appreciate your desire to help others and in a way keep Casey’s memory alive. I have been researching the Attachment Disorder Issues for years and just stumbled up on your blog. I wish I had found this sooner.

    The more I read about Casey, the more her story touched me. Her story parallels exactly our adopted daughter’s, who just turned 18 and has admission to a University for this coming Fall semester. A model child outside, a popular girl in school, an excellent athlete…and absolute monster at home! She was a premi (3.5 lbs) at birth and had major health issues early. She grew out of them and became very strong and athletic.

    This outwardly pretty, nice and popular girl continues to scream and yell at home and has even becomes violent at times. We can never tell what might set her off. Outside, no one believes that she is capable of such things. We have also had numerous counseling sessions with results very similar to yours. Nothing has helped.

    We are willing to do anything to make her successful in life. We want her to be able to stand on her own feet, be a productive member of the society and have a good life. We are at a loss as to how to go about it. I will order your book and look for some clues…..and continue my research.

    Once again, thank you! We wish you and Erika the best.
    KR

    • Thanks KR for your wonderful note. Yes your daughter does sound a bit like Casey. If you are taking her to therapists with no expertise in adoption/attachment (as we did) you really need to find a qualified professional who gets it and they’re hard to find. But go to my Resources on this blog or in my book and you’ll find some pretty good places to start like groups, organizations social media, etc. that I never knew about.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing the story of your daugther. It is very appreciated that you have the strength and courage to share your story and Caseys’ story.
    As an adoptee myself, I now find myself searching for answers online, as no therapist I’ve seen seems to make a connection to my psychological issues (attachment, trust, etc) and the adoption. It is really tireing to feel all alone, I recognize the lack of understanding you met from outsiders, during Caseys’ years of “figuring out oneself”. How many wants to look at it as the usual puberty issues, and not counting the possiblities of something more. It is sad that so many people are focusing only on the “happy” part of adoption, and don’t even consider the adoptees’ feelings as the reality.

    Thank you, again for sharing the story of Casey.

    • Yeah it’s very important to feel that you’re not alone. I’ve connected to groups I wasn’t aware of before. As an adopted person yourself I suggest you check out the American Adoption Congress and see if that’s a community that would fit for you. Thanks so very much for writing!

  5. Hi John,

    I logged into my wordpress account tonight, which I do very infrequently. I saw I had a “notification” that you replied to a comment I made on this post: https://parentingandattachment.com/2014/11/19/10-painful-lessons-i-learned-too-late-as-an-adoptive-father/ almost a whole year ago! I clicked the notification and read the post and my comment again. I then read this page of your blog and I am very touched to learn more about Casey. It really sounds like you worked your damn hardest to give her a good life and support her and help her as best as you could. I am so sorry for your loss.

    As soon as I read on this page that she was born in 1990, I felt very connected to her because I was born in 1990 too. I was further moved by your photo of her memorial bench for a few reasons. One reason being the beautiful spot it’s located on. That nice big hill with that amazing view. I love the ocean and have always felt connected to it, so I love that picture just for the beauty of the scenery. What a wonderful place for her bench! The second reason is seeing “1990-2008” on that plaque. That was the year I graduated high school, turned 18, and began my adult life. Casey should have been doing that too but her life ended when we were still just children too in a way. The third thing that moved me about that photo was seeing her name written as “Casey Joanna” and I thought it was really nice that you honored her original name along with the name you choose for her.

    I can’t imagine the pain you must feel as her father… just know that I am so sorry, and I really appreciate how you seem to be working to help educate others and improve the world through the loss of Casey. I’ve only read these two posts about her and I have already learned a lot more about adoption and I appreciate your unique perspective on all of this! Thank you to both you and Casey ❤

    • Thanks that’s really thoughtful of you to write. I especially love Casey’s friends and peers who have big hearts. But sadly Casey’s suicide has also brought out the worst of humanity because of the shame and stigma of suicide. The latest was an irate sociopath neighbor near her bench (actually about 500 ft away) who ripped it out of the ground for the Rec District to pick up. Nothing less than desecrating a grave. His claim was property rights and hooliganism. I thought Id seen the lowest of humanity but the Rec District is as outraged as we are. The Strawberry Rec District owns the land. So we expect that the bench will be returned and this sociopath will be warned to act like a human or risk prosecution for felony vandalism next time.

  6. I am adopted and have really, really struggled through life. I had lovely adopted parents although they were never really willing to engage with me. I think it was too painful for them, So we became friendly but distant.

    I tried to commit suicide when I was a teenager, at the same age as Casey. I failed fortunately although I still often feel suicidal decades later. I would never try again though come hell or high water as I wouldn’t ever put my family through all that again. I feel terribly guilty. Your comment on positivity is spot on for me. I hate it. Positive thinking is not some ideal that can be imposed on people. It is something that is achieved, if you are lucky, after a lifetime of experience and reflection. Too many bullshit artists on the internet peddle positive thinking as some kind of cure all – if I think hard enough that my life isn’t difficult then my problems will magically go away. Ugh! Creepy self satisfied reactionary nonsense.

    I feel that I have never become an adult. I think that is why my teenage years were so excruciatingly unbearable. I knew something was very, very wrong but I just couldn’t see a way out. I have never been able to form relationships. I am middle aged now and have no children, have not made a new friend since I was a kid, have no sex, no love and no intimacy. Despite being very well educated I live hand to mouth in a brain dead blue collar job. All my childhood friends have middle class careers, wives, kids. I see all of this misfortune as due to not being able to ever form an identity because of problems being adopted. I don’t know who I am, where I want to go or what I want to do and I never have and I don’t think I ever will. I now look forward to old age with dread knowing it will more than likely be a pit of fear and despair. I am a conscientious, hard working and brave person but I knew when I was a teenager that life was going to be torture. I look back and understand why I tried to kill myself. We are often mercilessly perceptive at that age.

    • Wow I’m so sorry about your terrible experience with your adoptive parents. I’ve heard so many sad stories that taught me lessons too late. Casey was everything to us. But I often wonder what her life would’ve been like had she lived. Would she have completed college, found love, had children? To be brutally honest I think she would have had a hard life unless an unsuccessful suicide attempt scared her straight. Thanks for writing and stay strong if you can.

    • Jake, your story moved me. It means a lot that you would say the things you have. I am proud of you. I am raising three children, ages 14 to 16, who have RAD. I spend way too much time crying in the middle of the night. I occasionally slip up and do it in front of them, too. You have a special gift that I am not sure you know you have. For people like me, we can listen to the therapists, read all of the articles on RAD and even talk to other parents who have raised or are raising children with RAD but I will never know what is really going on in my own home, let alone in my childrens’ minds, unless I hear it from them. Since children with RAD cannot put it into words, or will refuse to at ever single opportunity, you can speak for them. You can help so many people, adults, children and caretakers/teachers. You have a gift. I would love to talk to you if you feel like sharing a few moments of your time. Good luck, Jake. Take care. You are truly special and so many people will see that, too. Thank you. 🙂

      • Thanks so much Niki. I’m completely flattered. But I’m John not Jake so I assume you meant John. You’re more than welcome to call as my info is on my blog. You May also be interested in my book, The Girl Behind The Door, where Casey’s story is laid out in far more detail.

        Take good care

        John

  7. I just read your book. First of all, I am so sorry for the loss of your beautiful daughter. Thank you for having the courage to write your story. My husband and I adopted our daughter from Guatemala. She was not in an orphanage. she was in foster care. We thought that would save her from any attachment issues. She was always headstrong and school work is a nightmare. She was diagnosed with ADHD in first grade and put on meds that seemed to help. We worried about middle school but the first semester went well and she made a new best friend. This time last year things started to unravel. Long story but since August 2015 she has run away three times Been raped. Was hearing voices and was suicidal. Spent 8 days in a psychiatric hospital. We’ve been told she may have disruptive mood
    dis regulating disorder, borderline disorder, and now RAD. she has no friends, struggles in school, is clingy and childish with us. She is also rude and obnoxious and lies. she does not like herself. We haven’t found professionals with adoption experience in our area except her new therapist is an adoptive mother and is the one who diagnosed RAD. my baby is only 13 and my heart breaks for her. My high hopes for her are crushed and life is a daily struggle. I am hopeful your blog and the links to all the books and articles will help.

    • Thanks Laura for your heartbreaking message. Indeed the HUGE challenge with these kids is (a) getting properly diagnosed and (b) getting proper treatment. If a is wrong b won’t work. It’s so hard to find the right kind of help and I hope that my Resources can lead you in the right direction.

      Stay strong!

  8. I just read your beautiful book and have spent most of the afternoon crying about your terrible and tragic loss. As the mother of two adopted children (one from Russia at 7 and one from the US at 1 month), I have experienced some attachment issues, but nothing compared to your descriptions. I marvel at your deep honesty motivated out of a desire to help others. It is difficult to parent children with attachment problems and even more difficult and COURAGEOUS to talk and write about them with such gut-wrenching honesty. Your gift of publicly sharing your story, which came at such a horrible cost, will help many others. I’m so, so sorry for your loss. The world is a much worse place without Casey.

    • Thanks so very much for writing with your beautiful comment. It means so much when Casey’s story touches others. I hope I’m not being too terribly forward but if you could write a nice word or 2 on my Amazon page that’s be terrific, or just copy paste this. Here is the link. Thanks again for writing!

      • I just posted my review on Amazon, as below:
        I have seldom (if ever) been moved as much as this book moved me. After finishing it, I spent most of the afternoon crying about the author’s and his wife’s terrible and tragic loss. I’ve spent days thinking about this book. As the mother of two adopted children (one from Russia at 7 and one from the US at 1 month), I have experienced some attachment issues, but nothing compared to the descriptions. I marvel at the author’s deep honesty motivated out of a desire to help others. It is difficult to parent children with attachment problems and even more difficult and COURAGEOUS to talk and write about them with such gut-wrenching honesty. Other books talk about attachment and adoption issues, but this book’s raw HONESTY was GRIPPING. The author’s gift of publicly sharing his family’s story, which came at such a horrible cost, will help many others. The world is a much worse place without Casey.

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