10 Painful Lessons I Learned Too Late As An Adoptive Father

blackboard_iStock_000016212764XSmallLately I’ve been stumbling across various blog postings about things people have learned about [fill in the blank], things they want you to know about [fill in the blank], things you wish you could say to [fill in the blank.] They come from adoptive families, adopted people and others within and outside the adoption triad. I mean no disrespect, but I thought I should add my own painful lessons learned too late about adoption since my precious daughter Casey’s suicide.

  1. Adoption is a very complex and, in some respects, unnatural arrangement between birth parents, adoptive parents and, most importantly, the adopted child in the middle. Consider this: the animal shelter waits weeks before it gives away a puppy but humans hand over children as early as birth. Unfortunately this is the best system we have for now to help children who need homes find them.
  1. All too often (but not always) raising adopted children can be extremely difficult, a constant tug of war. Just loving them enough may not be enough. The adoptive parents may have to accept that their family experience will be nothing like the Hallmark Moments of their own childhood. They may feel like they’re spilling blood for their adoptive family while getting little in return.
  1. Within the adoption triad, the adoptive parents have choices, whether they’re good or bad. The birth mother also has choices, but they are probably ALL bad. The adopted child has no choice. No matter how loving or lovely her new home and family are compared to where she came from, she didn’t ask for this.
  1. When adoptive parents receive their child – whether in the delivery room or from an orphanage – there is a natural inclination for a fresh start. Give her a new name, new fresh clothes and, hopefully, whitewash the past. That’s what we did all the while meaning the best for Casey. But consider keeping her birth name as that is her identity. Keep something with her from birth or the orphanage, even if it’s dirty or stinky. As one adoption therapist told me, “It’s in the child’s nature to cling to something.”
  1. An open adoption may be uncomfortable for the adoptive parents but may be in the best interests of the child. Like our daughter Casey, as she grows up she may deny any interest in her birth or birth family. But I’ve met many adopted adults who are almost universally obsessed with re-connecting, even if it’s painful. The birth mother may have asked to never be contacted, but how can we know that those instructions were genuine. At least have some channel available to your child if or when that need to re-connect emerges. How can a child NOT think about where they came from?
  1. Parenting an adopted child is completely counter-intuitive if you are to follow the professionals. Adopted children need to know that their new home is safe no matter how badly they act out. They need to know that their feelings are respected. Classic forms of discipline – like time ours and withholds – can backfire. Attachment parenting involves some parts discipline and structure but a much greater part helping the child self regulate her emotions. Remember she didn’t ask for this.
  1. You may find yourself in seemingly endless fights and power struggles as your child navigates through adolescence. Controlling her environment is often vital to an adopted child who came into this world with no control whatsoever. So prepare to lose a lot of power struggles.
  1. While many adopted children do just fine in their new world, there are many who need help beyond just devoted parents. As a group, adopted children are at a higher risk for a range of behaviors and disorders, from never-ending tantrums to self-harm and suicide. How could they not? So consider having your child assessed by a qualified professional early on. Many of their behaviors (like rages and tantrums) seem normal for a two year old, but not for a sixteen year old.
  1. If the adoptive parents decide to seek therapy, it is imperative that they find a professional qualified in adoption and attachment therapies. Oftentimes they are adoptive parents, birth parents or adoptees themselves, and are thus better equipped to gain the confidence of the child as they have lived that experience. They know what questions to ask and how to ask them. We had no idea such specialists existed, and thought that a high priced suburban “expert in troubled teens” was enough. That was a fatal mistake.
  1. A qualified professional should be able to provide a proper diagnosis of your child, and without a proper diagnosis she can’t be properly treated. The professional should distinguish between behaviors that suggest attachment disorder from ADHD, FAS, autism, Asperger’s, etc. Attachment disorder and “RAD” are too often casually tossed around when other illnesses may exist as well.

After reading these it may seem as though I’m anti adoption. Nothing could be further from the truth. Make no mistake, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world to have been Casey’s dad. After her death, I learned the painful way that just about everything I thought I knew about adoption was wrong. So I honor her by sharing with others what I’ve learned about adoption since her death. I want to do what I can to help other families avoid our tragic mistake.

John Brooks is a blogger and author of, The Girl Behind The Door, a memoir about his search for answers to his daughter Casey’s suicide. It is available on Amazon and Kindle.

Please Join Me For An Author Event in Fairfax, Thursday, Nov. 6 @ 7PM!

Dear Friends and Neighbors – The Marin County Library, Fairfax Branch, has been kind enough to invite me to speak a week from today, Thursday, November 6 at 7PM. Our library is located at 2097 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard right across from St. Rita’s Church. I’ll talk about my experience writing my memoir, The Girl Behind The Door, and read a chapter, maybe two.

The library and I hope to see you there!

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Dying With Dignity Versus Suicide

cover-768Sorry that this is a bit off-topic, but I’ve been following this story about 29 year old Brittany Maynard who was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer. She moved from California to Oregon because she wanted to end her life (legal in Oregon) rather than suffer through a longer and painful death from the spread of this terrible disease. I completely sympathize with her and other victims of terminal illnesses who want to “die with dignity.” If I were in their shoes I’d probably do the same thing.

What bothers me about this is how the media treats it. Let’s call Ms. Maynard’s decision what it is – suicide. The media treats her decision to end her life as something noble and admirable with fawning coverage from major newspapers to supermarket tabloids to morning television. She is very telegenic and, again, I mean this in a very sympathetic way.

Unfortunately, all too often the suicidal don’t suffer from a terminal illness but from an excruciating inner pain for which death seems the only antidote. That was my 17 year old daughter Casey. Unlike Ms Maynard, Casey and so many others who took their lives didn’t get the cover shot on People magazine or interviews from traditional and online media. No, their same decisions were met with scorn and derision, as there remains a cloud of shame and stigma over suicide as opposed to “dying with dignity.”

I’m sure that the media will salivate over Ms. Maynard until her final moments, and I wish her and her family the very best. This is a terrible decision for a young woman to make. I just wish that my daughter and so many other victims of suicide (like, most recently, Robin Williams) were accorded the same degree of respect.

Recent Radio Interviews

As a self published author it’s hard to get media access which stinks when you’re trying to reach a broader audience. Among producers, agents, columnists, reviewers and other gatekeepers there is still a bias against self published works. So we persevere and do workarounds. Here are two interviews I did recently, courtesy of friends in the business and persistence.

18_480On August 6th I was on with Bill Meyer’s morning show on KMED-AM/1440 in Medford, Oregon. It bills itself as news and conservative talk, with all my “favorites” like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Michael Savage, a bit incongruous for a liberal like me. But Bill Meyer, the host, did a great job, and we even had some very positive call-ins. Here is the link to the archived podcast. Just scroll down to August 6th, 2014.

 

 

blogtalkradio-logoThen on August 27th I was on blogtalkradio’s AAC Adoption News and Views channel with host, Pam Kroskie. Pam is president of the Amercian Adoption Congress, and this channel features everything about adoption. Here is the link.

I’m expecting more reviews and features on the book in the coming months.

Adoption Stories Worth Checking Out

Philomena_posterPhilomena, The Book – As I wrote in a previous blog post (1/26/14), the movie Philomena was incredibly powerful and has gotten rave reviews, as well it should. Recently I had a conversation with a birth mother who suggested I read the book, Philomena. Why would I do that? I saw the movie. She said, it’s told from a different point of view. She was right. Whereas the movie is told from the birth mother’s point of view, the book is told from the son, Michael Hess’ (née Anthony Lee’s), point of view. It is just as powerful as the movie. I would recommend that anyone who loved the movie should also read the book, particularly any adoptive or prospective adoptive parent. I just can’t emphasize how important it is for our branch of the adoption triad to understand the other two branches – adopted children and birth parents. It is truly humbling to see where we fit in this incredibly complex relationship.

 

 juno_ver2_xlgJuno, The Movie – You may remember Juno, which came out in the fall of 2007. In brief it tells the story of Juno MacGuff (played wonderfully by Ellen Page), a 16-year-old Minnesota teenager who gets pregnant with her not quite boyfriend, Paulie, (played by nerdy but cute Michael Cera.) The rest of the cast is equally excellent. Notably, Juno’s father Mac is played by J.K. Simmons, now starring in Farmer’s Insurance commercials (at least here in California), Rainn Wilson of The Office and Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner, who play Mark and Vanessa, a yuppie couple desperate for a baby.

I have a particular affinity for this movie because, other than her pregnancy, Juno reminds me so much of Casey – a girl determined to go her own way and be her own person. And what a mouth on her, straight from her dad and step-mom. But also it may well have been the last movie Casey saw in a theatre before she died. I can’t help but think if this movie touched Casey beyond the fact that it is very well done and very funny, in a dark sort of way.

Birth mothers may be put off by this movie, but so might adoptive parents. After rejecting an abortion, Juno decides to have the baby and find him good parents, thus Mark and Vanessa. She continually refers to the baby growing inside her as “it” or “the thing” which may strike some as repulsive. But this is a light comedy and Juno is only 16. So my theory is that this is a teenager trying to distance herself – perhaps terrified but not showing it – from the baby growing in her belly. But that’s me.

Likewise, Mark and Vanessa come across as alternately sincere, genuine and narcissistic. Mark, in particular, becomes extremely inappropriate, leading one to wonder if wants to be the father of Juno’s child, Juno’s father, Juno’s cool friend or Juno’s boyfriend (I think it’s #3). Ultimately Mark is not ready for fatherhood, but the baby finds a good home – Vanessa.

Putting on my Roger Ebert hat, I think this movie deserves a sequel. Juno believes that the best thing for her newborn son is a closed adoption, which seems impractical considering Juno and Vanessa live only an hour apart. But suppose it was? The sequel: Juno is now 30 and her son is a teenager. They reunite. I’ll leave the rest to a screenwriter.

admission_xlgAdmission, The Movie – I’d have put this on my list of movies to rent but wouldn’t bother with the theatre list. But it’s actually surprisingly good, especially if you are part of the adoption triad. Tina Fey plays a Princeton admissions officer – Portia – and Paul Rudd – John – an alternative school teacher trying to get his gifted student into Princeton. I mean, who doesn’t love Tina Fey and Paul Rudd? Turns out the boy prodigy, Jeremiah (played by Nat Wolff), is adopted and not much is known about his family. Thus the Paul Rudd character takes a special interest in him, not to mention the fact that he IS gifted. But then there are more story twists. Turns out John is convinced that Jeremiah is Portia’s son, as it is disclosed that she had given up a child for adoption in her past. But then there are even more story twists, so I won’t be a spoiler here. Yes he does get into Princeton. But does he go?

Casey’s Story in The Marin Independent Journal Sunday Spotlight

20140711__MIJ-L-SNAPBROOKS-0713~1Many thanks to the Marin Independent Journal and their reporter Mark Prado for featuring Casey’s story in their Sunday Spotlight profile. The IJ has been way out ahead of other Bay Area news outlets in their coverage of the Golden Gate Bridge suicide barrier and the plight of the families who’ve lost loved ones to the bridge.

When I joined others in the movement to stop suicides from the bridge – the deadliest structure on the planet by a wide margin – our group was treated slightly better than leapers. We testified repeatedly in front of the Golden Gate Bridge board, most (but not all) board members disinterested and disengaged. I met with my congresswoman’s aide who, after hearing Casey’s story and seeing her pictures, was utterly unmoved. “Perhaps she hung out with the wrong crowd,” she said. It was all Casey’s fault. I was nearly thrown out of San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom’s office in the midst of presenting him (or rather his aide) with a gift – a framed picture of Casey in front of the bridge – after the mayor declared himself against the barrier … over aesthetics. The Bishop of my former church, the Episcopal Archdiocese of California, declared his support for the barrier after hearing that a young parishioner had died provided, of course, that it was not architecturally intrusive. Opinion pages were ho-hum, and the Bay Area public – mostly ignorant about and untouched by suicide – remains decidedly against the barrier.

But the times they are a changing. The Bridge board is now unanimously pro-barrier. Metropolitan Transportation Commission members including Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and San Francisco city supervisors, David Campos and Scott Weiner, among others, told us in moving tones during yet more testimony that it was our personal stories and persistence in presenting reams of facts about the success of deterrents elsewhere that won them over. Their only regret was that it took them too long. Even Gavin Newsom is now for the barrier.

During this same time, I wrote The Girl Behind The Door, my search for answers to Casey’s suicide. Why did she do it? What did we miss? What could we have done differently? My search led back to her infancy in a Polish orphanage, the trauma she likely suffered from birth, and the attachment disruption that explained so much of her behavior, everything that the “professionals” missed. We learned too late that when we put ourselves in the hands of therapists and psychiatrists to help us understand and deal with our loved ones at risk, they don’t always get it right. Sometimes the consequences are tragic.

20140711__MIJ-L-SNAPBROOKS-0713~2I searched for an agent. All but one ignored my emails and calls; she was an adoptee herself. Bless her heart, she tried her best to shop the story. But publishers told her it was too sad. Even people who should’ve read the story would probably be turned off, they said. People want “happy” stories. I don’t think they ever read past chapter one. So I self-published the book only to learn that most media and news outlets have a built-in bias against self-published works. Bookstores won’t carry them. They want the stamp of approval of a “real” publisher.

But a funny thing happened. Hundreds of people read Casey’s story and loved it, posting dozens of consistently superlative Amazon reviews. Mental health and adoption professionals, adoption, suicide and attachment groups, people within and outside of the adoption “triad,” even New York Times best selling authors all gave it a big thumbs up.

So now that I know how strongly Casey’s story resonates, my challenge is to find more readers who would love the story if only they knew. So please tell your friends!

The Girl Behind The Door is available on Amazon and Kindle, Nook, Smashwords and iBook, among other ebook platforms.

My Enlightening Interview With An Attachment Expert

Apologies go out to my readers for my lack of postings these last couple of weeks.

IMG_0481My wife and I have been swamped moving back into our home – a 1917 cottage on a hillside above Fairfax, California – that has been under renovation for the past six months. On top of that, I just got a new job after being out of the market since Casey’s suicide. Yes they still hire geezers like me out there, amazing as that seems. So the last few weeks have been like fighting off a water cannon.

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dr_marvinThis week I want to share more of my research into different schools of thought over attachment theories and therapies that I learned in an interview with Dr. Robert Marvin. Dr. Marvin is the Director of the Mary D. Ainsworth Child-Parent Attachment Clinic at the University of Virginia Medical Center. He began his career as a research associate with Mary Ainsworth – an early founder with John Bowlby of attachment theory – at Johns Hopkins. For the next four decades, his work focused on attachment research, developing assessment tools for families of foster and adopted children, and intervention with families experiencing varying forms of disrupted relationships and separation.

He talked at length about two groups of professionals who’d worked with children suffering attachment-related difficulties. One group emerged in the 1980’s, comprised primarily of clinicians, who took a behavioral approach to the mysterious disorders observed in children from foster care and orphanages. They developed a group of therapies, most commonly called holding therapies (where the therapist and/or parents literally hold the child in an embrace), but also known as rage reduction, rebirthing and attachment-parenting therapies. Their goal was to regress the child to an earlier age and then bring her back a whole person. Marvin believed that the mistake the clinicians made was to focus on the child’s undesirable behavior as something she did deliberately. Consequently, it had to be to controlled. But their work turned out to be coercive and controversial. These physical forms of therapy sometimes resulted in serious damage to children, including eight deaths, and landed some practitioners in prison.

The second group was comprised of researchers, academics, medical school clinicians and adoption agency staffers whose work was grounded in the Bowlby-Ainsworth theory of attachment. Since the 1950’s, they’ve compiled a huge body of peer-reviewed research, which has been used in the assessment and treatment of children and families with a variety of challenges from disrupted homes.

Marvin’s work rejects the notion that the child’s undesirable behavior (such as rages and tantrums) is deliberately aimed at tormenting those around her. Rather, it’s based on the premise that the child lacked an early parenting partner who could’ve helped her co-regulate her distress. Left without any soothing skills, she’d blow up when upset.

He observed over the years that children neglected in Eastern European orphanages hadn’t had the thousands of interactions that parents and babies have every day, so their brains didn’t develop in the same way as “normal” babies’ brains. He believes that orphanage practices that discourage attachment with caregivers – for fear that the child will suffer when faced with letting go – are more harmful than not allowing the child to attach at all.

“We now know that if the child is adopted within the first year, the adverse effects of institutionalization are not too difficult to treat.” He explained. “But for a child like Casey, adopted at fourteen months, there’s already been a fair amount of psychological and brain development damage that leads to very unusual behavior.”

“This information still hasn’t fully made its way into the mainstream.” He said. “Only in the last few years have we come to realize what’s happened to these kids and how to intervene.”

He went onto tell me that some adoptive parents seemed to know intuitively or trip over the right way to parent these children. Many didn’t, but it wasn’t their fault. He heard from many parents, feeling unloved and exhausted from their efforts to “fix” their child, who felt they had no choice but to hand the child over to a professional. But Marvin claimed that it’s the parents whom the child loves, even though she may not act like it, and it’s the parents who need to lead the child back to a normal developmental pathway.

I came away from this interview with a pretty negative impression of holding therapies, but I talked to other professionals who were not so dismissive of the practice. I’ll look at this further in an upcoming post.