The voice whispered in my ear, "pay now or pay later."
I didn't wanna hear it.
Instead, I kept with my plan: Work full-time and the mandatory two evenings a week, while Xavier went to kindergarten and afterschool daycare. A babysitter picked him up and kept him until 9:30 on two of those nights.
All of that year and the next, the voice was persistent, "pay now or pay later."
I continued to ignore it and raked in a fat income.
Meanwhile, this little boy who had been through friggin' hell in two shitty foster homes and looked like a near-starved child from an impoverished African nation when I got him at three, was suffering, and I, a mental health nimwit therapist, was too selfish and blind to see it.
I rationalized, I justified.
"He's done okay so far," I'd whisper back to the voice of my conscience. "Daycare and my mom pitching in to babysit hasn't hurt him so far, and now he'll be in a good private Christian school."
"Not good enough," the voice whispered back.
"F you, what do you know?", I'd retort. "You're just my fears talking to me. He's doing fine... most of the time."
The voice would fall silent at my denial, and I'd try to fall into slumber. This was hard. I could hear Xavier in the next room, banging his head on his pillow, trying to bang away the demons of past neglect so he could fall asleep.
Sometimes at night, the many pillows I had lined against his wall at the head of his bed would fall away. His wall would literally shake as he banged his head into it, again and again and again in his effort to fall back asleep. I'd run into his room, grab him by the ankles and pull him downwards, then place the pillows against the wall again because he'd always edge back up to it in his sleep.
My mother, like me when I first witnessed his head banging behavior in his foster home, was initially aghast. Later she'd joke about it.
"I can picture him on his honeymoon now," she say laughing. "His poor wife won't be able to get a lick of sleep."
We often laugh and crack jokes to lighten the load.
Most children outgrow this form of self-soothing behavior by age three. Boys are three times as likely to do it as girls. However, he's 19 now and still rocks himself to sleep by gently banging his head on his pillow before passing out.
I had a different type of hard head, common to the career mom addicted to a comfortable lifestyle, good money, and having the convenient belief that this emotionally damaged child didn't need a real sacrifice from me: to sell my house and live off the profit as a renter, quit my job for a year or two and and become a stay-at-home mother to give him the undivided attention he missed in his primary years.
I ignored the voice, and I remember the day I noticed he had lost a chunk of his soul. I could see it in his eyes.
We were on a long, Florida vacation in October when the lines are short at Disney & Universal. Xavier was six years old and I hadn't given a second thought to pulling him out of school for the trip since I never met an adult who couldn't spell cat, hat and rat.
In downtown Orlando, I discovered a spooky house of horrors to die for. You'd go on a tour with a group of only six or eight people through dark corridors and into rooms designed to shock you silly. Real actors re-enacted terrifying scenes from classic horror movies and would pop out of nowhere. They were so convincing that adults cringed and screamed and young children unlucky enough to be there hid behind their parents.
Hey, I didn't know it was gonna be that real. Fo' real.
Xavier didn't bat an eye through any of this.
He was too busy obsessing on the cool, macabre shit he'd glanced at in the gift shop, but couldn't get to because it was our turn to do the tour. Immediately afterwards and while the group was still sweating and tittering over the blood, gore, torture chambers and monsters they'd seen, he couldn't get to the display counter fast enough.
"Xavier," I asked, "didn't any of this scare you?"
"Nuh-uh. I wanna buy somethin'."
It was beyond weird. It was unhealthy and a signal that he had turned a very dangerous corner - torture scenes (evil) didn't scare him. His unnatural greed for possessions scared me.
In the hotel, I watched him role play both good guys and bad with the collection of toy swords, guns and other weapons. It's like he couldn't make up his mind what to be.
Most boys are attracted to superhero figures, but he was equally comfortable slipping into the role of the powerful bad guy. Males in particular and women in general are attracted to raw power. It fits in with the law of survival, aka survival of the fittest.
In politics this usually plays out as voting for the perceived strongest and smartest who claim to the ability to protect us and win any war. In poor urban 'hoods where kids are routinely traumatized from everything associated with poverty and have few visible positive leaders, it manifests as an attraction for the head gangstas in charge.
I studied his behavior with new eyes, and also wondered why the hell this kid seemed utterly fearless. I thought of how he had never been afraid of monsters, but went into full-blown panic attacks if I put him my car and said that where I was taking him was a surprise. I chalked this off to early abandonment issues. That was his monster and he'd been through it before - three times.
The first time he was a few weeks old. As an infant, he had bonded to his birth mother who breast fed him. Someone drove her to Social Services where she willingly signed him over to foster care because she was old enough to realize that her crack lifestyle and raising an infant weren't compatible. It took her four kids to get to this point, but even then she couldn't let go completely. She suckered me into an open adoption.
I honored the deal, which in hindsight, was stupid after she missed half of her once a year Christmastime visits until he was nine. He perceived her no shows as rejection and was going nuts from wanting to know her better. He destroyed everything in sight to have full day or weekend visits at her home.
I should have moved far away to put the burden of buying a plane ticket to see him on her, but I have family in the area and had a good job. After seeing how hard open adoptions with a highly dysfunctional birth mother or family can be on a number of kids including my own, I don't advocate them, but that's another story.
As an infant, he had to bond with his new foster mother because she was all he had. The county closed her home down for neglect when another parent complained and Social Services agreed. Removing a child from his primary caretaker is usually traumatic, even if that person is neglectful or marginally abusive.
At a year old, he was moved from the frying pan and into the fire of another home where this foster mother immediately stripped him of his pacifier and nearly starved him to death. She didn't do this intentionally; she worked long hours, took care of six kids to pay her house note, and didn't have the patience to nurture a picky eater.
The outcome was still neglect. I never had the sense that he bonded with her, and wondered if his ability to emotionally attach to others was going to be an issue. This serious impairment is now called Reactive Attachment Disorder, and word up, it can look like bipolar disorder.
When he left for the last time, he knew it was the last time. He didn't even look back or say goodbye.
I had the best of good intentions, toys, art, puppets, educational games, books. He developed a strong attachment to me and his new grandmother, but this took time.
Puppets and art are an excellent and quick way to get into the mind of child and used in play therapy, which is one of my strengths as a therapist. Be very careful though; when they say shocking things, you absolutely must not 'interrogate' them or you'll freak them out. Leave the gentle probing to a child therapist.
Video games were fairly new as the rage in the early 90s. I bought him several. They distracted him from reality and he could be the powerful character in the video. That's all Mario, Zelda, Street Fighter and the newer video games are or ever will be. You live on the edge and live and die by your mistakes, but you always come back to life.
Limited doses of the tamer games are great for a kid, but children can over-identify with the characters. If the games are violent, they easily become desensitized and lose varying degrees of their capacity to be empathetic.
Xavier was in a Christian summer camp just before he turned five. This was in 1993 and before people knew much about the effects of them. I thought one of staffer was nuts when I overheard her say to another, "Marva, I swear, one of these days, they're gonna find out that Satan lives in those games. That's how he's getting to these children."
This staffer listened to her inner voice and intuition, and shared what she'd heard. I thought it was funny, but over time I wondered, because that lil' mo-fo was tough as nails and for some reason, had no healthy sense of fear. He acted like he an immortal game character and couldn't get hurt.
When Xavier began kindergarten that September, he told me about a bigger boy, a bully, at the school bus stop.
"He's beating up kids. He says I'm next."
"Really?", I replied.
I had to think how I would handle this. The bully's parents were bullies too. One of my good neighbors had the miserable luck to live next door to them. She witnessed the father, a mean-looking cab driver, run over her cat - on purpose - then lie in her face that he didn't and she better back the fuck off. His wife equaled him in being an out and out bitch.
I like to avoid people who love to intimidate and start shit. Easier on the blood pressure and frees up my mind to worry about other things than if they're poisoning my dog when I'm at work.
I finally told him, "Then you go stand at the other bus stop from now on."
"I ain't worried," Xavier said. "I'll fight anyone, anywhere, anytime."
"No you won't," I said. "I mean it."
He defied me and the bully with his screw fear attitude. The next day, he popped that kid in the back of his head as the boy got off the bus in front of him. Then set his azz up to take the fall by running to his house telling his mama, "He tried to hit me. He's hitting all the kids. They gonna kick him outta school."
I'm laughing now. Lil' nigga was political. Forty-five pounds and knew about manipulation and social politics. Xavier stood outside this 3rd grade boy's window and laughed loudly when he heard him get a major azz-whipping, 'cause these folks had too much shit going on for the school to get involved with their life, and then he taunted him outside his window.
I was mesmerized.
"What he do?"
"Opened his blinds and looked mad at me. I gave him the finger and walked away laughin'."
"He's gonna beat yo' azz tomorrow," I said worriedly.
"No he won't, not if knows what's good for him."
And the bully didn't. He must've known that my kid, far smaller than himself, was friggin' possessed. It didn't hurt that Xavier could run fast and laughed the whole time like it was a game. To him it was, and his lack of fear commanded a lot of respect.
How does a human being lose the fear of getting physically hurt in dangerous situations that make others cautious?
Young children who live in high stress, non-nurturing environments are forced to look loneliness and despair in the eye. They often respond to this with extreme behaviors, such as crippling shyness or reckless fearlessness. When they have no fear of adults as well as other kids, they're a pain in neck. Problems at school compounds the problem.
Professionals will resort to a lot of name-calling:
"His poor reading and math skills show that he has learning disabilities."
"He has ADHD, which is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. This is why he can't sit still or pay attention."
"His chronic non-compliance indicates he has Oppositional-Defiant Disorder."
"It looks like Depression."
"I'm sorry, the mood swings indicate your child suffers from Bipolar Disorder."
"Well, he might be mildly Conduct Disordered. That's the kiddie version of Anti-Social Personality Disorder."
Their remedy: Load him or her up with lots of medication.
Other name-calling may be heard from your folks and neighbors:
"He ain't depressed. He's just playin' you."
"He's from bad seed. The fruit didn't fall far from the tree. I told you that you were crazy to adopt."
"Maybe Satan gotta hold of him."
"He's just crazy."
Their remedies: beat his azz, take him to church, strip him of all privileges until he gets his shit together, or worse - send him back to foster care, or if they won't take him and you've got the money, put him a 24 hour facility for out of control children.
Except for sending him away, I tried most of the above remedies by professionals and regulars folks alike. Few worked or worked for long.
It was years before I seriously considered that these formal or informal diagnosis weren't true, even though most never quite felt right. My mind kept returning to the one diagnosis that not a single therapist or hospital considered: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Back then, PTSD was thought to be a soldier's disorder. Even in 2001 when he was 13, they thought he was too young to remember what he experienced up until the age of three and that those events didn't matter too much. Instead, I was told, the fault must lie with his brain. I've always been a free-thinker and and wondered then if they were wrong.
Memories that occur before we are able to think in terms of language generally remains inaccessible to us.
Our five senses, however, remember them. A certain smell, sound, tone of voice, taste, or being touched a certain way can trigger a response and the person has no idea why.
"I've always feared dogs," a therapy client says. "I was told I witnessed one attacking my sister, but I don't remember this."
"I don't know why the smell of cigarettes and beer on a man turn me on," a woman says.
Later she reveals that her father, a good man who died when she was two, smoke and drank a couple beers as he cuddled and played with her when he got home from work each day, but she never connected this with the present.
PTSD is a condition that mimics a lot of different illnesses. The diagnosis is critical because this is what determines treatment.
This brings me back to my very demanding job. The loads of stuff I bought him and variety of caretakers were a poor substitute for what he, and many newly placed foster and adopted children need: intensive mothering. They initially need lots of lap time, cuddling, cookie baking, reading, walks in the park, daily naps, and a peaceful environment with toys, books and games that don't stir up aggression or further desensitize them.
Do this 24/7 and until that voice whispers in your ear that he or she is ready for a half-day school or daycare setting. It may even require a year of home schooling.
Are you thinking ouch yet? Are you picturing those dollar signs disappearing from lost income you wouldn't be making if you bit the bullet, quit your job, and stayed at home?
Pay now or pay later.
PTSD is a monster of gigantic proportions for both the child and his family to deal with. Until the 90s, the mental health profession reserved this diagnosis mostly for emotionally damanged soldiers returning from combat. In children, it looks an awful lot like a lot of disorders including bipolar illness, where the person's mood is a yo-yo and a damnedest things can trigger all sorts of strange behaviors.
It can appear to be a classic Oppositional-Defiant Disorder where he won't do a damn thing you ask no matter how reasonable. The person stuck in this toddler stage of development behaves like a spoiled brat not only to get his way, but more importantly, to avoid feeling like a victim.
I didn't figure this out until he was 13 or 14, and spent a lot of time trying to teach him about the word yes.
"Xavier, saying yes to a reasonable request does not mean you're a sucker or punk.
"But I feel like one when I do," he replied.
It was an a-ha! moment. It still took him nearly four years to move him out of this mental no man's land and to develop insight.
The child scarred by trauma needs to learn this or he'll spend years no'ing you to death and will play your azz to get what he wants or thinks he needs.
Add in ADHD, your kid is impulsive. His nervous system excites easily. These kids can't handle large doses of being tickled, and monotonous activities - like sitting still in a chair for six hours at school - drives them nuts. They need to have a calm environment when they're very young (not always possible). Later they have to master their internal need for excitement and have frequent breaks and with physical activity. A one or two mile walk to school can do wonders for many of them - and you too, if you need exercise.
ADHD behavior looks crazy as shit. You're cooking or cleaning and think he's playing with his toys on the deck, only to discover he got the bright idea to impulsively skateboard off it. Explain that to the doctor whose treating his sprained ankle and lecturing you to keep a constant eye on him, and argue back that this would require a dog leash.
Then there was time he quietly tried to cook an egg on one of those fat candles, then tried to put the fire out with a paper towel, and when that caught on fire, threw it in the trash can - all while I was one room over trying to have a half hour break watching a sitcom. Try explaining that shit to the fireman.
This kind of stuff and a lot more happened to us before he was six and I'll admit it - it made me tough as nails as a mama. I had to be or I'd have been a weepy-eyed basket case. I loved his curiosity and appreciated his machismo, but his recklessness and impulsivity drove me nuts.
Beware of labels, but be twice as careful of greed.
If you can figure out a way to quit your job or at least cut back on your hours and still get by financially, but don't, then you're putting your comfort before your child's needs and sanity.
Most of the reading out there is pro-women working and thus, pro-daycare and pro-afterschool programs. They don't guilt trip mothers by speaking frankly that her absence will increase the odds of her child becoming an F'ed up individual with issues galore, even when the child has special needs.
By the time I realized this, Xavier was seven, addicted to materialism and undisturbed by violence. It would take a decade to undo the damage.
Being a mother of a special needs child requires enormous sacrifice. I finally bit the bullet when he was 14 and acting out all the rage from the mistakes others made before I met him and the ones I put him through afterwards. I sold my house, moved into an apartment, and quit my full time job and got by on working 10 or 12 hours a week.
I had to. By 14, Xavier was crazy and getting battier by the day. He had all the labels. Social Services and foster care had failed him, the school system failed him, the hospital over-medicated him, therapy wasn't working anymore, and I finally had to tell my inner voice, you were right. I shoulda listened to you a lot sooner, 'cause I failed him too.
His drama continued. He hated me more because now I was home 24/7 and he run the streets or skip school without me finding out immediately. A simple request such as "could you please clean up your dishes?", or "hell no, your gang-banging friends are not allowed in the house", could and did result in police intervention more times than I can remember. He was a master at escalating nothing into something.
Teens are rebellious by nature and most re-enact the stage of their life called the 'terrible twos'. Whatever steps and stages they didn't master when younger becomes a potential battlefield in adolescence.
Xavier was reliving his chronic feelings of powerlessness as a baby and toddler when he couldn't say no. He couldn't even say no to himself. He resisted attempts by me, his teachers, and therapist to teach him how to put brakes on his behavior. He banded with other youths with similar histories, and exported this behavior to the streets, where I almost lost him many times.
In one of our darkest moments when he was in 8th grade and I was considering sending him away to a boarding school, a school therapist said one thing I truly valued.
She said, "I've never met a human being who got better, who wasn't truly, truly loved."
The words resonated. She didn't say them to guilt-trip me, she said them to teach me.
I had to ask myself, what if his life was my life? What if I gave up but it meant the death of my own soul? How hard then would I try? What sacrifices would I make to save my own life? And if really love him as much as I love myself, what would I do differently?
That's when I heeded the voice and did what I should've done a decade earlier, throwing caution to the wind that it might be too late and that I'd plunge from wealth to working class.
The first two years of this was hard on both of us because of the constant arguing and my trying (usually unsuccessfully) to set limits on him, but he made teeny-tiny improvements such as no longer punching holes in the walls and breaking up my stuff. This would happen when I'd try to give him a consequence:
Me: You ran up the cable bill by ordering pay for view movies at night. I'm taking away your PlayStation.
Him: Fuck you. (Phone flies across the room, misses my head by inches, and breaks on the wall. That's gonna cost me another $100.)
Me: I'm calling the police! You're out of control.
Him: I'll kill myself! (Runs to get steak knife and slashes his arm superficially.)
Police - when they catch him an hour later: We'll take him to the mental hospital.
Psychiatrist: I've changed his medications around and added two more.
Me: He's on six now? That's insane.
Psychiatrist: Well, he is bipolar.
Xavier during a visit: Can I have my PlayStation back?
Me: Hell no.
Xavier: But what happened isn't my fault.
Hospital Social Worker: You're kind of hard of him. I've worked with him for three days now. He's a great kid. We haven't had a single problem with him. Maybe he can do a little extra housework to get back his PlayStation.
Me: He refuses to do any. The last time he was here was because he threatened to kill me when I told him he had to wash the dishes. His dishes. Read his record.
Xavier: You're picking on me.
Me: I'm tired of being played.
Now that's an example of Oppositional Defiant Disorder at it's best. Refuses to anything he doesn't want, and sets up situations and people to continue this modus operandi.
The genesis of the behavior in the child or teen with PTSD often comes from very early childhood trauma and an unconscious decision to never be a victim again. Saying no or not accepting no from others is how they empower themselves and get in control of their environment. However, it's a negative survival strategy in normal social situations.
Xavier must have been 16 when I confronted him with all his labels.
"You are not crazy," I said in a heated argument. "You're real good at acting that way, though. You excel at it. You've never been bipolar, depressed, and I don't even believe you're LD (learning disabled). You're grades suck because you stopped studying back in elementary school. You've been sad and pissed suffering from foster care trauma and learning too much from meeting your birth family and seeing their problems, and have been saying fuck you to everyone since you were three. Nuh-uh. You ain't crazy. Ain't a god-damned thing wrong with you other than PTSD."
Of course he had to prove me wrong by getting a knife, making superficial cuts on an arm and threatening to commit suicide in the bathtub - and conveniently leaving the door open so I could save him.
People hang on to their labels. I'm a woman. I'm a man. I'm black (or insert race). I'm American. I'm educated. I'm working class. I'm liberal (or conservative or free-thinker).
Such is the case too with negative labels. I'm stupid. I'm helpless. I'm shy. I'm a victim. I'm a bad person. I'm mentally ill.
I stripped him of the negative labels and he panicked. And naturally, the next three trips to the hospital restored them. One was a real doozy. The first love of his life broke up with him. They had lost their virginity to each other gone steady a year. But he was bossy and verbally abusive - just like he'd been with me and his sister. He was 17 when his girlfriend got tired of it and said goodbye.
Did he respect this? Hell no. He went to her house and tried to talk her out of her decision for the umpteenth time. The girl's mother asked him to leave, and then she did something that triggered his pre-verbal lifestage when he was abandoned, but couldn't express or define it for his lack of language skills.
She slammed the door when he left and shouted, you're not wanted here anymore!
This action was symbolic and triggered feelings of rage over previous major losses. Xavier attempted real suicide with his handy-dandy knife right in front of her house by plunging it into his stomach.
He was in the ICU for three days, followed by another two in the main ward, and five days in the mental ward.
It must have been on Day 4, after the girlfriend had visited him. She said she was sorry and that they could keep going together.
After she left, I looked at him with hard eyes. "You still can't take no for an answer," I said. "It's all about you and the drama. You ain't crazy. These are foster care issues getting played out with her. It's so unfair. What if her mother had yelled at you in her house instead of waiting until you were outside? That knife could have ended up in her instead of you. You need to stop this shit before you kill yourself or someone else."
Boy was he pissed. "Mom! Stop talkin' like a therapist to me! You should feel sorry for me!"
"Fuck that," I said. "I wish the hell a therapist would talk to you like that. You ain't never gonna have a decent life for yourself as long you believe you're not normal. Neither will anyone else associated with you. Foster care issues fucked you up. Period. Have the courage to deal with it."
He wept. He said I didn't understand, yet he allowed me to hold his hand and he held on tightly to mine. I'd have cradled him in my arms but he was in the hospital bed and it wasn't possible.
"Why ain't I dead?", he whimpered.
"I guess the Lord and Satan are still fighting over you," I answered softly. "You've always been a lil' hellraiser, but you've also got a core of decency and general love for others. When you love, you love hard. You always have. You've been in pain a long time from the love you lost or didn't get long ago. You'll be okay if you want, but it's your choice. Fo' real."
Perhaps he could listen to me because of his near death experience. As skinny as this boy was at barely 17, the knife missed every major organ.
I lucked up about the same time and found a psychiatrist who also wasn't into the excessive labeling or over-medication thing. You can read about that on my first ever post here, When Therapy & Blackness Collides.
It took more time and a drug rehab program before he finally began to "get it" at the age of 18 that he wasn't mentally ill, and to buy into the belief that stress can make ya look crazy when you ain't.
Take note that stress may start off as an external event or series of events, but even after the child is removed from that situation, the stress has become internalized and his part of psyche. He or she carries it with them like bad baggage.
Therapy is sort of hit and miss; depends on if the client is ready for change and if their therapist is a good fit. When it hits the right spot, the person can let go of that baggage. The 'therapy' can also be attained from a wise friend, the right books, a pastor who understands, etc. As the Buddhists believe, there are many paths to enlightenment.
I'm not financially wealthy anymore. My savings are thin, because I didn't trust my gut, gave into the comfort life and refused to listen to the angel whispering in my ear and saying pay now or pay later.
It took me five years to do with him as a teen when I could have done this in less than two years when he was young child. I try not to be too hard on myself; I wasn't a seasoned mental health therapist back then, and a lot of new knowledge has emerged since the '90s through the past few years.
I shrug off the money; it's only money and I can earn more of that. My intuition, however, tells me - and him - that he would have been dead or locked up for something awful if I hadn't finally rolled the dice and took the ultimate gamble that my child - a troubled kid and emerging thug - could recover from trauma and learn better coping skills. He's still a work in progress and will have many bumps ahead on the road - but at least he's on the road.
When we ask ourselves the big questions, such as what does it really mean to really love a child, part of the answer lies in sacrifice. Ask yourself, what has this child really been through and how might I behave under those circumstances? If trauma is an issue, help those well-intentioned mental health and school professionals as well as your child or teen to understand it too.
In summary, healing the traumatized child, whether your own by birth, relative placement, or adoption, is not for the faint of heart. A lot of people don't have clue to what they're getting into or the sacrifices it could require to heal him or her. I was a young therapist and had done social work, and still didn't know all that was involved. It's one thing to hear about it and help clients; it's a whole different thing to be in their situation and have to live it. It was a humbling experience.
There are loads of labels which are merely guides to healing through treatment. Select a mental health professional familiar with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in children and teens. Meet with him or her first without your kid being present, and give every shred of traumatic history or abandonment that comes to mind.
Your child may have a number of problems, but as a primary diagnosis, PTSD is a helluva lot better label than some of the others - and may free him from a lifetime of believing and acting as though he's something that he's not.
Then make whatever decisions you can regarding sacrifices. Think hard and choose wisely, as it may be a matter of paying now or paying later - for both of you.
Good luck and God bless.