The Light at the End of the Tunnel

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In the fall of 1987, our long-awaited phone call came: after four endless years of waiting, Durham Region Children's Aid came through for us. Our seven-year-old daughter Stephanie, born with Spina Bifida, was going to have a new brother and sister. Exciting? That doesn't begin to describe it. We were beside ourselves with joy! Nights of sleepless anticipation followed, and happy planning sessions. We did all the right things: made a video of ourselves and our home, put together a wonderful life book containing photos and cartoons and drawings depicting our happy life (and it was very happy!).

For years, we had been offered children with other birth defects, which, regrettably, we knew we could not handle. Now here were Ryan, six, and Chantal, four: two handsome, lively children with no obvious defects, and more than eager to join our family. Amazingly, Ryan even looked like me, had my redhead's colouring! We were excellent, caring parents. We had been around the block a few times, passed with flying colours all the gruelling interviews with Children's Aid, and these kids were just what we wanted. And we all lived happily ever after, right?

I wish.

Within two weeks of their arrival, I was a basket case, for it soon became obvious that my tried-and-true parenting techniques were not going to work with these two. You couldn't reason with them. You couldn't simply say, Don't do that because you'll hurt someone. They would do it anyway. You couldn't offer them choices, because choices confused them. Instant self-gratification was the name of their game, and they played it like pros. Sharing was an alien concept, and emotional attaching, even more so.

Having gone through a form of adoption myself, and having coped beautifully with Stephanie's condition, I thought I could handle anything. Wrong. You see, I forgot one of the most basic facts of adoption. I forgot that no matter how normal some of these children appear on the surface; no matter how needy, they have all been traumatized in some way: either through neglect, abuse in all its dark forms, loss of loved ones, or any one of a hundred other crises. And at some point, in some fashion, that trauma must manifest itself.

Sure enough, all too soon, our honeymoon ended and the nightmare began.

Both proved to be highly manipulative, in their separate ways. Ryan was passive aggressive, and at first, his battlefield was school. He refused to return to the classroom after recess, played games in class, refused to attend lessons, tried to forge signatures on reports. Chantal was less subtle. She, too, disrupted classes. She stole food, destroyed toys and clothes, attacked fellow students, and both of them lied like seasoned veterans at about everything.

When the mood took them, they hurt both Stephanie and the family pet. Running away was commonplace, as was trashing the house. I reckon if they didn't set the house on fire, it was only because they didn't think of it! In addition, Chantal had an insatiable need for attention, preferably male, preferably anyone's, and would go to any lengths to get it. Both were incredibly jealous of Anne, whose medical condition dictated special treatment. She was fully incontinent, requiring catheterisation and daily enemas. Ryan and Chantal were needy enough that they were even jealous of the time spent on these unpleasant activities! Everyone suffered, and in the prevailing atmosphere of unrestrained havoc, bonding became impossible.

One day, after a series of clashes, Ryan pushed me past the limits. Enraged, I knew I did not dare lay hands on him. Fearing that if I didn't get help, I might wind up spanking-no, abusing him, I hysterically implored our social worker for help.

"Don't worry," he reassured me, "you are all going through a settling-in period." Which had already stretched out too long, for me. "I just want my family to be happy again," I answered. His reply: "One day, you will be. It'll be a different kind of happiness, that's all." All the same, I went into counselling, and a year later, emerged with a better understanding of myself, my situation, and my children, and a vague idea of how to cope..

For a time, things improved very slightly. The kids were settling down, though they seemed more attached to Anne than to Mike and I. Though we made mistakes, we tried hard, took parenting classes, were loving and fair, but still, attachment was lacking. Then, with the onset of puberty in Ryan and Chantal, a whole new set of emotional problems cropped up and we found ourselves back in the middle of a nightmare.

In 1992, Mike's job took us to Malaysia, and we hoped that in a new environment, our troubles would miraculously vanish. Instead, they multiplied. We found ourselves constantly seesawing between Ryan's escalating issues and Chantal's. To make matters worse, he was diagnosed with a severe learning disability, leading to his running away, poor effort at school, and further social and behavioural problems. Chantal's acting out now took the form of sexual and physical aggression, was nearly expelled from the private school all three kids attended. The school gave us a choice: get them both psychiatric help, or get them out of here.

We got them help. However, the psychologist informed us that the road was going to be very long and very bumpy: there were deeper issues here than anyone, even Children's Aid, had been aware of. Now it was suspected Ryan and Chantal had, as very small children, been sexually abused.

Coincidentally, Mike's overseas job ended at the same time that the school informed us they could do nothing more for Ryan's disability. We moved to California and again, with a new environment, new issues emerged.

In our first year there, Ryan ran away five times. We had him in therapy from the start, but Chantal seemed to be settling down. By twelve, however, she had demonstrated herself the more damaged of the two kids. She was alcoholic, into drugs, and sexually active...every parent's worst nightmare. Over the next four years, we went through every kind of hell with her, including more than two hundred counselling sessions, the Twelve Step Program, four group home placements, and indescribable emotional and financial stress.

At her request, she moved to a group home for two weeks, after which she went to a friend's house. We let her go, in the fond but misplaced hope that she would return willingly. Instead, she refused to come home, and law being what it is in CA, we could not force her. While there, she began drinking heavily, and was eventually arrested for shoplifting. She was sent to juvenile hall. Afterwards, refusing even
the lightest discipline, she ran away over and over again, landing in and out of juvenile hall for various offences, threatening to put a gun to my head, and ranting of suicide. In 1998, the county placed her in her first group home, from which she ran away after three months.

During this time, Ryan seemed more stable. He enrolled in the Explorers' Program, and expressed an interest in police work or the army. That didn't last. Refusing to attend classes, he failed to graduate high school, stole money, and was expelled from Explorers. Sooner than accept even the mildest rebuke, he left home. We heard nothing from him for over a year.

As a family, Mike and I felt we were falling apart. At that time Anne, who had been accepted into UC Berkeley, and the strength of our marriage, were our only comforts.

In her subsequent placements, Chantal stole a car and sold drugs, and finally, on Thanksgiving 2000, she ran away with a man fourteen years her senior. We could only imagine the worst, and prayed that a miracle would happen, that she would be safe.

We still loved the runaways, but we were burned out: there was nothing more we could do for them. The sad part of it was, we had not only lost two of our children, but any potential grandchildren, as well. However, in time, Mike, Steph, and I tentatively began to live again.

Then, on Christmas Day, 2001, Chantal telephoned. Married, with a new baby boy, she wanted us to reunite, to reconnect. For the first time, she admitted responsibility for past actions. Having a baby of her own had made her understand some of the protective instincts that motivate parents; made her see that parents act out of love, not meanness. Now, though living in a different city, we are close to her, and our fledgling relationship is strengthening daily through phone calls, visits, and frequent communication.

After nearly fifteen years, we are finally a family.

Well, almost. In early 2002, having discovered Ecstasy, and exhausting the goodwill and finances of friends and employers, Ryan left the area. Having done his best to destroy his family, friendship, and his career, he did the usual: he took the easy way out and ran away sooner than confront his problems.

Chantal took him in, but sadly, even their relationship is now severely strained due to his ongoing irresponsibility. We have not completely given up on him, least we have Chantal back, and there is forgiveness on both sides.

The point of all my rambling is this: when adopting older children, one tends to forget that however normal they may appear, they have hidden issues that need to be acknowledged and addressed. These do not go away by themselves! Don't give up. It takes pain, endless patience, hard work, and determination to overcome such issues. They may never be completely eliminated, and adoptive families will undoubtedly suffer in the process, but hopefully, all will emerge from the experience the better and stronger for it.

With love and perseverance, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, even if only a flicker. Small as it may be, it's better than the darkness.

Credits: M.G. Halliday

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