Today we speak to Bree Jackson, a mother and autism advocate from middle Georgia who has a parent support chapter called Puzzle Pieces of Love.
In this episode, Nate tells us about his journey adopting his young son from the foster system and how the trauma of his son’s early life has left a complicated matrix of diagnoses.
Voice: Welcome to the Just Ask Mom podcast where parents share their experiences of mothering children with mental illness. Just Ask Mom is a Mothers on the Frontline production. Today we will speak with Nate, an adoptive single Father of 8-year old Ricky. Nate is a military and railroad veteran and lives in Iowa.
Tammy: Tell us a bit about yourself before or after you had your son, just tell us a little bit about you?
Nate: Back in 2014 I chose to– well I guess I should go back even further—when I was 30, I told myself that if I wasn’t married with 2.5 kids by the time I was 40, it was time to do something. So I did something and when I was 40 in 2014, I got license to adopt. The end of October in 2014. And that’s when the road started. A road that I had never been down and very few people in my family ever have either. Including my cousin in Arkansas who is a Special Ed teacher. Prior to that I’ve been a locomotive engineer for 20 years. Worked all over the country. Before that I was in the military. I’m a military veteran. I was a medic in the military. I had that experience but none of that prepared me for what was to come when I entered the adoption world and the various spectrums of which you would encounter.
Tammy: Okay. So pretend you are talking to the public, or you’re just telling people who haven’t had these experiences that you’ve had, what do you want them to know?
Nate: Well, foster kids, they’re in a whole different class and you often hear, these kids are damaged, or these kids have baggage or these kids are bad kids even. The stigma that follows them and none of it is their fault. The public, in general, seems to block out the fact that these kids come from very, very bad situations, and because of that their minds have been reprogrammed in all essence to survive. And that’s where a lot of these behaviors come from, and that’s what, us, as parents struggle to reprogram. If you can imagine a Rand McNally map of Missouri when a child is born. You have all of those highways going everywhere, well that’s a child’s brain when they’re born. Once you place trauma, physical abuse, sexual abuse and every other avenue on top of that, you might as well take all of those highways on that Missouri map and throw them away and you could just draw four lines that do not intersect each other, that end in nowhere and those four lines are survival, food, shelter, safety and getting their way – what they think is best for them. Those four little highways, that is it in the entire state that end nowhere, that don’t talk to each other, and it’s up to us as the public, not just the adoptive parents or foster parents, it’s up to us as the public to build all those little highways back together again.
Tammy: That’s right.
Nate: To attempt to rebuild that entire map. Now, it’s a little bit easier when you get them when they’re pretty young, not much, but a little. But it falls back, it just takes a lot, a lot, a lot, of resources to do so.
Tammy: Right. Tell us about your situation. How did you come about meeting your son and having your son and what was it like in the beginning?
Nate: It was actually very interesting. The end of 2014 and through most of 2015 I had set my home study out on various kids all over the country, literally, that I was interested in but I never really, never got considered for them. Even once they had told me that they even had no other home studies being considered. But just as I was kind of losing hope thinking I had wasted my time getting licensed, I got a phone call. It was almost to the day – the anniversary of when my brother died in 1999. I think it was November 27th of 2015 my brother had taken his life, the end of ’99.
Tammy: I’m so sorry.
Nate: I want to say the 26th and his name was Rick, well I got a call about this six-year old that was named Ricky.
Tammy: Oh wow.
Nate: My initial intent was to adopt older like 11-12 what I tend to call the forgotten bunch -the older ones. To give them a chance number one. Number two, my work schedule is not the greatest and I kind of needed a child that was a little more self-sufficient. But they called me about Ricky, of course, the coincidence, that I could not ignore. He was a lot younger than what I had planned on but then the first things that start popping in my head is well he sure is young enough to still be able to create that bond. And whatever he has wrong should be able to turn that around or get it stabilized. So I went ahead and started visits December of 2015 and the visits I had with him, he seemed a little hyper, a lot of energy, but to me nothing out of the ordinary. Even when the visits progressed to him coming to my house to stay overnight, he wasn’t too bad. Manageable, he was manageable. Well, the end of January, they moved him in. Something had happened in the foster home and they needed to move him quickly so they went ahead and expedited the transition into my home. So I moved him in I think it was January 27th or 28th. And it was really neat because you could tell he was just happy as a lark to move in. He had never been in such a fancy house. He never had all these toys before. He was just the happiest kiddo West of the Mississippi. Then day two came.
Tammy: That quick?
Nate: That quick.
Nate: As soon as I went down to wake him up the morning of day two, I’m here to tell you, I just barely touched him on the shoulder and he just kind of cracked one eye open, he just slid down the bunk bed ladder down to the floor and he just took off running, I mean he’s running into walls and everything else. He’s still half asleep and he just zooms, right on up the stairs.
Nate: It was the craziest thing you’ve ever seen, you know what I mean? And he just– he was full board the rest of the day and I’m like, wow. I mean I’ve been around ADHD kids before but nothing to this degree. But at that time that’s all I was dealing with, I was dealing with hyper. An of course at the time he was on stimulants, he’d take his stimulant in the morning and he would kind of level out but then the rise to fame would start about one or two in the afternoon. Everyday. So he started school almost immediately and he did good at school for the first month. Then I started getting calls that they’re having problems. He would run out of the classroom and go running around the halls, or he would start throwing animals around the classroom or tearing up books or tearing up other kids’ papers. Not following directions, so on and so forth. There wasn’t any confinement at that time. But his outbursts — and at that time he was not in Special Ed either. So we dealt with it and over the– and right about then I started getting him into the local psychiatrist to figure things out. What’s going on with his meds or what are we missing or what do we need to do next. So they changed his meds to something different and well that was a mistake.
Nate: They didn’t wean him off, they just switched from one stimulant to another. At that time, I was completely ignorant to that.
Tammy: Right, so you’re just trusting really what they tell you–
Tammy: –because they’re the experts, right?
Tammy: I’ve been there.
Nate: And so he– after that for the next couple of months, I mean it was just problem after problem after problem in school. They were making adjustments wherever they could and I have to hand it to that school. They tried, tried and tried again. They genuinely adored him and understood what he has to be going through. At the same time, there were no secrets between me and the school on day one, they got everything that I had. Child studies background, everything. So they knew absolutely everything and they couldn’t come back on me on top of it, you know what I mean?
Tammy: Right, you were in it together, really.
Nate: Yes, yes, we were working together. And I was raised that way with school districts because my mom is a retired teacher. So I have a compassion for the teaching industry. I understand how it works. I had a lot of problems over the next couple of months and he didn’t really have many confinements. There was a couple – two or three instances where they had to use confinement, but me or the nanny was home and one of us would go get him right away. He wouldn’t stay there. But that it was only two or three times I want to say total in that first year. Now. In May, I had got him up here to U of I and uh, they are a great facility, they do try very hard to work with the different families. They changed up his meds again and kind of went back to the original med schedule and then just hit some tweaks and added one I think– one med. And things seemed to level off the rest of May. Well enough to the point that I thought that they had gotten things figured out. Or got him on the right track. He was on a good enough track that when his worker, his social worker came to the house for her monthly check up, she asked if I would be interested in his older brother and she told me what he had and he had all the same things that my guy had.
Tammy: How much older is he?
Nate: One year.
Tammy: So they’re close.
Nate: Yes. except for the older one also had RAD.
Tammy: Radical Attachment Disorder?
Tammy: Oh reactive, I’m sorry Reactive Attachment Disorder. Okay.
Nate: Yes. I had done some reading about Reactive Attachment Disorder and my cousin who’s a Special Ed teacher did a paper in college on RAD so she was familiar with it too. I figured with him doing well and what I knew and the resources that I had, I figured he’d be okay. So I took placement of his older brother middle of July and for the first few days, great. I mean, they were inseparable. As a matter of fact, they were inseparable the whole time they were in the same home together. But here’s where it went wild. About a week into it, the older brother became distant with me right away – not right away but all of a sudden. He didn’t want to hug at night anymore or he was just oddly distant. I couldn’t figure out what had happened in that weeks’ time that it turned his switch off. I didn’t really figure it was just RAD, I just figured something I might have done or didn’t do.
Tammy: Parents do that, don’t we? We always blame ourselves.
Nate: Oh, second guesses.
Tammy: Yes, second-guessing, yeah.
Nate: So it just started to get worse from there. Where he wouldn’t take a shower or he wouldn’t do something I asked or what have you. And over the course of the next two weeks is when things really got bad because what he was doing was bringing up their shared trauma.
Tammy: Oh, I see.
Nate: He was bringing that up to Ricky and getting Ricky stirred up, causing Ricky to act out.
He would keep feeding Ricky with these traumas and these ideas of acting out and behaviors to the point that I had, at the very end– three weeks is all the placement lasted. I had went to work and my job keeps me away roughly 24 hours. Nanny is there the whole time. I get down to the other end of my territory and turn her phone on and it’s just blowing up, the nanny is just blowing up my phone, “Well they’re doing this, the older one was caught with a knife behind the shed and the dog and this and that – and the younger one was just taking a hammer to the front steps,” and I’m like, “what is going on?” Taking paint throwing it all over the garage, it was wild. So I get home and they had done about $3,000 in damage to the house.
Tammy: Wow. Which actually takes a lot of effort for a child of those ages to do, right? I mean, well I guess not they can do damage quickly but it sounds like they were working hard at it.
Nate: These type of children, no.
Tammy: I see.
Nate: Because there is no self-control, there is no line in the sand with them.
Tammy: I see.
Nate: Everything’s game.
Tammy: And they must have been putting themselves in danger it sounds like.
Nate: Uh-huh and the nanny, she was doing everything she could to keep them–
Nate: –safe. But they were not listening to her whatsoever. They were threatening to run away, they were screaming obscenities at the nanny. There’s just no way. It was just an out of control situation. I don’t know what I could have done if I was there except call the sheriff. It was just a very bad scenario. The next morning, I had them go to bed after they ate when I got home that night and the next morning. Well as soon as they woke up I took them to the emergency room, I had spoken to a counselor overnight through my employer and they had suggested that that needed to happen. So I did. I went to the emergency room the next day and spent about 10 hours in the emergency room. Finally, the local officer came and picked up the older brother and took him away, removed him. And my little guy, that was the first time he got admitted up here, to the university. And so moving forward, he was in the hospital for about a week, a little over a week, came home, they tweaked a few meds. They didn’t really get to see any behaviors while he was in there, which didn’t help any. But they tweaked a med or so and they sent him home because he was being safe. And he had started school, second grade, maybe a week later. And I think it was not even a full week into the second grade and the calls started again, of physical aggression and screaming obscenities at the staff and out on the playground and dysregulation. Just you name it and I think it was the beginning of September he was suspended.
Nate: Second grade, your being suspended.
Tammy: At this point no IEP?
Nate: No, IEP, nothing. But he was suspended for…
Tammy: Individualized education plan, we try to recognize that we need to clarify for our listeners who don’t belong to this world of alphabet soup right? Go ahead, sorry.
Nate: I guess the acronyms will throw them off. He was suspended for — he’d been standing in line, turning around. A new student, first day of school for this new student moving from somewhere else, was standing right behind Ricky. And Ricky just impulsively, just turned around and grabbed his glasses and just broke them and threw them on the floor.
Tammy: Oh, wow.
Nate: No reason, no rhyme or reason, no anything. So they suspended him and I agreed with it. It is what it is. He was at fault. So that’s where it started going downhill. I want to say it was, middle of September, that I had called an IEP to sign paperwork for suspicion of disability so he could be evaluated for special education. Now I’m here to tell you that next 60 days, might-as-well have been 6 years. It, it just seemed to take forever. The stuff that he did at school, I felt so sorry for all the other kids that were being put through that. It was traumatizing for the other kids, just like it was traumatizing to Ricky.
Nate: But this is the way they do things and it’s unfortunate. But anyway, they started the evaluation middle of September and we rolled into October. He ended up going back to the hospital. I think it was third week of October. They started to see little behaviors. They kept adding diagnoses and it was just baffling. I mean this whole time, I’m constantly on the computer researching, constantly reading studies. I’m trying to figure out this, this web that we have going on with him, trying to make sense of it because from a logical perspective it does not make sense in any way, shape, or form. Just the fact that a six-year, well, seven-year-old at this time could be so complicated. It’s just scientifically baffling to me, but he went back to the hospital in October. During October, I also got him into a geneticist and had him tested for Fragile X syndrome, which he tested negative for. I also had a CMI done, chromosomal microarray, to look for any anomalies in his chromosomal structure. That did come back abnormal, but, naturally, the partial deletion that he has, medical research has not caught up to that part of the strand yet. So they did not know the significance, if any that it would be, even though this particular chromosome that he has deletion in has a lot to do with behaviors.
Tammy: Oh, okay, so that, there’s some link at least.
Nate: Yes, I mean there’s suspicion, because this particular chromosome can depict William Syndrome. It can depict Schizophrenia. It can depict Autism. So I mean there’s a lot of behavioral controls or programming in this particular chromosome. But anyway, moving forward, he come back home from the October hospitalization. He was okay that I could tell. It depended on the day. Some days, he’s all right. But he would go only a day or two for being all right and then you would pay the price. It was November ninth, they went ahead and ended his evaluation early, a little early because they had enough.
Tammy: For the school?
Nate: Yes. They had enough data to go ahead and qualify him for special education. In the middle of November, they moved him from the school he was in to the other elementary school in town which was where their Special Ed department was.
Tammy: I see. Do you feel that helped at all?
Tammy: [laughs] No. Uh oh.
Nate: Oh, boy. In the very beginning, yes. But my little guy is so complicated, they couldn’t hold a candle to his needs. They distracted him, that’s what I like to call it for the first week. Then he started to show some behaviors he was showing more and more and more behaviors and needing more and more time in the Special Ed room, out of the classroom. More disruptions and so in the middle of December, he just went downhill. We never got him back. When he got to the new school from the middle of November, he started getting a lot of confinements in Special Ed almost daily for long periods. This went on until Christmas and he got out of control on Christmas and he went back to the hospital on Christmas. He was there until about January fourth, when he was released again and there again, another diagnosis and another med. But I think that it was that hospital visit I– I could tell when I picked him up he wasn’t right. He just, you could tell, he wouldn’t really last very long.
Tammy: How is he doing now?
Nate: Oh, well, he’s been in residential for five months. And they’re just starting to see progress.
Tammy: All right.
Nate: In the beginning, he was getting his money worth out of them. They were seeing all kinds of behavior. They saw behaviors as the day he was admitted. He had quite a few confinements and so forth but of course that facility is designed for those type of children that need that kind of care. We did a med wash on him. Got all the five different meds out of his system which I requested last year. Just last year but the doctors wouldn’t listen to me. Then they had him off all meds for a month and he did better. They got him off all the meds. He did level up somewhat. He wasn’t getting what they call incident reports on a daily basis. He was still right in that line of getting them but he was not taking it all away. Recently they started him on a new med, just one, trying the non-stimulant route and it’s showing promising signs.
Tammy: Well, good.
Nate: Next month we’re going to have a neuropsychological testing done to look for autism, like Asperger’s or see if there’s something else there. It’s supposed to identify which pathways are dead-end, up to his pre-frontal cortex, to see if we can get any explanations in that area or if it’s just all pure psychological, as far as his trauma and it was discovered that it appears that the piece of the puzzle that I was missing all last year, the things that were not making sense when I got him he did not have RAD. But he’d, once he got to me, and felt safe, comfortable, which didn’t take very long and the behavior that started.
Tammy: Yeah, that’s not uncommon.
Nate: That’s when the RAD surfaced because before that, he was not, he didn’t feel safe. He felt on edge. He was in survival mode in his natural instinct. But like I said, once he come to me, these symptoms started coming out. And, you know, the RAD symptoms, a lot of these, disorders that we’re dealing with in special-needs kids, whether it would be autism, ADHD, ODD, DMDD, just the acronyms are endless.
Tammy: They are.
Nate: But the symptoms they overlap each other in such messy basket weave. And to get that sorted out, it takes time.
Tammy: Another thing, I mean your son is still young. And as I talk to a lot of parents and tell my own journey, the brain’s developing and the diagnoses change and are added as they grow sometimes, it’s very complicated. You’re absolutely right.
Nate: Absolutely, it’s complicated. Yeah, and what aggravates me to this day is that we don’t, we as parents, we rely so much on the professionals. And in a way, I feel like we’re being taken advantage of because the professionals seem to just push, push meds. And not the right meds either. They want to push diagnoses that aren’t the right diagnosis. You provide them with all of this information, background on them and they don’t look at it. So we’re going into it blind asking for their help and they’re just handling another piece of cattle coming through the office. I hate to use that analogy, it is what it is. Yeah, and it’s heart-breaking to know that your child is being treated like that, you know?
Tammy: Yeah, but I mean you have this insight to that child that no one else has.
Nate: Well, absolutely, all of us are the Ph.D.’s of our child.
Tammy: Exactly, yes. I agree. It’s important to have a team that listen to the parents, listen to the other members of the team, thinking of the whole picture of that child, but it’s hard to make that happen.
Nate: It is. It’s very hard. That’s why I’ve created a term – and it may be out there but I haven’t seen it — I call it respectfully aggressive parenting.
Tammy: I like this. Say more.
Nate: If you hear something you don’t like from someone in your network, you tell them, “Okay” and then you go to the next one. You either go to the one to the left of them or to the one on the on top of them.
Tammy: In the end, you’re fighting for that kid. That’s what you have to do.
Nate: That’s absolutely right. A lot of these people that we deal with in trying to secure services for our children they’re just doing their job. That’s the way they’re told to respond. So there’s no reason to get mad at them. There’s no reason to yell at them. There’s no reason to throw a fit. Go around.
Tammy: So, you know, there’s just so much, right? So I’m going stop you there, but I do hope we can come back to you as you progress in your journey and this is just, there’s just so much.
Nate: There is.
Tammy: So much. But at this moment right now, are you swimming, drowning, treading water? Where are you at?
Nate: Before he went to residential I was drowning. All of the community-based services in my area down there were exhausted. We weren’t getting anywhere with it. I had this seven-year-old that, for all intent and purposes, it was like gremlins in my house. I mean, swinging from the ceiling fan, you know just turning up the house and there’s nothing I could do to it, or do about it, you know. Police would have to come to my house to get him to do what I needed him to do. At that time, I was drowning. Even the local hospital didn’t know what to do with him. But at this time, I’m treading water, because it’s given me more time to do research and gather myself and understand what we really got going on with him. Working with his therapist there at the facility and her explaining some things. I mean, I’m feeling more comfortable. Now, that doesn’t make me a pro-at handling the situation yet.
Tammy: Right. It’s hard. And there’s just no way around it. This is hard.
Nate: Yes, yes, just because I’m not programmed like that. I was raised completely different, you know. It’s hard to take an eight-year-old and treat him like a two-year-old because that’s where they’re mentally at. It’s just very hard to shift gears down there. So I’m still learning, like I should be. I’m going to say I’m treading water right now, but I feel comfortable at it.
Tammy: Good. So what do you do for self-care to get through this? What helps you to get through it?
Nate: I think a lot and I read a lot. I don’t let myself– if I started feeling myself like a little down or depressed or overwhelmed, I simply just revert back to the task at hand, the challenge at hand which is understanding how all of these disorders tie into each other. What they mean, what the outlook is so I’m constantly on the internet researching, reading studies both here the UK. The UK is doing a lot of research on ADHD. But I just keep passing scenarios thrown in, I just keep reading, keep education– keep educating myself so I can fully grasp what we have here. You know what I mean? It pushed me to go back to school. It pushed me to start a book, if nothing else just to have it documented while fresh in my mind. um, That’s what I do to keep myself maintained.
Tammy: So this is all very hard stuff. We always like to end with this question, because the only way to get through this is laughing occasionally, having some humor about it. What’s your most laughable moment that you might like to share with us?
Nate: The most laughable moment and regarding to him?
Tammy: Anything you want to share but yeah, in terms of parenting and so forth. What can you laugh at through all this?
Nate: The first time that Ricky was– he’s had several very laughable moments –but the first time he was in the ER, during that ten hours, him and his brother they were pretty unruly. And they ended up having to separate the two in two different rooms. And Ricky was being very aggressive to the point– I was standing out in the hall. There was three nurses in there. And he was working all three nurses over pretty good. So they have to call security. So I was standing in the hall and here comes this very large man, security guard, around the corner. And he kind has-his chest bumped out a little bit. He just kind of glared over at me. And he walked over to the door, to the exam room where Ricky was at. He slowly turned that doorknob, slowly opened it, side-stepped in, told the nurses that they could go. That he’s got it. Nurses filed out. He slowly closed the door very quietly. And I sat there for about a minute, and I kid you not, it sounded like Tom and Jerry going at it in that exam room for a full hour.
Tammy: Oh my gosh.
Nate: I mean it did not stop. They were just, oh, I don’t know what’s going on there but they was chasing each other hard. And then it got quiet. After that hour, it just completely got quiet.
Tammy: That’s always frightening when things get quiet.
Nate: Yes, and within a couple of minutes of it getting quiet, that door slowly opened again. He pulled it open, he side-stepped back out of it, closed the door, turned around, looked at me. His entire shirt was soaking wet with sweat. He comes up to me and he’s out of breath. And he says, “I don’t know how you do it?” I said, “Well, I’ve been doing it for almost a year, what’s your problem?” And he just shook his head and walked around the corner and I went in to check on Ricky, opened the door and there’s Ricky just sitting on the edge, of the exam table watching TV. Not a bead of sweat on it.
Tammy: Like nothing happened? Oh my gosh.
Nate: Not breathing hard, no bead of sweat. Nothing.
Tammy: Nothing .
Nate: Just like it didn’t even phase him.
Nate: And so he worked that man over pretty good.
Tammy: Well, I want to thank you for sharing your story. And like I said, hopefully, we can come back, talk to you again as you get further along in your journey.
Tammy: Thank you so much for sharing this. We have to laugh sometimes right?
Nate: No absolutely, we got to find the humor.
Tammy: That’s right. Well, thank you so much.
Nate: No problem.
Tammy: Thank you.
Voice: You have been listening to “Just Ask Mom”, recorded and copyrighted in 2017 by Mothers on the Frontline. Today’s podcast host was Tammy Nyden. The music is “Olde English” written, performed, and recorded by FlameEmoji. For more podcasts in this and other series relating to children’s mental health, go to MothersOnTheFronline.com.
In this episode, Alissa shares her journey as a single mother raising 5 children, both biological and adopted through the foster system, and having a wide range of special needs, including physical, intellectual and emotional disabilities. She discusses how to stay centered in the tough times and how self-care is required before we are able to give to others, including our children.
Voice: Welcome to the Just Ask Mom podcast where mothers share their experiences of raising children with mental illness. Just Ask Mom is a Mothers on the Frontline production. Today we are speaking with Alissa, a mother of five children, including biological children and children adopted through the foster system. She works in Human Services helping other families with mental health needs as well as other special needs.
Tammy: Well, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, to get started.
Alissa: My name is Alissa Tschetter-Siedschlaw. I am a mom of five. I’ve been a single mom for ten years, although I recently got engaged.
Alissa: Thank you.
Tammy: Oh, that’s exciting.
Alissa: My children range in age from 24 down to 9. I have both children that are biologically born to me, and children adopted through the foster system, with a wide variety of mental health, developmental, behavioral, and medical special needs. I work full time, well, actually no, I’m part time now, in human services, helping other families. I also do professional theater, by contract.
Tammy: I didn’t know that. That’s really cool.
Alissa: You didn’t? I finished a contract recently and I have a Shakespeare contract coming up in the summer.
Tammy: Oh, how fun.
Alissa: Yup. That’s what my training was originally in, theater performance.
Tammy: Well, my next question – and you might have partially answered this – what are you passionate about? Tell us a bit about you, outside of, or before mothering.
Alissa: I am passionate about arts. I’m passionate about advocating for those who can’t speak for themselves. I was before this. I’m passionate about taking care of the earth, taking care of other people, treating people the way you would want to be treated yourself, trying to make a difference, and fighting against – whether it’s discrimination, or fighting against systems that don’t understand where loopholes are for people, or whatever. I’ve always been passionate about those political things and those kinds of things. I love lots of forms of art and exercise. I like to exercise. That is my medication. So yeah, those are the things.
Tammy: Great. Well, that’s awesome. So I want you to pretend that you’re talking to — In your case, you have five children, with multiple special needs, so I’d like you to pretend you’re talking to a parent with, maybe two or three kids that don’t have special needs. And try to give them some insight into what are the extra challenges.
Alissa: I think, it would be almost impossible to explain to someone else in that circumstance. What I would probably welcome them to do is come see a day in my life, or experience another family like mine. Because there’s a lot of things you don’t know until you know. A lot of very compassionate, very loving people, can say very callous things, because truly, – it’s never crossed their mind. They’ve never thought about the kinds of problems we might have before. So sometimes, I try to explain from a place of education – without being patronizing- sometimes, just even in gaining compassion, when I have one child that I adopted, who has a tremendously tragic story. There’s not many people you could explain such a rough beginning and not pull at their heartstrings, and then, say all the things that her life is like now, and how it is to go home to a child, who’s functioning much slower than her physical size, who might have a psychotic break, and bite you, and attack you. People have a hard time even wrapping their head around those things, so I kind of wish more people could peek into our lives, because it is such a hard thing to understand. I think it’s like a lot of things that might seem unpleasant to people. We all want to pretend that certain things aren’t out there. It makes you feel like you can survive. I know myself – there are times when you hear some horrendous child abuse story – we all want tp say, “No, that’s not, it can’t be. That’s not real.” Sometimes I think, our lives can look like that. I think it’s very scary to those who don’t experience that. I think it’s also why we so easily bond with each other, because so rarely do moms like us truly feel understood.
Alissa: Where maybe if I am in an IEP meeting and seem snappy and bitchy or something, other moms like me would get it and go, “You know what? You’re just cutting out the BS, because you’re tired, and you’ve probably been up all night and this is your third meeting of the day, and I get you.” Where, to an outside person, it’s like “Wow this mom is difficult to deal with”. I think so much of it would be welcoming somebody in, to see a picture of what it looks like. Because I don’t think it’s something most people can wrap their head around.
Tammy: It’s interesting you say that, because even if you had a video of it, it’s still removed, because…
Alissa: …because you’re not in it, yeah.
Tammy: I don’t know the neurology of this, I just know when my child has anxiety and I’m in the same room with my child, it starts to affect my body.
Alissa: Oh, absolutely.
Tammy: So if you’re in a situation like this, day in and day out.
Alissa: Well, it absolutely does. I actually think some of the best things, you know, you maybe ask what this in a little bit – but some of the best things I’ve done for myself, have to do with energy worth, and learning how to stay centered and calm, in the midst of chaos, rather than allowing yourself to snowball in the chaos. And realizing that chaos isn’t me, and it isn’t my own. And so, to be able to stay calm and centered in the midst of that, does reduce behavior of those around you, just naturally. It’s like tossing a pebble into a pond, and watching the ripple. If my pebble is a calm and centered and neutral pebble, it doesn’t get pulled into that. Because anxiety’s contagious.
Alissa: And it’s very, very easy for that to happen. And I would say, over the last six years, doing a lot of work, with my own therapist, with my own energy person, with a lot of alternative things like that, finding ways to do what I can do, because I can only do me when it comes down to it you know. And so, hopefully, my ripple is different. That helps reduce the amount of severity of my own reaction to the children.
Tammy: If it’s okay, I’d like to follow that up, because it’s one thing I notice, when I’m around the other moms, who go through this. I realize I’m drawn to them more than other people now. And part of it is like you say, they understand. But there’s something else, and it’s hard for me to sometimes put my finger on it. I think, in order to survive this, you have to do exactly what you said. To some extent, you have to center yourself. You have to understand that, if I’m going survive this, I have to not be carried away with it. And that’s a life skill that transfers everywhere else.
Alissa: It absolutely does. I think, in general a lot of moms like us tend to be overtly authentic. Which I love. For some people, that’s extremely off putting. Because I’ll just tell you flat out.
Tammy: [laughs] Yeah.
Alissa: You have a question you want to ask me, or somebody wants to discuss some topic. I don’t care. I’ll tell – because, I think, when you’ve gone through these kinds of things, it is just different. I do think there is an ability to be raw and authentic, in a way that I think is a tremendous life skill, that I have gained, from a very difficult experience. Yeah.
Tammy: Right. Well, thank you for that. That is really helpful. So you have five kids. And I know just having two, how difficult it can be, making sure the sibling is getting attention, and so on. What do you wish you could tell your kids? Like, and you could pick a few, if you want, like one of the time…
Tammy: That’s five intersecting lives and so many various complicated ways…
Alissa: Well, the one thing I do know that my kids know is that I would fiercely and vigilantly fight for what they need. Unfortunately, looking back, I feel like I have been more of an advocate than I have been a mom. That part hurts my heart. I didn’t have all of the sit down and play and do fun things together, or let’s go do some fun activity, especially when I had so many with so many special needs. Our activities were physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, behavioral therapy, treatment, med management. I grieve that – that I don’t think my children will look back and remember me as a fun mom. I don’t think they’ll have those memories. But I do think my kids would tell, “If you were in a pinch, who do you want in your corner? It was my mom.” So that part I’m proud of. What I’ve had to do – this usually does make me emotional – is let myself off the hook a bit because under the given circumstances, especially being alone for so much of it, I did the best I could, with what I had at the time. I apologize when I need to. I make the kids aware that I am a human, with faults, and I am so sorry, but I’m doing my best, and how much I love and adore you. I believe in a higher power, and God brought us together for a reason. And no matter what, even when I’m confused, and I don’t know what the reason is, or any of those things, I’m confident in that. I try to stick with that. That part can be, can be hard- I don’t think anyone has gotten the individual attention they may have needed. But I’ve tried to do simple things like take one to the grocery store. Even have one run down to the laundry just for a few minutes, here and there, I try to make sure everybody gets touched, every day. Especially when they get older, and they’re teenagers, that you get a hug goodbye and I’ll give you a kiss goodbye – that they feel physical love and affection from their mom. I think that they all know I wish I could have provided more.
Tammy: Your story is one that, almost of us, would resonate with, because we don’t talk about it very much, but I think we all also grieve, not only the loss of the motherhood we imagined, but the childhood be imagined for our kids. All of that.
Alissa: Exactly. Well, the other really nice thing is– and I don’t know why – I think I’ve always been a little bit of an odd duck, myself– I didn’t have expectations of what my kids would be. I didn’t. I actually think that has saved me a level of grief, that I know a lot of my peers have gone through. For the children that I adopted, there was this weird freedom from it. I don’t have guilt about their beginnings being crappy. I didn’t do it. And the neat thing about that is, I also know what they would’ve had without me and go, “You know, what? I’m doing pretty good because, you would have had worse.” It’s not that I still don’t feel like I wish I could give them more, but there is a sense of forgiving myself, when I know, okay, you know what? I know what your options were without me, so we’re doing okay. I do think I’ve grieved the mom that I wish I was. But I really want my kids to just be whoever they are. Especially with my adoptions. One of my children, they said she would basically be a vegetable. That is what I planned for. Anything above that is just bonus. So all of the issues she has today, when I look at her situation, this poor kid, I just think, this is just such a miraculous kid. I didn’t have expectations of her doing X, Y, or Z.
Tammy: That’s another thing. If we could transfer the rest of our lives, right? Just think about all of our relationships, all of our daily things, if we didn’t lead with expectations.
Alissa: I think, actually, that centered skill, being able to feel whole myself, it sets me up for much healthier relationships, because I don’t go in with expectation. If I’m here just to love you, then that’s all I’m here for. If you love me back, bonus. But I’m not here with an expectation of you offering me something in return. I view parenting much that way. It is our job to love them. It is not their job to love us back. That’s bonus. That’s gravy. That’s what we would hope for. But if they don’t, that’s not part of the journey. That’s not my job -to be your friend or to be liked by you. My job is to raise the best human being I can raise. My job is to love you unconditionally and with without expectation of being loved in return. Feeling okay with yourself, frees you that way, and helps your relationships be really authentic, really real, and you can have much deeper relationships, because you’re cutting out that expectation.
Tammy: I think that’s wonderful. So right now, at this moment, because every mom I talked to, including myself —
Alissa: A little different.
Tammy: — it varies from moment to moment.
Tammy: But in this moment, are you treading water? Are you drowning? Are you swimming? Where do you find yourself?
Alissa: If I’m doing swimming, as the most positive of the options, I think we’re mostly swimming.
Alissa: I think there are days we’re treading water. We aren’t sinking so much anymore, but I have had plenty of days where the goal was only to survive the day. In fact, I think, there was a decade there where I survived the decade – my goal was only to survive the day. I still probably have poor long-term planning, because thinking too far out causes me stress and anxiety, because of that. So sometimes I have poor planning – what are you doing in three weeks. I have no idea what I’m doing in three weeks. I’ll put it on my schedule. I’ll look the night before, because I will be overwhelmed otherwise. Over all I do feel like we’re at least always two steps forward, even though we take one step back. If you had told me five years ago we could be this good, I would have thought you were out your mind. So that’s exciting.
Tammy: I think it’s really good for people to hear. I know the biggest hope I get is when I talk to parents whose kids are now adults and they made it and they’re okay. And it was hard, but they’re okay. It just gives you so much hope.
Alissa: I think hope is one of the most pivotal things to hang on to, because your only option isn’t to sink. There are people out there. Are the resources what I wish they were? They are not. And do I see all kinds of holes, and all kinds of systems all over the place? I sure do. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. We had come a really, really long way. We had a lot of near tragedy along the way too, and we have survived. I’d like to get to a place — I don’t know if I would say we are at thriving as opposed to surviving –but we’re somewhere in the middle and that’s pretty dang good.
Tammy: That’s really good.
Alissa: So, yeah.
Tammy: You’ve already talked a little bit about your self-care routine, but if you want to say anything more about it or in those really rough moments – the survival techniques.
Alissa: I tell lots of people to remember to breathe. Literally. I don’t think we realize how often we’re holding our breath. The difference it makes in your physical body to remind yourself to breathe. My Mommy Mantra is, “This too shall pass.” Nothing is forever even in the worst of circumstance, this won’t always be like this. No matter what, this will change and I remind myself of that a lot. I try to exercise most days, not every day — but that does help. I also see a therapist for me. I do some energy work with an energy person when I need meds myself, I go get meds. It’s usually in the winter. I’m like you know what, I need some extra help because I’m struggling. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think remembering that, utilizing what’s out there to be the best who you can be. We also shouldn’t think that we should be a doormat. I’ll go get my nails done. I mean, maybe not all the time, but if there’s something that is splurge, you know, I — I’m on the list too. A lot of us forget that. I don’t think you can do the quality job you want if you’re cup’s empty.
Tammy: That’s right.
Alissa: I heard someone say once –and I loved it so much–they talked about when people say, “My cup runneth over.” And what they were saying is, “You know what? What runneth over is for me to give you. What’s in the cup is for me.”
Alissa: And so, if you think of it that way. I have to do my best to keep my own cup full or I’ve got nothing to offer, to my children, to others, to advocacy, to change, you know, I’ve got to do my best to keep myself whole and intact as well, you know, or it does no one any good.
Tammy: Thank you. This is just amazing.
Alissa: Thank you.
Tammy: I’m going to ask you one last question. Through all this, what’s your most laughable moment?
Alissa: One of my favorite moments, so, a little bit about my daughter – she is 17. She’s intellectually disabled. She’s probably functioning around seven and she has cerebral palsy. She has schizophrenia. She had a severe – grade 3 – bilateral brain bleed. She has hydrocephalus with a shunt. She’s meth and alcohol affected. She was three months premature and her birth parents are related. So, what basket a stuff to be given. But this is one of my favorite stories about her. I home-schooled her up until third grade. And then in third grade she went to public school. She comes home and she’s telling me the story about how she and the other black girls in class were having a discussion. I realized as she went on that she thought she was black and so I said, “Madeline, did you know you’re not black”, and she said, “What?”, and she fell straight over on to the couch in shock. Then she’s like, “Well, w-what am I?”, and I said, “Well, I think you’re Italian”, and she said, “I must have gotten confused.” [laughter] It was so cute. And another really cute one I have to say about my son who’s autistic. This was just his — the way he thought it worked. At 18, he sat down to come out of the closet as straight. He figured every kid – like each parent – you don’t know. And then, you wait until adulthood and then apparently each child needs to sit their parents down and explain whether you are straight or gay. I just thought it was the cutest thing that one he thought that there’s no concern about what you might be, but that, he better inform me.
Tammy: Right. That’s his job.
Alissa: That he is straight.
Tammy: To tell you at this age.
Alissa: Yes. Yes. So it was cute because he came out as straight.
Tammy: That’s great. Thank you so much.
Alissa: You’re welcome.
Tammy: Such a wonderful story.
Alissa: Thank you so much, Tammy.
Tammy: Thank you.
Voice: You have been listening to “Just Ask Mom”, recorded and copyrighted in 2017 by Mothers on the Frontline. Today’s podcast host was Tammy Nyden. The music is “Olde English” written, performed, and recorded by FlameEmoji. For more podcasts in this and other series relating to children’s mental health, go to MothersOnTheFronline.com.