Sunday, June 24, 2007

Entwined But Not Joined


One of the things I have still not been able to really figure out after eleven years of adoptive parenting is the depth and scope of attachment-disordered children. My struggle comes not from the academic side, for I have read numerous tomes, ranging from general public, fifth-grade reading level approaches to mellifluously scripted volumes resulting from the research of recognized professionals in the field. I know mentally the reasons why children who grow up with early neglect or abuse find it so hard to make lasting, appropriate connections with committed parents. I even understand -- I think -- some of the emotional process that creates such a relational deficit.

But I struggle with attachment issues because it makes me feel so inadequate. Of our ten children, eight of them exhibit what I would call healthy, appropriate attachment. There are moments when I am reminded that perhaps they have not progressed as far as I think they have, but generally they trust us to be their parents, they appropriately express love, disappointment, and anger. I am confident they will make it in the world because they are emotionally and relationally learning and equipped for the task.

Two of our sons, however, have always perplexed me in this regard. One of these two sons (they are birth brothers) has an official diagnosis of RAD (reactive attachment disorder), while the other son has no official diagnosis. Of these two brothers, I have pumped into the most open brother years of my time, energy and love. I have brokered intentional conversations hours into the night when necessary, confronted when behaviors were inappropriate, advised, nurtured, patiently endured almost ten years of investment.

There have been moments when I have felt the effort has been worthwhile and successful. He is able to function well amongst adults and his peers, which was not the case when he first came to live with us. He is able to perform socially in a cursory fashion as long as no one tries to get too close to his inner personhood. He is able to maintain the external responsibilities of a relationship and occasionally pick up social cues. So, I hope that I have had some impact in those areas of his life.

But I sometimes still wonder whether I have been duped, the naive pawn of one who mastered emotional manipulation in his quest for early childhood survival. It could well be that I have been a clueless instrument in his quest to control his understanding of the world, receiving the benefits of my relationship with him over the course of the years. And now, while he is still in a place in life where he needs our financial and other support, he maintains a connection. But I wonder, too many times for it to be healthy, whether it will all come to a screeching halt when there is no need for us any longer.

My wife lovingly reminds me on a regular basis that it simply too early to tell, and that the investment I have made has been worthwhile and necessary, even if it has only brought our son to the point he is at this time in his life. Even if it's only that and nothing more, it has mattered. But I'm never really sure.

I'm never really sure because he offers so little emotionally unless it is coerced and forced, and what kind of reward is emotional connection that is demanded? It is a fruitless endeavor. If he is not provoked he offers little or nothing, and if he is provoked it is an intense and firey response implying that he has been cowed into relationship. It frustrates me because it seems so much a game, and a game that only the one who appears to care the least will win. So, whether he is the master manipulator or simply an emotionally out-of-sync young adult, he is always the winner because he demands the most while offering the least.

In my quest to understand this strangely circuitous relationship I am always listening for apt ways that I might ponder it in a new way. On Friday night in a most unusual way I brought home with me from "Pirates of the Caribbean, 3" a quote that makes a lot of sense to me.

In the scene Elizabeth (one of the female pirates) is speaking with John (one of the British officers who is on the verge of death). Evidently (I have not followed the Pirates of the Caribbeans saga very closely) they have had moments of connection in the recent past, but it has never moved to a place of deeper trust or commitment. In his closing words to her he says, "Elizabeth, our destinies have been entwined, but our lives not joined."

As I pulled the pen out of my shirt pocket to scribble the phrase in the darkened movie theater, I thought how well this describes parents dealing with children whose attachments are reactive or otherwise disturbed. The strings of our lives are entwined together in a web of sorts, but it is one that dissipates, like the spider's web in the early morning dawn at the slightest pressure. When and if our lives will be joined in an authentic relationship that is characterized by trust, disclosure and mutual concern has yet to be seen.

So I, like countless other parents of attachment-disordered children, wait, wondering when, if ever, the multitudes of relational strings might one day be joined together in a deeper weave of trust and relationship.

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