Misfit Island

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For most of my life, I have often felt like I didn’t fit in.  As a teenager, I felt like I was meant to live in a different time. I felt like I started to find myself towards the end of high school and in college, I developed an excellent group of friends who I felt “got me”.  Then, when I got married, I thought “this is it, I finally found someone who loves me, and all will be good”.  Then, came the infertility…as I watched other couples and friends start to build families, I again felt left out.  Suddenly, my friends were busy raising kids and even being around them was a painful reminder.  When we adopted the boys, I again thought “this is it”, but I quickly found that in a small community, many families already had their “groups”.  As Bolt began to really struggle, it felt further isolating.  Why couldn’t I have the American Dream?  We then picked up and moved across the country right when I was just starting to feel like I might have found a community.  As I have said before, the move was the right decision, but also reactivated that feeling of isolation.  Then, well, you know the rest.

Interestingly, in the past few months, I have really connected with the adoptive families group at church.  It was feeling so alone that really allowed me to step outside my comfort zone for new friendships.  However, with that, the feeling of not belonging has been emerged its ugly head again.  While I now feel like I found a group of women who understand what parenting a kid from a “hard place” looks like, I look around the room and still feel so very much like a misfit watching couples mingle with other couples.

The other challenge I find, that churches are designed around families.  You look around a service on a Sunday morning and are surrounded by families.  I stand there in worship and often find myself overwhelmed by how alone I feel.  I have one son who sits who his hands over his ears and both regularly excuse themselves for a bathroom run.  I worry that people are judging me for the behavior of my sons.  Part of me wants to shout from the rooftops, “I am doing the best I can”.  Then, as I joined the sparsely attended singles group I hear that the church has so many groups that it can’t “publicize” groups that don’t feed a majority…

All while these thoughts are going through my head, I can’t help wondering if these experiences are teaching me empathy for the lonely…the left out…the misfits.  I must take hold of the truth that we all have our own stories and those stories can either make us or break us. I don’t know the future, but I also believe that God can make beauty from ashes.

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The Language of Family

When my sons came home from Ethiopia in 2009, they were four and five years old, thus they had years to learn to speak, listen, and communicate.  Immediately, we jumped into the challenges of parenting children who literally cannot understand what you are saying.  Quickly, I discovered that I had to simplify my language – I learned a few words in Amharic, but really, I began communicating through my arms and gestures and pointing at things.  One of the first things I remember is “ow, house owie” when trying to explain why “hurting the house” (i.e. coloring on walls, picking off paint, setting curtains on fire) is bad.  Messi acquired English quickly, Bolt a little longer.  Within the next 18 months or so, I could effectively communicate with my sons.  However, I still found myself speaking “simply” just to avoid trying to explain terms that are hard to define.

Fast forward to 2017.  My sons are in middle school, we are hurting, grieving, and surviving.  However, I feel the emotional “language” of our family never really caught up with the developmental stages of my sons.  We still use a lot of “happy, sad, mad, frustrated” when we all know that emotions are much more complex than that.  What appears happy may actually be confused or what appears angry may reflect sadness.

Over the past few months, as I have sat in both the therapist of my son and of myself, I find myself thinking about the language I use to communicate with my sons.  It is still simple, which can be useful, but the problem is that the language of being part of a family is not simple.  Families are messy and involve love, hate, grief, joy, contentment, safety, anger, frustration, and so many other feelings and ideas.  I have been trying to make a conscious effort to expand the language of our family to reflect on its complexities.

Of all the language I use, the one term that comes out daily is GRACE.  Give each other grace to grieve, grace to be angry, grace to laugh, grace to be annoying, and grace to walk in the moment.  As I tucked my son in tonight, on his first day of school, and he was being a punk, I had to take a step back and verbalize that “it looks like you need a little grace tonight”.  Of all the language, I use with my sons, grace is the one I want them to remember when they think of our family.

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Healing Through Connection

Choosing to remain in Pennsylvania and not retreat to my beloved Washington State as I began the journey of single parenting, was a challenging decision.  In the two years I had lived here, I had yet to make many meaningful connections, and, while my sons were doing well, I knew that I would need my own tribe to support me.  I sat crying to God one night that I couldn’t do this alone and over the past few months he has placed some amazing people in my path who are walking along side me.  However, this has required me going outside of my comfort zone.

In the first few weeks of my discovery of the betrayal, I reached out to those “safe” people – immediate family and a few friends who I have known for over 10 years.  I had allowed some of the relationships with some of my oldest friends fall into disrepair over the past few years, but with one phone call, we picked up where we left off.  This group of amazing women have talked to me late at night and listened to me cry, rant, and process.  I also have never been super close with my sister and was very embarrassed to call and share what was going on, but she has been a rock of support during this time and has taken the boys for fun weekend adventures in Brooklyn, NY, where she lives.

The adoption community can feel like a very small world at times.  Over the years, I have kept in touch with many adoptive moms, either because our kids knew each other in Ethiopia or because our kids have similar health issues.  Most of these women are also very familiar with the often-lonely road of parenting a child with an attachment disorder.  These are the women who have helped me process the betrayal by “one of our own” and helped provide wisdom on how to help my sons cope. They cheer on my successful parenting moments and are a great listening ear when it all becomes too much.

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Image credit and The Story for my choice of photos

Over the past 18 months, I have run into several people from a local church.  I have run into them at my work, my son’s school, and through mutual connections.  It was like God was starting to put them into place, before I knew I needed them, so that when my world crumbled, I could find a church home for the boys and I.  Ironically, this church community has a whole ministry dedicated to serving adoptive families and has also been having some tough discussions about social justice and racial issues, both issues near and dear to my heart.  Some of my newest friends are women I have met through this church connection who are also adoptive moms.

Probably the most important connection of all, though, has been the process of reconnecting with myself and my faith.  This process is often lonely and reconnecting with my heart has been done in tears, in prayer, in walks outside, in listening to music and podcasts, in reading, and in the silence of allowing myself to feel.  Somedays the process of reconnecting to myself and my savior has left me crushed by the weight of my emotions and yelling at God for allowing this to happen.  At the same time, I feel like I have a better understanding of who I am as a woman, a mother, and a child of God, than ever before.  I will leave you with my new anthem, by recording artist, Nichole Nordeman…

They told me
I’d never get to tell my story
Too many bullet holes
It would take a miracle
These voices
Inside my head like poison
Trying to steal my hope
Silencing my soul

But my story is only now beginning
Don’t try to write my ending
Nobody gets to sing my song

This is the sound of surviving
This is my farewell to fear
This is my whole heart deciding
I’m still here, I’m still here
And I’m not done fighting
This is the sound of surviving

These pieces
The ones that left me bleeding
Intended for my pain
Became the gift You gave me
I gathered those pieces into a mountain
My freedom is in view
I’m stronger than I knew

And this hill is not the one I die on
I’m going to lift my eyes and
I’m going to keep on climbing

This is the sound of surviving
This is my farewell to fear
This is my whole heart deciding
I’m still here, I’m still here
And I’m not done fighting
This is the sound of surviving

I’m still here
Say it to the ache, lying there awake
Say it to your tears
I’m still here
Say it to the pain, say it to the rain
Say it to your fear

This is the sound of surviving
This is my farewell to fear
This is my whole heart deciding
I’m still here, I’m still here
And I’m not done fighting
No, I’m not done fighting
And I am still rising, rising
I’m still rising
And I’m not done fighting
This is the sound of surviving

Messi

When many people think of adoption, I suspect it is a kid like Messi they envision.  From the day we picked him up at the orphanage in Ethiopia, he was ready to be part of our family.  I credit this to his birth mom, whom he lived with until she died when he was two (his birth father died either right before or after he was born).  He spent the first two years being a loved son and being part of a family.  After his mom died, he lived with an aunt and uncle for a brief period, but they were unable to financially support him or provide medical care.  He then went to an orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, run by Italian nuns.  While orphanage life is far from ideal, he had a sweet temperament and it was obvious that he was a favorite of the nuns.  When we went to pick him up, they told of stories of him sitting in the infant nursery and helping the nannies rock babies and give them bottles.  He is a natural caregiver and after we returned to the United States, he quickly got over his complete terror of dogs and became their beloved boy and he became their caregiver (and boss).  At the time, we had a dog named Nemo (as well as Max, who we still have).  I vividly remember him stomping his foot and dictating to Nemo (whose name he couldn’t say, so it was Memo), “Memo, sit down, Memo, go to your bed, Memo eat your dinner”.  While Bolt was initially very quiet (and is still not a huge talker), Messi was a talker from the beginning.  Having lived with Italian nuns, he spoke a little Italian, in addition to Amharic, and had started learning a little English.  He quickly picked up English because he was a little parrot and would repeat everything back.  His transition to becoming our son was remarkably smooth and he has continued to be a pretty “easy” child to raise…talk to me again a few years when he is in the middle of his teenage years.

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I call him Messi after his soccer hero, Argentine soccer star, Lionel Messi.  If you spend any time with Messi, you may find that he has lots of interests and can have an intelligent conversation about most things, but his real love is playing soccer.  He started playing a few months after he came home and has developed into an excellent player.  He recently made his soccer club’s “A” travel team, a goal of his since our move two years ago.  The wonderful thing about him is that he loves all practices and games and eagerly awaits both.  He is a natural leader on the field and most of his best friends are his teammates.  This summer he is excited to go to his first overnight camp, a soccer camp, of course.

Off the soccer field, Messi is loved by peers and adults alike.  He is great with people and knows the names and interests of all his classmates.  You can often hear him asking a girl about her ballet recital or another boy about his baseball game.  He always tells his teachers goodbye and “have a nice day”.  While being dyslexic has made school a little more challenging for him, he normally puts forward his best effort.  I often remind him that he can’t be great at everything and that his social skills one of his greatest strengths.

Probably the most challenging thing about Messi is the insanely stubborn streak.  If he doesn’t want to do something he will flat out refuse and there is no amount of rewards or punishments that are enough incentive for him to do something he has decided against.  Of late, he has decided to put down his foot about attending church and every Sunday morning is a battle.  The funny thing is that I don’t think that he dislikes church as much as he protests, but rather he has decided to be difficult about it and difficult he must remain.

Messi is very inquisitive and follows me around the house peppering me with questions.  Google and I have become very good friends.  He also loves to create things.  He is an excellent cook and will normally make his own breakfast (or dictate to me what he likes, if he is in a hurry).  No cereal for him, but rather an omelette with fresh tomatoes, basil and goat cheese or a snack of bruschetta with a balsalmic reduction on a baguette.  He is also very helpful around this house and has a tool box to make small repairs.  Just this week he finished refurbishing this beautiful garden bench.

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Messi’s Refurbished Bench

Since his dad left, he has been hesitant to talk about it and insists he is doing okay.  They still talk periodically and exchange texts or play video games online, but I think he misses the day to day companionship of having his dad just around.  I am trying to give him the space to process a grieve in whatever way he needs.  He is a delightful kid with a solid sense of himself, so he is doing what he needs to do to feel “safe” …whether that is listening to music or sitting up his room with the dogs or playing with friends or building a bench.  Of late, he has become very helpful in making sure the house runs smoothly while I am working and helping his sitter keep up our routine.  I was joking with him that he is now a “parent in training”.  Seriously, though, he is a joy and is maturing into a responsible, empathetic, kind young man and patient brother.

Bolt

To protect the privacy of my sons, I will be using nicknames.  My oldest I have nicknamed Bolt after the runner Usain Bolt and they actually have a little bit of a resemblance.

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Bolt is 13 years old later this summer.  I often joke that he must come out of the womb with his middle finger up at the world…and this isn’t a terrible thing.  He lives life on his own terms and has a bit of an edge to him, carefully honed living for years at an orphanage in Ethiopia.  I spent many years wanting to soften his little heart, but I think I have reconciled myself this being part of who he is and not trying to change it, but rather to use it to his advantage.  Bolt struggles with some of the issues many adoptees face, trauma and attachment issues, and is also autistic.  He can argue about everything and nothing.  He doesn’t really like to be touched, but it happy to get into your personal bubble (a common characteristic of autism).  He doesn’t always know how to get positive attention so he spends a lot of time irritating and annoying people just to get them to notice him.  These are all issues he is working on, but they are deeply imbedded.

Why do I call him Bolt?  Well, he is insanely fast.  Flying home from Ethiopia nearly 8 years ago, he and his brother got loose in the Washington D.C. airport and, even then, I couldn’t catch them.  They got as far as the service dog entrance before security caught them.  I was meeting a friend for coffee in between flights and her first introduction to them was watching them bolt across the airport.  At age nine, he began running 5Ks and even a 10K.  His first 10K time was 42 minutes, exactly double his 5K time.  He then took a break from running and did most of his running in soccer, but this spring he joined the middle school track team and is finding his stride again.

Bolt is also a bit of a comedian with a more mature sense of humor.  He loves The Simpsons and can often be heard snorting at the computer as he watches the antics of Homer.  He tells jokes and laughs at himself.  The past few weeks, he has been exploring, what I have called, his “gangsta” humor with lots of “yo mama”.  I am not sure where he got it, but it makes me smile.

Bolt also has his own perspective on many things.  A few years ago, he walked into the hospital to bring me coffee with his dad and brother.  He had been told to wear a coat seeing as it was February and below freezing.  He, of course, refused said coat.  On the way out of the hospital, he began shivering and this was pointed out to him.  He responded with “that isn’t shivering, it is my chin dancing to its own rhythm”.  His observations on the world are entirely his own, and as he is maturing it is interesting to see him think and question and engage the world in the way that God created him.  A few weeks after our life was flipped on its head, he was sitting in the car (his favorite place for deep conversations) and he started talking, “Mom, I know you talk a lot about making choices.  You know, the choices Dad is making don’t just affect him, they effect all of us.”.  I could only respond with a “yes” and tell him that personal choices have the power to help and hurt people we love.  As I begin this journey as a single mom, ushering Bolt into his teenage years, I find myself listening more, not just to his words, but to his actions.  I also have taken his quote from many years ago to heart and have begun to embrace him dancing to his own rhythm.

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Who Am I?

He would get these far-off looks in his eyes and he would say ‘Life doesn’t always turn out the way you plan’. I just wish I’d realized at the time, he was talking about MY life.” – Lucy, referencing a conversation with her father, in While You Were Sleeping

This has been a recurring theme in my life.  I am a planner and, yes, a little bit of a control freak.  I think God has a sense of humor about this character trait in me and has allowed my life to live in a perpetual state of detour.  The last time I remember anything go according to MY plan was when my then husband and I bought our first house in 2004.  You see, grew up a “typical” white, middle class, Christian girl.  I graduated from high school, went to a Christian university, met the man who would become my husband, got married just before my senior year, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, got my “dream job” as an ICU nurse right out of school, bought a house, and got a yellow lab.

A few years into our marriage is when my life on detour began.  For us, the next natural step was children, and we started trying, with the plan that 9 months or so later a baby would emerge at the beginning of the summer and we could spend that summer learning to be parents.  Instead, what transpired was one of the darkest periods of my life as not only did I not get pregnant, but a year later found out that our only option to conceive was through in-vitro fertilization (IVF), which we did, hopefully, three times, without success.  It was a brutal two years and we emerged broken and hurting and angry with God.

In 2008, about 6 weeks after our last failed IVF, in a moment of clarity, we felt God lead us to international adoption.  I did the research and found an agency to work with and chose to adopt from Ethiopia.  Initially, the plan was for a “waiting” infant and toddler (waiting, as in a child already in an orphanage in need of a home).  Oddly, our agency had recently place a lot of children, and only had two children under the age of 5 (which is what we were approved for due to our age) available.  We looked at their profiles, talked to people who had met them, and soon accepted the referral of the two boys who would become our sons, then aged 3 and 4.  We foolishly believed the process would be smooth sailing and would have the boys home around Christmas.  By the following January, we still had no date in sight, so for my birthday in February, I made my first international trip, solo, to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  I spent a week getting to know my sons and it broke my heart to say goodbye, not knowing when they could come home.  It wouldn’t be until September of 2009, one year after we accepted the referral, that we would travel to Ethiopia to bring the boys home.

Many would think that bringing the boys home would be the beginning our “happy ever after”, but adoption is messy and hard.  We brought into our home two boys (nicknames used), then aged 4 (Messi) and 5 (Bolt), who spoke no English, and had spent years living in an orphanage.  The first few months were exhausting, but we were hopeful that with a lot of love, we would all settle quickly.  That didn’t happen and we began the journey of dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and reactive attachment disorder (RAD) with Bolt.  Years into therapy, I was sitting talking to his therapist as we both began to question that we might be dealing with something else as well, autism.  Sure enough, about 18 months after that conversation, Bolt was given the official diagnosis of autism.  We then spent the next year trying to find therapists and providers to work with him and hit road block after road block.  I remember asking his psychiatrist what he would do in our situation and he told us he would relocate to another state with better services for those on the spectrum.  I spent the next month doing research and talking to people who are experts in autism and was basically told some of the best states for services, most of which were on the East Coast.  A month later, we put our house on the market and travelled to Pennsylvania to interview for jobs.  We both accepted jobs on that trip and found a house to rent the school district we had already chosen.  We returned home, our house quickly sold, we packed up everything, and began the cross-country journey in January of 2015.

As far as the move went, it was absolutely the right decision for my sons.  Both have flourished in Pennsylvania.  The school autism support has made a night and day difference in Bolt’s coping skills and social skills.  For Messi, he has developed friends and found an awesome soccer club.  I, on the other hand, really struggled with the move and found my introvert tendencies fully blossom in an area where I knew no one.  My job as an emergency room nurse was no longer fulfilling and I found myself angry and withdrawn and almost paralyzed by fear in social situations.  By October of 2016, I realized that I needed to do something for myself and began seriously thinking and praying about going back to school.  In early December, I was accepted into a master of public health (MPH) program and found the fog I had experienced since the move begin to lift.  Little did I know that while I was busy finding myself again, my husband was finding himself…with another woman.

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Life on Detour

When the grenade was launched into life a few months ago, I suddenly found myself with a racing mind and heart.  Interestingly, I found myself full of stories about the journey the boys and I are in, some of heartache, but also of humor.  I hope to chronicle the ups and downs of this unexpected detour.

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