Wednesday, December 30, 2015

High Heels in Church

   The day the social worker brought my daughter home, she was a filthy mess.  Her hair was matted and dirty.  She wore a stained, white crop top with a denim mini skirt.  She had on grungy, white heels that were so high I was surprised she could walk in them.  She looked like a mini hooker but she was two.  I looked at this tiny, broken child and my heart broke for her. The first thing I did with Alyssa was get her into a bubble bath and some clean clothes.  As a foster parent I had a closet stocked with various sizes of clothes I might need but I didn’t have any shoes that fit her.  The next day we went shopping for some age appropriate flats and she never wore heels again until the week before Christmas.

   Many parents think it is cute for little girls to play dress up in heels or wear the kind of clothes that an older teen might wear. For a typical child, there’s probably no harm in that.  I am personally not a fan of that kind of wardrobe for a little kid but I would never judge another family’s choice on the matter.  Alyssa has never been typical though.  She understood, even at that young age, that her value and beauty were intricately linked to her body.  She would prance around in a very adult way looking for reinforcement and would lift her shirt while asking if she was pretty. 
Initially I didn’t know how long Alyssa would be staying with me but I knew that I wanted to spend whatever time I had teaching her that her value is not defined by her body.  I bought her outfits that were modest but cute enough that people would stop to comment about how pretty she was.  I purposefully praised her when she made good choices or figured something out.  It was never about shaming the behaviors or dress from her previous life; it was all about expanding her definition of beauty to also include intelligence, compassion and perseverance. Even after the adoption we have continued working to instill those values.

   This year, on Small Business Saturday, I bought Alyssa a beautiful holiday dress from one of my favorite little shops.  She had a lead role in the church Christmas program as the person holding the letter N in Noel.  (Her performance was magical by the way.)  I really meant to find her some new shoes to go along with the dress since all of the ones I bought in August are too small now but the chaos of life won out.  That’s how I found myself frantically trying to find dress shoes at one of the two stores in our little town on the Saturday night before the show. Of course, since I was in a bind there was almost nothing in her size that wasn’t hot pink or just strange.  I finally found a pair of shiny black shoes with a bow on the toes.  The problem was that they were heals.

The heels.

   I stood in the aisle holding those little shoes and flashed back to the exploited little girl who came home to me four years ago. I tried them on Alyssa then took them off, disappointed that they fit. When my husband returned from his wandering, I showed the shoes him, expecting an equally distraught reaction.  I hoped that he would at least think that she was far too young to be prancing through the church in half inch heels.  Instead he questioned whether she would fall wearing them.  I explained what the shoes represented but they didn’t mean that to him.

   In the end, because there was literally no other option, we went home with the shoes.  I planned to leave early enough to stop someone in the city on our way to church the next morning for something, anything, else though.  Unfortunately, I am horrible at mornings and we barely got out of the house in time for the service. In front of God, my parents and the 100 other people in the congregation, my little girl stumbled to the stage wearing heels. 

My stars: Alyssa and Bradley holding the N and backwards E. 
   The performance was fantastic.  My kids were off beat but proud.  After the service, we had a church potluck where Alyssa eventually ditched the shoes because she couldn’t run 10 feet in them without toppling over.  In spite of the dreaded high heels, it was a really good day.

   It’s weird how sometimes the things we think represent everything evil end up being completely benign. Alyssa was no less innocent wearing heels than she would have been barefoot.  (If I wrote a political blog, I could expand that analogy to many other topics but we’ll stick to shoes for now.)  What happened to her was wrong.  The path that brought Alyssa to my door that day is one I wouldn’t wish on anyone. The shoes, as distasteful as they were, were only bad because I associated them with the people who put them on her.

That smile.

   It was easier when she was little and simply wore whatever I put her in.  I bought frilly dresses and she twirled.  I told her she was beautiful and she believed me.  I think that this is where the real work starts.  I can’t rely on simple rules, like only flat shoes and one piece swimsuits, to teach her to be the kind of lady I hope I’m raising.  We have to go farther and talk about the actual qualities that we are working towards and how we know if we have achieved them.  I want her to grow up believing that she is beautiful in both body and spirit, that she can be proud of her looks while not being defined by them.  I want her to feel free to express her personality through her style while understanding that clothes can only say so much. I want her to know that she was radiant on the stage that Sunday because her smile lit up the sanctuary, and the heels were just an accessory that I’m learning to live with.

Our family

In hindsight, I probably should have asked them to hold still
for a picture BEFORE they hit the dessert table.

Friday, December 11, 2015

On the Anniversary of her Diagnosis

Today is the two year anniversary of my life as Humpty Dumpty.  On December 11, 2013, I stood in a WalMart parking lot and answered the phone call that changed everything.  That was the day that I broke. 

When Alyssa came to us, I knew that she’d had seizures as a baby.  The caseworker dropped her off with a bag of pills that had names I couldn’t pronounce but said that they were just a precaution.  She said Alyssa didn’t have epilepsy.  A few months later, on Christmas day, Alyssa had several long seizures in a row but the doctors told us that it was a fluke caused by the stress of foster care.  Then, a year later the seizures hit with a vengeance.  This time they didn’t say that it was a fluke or something that she would grow out of.

For months, Alyssa seized no matter what the doctors did and she kept losing ground cognitively.  Eventually, things started to settle down and we would sometimes go a few weeks between seizures. Her doctors remained worried though.  We were on our last available medication so if the seizures got worse again, our options were limited.  Alyssa’s neurologist referred us to an epileptologist who advised my husband and I to begin considering surgery.  They wanted to remove the part of her brain that the seizures were originating in.  The doctors said that we needed to have the surgery as soon as possible because the longer we waited, the more function she could lose and any damage would be more likely to be permanent.  

I went back and forth about the surgery for months. I was terrified of allowing the doctors to remove a part of her brain but I was just as scared of saying no.  Even the preparations for the surgery was dangerous.  She would need to spend a week in the hospital and come off of all her medications.  The plan was to cause Alyssa to have as many seizures as possible while they ran tests to determine the precise part of her brain that was malfunctioning. We already knew how devastating seizures could be but there was an additional risk.  There was a chance that when we tried to put Alyssa back on all of her medication at the end of the testing, they wouldn’t work.

I finally agreed to the surgery on one condition; I wanted genetic testing first.  No one could tell us why Alyssa was seizing and we had learned that there are some types of epilepsy that have genetic causes.  Since we have very little information on her birth family’s health history, I felt like we needed to check for a disorder before slicing into her brain.  The doctors were annoyed, especially when insurance initially denied the testing.  I dug my heals in though and eventually they swabbed her mouth and ran an epilepsy panel, all while telling me not to expect anything.  While we waited on the results we scheduled the testing for the last week of December. I wanted her to have one good Christmas before everything went haywire again.

All of that led up to that day in the WalMart parking lot. I loaded my groceries and the little kids into the car and was just about to take off when my phone rang.  Our epileptologist told me that the results were back and they changed everything.  She told me that Alyssa had a genetic disorder called PCDH19 epilepsy.  Of course I had never heard of that.  At the time there were only about 200 girls in the world who had been given the diagnosis.  She told me that this new label meant the surgery was no longer an option because if they removed a piece of her brain, the seizures would just come back in another area.  I learned that Alyssa was at a higher risk for SUDEP and a shorter life expectancy.  She said that the seizures might never stop and that her IQ would continue to drop with each cluster until it landed somewhere between 60 and 80.  I felt like I was Humpty Dumpty being pushed off the wall.

I got back in the car and tried not to cry to hard because I didn’t want to scare the kids but something had broken in my soul.  I called my husband but couldn’t get through so I called my mom while I drove. When I finally made it to the house, Curt pulled into the driveway behind me.  My husband works in the oilfield so there have been many times when things were difficult and he was gone.  Every time I really need him though, he is there and that day was no different.  We fell apart together that afternoon. 

When the tears finally slowed down, I wanted to crawl in bed and never get out.  I didn’t think I could face the world again.  The IQ numbers kept rumbling through my mind.  You see, I have never been one to care much about sports or popularity or physical perfection.  My dreams for Alyssa were that she would be a brilliant doctor or the president, but now she might not be able to live independently.  It all seemed so cruel and hopeless.  I think Curt knew that if I shut myself in the dark that day, it would have been even harder to go on so he talked me into going to my MMA class.  I had a deal with the instructor that if I had a day when all I could do was punch the bag, we would do that.  I’m sure I looked like a ragged mess when I walked in and said that hitting was all I had in me.  He never prodded but I spent the next hour taking my devastation out on the heavy bag.  Then I went home and went to bed.

I hated the sun when it came up the next morning.  The world seemed so happy and normal but it wasn’t the same.  I had written PCDH19 down on a napkin in my car but I wiped my face with it while I was crying so I had to call the doctor’s office and ask for the name of the disorder again.  When I hung up the phone, I Googled the random string of characters that I didn’t understand but already hated and found the Alliance and the Facebook group that I would come to depend on.

The next few months were dark. After months of fighting for her life, my body and heart were already exhausted but the little flicker of hope I had remaining had been extinguished in the parking lot that day.  I even grieved the loss of the surgery I had been so afraid of.  It was a terrifying prospect to cut out a part of her brain on the chance that it would give her a better future but at least there was some hope with that option.  In January we hit the one year anniversary of the seizures starting and I hit rock bottom.  It’s hard to live without hope.

When Humpty Dumpty fell, he at least had people who attempted to repair his shell but there are some kinds of broken where the pieces just won’t go back together.  Finding out that your child won’t ever be ok is that kind of broken.  You can try to patch things up but they won’t ever be the same again.  It takes time to come to grips with that and the process can be dark and lonely.

This anniversary, I am keeping myself busy but I’m not falling back apart. I’m finally learning how to be ok with this life and the uncertainty we face. It helps that some amazing research is being done all around the world so our future is probably not as bleak as our initial prognosis. More than anything though, I think I’m adjusting to life as Humpty Dumpty.  I’ve had the time and space to get made about being pushed off the wall.  I worked on grieving the broken pieces and accepting that they won’t ever go back together the way they were before that call.  I’ve also realized that there is some beauty in brokenness.  I am not grateful for this disorder and I would change it if I could, but sometimes I connect with people on a different level than I could before.  Sometimes I appreciate the life and time that we do have in a way that I didn’t before I knew how fleeting it could be.  Sometimes I look around and see other people who have just been knocked off the wall and I appreciate that my own journey has prepared me to help them on theirs.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Adoption & Epilepsy

Ask any adoptive parent about their home study and they will tell you about the invasive questions they were asked.  Most of us have stories of the awkwardness of a complete stranger sitting calmly in our living rooms while demanding information that would make even the most open person blush.  It is the adoption equivalent of prenatal care.  Birth mothers have to put their feet up in the stirrups for the OB/GYN but we have to open our nightstand drawers for a social worker. 

Looking back, the part of my home study that stands out the most is not the section with the intimate questions, it was the discussion about the children we would someday take into our home.  I vividly remember the social worker asking us if we were interested in taking in children with special needs.  My husband and I had spoken at length on the topic ahead of time and told her that we were willing to take on learning disabilities or minor challenges.  I remember saying that I admired the families that fostered and adopted kids with special needs but that just wasn’t us.  I said it wouldn’t fit our lifestyle. It all feels pretty ironic now.

When I was pregnant with my son, I prayed that he would be healthy and did everything I could to give him the best shot at a good start.  I stayed pretty healthy, went to my appointments, decorated a nursery and ate animal cookies every time my developing baby demanded them. Still, I knew that there was always a chance that something would happen and we could face challenges.  Even when you do everything you can to improve the odds, childbirth really is something of a crapshoot. Adoption is different though.  A professional comes to your home and writes out exactly what you are looking for in a child. She asks you about race and age and gender.  You get a choice about disabilities, except when you don’t.

Finding out that your child has a disability can be devastating for any parent.  We often go through the stages of grief much like you would after a death but we can cycle back through them with each new limitation, emergency or worsening prognosis.  We have to learn to live in Holland and give up on dreams that we cherished since we ourselves were children.  Often all of this is done while in crisis so we do not have the time to sit down and fall apart because we are fighting desperately for our children’s lives and futures. There will come a time when we adjust to this new life but the initiation is brutal and leaves wounds that never really heal. 

Looking back I think that our adoption experience complicated how I processed Alyssa’s diagnosis.  No parent wants their child to have disabilities but we had specifically requested a kid that was “normal.”  When I got the call about Alyssa, her case worker explicitly stated that she did not have epilepsy.  We had these grand life plans that didn’t involve constant trips to doctors and therapies or always having to live near modern medical facilities.  We did something good by choosing to foster and adopt so it didn’t seem fair that the child we received was not the one we asked for. I was angry about the unfairness of it all for a very long time.

I relate to the other parents of children with special needs on many levels but I don’t bear the guilt of having been the one to pass on Alyssa’s genetic disorder or the constant questions of if it was something I did caused her problems.  I relate to adoptive parents too but our story isn’t just about adoption anymore.  I switch back and forth between groups depending on the support I need at the moment.  It is hard to find your tribe when you really fit somewhere in the middle and it is easy to feel alone when there isn’t a group with your name on it.

I don’t say all of this to make anyone feel sorry for us.  I am not asking for pity or pats on the back or patronizing comments about how God only gives special kids to special people.  I have realized over the past few weeks that there are many other families that find themselves in our position and I think maybe they struggle like I have.  I’m writing this tonight for the people who aren’t quite sure what group they belong to.  I’m writing to the mother who is raging at God for rewarding her good deeds with the chance to watch her child die.  I’m writing this for the people that lay awake at night wondering what they did to deserve this horror.  I’m writing this for the person who feels guilty because they are so angry and overwhelmed when that gets mixed up with the fear and grief.  I’m writing this to the parent that feels alone because I want you to know that I’m here too.  

We said exactly what we could handle and life didn’t listen.  We had great plans for the families we were building but those changed when the special needs surfaced. It is confusing and hard and not at all fair.  I can tell you though that it will eventually get better.  I know you didn’t ask for these trials but I also believe that you can make it through.  Give yourself some grace, accept the messiness and just keep breathing. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Problem with Re-homing

A few months ago, Rep. Justin Harris from Arkansas and his wife made national news when it was revealed that they had re-homed their two adopted daughters.  For those who haven’t been following the story, Harris allegedly abused his political power to push through an adoption that almost every professional involved believed was a bad fit.  After the adoption, the girls’ behavior grew worse.  A former babysitter even claims the Harrises believed their daughters were demon possessed and called in exorcists from out of state to fix the children.  Eventually, the couple realized that they were unable to handle the complex psychological problems that the girls’ had so they gave them to another couple where at least one of them was sexually abused.  The girls have now been adopted again and are reportedly doing well.

The Harris adoption fiasco has bothered me since the news first broke.  I am appalled that this man thinks himself too good to go through the proper channels and adopt children that are a healthy match for his family.  This couple might have been fine adoptive parents to the right kids.  Instead they met a birthmother in a parking lot, claimed religious discrimination when CPS told them that prayer was not enough to help these girls, then allegedly held up the budget of the entire agency until the placement was approved. What they failed to understand is that waiting children do not only need to be adopted; they need to be adopted by families who are appropriate for them and who are trained to deal with complex trauma.  Kids who have been severely abused or neglected cannot be parented like typical children and they deserve parents who have put in the time and effort to prepare for that.

The Harrises claim that they reached out for help after the adoption and were not able to access the services their daughters needed.  One of the girls had been diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, or RAD, and her behaviors were terrifying the family. Children with RAD have typically experienced so much abuse or neglect that they are unable to form healthy attachments.  They can be extremely violent even at very young ages.  Often they become homicidal or suicidal and everyone in the home is at risk of severe harm.  Stories abound of children with RAD killing pets, sexually abusing siblings, burning down homes with people inside, or attempting suicide.  Unfortunately, the intense treatments that these kids need are few and far between and when a parent is able to find a place that specializes in these kinds of issues, Medicaid* often refuses to cover the cost.  Instead, children with RAD are bounced between inadequate providers or sent home where they are a danger to their family and themselves.

Like many parents who are struggling with a child who has RAD, the Harrises claim that they reached out to CPS because they did not know what else to do with their children.  They say that they were told that if they relinquished their parental rights to their children, they would be charged with child abandonment.  The problem is that they were not given any other options.  While my personal opinion of the Harrises is less generous, I truly believe that the majority of adoptive parents who consider rehoming are not bad people who simply grew tired of the children they adopted.  Many of them are good people who wanted to help kids and build their families but instead find themselves in desperate situations with nowhere to turn.

I wrote recently about my own experience with a therapist who assumed that I should “just re-adopt out” my daughter because things were difficult.  It was insulting because the suggestion meant that he did not see my family as one worth preserving.  I didn’t go in as someone who was scared for her life or that of her other children.  I went to him as a grieving mother who was trying to make sense of a devastating diagnosis.  He made a recommendation that he would never have made to a biological parent simply because he placed a lower value on the relationship I have with my adopted daughter than the one I have with my biological son.  That attitude is unacceptable but it is sadly prevalent among the people that adoptive parents reach out to for support.  For example, when I interned at an inpatient psychiatric hospital, I saw countless children and adolescents with very severe mental problems who were moved to long-term residential treatment centers.  The only time it was ever suggested that a child be placed with a new family instead of receiving treatment was when someone noticed the adoption box was checked in their chart. 

The problem with rehoming, as it currently exists, is that it fails both the children and the adoptive parents.  Every time a child is placed with a new family, they suffer a new loss and it becomes harder for them to trust that they will ever be truly loved by anyone.  In addition, many of the kids who find themselves in new homes are later abused or abandoned again.  With no government or agency oversight to make sure that the new homes are safe for these children, the outcomes can be devastating.

That the problem of rehoming exist in the magnitude it does is evidence that there is a problem with the child welfare system.  When parents go through classes to foster-adopt, we are promised help after the adoption.  We are told that we can take in kids from hard places because we will have access to all of the resources we need to parent them.  We are assured that if we do what we are trained to do, the children will get better.  Unfortunately those are often empty promises.  

The problem with rehoming is that it allows CPS, adoption agencies, and the professionals that we depend on to simply push our children aside and blame the parents when there is fallout.  The problem is that there is not an acceptable alternative for situations where the child cannot safely remain with their family.  The problem is that there are deeply wounded children who have been failed many times by the people who were supposed to protect them and there is not an easy way to fix that.  I don’t think that there are simple solutions to this problem but I do think we have to start a conversation about real alternatives.  We have to put down our torches so that we can see the hurting people who feel like they have no other options.  It’s not enough to be angry about little girls being tossed between homes and given to a rapist, we have to work to keep it from happening again. 

I welcome your thoughts on how we can come together as a community to help adoptive families who are struggling.  Let’s continue this conversation on Facebook or in the comments below.

*In most cases, children who are adopted from foster care are able to keep Medicaid.  This helps people adopt who would not have been able to because of the high cost of medical care. 

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Should Everyone Consider Adoption?

   Someone asked me recently if I thought that everyone who wants children should consider adoption. I am absolutely an advocate for adoption but I found myself pausing before I answered.  The problem is that sometimes when we promote adoption and highlight the happy families it can create, we gloss over the darker side.  The truth is that every tearjerker story about a family being brought together starts with another story of absolute devastation.  Our children are not simply gifted to us, they are taken or abandoned or orphaned first.  Sometimes the love of a new family helps to heal the wounds of that loss; sometimes it isn’t enough. 

   When we recognize that adoption is so deeply connected to loss, it changes the conversation.  It is no longer simply about adults who want to be parents and fulfil that dream through adoption.  We also begin to recognize that adoption is about children who have lost everything.  Studies show that even infants who are adopted at birth, grieve their first mother.  Children who spend time in orphanages, foster placements or abusive homes lose their self of normalcy, the people that they depended on, and often their identity.  They grow up in a world focused on survival instead of play and connection.  Fortunately, in the majority of cases, those children can go on to live happy and loving lives when given the right supports but some struggle to ever really recover. 

   When someone is considering adoption, it should be with the knowledge that it is more complicated than parenting a typical, biological child. You should know that sometimes the wounds are deep and do not heal easily.  To make things worse, sometimes the supports that you were promised for after the adoption never materialize.  You should know that your child’s past is not sealed at adoption like their original birth certificate.  Everything that their old life gave them or made them remains after the judge declares you a forever family.  At the same time, you should know that you will grow to love this child deeper than you ever thought possible.  You should know that when you get through to them you will feel as though you have just won the Olympics.  You should know that there will be moments that you find yourself in awe that God is allowing you to parent this amazing person. 

   Although the dark side of adoption is not highlighted on commercials, I think it is critical to understand before you consider adding to your family.  You must take the time to have some honest conversations about whether your family can handle adoption and, if so, what type is best for you.  There are important differences between international, domestic, and foster care adoption. You should also decide what child(ren) would fit best with you.  The waiting list for healthy infants is long but there are thousands of older children, sibling groups or children with a wide range of disabilities who are legally free and waiting for a family today.  If your heart is open to these amazing kids, please consider opening your home too but if they are a consolation prize for the baby that you really wanted, please step back in line for the one that you will give your whole heart to.

   So, should everyone consider adoption? My answer is no.  I do think that everyone should consider how they can help the orphan. That could mean anything from donating duffle bags for kids being shuffled between homes to mentoring youth or providing respite care.  Or, maybe you will find your niche in some of the many great programs working to reduce the need for adoption around the globe.  It could also lead to a realization that the children you were destined to raise had another family first.  We all have a different roles to play and I think that we should each consider where we fit best.  Adoption can be beautiful but it is not simple or easy or for everyone.  Is it for you? What are you considering for your family?

I know that my thoughts on this are out of line with the typical Adoption Awareness Month message.  I want to hear your thoughts.  Let’s continue this conversation on Facebook.

Monday, November 2, 2015

To the New Epilepsy Mom:

I recognize that look in your eyes.  It’s a mix of terror, despair, confusion and maybe a little bit of hope that this is all just a bad dream.  Maybe you are still in the hospital waiting helplessly while the doctors try to stop the seizures.  Maybe you are feeling broken having just received your child’s diagnosis.  Maybe you are ready to curl into a ball and hide because it all feels so overwhelming.  I’ve been there.  I’m still there sometimes.

When my daughter started seizing, the world turned upside down.  When we finally received her diagnosis of PCDH-19 Epilepsy, I broke.  I felt alone and scared and confused.  I didn’t know what to do or who to turn to.  At this point, we seem to have settled into our new normal so I’m sharing a few of the things I wish someone had been there to tell me.

1.       You are not alone.
I know you feel alone.  I know that it seems like no one understands.  Many of us who have been on this road for a while understand the terror and we are ready to walk beside you.  You can find us through your hospital’s social workers, online groups or Parent to Parent.  We want to be there for you.  I found a group of parents on Facebook who have children with my daughter’s disorder and they have been the ones to pull me through some of the darkest moments.

2.       Build your team. 
The old adage about needing a village to raise a child will become especially true.  There will be doctors, nurses, therapists, and social workers. (You’ll notice that I wrote every one of those in the plural.  That was on purpose.)  The relationship with your child’s teachers or babysitters will grow to a whole new level.  Take the time to talk with your team until you have your questions answered.  Research the professionals you are going to work with because having a great therapists / doctor / whatever you need can make a world of difference if your child’s progress.   

3.       Ignore the idiots.  
People will tell you that they know what it’s like because their dog had a seizure.  People will tell you that garlic or lemons or copper bracelets cured epilepsy for their father’s cousin’s friend’s co-worker.  In my experience it is better to roll your eyes than punch them in the nose. 
You can also expect people to think that your crisis is over if they see you at WalMart and your child is not currently having a seizure.  Realize that most people just don’t know the facts about epilepsy.  You can educate them if you choose but don’t feel guilty if you need to simply walk away.  It can also help to ask a friend to keep people informed so that the burden doesn’t fall entirely on your shoulders.   

4.       Be who you are. 
It’s easy to look at those “super moms” who seem to have it all together.  They balance all of their child’s special needs with their hair in place and advocate tirelessly without messing up their makeup.  I am not one of those moms.  My hair is never in place, my mascara is usually smudged and I am not always the most diplomatic person.  I used to alternate between feeling guilty for not being them and being angry at them for making me feel guilty.  Now, I’ve realized that most of them aren’t quite as perfect as I thought.
I also learned that many people cope with their child’s epilepsy by advocating.  If that’s you, perfect.  Write letters.  Demand action.  Go on fund raising walks.  All of those are great things to pour your energy / anxiety into.  If raising awareness or funding research helps you cope, then go for it.  If you are the mom that focuses solely on your own child and getting her or him the best care possible, that’s ok too.  If you don’t want to share your story, you don’t have to.   Work on finding a way to battle epilepsy that fits for you and your family.  The last thing you need to do right now is try to fit into someone else’s model of what a “good” epilepsy mom looks like.  You have enough on your plate already.

5.       Understand that your friends may change.
Sometimes the people who you thought would be there through thick and thin disappear because seizures are scary.  Sometimes people step up in ways you never imagined.  Your life has changed now and because of that so will many of your friendships.  Mourn the ones you lose but don’t spend too much time being bitter.  You have bigger battles to fight than that.

6.       Keep going.
Treating epilepsy is complicated.  Your child may need to be seen by multiple specialist and they may not be able to get the seizures under control immediately.  Don’t give up hope when the first medications don’t work or the second or third.  About 70% of people with epilepsy are able to control the seizures with medications but it often takes time to find the right drug or combination of treatments.  It can also take time for the doctors to diagnose the exact cause of your child’s epilepsy which can greatly impact the prognosis and course of treatment.  Many people never get an explanation but with time are able to find treatments that help. 

7.       Trust Your Gut
Researchers have made incredible advances in the treatment and diagnosis of epilepsy but this is not an exact science. You may be asked to weigh terrifying side effects of harsh medications against the unknown costs of waiting or non-medication interventions like surgery or ketogenic diets.  Do your research and ask questions until they are answered.  When you are not in crisis, take the time to figure out what treatment(s) makes the most sense for your child and family and feel right for you.
Also understand that epilepsy is more than seizures.  It can impact motor, speech, cognition and behavior.  If you think that your child is acting different, don’t be afraid to tell the doctors.  If you think something might be related, speak up.  Through it all, trust your intuition.  When something feels off, pay attention.  You know your child better than anyone else.  That is a knowledge set that the best specialist on the planet doesn’t have.  Never doubt its value. 

8.       Cry.
Or scream or laugh or punch a wall.  Epilepsy sucks.  This monster just invaded your family and is attacking your child. Fall apart for a little while.  The world won’t end if you do.  If it hasn’t happened yet, know that the day is coming when you break down sobbing at a completely inappropriate time or your reaction to a small annoyance is entirely out of proportion.  Finding a way to let some steam off along the way might prevent you from dissolving into a puddle of tears when the gas station clerk asks how you are doing.      

9.       Breathe. 
Whatever you need to do to be ok, do it.  It may feel selfish to leave your child right now just so that you can get a manicure.  It’s not.  Your child needs you to take a break so that you can come back refreshed enough to be the advocate they need right now.  Parenting a child with special needs is absolutely exhausting.   

10.   Know that you will change.
You will never again be the parent, or the person, that you were before your child started seizing.  Every jerky movement will trigger something terrifying in your brain that other parents simply cannot understand.  Small joys like bubble baths will suddenly look like watery graves.  There will be good changes too though.  You will find that you can fight harder than you ever thought you could. You will figure out what in life really matters. 

I know you didn’t want this.  I know that you’re scared.  Believe me when I tell you that the sun will come back out at some point.  So, give yourself some grace, reach out to the mamas who have gone before you, hug your baby and just keep swimming. 

Let's keep talking about this.  Please follow me on Facebook or comment below.  

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween with the Birth Family

Since my kids were in foster care, I have worked hard to maintain the bond that they have with their biological siblings.  That hasn’t always been easy due to busy schedules, family dynamics, and the fact that I have two kids out of the eight children (soon to be nine) that their mother has given birth to. Last year, my husband and I sat down to talk with the goal of creating a tradition for this sometimes complicated group.  We always have a visit around the holidays but meeting up on Christmas or Thanksgiving is just not practical.  Finally, we realized that Halloween was the answer.  It is a kid friendly holiday and we didn’t have family events that would conflict with a visit.

Noah was a ninja for the 4th year in a row which makes sense since he actually is a martial arts warrior.  Bradley was Batman and Alyssa, like every other 6 year old girl in the country, dressed up as Elsa.
This summer we told the siblings again that we wanted them to join us when we took the kids trick-or-treating.  They agreed and Alyssa immediately decided that she would be Elsa and T, her 16 year old sister, was going to be Anna.  There was no discussion of whether T actually wanted to dress up or if she wanted to be a character from Alyssa’s favorite movie.  Alyssa simply informed everyone that was what would happen.  Luckily, T agreed.

Bradley’s goals for Halloween were simple: dress like Batman and get lots of candy.  Alyssa has been planning and looking forward to dressing up with her siblings for months though.  We spent the afternoon at my parent’s house getting dressed up and hanging out with my grandparents who are in town from out of state. There was a small festival in town with candy, games and a pet costume contest. 

The local Boo Bash had tons to do for the cousins.  At one point each grandparent and great grandparent had their own child to guide through the festival.
From there we headed one town over for the best trick-or-treating in the county.  Unfortunately, her brothers weren’t able to make it but Alyssa’s two older sisters came to town to spend the evening with the kids.  She was over the moon when she saw T step out in her Anna costume and held hands with her sister the entire night. 

Sisters forever.
Maintaining relationships with birth families is complicated.  (I am planning to write more about that as we head into November which is adoption awareness month.) For us, it goes beyond the occasional visit and shared pictures.  I want my kids to have family traditions with each of their families. I want them to have memories that are more than awkward meetups in random fast food restaurants.  I want Bradley and Alyssa to know that I’m ok with them loving their other family and with them receiving love from their birth family.  I want them to remember trick-or-treating with our family and their sisters.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

She Wants to be a Mom

   My daughter, Alyssa, graduated from kindergarten a few days ago. I curled her hair and let her wear Chap Stick for the grand occasion. I helped her put on the little cap and gown and then I found a place with my family to watch her walk across the stage to get her diploma. There were the usual welcoming remarks followed by a slideshow. Each child had several pictures that her or his family had provided followed by a snapshot of them holding a chalkboard sign proclaiming what they want to be when they grow up. There were doctors, veterinarians and bull riders (we are in small town Texas after all). I expected Alyssa’s to say hair stylist or Elsa. Instead, it said mom. I heard the room sigh as the audience read that simple word. I imagine the others in the room thought it was sweet and cute for her to give that as an answer. I teared up as I stared at the screen though because I know what that word means to my baby girl.

   I was never the little girl who dreamed of growing up to be a mom. I spent more time riding horses than playing with Barbies. When I was assigned the home economics doll in high school, I used it as a football and cracked the battery case. And yet, being a parent has been a key part of my identity for the past decade. Today, I am one of Alyssa’s two moms. She has a birth mother whose parental rights were terminated by the state for abusing and neglecting her children. She also has me. I was her foster mother for almost two years before my husband and I adopted her. 
   Alyssa was only two and a half years old when she came to us but she had already lived through more than most adults. This tiny little child was so full of rage that she would scream for hours. She didn’t speak but would flip people off if she did not like them. She hit me, kicked me, and spit in my face. She broke anything she could and sometimes hurt herself when she was angry. I spent countless hours sitting on the floor with her in my lap, holding her while she screamed. I also walked away frustrated many times. There have been moments when I completely rocked it and helped her work through the grief of being abandoned by her first family. There have been other times when I completely failed and did not react with the compassion she needed in that moment. Through the ups and downs, I have stayed though because I believe that family is forever and real love stays even when it’s hard.

   Family and love were foreign concepts for my daughter when I met her. She had been bounced around between unhealthy homes and shelters. She had experienced loss and hunger and absolute fear. She had no reason to suspect when she came here that our home would be any different. Even after our adoption, Alyssa would ask several times each day if I was still her mom. She does that less now but that fear of abandonment still rears its ugly head sometimes when she gets in trouble and she goes back to being the scared little girl who believes no one really wants her. In those moments she occasionally asks if I will still be her mom as if I might disappear while she takes a timeout in the corner. “Always and forever” I tell her. “No matter what you do, we are family and family is forever.”     
   I’m just an ordinary mom. I’m way too busy and I burn dinner more often than I should. My house is messy and I couldn’t find a pair of matching socks to save my life but somehow, in all of that, my little girl found a definition of family different than the one that she was born into. As her picture flashed across that screen, I sat in amazement at how far she has come. The little girl who came to me so broken, now has an idea of what it means to be a part of a family and actually dreams of having her own someday. 

   I don’t know what the future holds for Alyssa.  She still struggles with her past and her special needs add additional challenges to her future.  I do know that she overcame the odds and learned to love in spite of the pain.  Alyssa wants to be a mom and I couldn’t be more proud.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

I'm Not Dancing

   If you ask adoptive mothers about things people say that make us roll our eyes, remarks about how lucky our children are to have us will always make the list.  We argue that we are lucky to have our children and it is not the other way around.  My kids are not lucky to have been so abused and neglected that they required an entirely new family.  However, I still recognize that Alyssa’s life and medical care would be much different if she still lived with her birth mother.  It is likely that she would not receive many of the services and treatments that I have advocated for.  It is likely that her first family would not be able to devote the resources needed to have her in an appropriate school or be able to focus on her health in the way that we are. 

   Those are uncomfortable thoughts. Alyssa is a child worthy of every treatment, therapy or resource that can help unlock her potential.  She deserves that, no matter who her family is, just like every other child does.  The fact that she is now my daughter does not imbue her with some special status that now qualifies her for a better outcome, or at least it shouldn’t.  She is valuable because she is valuable because she is valuable.  The end.

   I believe that all children are valuable and precious and worthy of the best medical care.  I believe that when kids get sick, it is our responsibility as a community to work towards healing and treatments that can at least improve their lives whenever possible. When it comes to children, demographics, family economics and specific diagnosis should not matter.  Unfortunately, this week the Texas legislature showed that they prioritize some patients over others and believe some conditions are more worthy of treatments.

   A bill legalizing medical marijuana, in an extremely limited form, is on its way to the governor’s desk.  I absolutely believe in legalization (as I have written about here) and I should be celebrating.  I am not.  First, there are many holes in the law that passed.  (You can read a great article about that here.)  It is poorly written and does not allow different ratios of THC, which are often needed to treat patients effectively.  Still it is a first step.  What bothers me more is the implication that my suffering child is more worthy of treatment than someone else’s child because of her diagnosis.

   This law explicitly states that only CBD oil is allowable and only for people with intractable epilepsy.  If you don’t know, medical marijuana has been a game changer in the world of epilepsy.  For the 30% of patients of who are not able to control their seizures through available medical treatments, this plant has been a godsend.  It has provided hope to families fighting epilepsy that had no hope before and it has effectively worked when nothing else has. At the same time, the movement towards legalization has also brought unprecedented awareness to epilepsy and our fight for a cure.

   Medical marijuana has also helped veterans with PTSD gain control of their symptoms and live normal lives.  In other states it has been used to treat kids with Crohn’s disease or multiple sclerosis.  Although the research is still in its infancy, due to archaic federal laws, even some people with autism seem to show improvements when treated with different ratios of CBD and THC.  Medical marijuana also works wonders for many people battling cancer.  Yet somehow in the movement to gain treatment for our own children, we decided that all of those patients were somehow less worthy of treatment because they carry a different label than our kids. 

   Many parents of kids with epilepsy are passionate about the push for medical marijuana because we understand the cost of every delay.  Our children are dying while they wait for legalization.  We have lost several children to seizures while they waited for their last hope to be approved by politicians who were more concerned with their own agendas than in letting us have access to a lifesaving plant.  That is devastating and unacceptable.  It is equally appalling that we would deny other parents the chance to save their children.

  I should be dancing because we finally have some semblance of legalization.  I am not.  Instead I find myself very conflicted.  I am angry that politicians were so busy fighting about another bill that they did not vote on the comprehensive medical marijuana bill.  I am sad that many of the marijuana refugees will still not be able to come home.  I am frustrated the current version may not be broad enough to create the infrastructure needed for us to actually have access to the plant we so desperately need.  I am heartbroken that a gain for Alyssa does not equate to hope for my friends whose children are also facing life-threatening diagnoses. I am hopeful that when the politicians realize that limited legalization does not lead to the fall of civilization as we know it, they will come together and create a more comprehensive set of medical marijuana laws.   I am hopeful that this small step leads to more.  I am hopeful, but I am not dancing. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

I’m a special needs mom and I need you to hold my arms up.

   When I was a little girl, my mom and I would get up early most mornings to read the Bible together.  I always loved the stories in the Old Testament of battles and heroes and romance.  I pictured myself as Ester speaking for her people, Deborah leading the armies into battle or Rahab saving the spies.  In my daydreams I was the Biblical version of Wonder Woman, stepping up and saving the day when the men failed to get the job done.  These days I’m too tired to play warrior princess.  Since Alyssa got sick, there is another Old Testament story that has resonated with me though. 
Alyssa is 6 and has PCDH19 Epilepsy

   In Exodus 17, we read a story about a battle that the Israelites fought with Amalek.  In this particular battle the Israelites prevailed so long as Moses held up his hands but he grew tired as the battle raged.  As his weary arms started to sink, the enemy grew stronger.   Seeing this, Aaron and Hur found a rock for him to sit on.  Then they did something that changed the course of the battle.  They stood beside Moses and they held his arms up.

   Parenting in general is hard work but when a child has special needs it can start to feel like an impossible task.  There are so many appointments and emergencies and daily trials that it is enough to make your head spin.  Ironically, as the world implodes and we need help the most, many special needs parents find their support systems dwindling.  Some people choose to abandon us because our new lives don’t fit their sense of perfect.  Some shrink away in fear that our tragedy might wear off on them.  I honestly think though that most stand back because they don’t know what to do.  In the face of what seem like insurmountable obstacles, physical challenges and emotional devastation, they simply don’t believe that they have anything to offer.  That could not be farther from the truth.
Alyssa hanging out in the hospital in March 2013
    As I reflect back over the past two years, I remember many times when I felt like I was Moses, alone on a mountain, growing weary of the fight.  There were moments though, when people came beside me and helped me bear the load.  In small acts of kindness, friends and strangers came along and held our arms up.

It was the small town pharmacist who saw us adding yet another medication and took the time to ask if I’m ok.
It was my MMA instructor doing an entire class of just punching the bag because I was too raw for anything more.
It was the time at work when I broke down and every woman in my office stopped what she was doing to hold me while I sobbed.
It was random text messages from people saying that they were praying for me.
It was my mom sitting with Alyssa so that I could sleep for a few hours after being awake at the hospital for days.
It was our brand new babysitter being willing to keep Alyssa even on bad days so I didn’t have to quit school.
It was the other mothers in a Facebook group who understood the true intensity behind a simple post of “I hate epilepsy” and offered their virtual support from around the globe.
It was the friend who let me take off the mommy hat for a little while and talk about school or clients or some other gossip that helped to balance out my brain.
It was the people who gave my boys grace because they understood how hard it is to watch your sister fall apart.
It was the teacher’s aide who gently held Alyssa as she crossed the stage so she could still receive her pre-k awards last year after seizures left her disoriented and unstable.
Christmas 2014
   What I want you to notice is that few of the things I have listed are world changing actions but they were slivers of light in an otherwise dark time.  They cost their givers very little but meant the world to me.  There was no special skill or expertise required, only the willingness to stay when our life was anything but pretty and we were too depleted to give anything in return.

   The truth is that you usually don’t have to do anything extravagant to support the special needs parents in your world.  I don’t need you to fight my battle.  I don’t need you to have all the answers or the perfect plan to win the war.  I just need you to stand beside me sometimes and hold my arms up.

My partner in crime.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Cautious Optimism

   This morning Hubby and I got up at the crack of dawn and braved rush hour traffic for an appointment with Alyssa’s epileptologist.  (An epileptologist is a neurologist with 2 additional years of specialized training who only treats epilepsy.)  We hadn't seen her since December because Alyssa is fairly stable at the moment.  In fact, in May we will have made it one year without a tonic-clonic seizure (what used to be known as grand mal seizures.)  

Daddy, Alyssa & Super Bradley checking out the games at the children's hospital.

   A year without seizures is a huge milestone in the world of epilepsy.  Ironically, it is also terrifying. If Alyssa maintains her streak over the summer, then in the fall we will start to slowly wean her off of at least one of her medications. I have a love / hate relationship with those medications.  On the one hand she takes large doses of mind altering drugs every day with a whole slew of side effects and an undetermined impact on her development. On the other hand, those drugs are keeping her alive.

Pink band-aids and suckers make everything better.

   The other fly in the ointment is that the lack of seizures is allowing us to see the behavioral and cognitive challenges that Alyssa faces.  She is a complicated kid in that regard.  It is hard to tell what is the medications, the disorder, damage from seizures or a result from the abuse she suffered before coming to us.  What is clear is that we have a long road ahead of us.

   Tonight, I am cautiously optimistic.  I am choosing to enjoy this space between clusters, regardless of how long it may last.  I am choosing to be grateful for the amazing team of professionals that we have built even as we amass more specialists.  I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but I am looking forward to hitting the one year mark, and whatever comes after that.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Spring Break Project

The kids have been on spring break this week and we have had a great, relaxing time hanging out at the house as a family.  After all of the cold craziness, the weather turned out to be perfect so we spent the majority of our waking hours outside.  We all did little things around the place but Noah had his own project and I am so very proud of him.
At the beginning of the week, we decided to give Noah our old chicken coop.  A few years ago, a stray dog ate all my chickens and I never replaced them. They were mostly pet chickens (in fact they only laid one egg in the 7 months I had them) and I was afraid of getting attached to new birds and then having them get attacked too.  I fully recognize my relationship to chickens is not normal but they were sweet little guys and I was bummed.  Back to spring break... this is what we gifted Noah.

That's his spy pose.
He really wants to be a spy and obviously if you want to be a spy you have to have a clubhouse.  It had gotten into pretty bad shape though.  The roof was falling off and we were using it to store some hoses for our insulation machine so we all worked together and cleaned it out.  The hubby also fixed the roof but it was all Noah from there.

It was quite the diamond in the rough.
 All week long Noah worked.  He did odd jobs around the house in the mornings to earn money for spray paint and spent his afternoons hours getting it perfect.

It was a messy process. Fortunately we now have (almost) all of the paint out of his hair.

On Saturday, he put the final touches on his new clubhouse.  He is so proud of his creation.  

Presenting Noah's first "flip" and the international headquarters of MAPSER.