GUEST BLOG POST: Rescuing Julia Twice by Tina Traster
Julia got off the school bus and bounded down our path with her usual verve. Right away she knew something was wrong when she came inside. I was sitting on a bench in our foyer, white as a ghost, looking shell-shocked.
“What’s wrong Mommy?” she asked.
“I have some bad test results,” I said.
“Are you going to die?” she asked, panic spreading across her beautiful face.
I did my best to explain severe anemia. I told her my body had no iron stores and if I didn’t do something right away, I’d need a blood transfusion.
She dropped her knapsack at my feet, yanked a sheet of blank paper and a pen from my desk, and shot off into the kitchen. A few minutes later she returned with a page of calculations. My cereal had 10% of my daily iron. The yogurt I eat didn’t have any. She listed a dozen items.
“Here Mommy,” she said. “You’re not going to die are you?”
As caught up as I was in a state of panic over my anemia, my brain had the clarity to register that something extraordinary was happening here. Julia, who is 11, was genuinely frightened at the thought that something bad could happen to me.
What child wouldn’t, you ask?
A child with a syndrome called Reactive Attachment Disorder. A child who, because of early traumatic circumstances, fails to attach, and who is unable to form loving bonds. A child who doesn’t know how to love.
This was what my child, Julia, whom my husband Ricky and I adopted from a Siberian orphanage at the age of eight months in 2003, was like for many years. It was impossible to feel as though I was truly her mother. As an infant she recoiled when I held her and never made contact. She never laid claim to a teddy bear or a favorite blanket or toy. As a toddler she was combative and defiant. Not sometimes. All the time. Finally by age four, my husband and I fully understood RAD, the syndrome she was suffering from because it is not uncommon among children who’ve begun their lives in orphanages, or those who’ve been abused and have spent time in foster care. We used every resource available to learn how our child was wired, and made it our life’s work – it still is – to heal Julia. To “Rescue Her Twice”, as my book, due out in May, is called.
The writer and adoptive mother Nancy Thomas, author of When Love Is Not Enough: A Guide To Parenting Children With Reactive Attachment Disorder,”says “Every adopted child has that primal wound from heartbreak.”
What tends to happen is that adoptive moms, who are so eager to love away the hurt, misinterpret these signs as proof of their own shortcomings. We believe we are bad mothers. That we have made a mistake. That we don’t deserve to be mothers. Even with advanced warnings or “training” about RAD, an adoptive mother is seldom prepared to be the mother of a child who won’t attach.
Over the years, we made tremendous progress with Julia. Being able to talk to her, really talk to her, was one tool we didn’t have until she was about four. But it wasn’t just a matter of explaining that we loved her and always would and would never abandon her. We needed to employ a raft of counter-intuitive parenting techniques to “break” her wiring” in order to get her to think and feel safer and be at peace.
It’s been a long, arduous journey but I can say with 100% of my heart that Julia is completely attached to me and my husband. Though she still struggles with intimacy she is mine, without question. The thought of something happening to me is terrifying to her, and it is to me because I couldn’t think of anything worse than not being around to raise my daughter.
It’s been four months since I got those scary test results. My iron levels have been restored and I’m not anemic anymore. When we’re at the supermarket, Julia runs up and down the aisles reading food labels, plucking iron-rich foods off the shelves. I’ve always thought of food as love, but even more so now.
Tina Traster is the author of “Rescuing Julia Twice: A Mother’s Tale of Russian Adoption and Overcoming Reactive Attachment Disorder.” Her memoir is due out in May from Chicago Review Press, but is available for pre-sale on Amazon. Her website is www.juliaandme.com.