Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fetal Alcohol and a friend called "Betsy Brown"

If you have been following my blog for very long, you have likely realized I use my blog more as a way to journal my own inner struggles and quests for truth than to report "on the life of". A wife of a successful business man and mother to five incredible children, three who have special needs, my life is a constant balancing act. Most of my time is spent trying to be everything to everyone. And sometimes I fail.

Natalie, now twelve, was adopted at age three from Russia and has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. I homeschooled her (along with the rest of the gang) until she entered the public school system last year when I noticed she wasn't processing information the way her fifth grade curriculum required. After a few tests within the special education department, it was noted she could use some "extra help". Unfortunately, being plucked from Natalie's "safe" environment at home to be placed into a situation that allows for the constant scrutinization by fellow peers did not settle well with the effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). In her valiant effort to prove her worthiness as a public school student, Natalie fell short. Being one of the only fifth grade girls in her class who did not own a cell phone, maintain a facebook account, wear the latest fashions, sport blush with the occasional eyeliner, and have a boyfriend did not make her the most popular. Teem those things with the fact that people born with FAS tend to be missing the extra sensibility called "tact", and you have a disaster. Basically, Natalie felt it was her obligation to let everyone in her class know why she didn't need a cell phone at age twelve, why she didn't need boyfriends...and why they didn't either....and so on. Get the picture? No tact = no popularity.

Having grown up in the public school system, I understand a thing or two about behavior (as most of you can probably relate). Basically, kids can be cruel. In response to Natalie's lack of "tact", she was shunned. Completely. And she didn't like it. After some time passed, unbeknownst to me (because of course, Natalie didn't even realize why she was being shunned), Natalie began to figure out that she could fit in and be accepted if she acted like everyone else and looked like everyone else. To make a long story short, she ended up stealing things from other students. If she thought make-up would make her more popular, she would steal make-up from a peer's backpack and wear it at school (removing it before coming home)....if she thought wearing silly bands would make her popular, she would steal silly bands and wear them at school (removing them before coming home). Having three special needs children in your home will make you more in tune with life than you ever thought you could me. So, when I started noticing the slightest change in Natalie's walk, demeanor, looks, etc., I began investigating. She was busted. I found her hidden stash in her bedroom.

To remedy, I went to the principle and asked him to give her in-school suspension in hope fear would over-rule the temptation to "fit in". After the second and third offense, however, I realized the temptation was just too much for Natalie. Since FAS and OCD tend to go hand in hand more often than not, I did not want to risk the act of stealing becoming an obcession with Natalie. I moved her back home to be homeschooled. That was in February.

Before I get to the rest of the story, I think it is important to remind you that FAS impacts the way Natalie communicates. She truly processes all information differently than one who does not have FAS. I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to decipher and decode Natalie's sentences and thought patterns...for instance:

One day Natalie was creating sentences from a spelling word list for school. One of the words was verdant. Natalie's sentence read: My family is verdant. She received a huge red "x" for her sentence with a note from her teacher stating that she had obviously not looked up the word before attempting to write her sentences. Natalie was terribly upset by the red "x" across her paper and pleaded with me to read her sentence and decide for myself if she was indeed wrong while attempting to persuade me that she had looked up the definition before writing the sentence. I took her paper in hand and said: "Ok, then, tell me the definition of verdant." She replied: "Green". "We're green, Natalie?", I asked. "Yes!", she nearly screamed. I took myself out of my own head (figuratively) and put Natalie's head upon my shoulders for a moment when the proverbial light bulb went off. As it turned out, Natalie's sentence was very appropriate since our family is big into recycling, conserving energy, and eating organic....we are a "green" family indeed. Ha! Ha!

This is one of about two-million "Natalie-isms". Dissecting the meaning of her thought patterns is a constant job, and staying on top of the process can be exhausting. At times, I am not on my game...this is when disaster knocks. And it knocked a couple of weeks ago in a tremendous way!

It was Wednesday, and I left the house at 12:15 to retrieve Hopey from preschool while leaving Caleb, Natalie, and Charlie at home. (Caleb gets out of school early on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). When I returned, Caleb was frantic and Natalie was in a state of panic. They were both speaking at the same time about the explosion in my bathroom. With Hope in my arms, now shrieking as she sensed the fear in her brother and sister, I tried to get both to calm down and let me know what happened. Caleb kept saying: "Natalie has done something, but she won't admit it!" while Natalie was simultaneously crying out: "I swear, mom, I didn't do anything!" (Swearing is another one of those things I will blame on Nat's stint in the public school---lying, though, she learned on her own).

After calming Hopey down, I left her safely with Caleb while I set out to assess the damage in my bath. My stomach was in butterflies and my hands were shaking...remember, they described it as an "explosion". When I entered the bathroom, I could see nothing but fog...lots of fog. And a smell in my bathroom choked me. I stormed out of the bathroom, slammed the door behind me and demanded Natalie tell me what she had done. Her response: "I swear to you mom, I found it like that. I didn't do anything!"

For all of you who have children with FAS, you will understand what I went through in the next thirty minutes while trying to pry the truth from Natalie...for those of you who do not have a child with FAS, there is no way on earth you could ever understand. Once a child with FAS has lied, he/she will go to the mat to make up lie after lie after lie to cover up the original lie until it is such a bundled up mess you just want to throw it away and forget it ever happened...but I couldn't, because I had a very thick fog hanging in my bathroom.

Finally, I said: "Natalie, I know you did something, because fog doesn't just appear out of no where. There is a reason you are not telling me the truth, but I have to get Hope and Charlie out of this house just in case you have done something that can be dangerous to them." Then I looked toward Caleb and said: "Caleb, let's get these little ones out of here!" Natalie, who was still on her knees from begging me to believe she was telling me the truth, quickly stood and wiped the tears from her eyes, ready and eager to leave with us. Quite deliberately, I turned to Nat and said: "Oh, no, you aren't going with us. Since you are not telling me the truth about this situation, you will have to stay here and deal with it the best you can. Good luck!" And with that, I turned toward the door.

And as we say in the South: "with two shakes of a sheep's tail" that little girl starting spilling the truth. Just as I suspected, Natalie Grace Hollis was not prepared to go down in the fog-ridden house alone. Ok, I can chuckle about it now, but two weeks ago I was mad enough to bite a nail in half with one chomp.

As it turned out, while I was retrieving Hopey from preschool, Natalie was meddling in my bureau drawers. She happened upon some pepper spray that I had when I was in college (I don't even want to share how many years ago that has been), and it had been long forgotten. In her state of curiosity, Natalie had taken the pepper spray and sprayed it all over my bathroom, not knowing what it was. Soon, she began to choke and realized she had done something very wrong that needed to be covered up....with every chemical cleaner she could find in my house. The result? A chemical reaction of fog and a smell I hope to one day forget.

I did not speak to Natalie for three whole days after this event. I was too angry and certain I might say something I would regret if I did try to talk to her. All I could think of was her stealing at school and how she was now trying to steal from her own mother. Why else would she be rifling through my drawers as soon as I left the house? Oh, I brooded.

On the following Sunday, Chappy took Caleb and Lydia golfing. I was left in the house with Natalie, Hope and Charlie trying to figure out how to best deal with my hurt feelings toward my twelve year old daughter. Like I stated before, because of FAS, communication with Natalie is difficult, but I knew I had to try to talk to her and find out "why". I called her into the great room and began:

"Natalie, I am sure you have noticed I have been avoiding you the last few days. I want you to know I am furious at you for what you did, but mostly because you lied to me. Daddy is going to be gone with Caleb and Lydia for two hours or more, so I am going to give you time to explain to me why you did what you did, and I am going to be quiet and just listen to you. I know you have a hard time formulating your thoughts, so try really hard to take this step by step and explain to me what happened."

Her response, just as she told it to me:

"Mom, I lied to you because I knew you would be so mad at me for what I did. I didn't mean to make a big mess and didn't know what that spray stuff was. I went to your room to look for my adoption papers because I think you are telling me a lie about my birth mom. Do you remember when we watched "August Rush" with Gigi and Poppy? Well I started thinking Elena (her birth mom) might have really wanted me but she thinks I am dead and you and dad stole me. When I went through your drawers I found that spray and knew I shouldn't spray it, but I couldn't help it. Something inside of me just had to know what it was. I told my hands not to grab it but they did anyway. When I sprayed it, the smell was so bad I had to cover it up. The next thing I know I was choking and there was smoke everywhere. And that is the truth. I am sorry I did all of that and lied to you."

My turn:

"Natalie, do you really think I am lying to you about your birth mom?"


"I'm not sure and it bothers me alot."

My turn:

"Are you going to keep going through my stuff until you find those adoption papers?"


"I know I'm not supposed to, but I probably will anyway, because I can't help it. I think about it all of the time."

So, Natalie and I spent the remaining two hours going through her adoption paperwork line by line. I showed her everything...I even had her read the papers out loud to me to make sure she understood every single horrible word. And she cried. And I cried.

Natalie cried because of the rejection she felt from her birth momma's statements in the adoption paperwork while I cried because I wished her adoption story wasn't so ugly.

Natalie cried because she was happy I wasn't mad at her anymore while I cried because I hadn't taken the time to get past my own anger enough to get to the bottom of the "bathroom fog saga" sooner. Three days was too long for anger to separate us, and the realization hit me like a ton of bricks.

Natalie cried because she has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome because of a teenage mother who was a homeless alcoholic and drug addict....while I cried because Fetal Alcohol steals so much from Natalie. It makes her compulsive enough to spray pepper spray all over my bathroom and impulsive enough to try to cover it up with all kinds of takes the edge off of her comprehension of the severity of telling lies....and then the final bite, probably worst of all, it hinders her ability to communicate. Natalie lacked the necessary skills to come to me and make things right, so she had to wait in misery until I came to her and gave her uninterrupted time to try formulate her thoughts to express her side of the story.

This was a huge lesson learned for both Natalie and myself. Yes, I failed as a momma for a few days while I stewed in my anger....but I learned so much about Natalie. And my heart grew for her.

What does Betsy Brown have to do with all of this??? On Thursday evening, our family stopped to get a bite to eat in Alabaster, Alabama on the way to Florida for a long Easter weekend. Upon leaving the restaurant, Chappy with Charlie in his arms, sent Natalie back to tell me to watch my step when coming out to the car because there was a big step off of the curb and he was afraid I might fall when carrying Hopey out to the car with me. (I had stayed in the restaurant a bit longer to let Hopey finish drinking her water while Chappy left to pack Charlie into the car seat). A woman in the parking lot overheard Chappy use Hope's name and said: "I think I follow your wife's that little Charlie you are holding?" By the time I came out to the van with Hopey, Chappy introduced me to Betsy Brown who could call each of our children by name. We had such a great time meeting Betsy, who is a tremendous prayer warrior. Hope literally jumped into her arms and gave her huge hugs and many excited smiles. Their spirits connected supernaturally.

God used Betsy Brown to remind me why I keep this blog going....we all need each other. Perhaps the struggle I shared today will help someone else in another city deal with a similar journey....and maybe I will meet another Betsy Brown who will happily inform me of her prayers for our little Hopey's heart. We serve a God who is so great it is unfathomable, but at the same time, He takes the time to be involved in the minute details of our lives. Truly, He blows me away.

So today Father, and every single day, I trust you with Natalie's Fetal Alcohol Syndrome...with Hope and Charlie's Down syndrome....with Hopey's heart defect, with my energetic teenager (Caleb), with my drama-queen (Lydia) and with the love of my life (Chappy)....but most of all I trust you to teach me through my many failures. Thank you for your never-ending mercy!


  1. Although I don't comment often, I follow your blog as well, and I am always happy to hear updates about you and your family.

  2. Oh, Melanie, what a wonderful story, full of redemption. I needed that, today. I have a 5yo with processing and anger issues and really blew it in my response to him, earlier. Thank you for reminding me that all is not lost...a little undivided attention goes a long way.

  3. My heart is so full after reading your blog. I feel so connected to your family. I will continue to pray with "Hope" for all of you.

    Betsy Brown

  4. You encourage me to get over myself and listen to my children, even though they do not have FAS. Special needs or not, we must make every attempt to hear the heart of our children, just like the Lord does with us. Thank you, Melanie for all you write.

  5. You don't know me, but me and my sister sponsor 6 kids thru reece's rainbow! we're raising money to go on a mission trip to Ukraine. I read your posts from nov. 2009 and I just wanted to let you know that Lydia is such an inspiration to us, and we're 15! we try our hardest to be servants of God! We know that if God wants us to go meet our little munchkins face to face, he'll give us the money! I just wanted to let you kno that Lydia is an inspiration to us! God bless!

  6. Wow. Yes. Listening skills need to improve at my house too! I don't think we have FAS, but he is an almost 5 year boy who is very active. . .loving and creative too.

    God Bless you for sharing. i'll keep you all in my prayers.

    PS i sort of dread the day Aidan goes through his adoption papers. Thank you for sharing your experience. i think it will help me prepare for that eventuality.

  7. Thank you for sharing! I can't believe this is first time I've come across your blog. We just brought home our baby with designer genes last month. We also have a 9 year old adopted 2 years ago from Russia, who we are more and more suspecting suffers from "mild" effects of FAS. I am having to learn new more patient ways of dealing with her behaviors, behaviors that are minor, but do not make sense!
    Thanks again for sharing.

  8. Today my emotions overwhelmed me as I researched FAS. My daughter is 7 and she is amazing but me heart is so heavy for her. Thank you for sharing.

  9. I have an adopted daughter with FAS who is now 13. I can so empathize with this story. We go through similar sagas on a daily basis. If you ever need to talk or consult, please don't hesitate to contact me at