Thursday, April 9, 2015

Reactive Attachment Disorder: A Discussion On The Back Porch




Natalie is back home.  Through a series of phone calls over the last couple of weeks, I learned she was not doing well in the therapeutic boarding school where she has been residing for the last six months.  Diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder nearly three years ago, she has fought like a warrior to overcome an affliction brought on by three years of abuse and neglect in a Russian orphanage.  If ever there was a victim, it is Natalie.

You should know, Reactive Attachment Disorder is more than a diagnosis to me.  It has become my nemesis.  Oftentimes, the bane of my existence.  I hate it and wish like heck I could rip off it's head and kick it's ruthless butt.  Because of RAD, I subconsciously represent the mother who abandoned Natalie, the orphanage workers who abused and neglected her, and the birth family who has forsaken her.  By other moms who parent children who have been diagnosed with RAD, I am known as a Trauma Momma.  But by the medical community, I am called Natalie's 'trigger'.  An insipid substitute.  The pain, the fury, the disappointment, the fear, and the despair have to go somewhere....so those emotions, in Natalie's case, are placed upon me.  It is so unfair.

This morning, Natalie and I sat on the back porch and had a long talk.  Since she's just returned home, we are in what is referred to as a "honeymoon period".  And make no mistake about it, I will take full advantage of this time.  Over the last two and a half years, Nat has been in and out of treatment centers, more in than out, so a quiet, uninterrupted moment on the back porch is an inestimable gift to me.  We spent a solid hour discussing the ravages of RAD.  It's ironic how much we understand it, but how horribly it continues to shamelessly outplay us.  

The root of the disorder can be boiled down to one word:  TRUST.  When a baby arrives into the world, it learns to trust immediately.  Completely incapable of survival on it's own, the child learns that she will be comforted when she cries, fed when she's hungry, supported when she's hurt, and held when she's afraid. The baby feels worthy.  A part of something.  Cared for.  And in response, the brain makes necessary connections....connections that will make a person whole.  When that nurturing does not take place, however, those connections are not made.  Are never made.  To overcome, requires a lot of intentional work paired with much trust when trust was never woven into the individual in the first place.  How do you utilize trust, then, when it is non-existent?  And there lies the conundrum.

A person with RAD, as a result, carries the burden of constantly managing and/or manipulating the people in their lives.  Since she lacks the ability to trust, she believes she has to continually be in the proverbial cat bird seat.  In control.  And if she gets the feeling she does not have the upper hand, she will create a situation in order to re-take that very real perception of control.  It's a full time, exhausting job; individuals who have RAD never take a break from it.  To do so, would mean vulnerability.  And vulnerability requires trust.  Which they don't have. 

Here is a peek into our discussion on the back porch:

Me:  "Let's consider a child who is raised by a physically abusive father.  Everything surrounding that father is viewed by the child through an abusive lens, would you agree?"


Nat:  "Yes."


Me:  "Even if the father shows kindness....he is going to be viewed by the child as the abusive father who is showing a moment of kindness.  The label is something he will never fully overcome, even if he makes a change.  Do you think that is accurate?"

Nat:  "Yes," she answered, "because that kid is probably wondering when the abuse is going to happen again." 

Me:  "And I think that's fair, because the child has a clear memory of what happened.  But, can you see that you view me through a lens in much the same way?"

Nat:  "Sort of, I guess."

Me:  "I am viewed by you as the mother who doesn't really love you.  That is the lens you always use with me.  Yet you don't have anything to base that judgment on.  No matter what I do, I'm viewed through that lens your brain has falsely created.  If I'm being extra kind, you respond by thinking I must be up to something...that I am probably trying to gain something from you....or that I may be trying to manipulate you....so what do you do?"

Nat:  "I do something really bad to make you mad," she replied with a sheepish grin, "and if you don't get mad, I do something else and then something else and then something else until I do make you mad."

Me:  "I know why you do that, but do you finally understand why you do that?"

Nat:  "Because when you get mad at me, it proves to me that you don't love me."

Me:  "But the truth is, I do love you."


Nat:  "I know that in my head, but I don't know it in my heart."

Me:  "And when I don't get mad at you, no matter how bad you act and no matter how much you act out and disobey, then what?"

Nat:  "Then I know you don't really think of me as your daughter, because a real mom would get mad at her daughter for disobeying and for doing horrible things."

Me:  "So I can't win?"

Nat:  "I guess not."  She answered me with a dead stare.  No emotion.

Me:  "Do you see how unfair that is to me?"


Nat:  "Yes, but I can't help it.  I try to make myself believe I can trust you and that I can be a part of this family, but I don't feel it.  I don't know if I've ever felt it."


Me:  "Now I know this is coming from the person you trust the least in the world, but can you at least agree to consider that there might be a remote possibility that what I am telling you is true....that the reason you feel the way you do and do the things you do is a result of your mind playing tricks on you?  And that I do love you and actually do want the best for your life?"


Nat:  "I'm trying.  I really am.  I don't want to live at treatment centers, but that is where I don't feel so angry."


Me:  "Because when you're living away from home, you aren't having to face the problem.  I represent your hurt and pain.  I embody your abandonment.  So by running from me, you have this idea that you are better off....because when you leave me, for a while anyway, you don't feel that pain.  In reality, though, you are just avoiding the issue that needs to be resolved the most.  And the pain always returns, doesn't it?  Even at the treatment centers."


Nat:  "I know.  And you've gotta believe me, mom,  I don't want to feel the way I do and I don't want to hurt you or anybody else anymore.  My biggest regret in my life is that I keep hurting you and my family and that I haven't been here for y'all.  I want to stay with you this time; I always want to stay.  But I can only do my best."


Me:  "No, you can do more, but it is going to require you to be alert and on guard every single moment. You have to determine in your heart that you will stick it out and that you will see all this hurt, despair, rage, and anger for what it is.  Name it.  It is Reactive Attachment Disorder and nothing else.  Natalie, if you keep running from me instead of facing this problem, it will never get fixed.  And I'm not sure I'm going to let you run anymore.  You are sixteen now and that means you are more mature.  I think you can lick this thing."


Me:  "I'm trying really hard."  


And she ended the conversation with that.  


No commitment to stick it out....but a continuing commitment to "try".  

Ugh!  I wanted to stand and stomp my feet, really hard, like a big baby.  I wanted to cry, to run away, to scream at someone....at anyone.  But I didn't.  Like her, I sat back and became silent.  She had ended the discussion, and so it was over.  You can't push a person who has RAD or they will push you back.  

So here I am.  Again.  Hoping against hope that we will have a different result this time.


The easy fix, you might say, is to force her to stay.  And while that is always my plan, I've learned through experience it is much easier said than done.  When a child with RAD decides she wants to control a situation, she is pretty much willing to go Rambo on you if she has to....running away, defacing property, harming herself, and even harming others.  No limits.  No boundaries.  Suffocating with sorrow, she is willing to go to great lengths to escape.  I've lived with it long enough that I get it:






To close, if you will look back on my last post which was on January 29th, you will see that I am expecting a miracle in Natalie's life this year.   I haven't written a post on this blog since then, I think, because I have been expecting.  Waiting.  Hoping.  Believing.  And now she's back.  

Hey God, in case you are reading this, I AM READY FOR THAT MIRACLE!   




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