Staring out the window of the airplane at the unfamiliar terrain below, the sense of shock and disbelief I’d felt in the whirlwind weeks leading up to this moment overwhelmed me. Yet I was certain, absolutely certain, that this was the right thing to do. It had to be this way. There was no other choice, not logically nor emotionally, not for any of us.
Despite the tears streaming down my face, I once again felt grateful for my certainty that came from a sense of spiritual connectedness that I had only recently developed. In fact, if I hadn’t had this sense of certainty, this would have been more difficult—unbearable, really.
I was traveling thousands of miles to tour a school for my 12-year-old daughter, Gracie, whom we had adopted from Russia as an infant. Calling it a “school” is a nice euphemism. It was technically a residential treatment center which provided 24/7 care for children with backgrounds of trauma, kids whose brains were wired to believe that the world was an unsafe place and people were not to be trusted. These were children with severe emotional, behavioral, social, and academic difficulties—so severe that they could no longer function safely in family, school, or community.
The tour was more of a formality. My former husband and I were out of choices, and our family was in crisis. Assuming we didn’t see any showstoppers during the tour (which we didn’t), we would return within two weeks, this time with Gracie, and we would leave her there for the unforeseeable future.
Responsible, loving parents don’t take their child to live in a place thousands of miles away to be cared for by virtual strangers.
How did it come to this? I wondered for the thousandth time, even though I knew the answer.
Also for the thousandth time, I remembered the spiritual guidance I had been receiving, and felt a glimmer of peace despite the overwhelming grief and guilt.
My mind flashed back to the other long plane ride I had taken with Gracie, the one 12 years earlier when I had traveled with her from Russia to a brand-new life in the United States. Her first long plane ride was to join a family; her second would be to leave that family. The idea was that she would be gone for about two years, during which time she would get the care she needed so that she would then be able to return to the family.
How did it come to this?
Years earlier, my husband and I started out no differently than many other couples who meet in college and married afterwards. Living in suburban Ohio, we were intelligent, ambitious, family-oriented professionals. When our twin boys Michael and Peter were born, I quit my job as a computer consultant and eagerly became a full-time mother. A few years later, we decided to adopt. It would be a win-win; we would get a little baby girl to complete our family, and she would get a family. We knew nothing about Gracie’s special needs. We believed we would happily raise our family while living the American dream. I would go back to work as soon as our youngest entered first grade.
Life is funny. The things you think you want are often not what you get, but what you get is often what you need.
Looking back, inklings of Gracie’s special needs were obvious from the start, but, despite many questions to various professionals during her toddler and preschool years, it wasn’t until she was in kindergarten that a doctor was willing diagnosis her with ADHD and Asperger Syndrome.
I actually felt relieved, glad that someone else finally validated what I knew to be true in my heart. I assumed that now since we had a name to the issue, there would also be a solution. (I am also glad I did not know that was only the beginning; by her late teens Gracie acquired 16 diagnoses to her name, spanning across the mental health and autism fields.)
My initial relief at having someone finally agree with my concerns about Gracie quickly turned to other concerns. This was not what we signed up for. I had specifically asked the adoption agency not to give us a child with special needs, because we already had two boys, and I felt it would be unfair to them. Besides, I wasn’t patient enough to be the mother of a special needs child. I knew nothing about this world; I didn’t want to have to learn. What would this mean for us long-term?
I decided to tackle this situation like any other I had ever encountered in my life: with dedication, hard work, intelligence, and love. I became enthusiastic about the challenge, confident in my love for Gracie, my perseverance, and my abilities. I knew I was a really good mother, and I would never give up. I felt sure it was only a matter of time and effort before I could mostly “fix” the situation. Helping Gracie became my new full-time job.
Looking back, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Thus began a whirlwind immersion into the world of special needs and of searching for answers for Gracie. I spent 4 years learning about the world of autism. I became immersed with doctor and therapist’s appointments and meetings with the school. Then it became apparent that the core issue was really trauma, which placed us squarely in the mental health world. In addition, Gracie had severe learning challenges. I can speak knowledgeably about any of these worlds—autism/developmental delays; mental health; learning.
At any given point, I always believed that the magic combination of answers—medications, therapies, behavioral approaches, accommodations at school, whatever—was just around the corner. I always believed that in only a few months more, I would find that elusive combination of whatever Gracie needed to help her the most and to stabilize her and consequently our lives. Once I discovered that right combination, then we would be set.
While I was busy working toward a solution that I believed was only a few more months away, years went by, each more challenging than the last. The number of doctors, therapists, medications, and educational and behavioral approaches tried was staggering. Parenting Gracie and managing her care was exhausting and all-encompassing.
I struggled to balance Gracie’s needs, make life “normal” for Michael and Peter, maintain my marriage to my husband who was often away working long hours or traveling for business, and manage the household. I was last on my priority list; my own needs almost always went unaddressed. There were years where I felt that everyone else had the right to have fun and enjoy themselves, whereas I did not. That was simply not my lot in life. And it was my job to accept and deal with it as best I could.
I also didn’t know how to ask for help, didn’t even realize how much I needed it, didn’t know how to fully communicate my reality with anyone.
I had been brought up to be strong and stoic, with the attitude that it was everyone’s responsibility to silently bear their burdens without complaining. I had been taught to value intellect and hard work over emotions, and to ignore my feelings. I felt managing the situation was my responsibility, more than anyone else’s in the world. I was determined to figure it out and to work ceaselessly, no matter what the cost to myself, because I believed endless giving-giving-giving was what a good, strong, noble woman did.
As the years went on, every person, and every relationship, in my family became stretched to the breaking point. My sons were growing up in an extremely stressful household where everyone walked on eggshells, never knowing when or how Gracie’s next emotional explosion would occur, only knowing with certainty that one inevitably would. By necessity, I became hyper-focused on my children, trying my hardest to keep their lives running in some semblance of smoothness. As our reality moved further from the norm, I became isolated from the adult world and from family and friends, to the point where I felt thoroughly alienated.
All of us in my family, each in our own way, did the best we could to manage the difficult situation using what we knew and the resources we had. Yet all of us, each in our way, were slowly yielding to the unrelenting strain. Few people ever talk about the effects of struggling children on the typical siblings. Despite my best attempts to keep life “normal” for my sons, in his teenage years, Michael encountered secondary trauma and depression issues of his own. I went from having one child who required extraordinary care to two.
Yet, none of this was anyone’s fault. It certainly wasn’t Gracie’s fault.
Throughout these years, besides feelings of isolation and alienation, I experienced grief, self-doubt, anxiety, guilt, depression, and not a little trauma of my own. My initial confidence and enthusiasm slowly gave way to desperation, which ultimately gave way to sheer hopelessness. You’ve heard of a dark night of the soul? Well, I had a dark number of years of the soul.
By that point, I had exhausted conventional solutions for Gracie. I began exploring alternative methods. Because everything I knew and had been taught wasn’t working, out of necessity I had to begin questioning everything I thought I knew. One after another, I began encountering fascinating people from other traditions who introduced me to a world I didn’t know existed: an Irish craniosacral therapist; a Mayan medicine woman; a Chinese master of medicine; an American medical intuitive.
In my search for answers for my daughter, I found answers for myself.
I had what can only be called a spiritual awakening. For me, it was more a process than a singular event. I gradually left my childhood Roman Catholic religion for a more robust spirituality. (read my Statement of Faith) In doing so, I found myself for the first time connecting to the Divine, truly connecting. I began receiving guidance, support, and feeling some semblance of peace—even though not much had changed on the surface.
But by experiencing the lows that life has to offer, I was finally able to appreciate and celebrate the highs as well. By being confronted with seemingly unanswerable, unresolvable, and difficult challenges, I had to confront myself. I slowly and painstakingly emerged wiser, truer, and stronger. I began to truly live by what previously to me had only been abstract concepts, although I hadn’t known how abstract they were to me until I started embracing them more in daily life. I’m talking about concepts like faith, love, acceptance, positivity, forgiveness, gratitude.
I also slowly discovered the internal strength and power to do what was right for me, while still maintaining my responsibility to my children, instead of constantly deferring to other people’s desires and expectations.
Once I was open to Divine guidance, answers started pouring in, although they were not the same answers I had been hoping for and working toward all those years. The first major change was taking Gracie to residential treatment.
Taking Gracie to live in residential treatment was the hardest act of my life. In treatment, they wrap her up in a warm and environmentally tight cocoon, tighter than can be created in any family no matter how skilled or loving. This tight cocoon of structure makes her feel safe, which was what she needed in order to learn and grow.
Today, she is doing better in every single way than ever before. I am still very much involved in her life. We visit with each other and have regular phone calls and video calls. There is also regular interaction with her team of mental health professionals. It is certainly not the mother-daughter relationship that I envisioned during that plane ride home from Russia, but I have accepted that it is what is best for us. For now.
Gracie leaving home was only the first of major life changes. After 21 years of marriage, my husband and I divorced. My boys left for college, leaving me an empty-nester. I sold my home and moved across the country to Boulder, Colorado, to which I was drawn more by intuition than by logical considerations. Through it all, I was guided, supported, and encouraged by my ever-strengthening faith.
With my newfound perspective, I now realize that there is a higher Universal plan in place that makes perfect sense even if I cannot understand it. My job is always to keep my thoughts optimistic, always keep the Divine in mind, and do the best I can in any given moment.
So, here I am, at the beginning of what I view as the second half of my life, figuratively if not literally.
The wiser “me” of today looks back at the woman and mother I was then during those hey-day years when the situation was toughest. If I had known then what I know now, I would have done many things differently. Yet, I try do not to allow myself to dwell in regret; I try to view my former self with compassion. After all, I was doing the best I could at the time with the knowledge and resources I had. As is everyone at any given time.
Looking back, I have journeyed thousands of literal and figurative miles on behalf on my children. I have learned much about topics of importance to parents of special needs kids. You name it, I can probably discuss it, maybe have even tried it: mental health and diagnoses, developmental disabilities, trauma, special education, traditional therapies, alternative therapies, parent advocacy, medications. But as any parent in the trenches knows, those are the easier—not easy—pieces of it all, the surface details if you will.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m not some enlightened person who can maintain a sense of calm and tranquility no matter what. I’m still learning, big-time. I still have times where something catches me off-guard, the moment spins out of control in a nanosecond, and after the dust settles, hours or days later, I’m left scratching my head wondering what happened. But over the years, out of necessity, I have traveled a long way on my own personal growth journey. I am grateful to Gracie for that, because I am a much different, much better person now than I ever would have been without her.
I like to think all my experiences have given me some wisdom that others might find inspiring. I am passionate about passing it along. I yearn to be the kind of person that I needed in my own life years ago, but never found.
I invite you to join me as we continue upon our respective journeys. I hope our relationship can be beneficial and healing for you, your children, your entire family.
Last updated: Feb. 2018