2011 has been a testing year in the Donovan household. So much so that by the middle of December I found myself contemplating whether I had the mental fortitude to survive another week with my traumatised children, let alone another eight years. And the prospect of Christmas was hanging over me like a threat.
I spent a day wallowing in self-pity and grief for what might have been. I dreamt of getting on to a plane, starting a new and simple life somewhere in the wilderness.
Sometimes it takes a catastrophic meltdown for me to realise that I need help. So the following day, quivery voiced, I rang Mr R, our therapist who deals with all things trauma and attachment. It was the day before the schools were about the break up for christmas. He agreed to come the following day. I rang off and cried again.
When he arrived I reeled off the problems from a crib sheet which Rob and I had prepared the night before.
‘Jamie won’t do anything we ask him to do, won’t get out of bed, get dressed, get washed, anything, it’s all a battle. He has constant and unrealistic demands which we can’t meet. And if he hears ‘no’ he becomes uncontrollable. He fronts up to us constantly. He’s abusive, threatening, physically destructive. It feels like we don’t have any good times anymore. And none of the old methods work.’
Mr R is a man whose mind races ahead at speed and I could tell he was getting itchy listening to me. I could also tell that he was relieved I didn’t cry.
We talked about how the landscape around Jamie has shifted, his recent start at secondary school and about his friend and role model Michael, also adopted. To cut a long story short, Michael had been experiencing such extreme anger that the resulting violence had caused my friend Clare and her husband, his adoptive parents, to put him into care, for everybody’s protection.
I described a strutting and swaggering in Jamie which I hadn’t noticed before, an untouchability. He was becoming uncontrollable and at eleven years old, I was fearing for how I was going to cope with him as a big, strapping teenager. I had started to project an uncomfortable future for us all.
Luckily Mr R has the knack of getting straight to the heart of he matter.
‘Do you think that Jamie is worried that his anger is going to take him on the same path as his friend Michael, into care?’
‘Do you think his anger is coming from shame?’
‘Yes. He told me recently he must have been an annoying baby to have deserved to have been beaten.’
‘What did you say to that?’
‘We talked about babies we know and Jamie thought they would not deserve to be hit.’
‘OK so he gets it intellectually. But he probably doesn’t really get it, deep inside.’
‘You have to find the right times to reach that shame and blame. Remember to say what you see. Try starting with ‘I think I’ve worked out that getting angry isn’t about me, I’m slow aren’t I?’. And be more direct about Michael. Don’t be afraid to say ‘I see you are not Michael, but maybe you think you are’ and ‘what might happen if your anger takes you over? Who would I phone? How do you think things would change around here? I guess we’d have to get some special help and work it out’. Jamie’s fears are projecting him ahead so you need to project with him and show him that things could go differently.’
A few days into the christmas holidays the opportunity to talk with Jamie arose. He made some surprising revelations. He had locked things away in his head and a pressure was building up inside. He agreed that we needed to try to open up the boxes a little and have a look inside. He thought this might help to stop the angry feelings because he was sure they were coming from the boxes. We talked until he suddenly said ‘stop, I’ve had enough now’. Then we drank hot chocolate and ate mince pies.
His behaviour became worse for several days. Play dates were cancelled, in as therapeutic, non-blaming way as I could muster. Then four days before christmas he woke up after a long sleep and he looked different. It was as though his face had a light behind it and his body had lost the swaggering body language. We managed a trip to the cinema with a friend. It was successful.
We talked about how we could handle the stresses of socialising over christmas. We agreed on some secret signs and some escape routes.
At last it feels as though we are battling this shame thing together. Christmas, bar a couple of minor meltdowns, was peaceful and happy. No longer engaged in constant battles, Rob and I now have energy to spare and have been able to reach out to our children much more. Jamie and Rose have enjoyed beating me at Plants vs Zombies (‘you are so rubbish Mum, shrooms only work in the dark’). Jamie and Rob are playing Call of Duty together on the new X-Box (‘cover me Dad, while I reload’). I know that there are no easy solutions when you are parenting traumatised children, but I feel positive about 2012. And my new year’s resolution? To seek help when I need it.