Journalist Tina Traster has written Rescuing Julia Twice, a candid and poignant memoir about adopting a baby from a Siberian orphanage and slowly coming to terms with the realization that the child has Reactive Attachment Disorder. The following excerpt is being run with permission from Tina Traster:
Chapter 21 of Rescuing Julia Twice
My hands hover over the computer keyboard. They are trembling. I hold down the shift key and type the letters “RAD.” Before I can bear to look at the search findings, I quickly tap the backspace key and erase the letters. I close my eyes and draw a deep breath. I have been tested many times in my life. I possess a profound inner strength, and I am even stronger because of the love I receive from Ricky. I type again, this time spelling it with intention, saying each letter aloud: “R-e-a-c-t-i-v-e A-t-t-a-c-h-m-e-n-t D-i-s-o-r-d-e-r.” Speaking the words makes them real. Reactive Attachment Disorder. The first step breaks inertia’s deadly chokehold.
The words “Reactive Attachment Disorder” are memory beads I gather into a pile and attempt to string along on a necklace. I think back to that first time I heard Barbara’s husband mention it in Siberia when Barbara was in the midst of a meltdown I couldn’t understand. She was afraid her baby would have trouble bonding. Her husband had told Ricky and me that Barbara thought Brandon might have Reactive Attachment Disorder because he wasn’t making eye contact.
Not long after, Judith, my neighbor who is a psychiatrist, offhandedly threw out the term the first time she met Julia. We were talking about babies who start their lives in orphanages, and she mentioned the disorder. She wasn’t suggesting that Julia showed any signs, but she’d said it was a well-known problem with children who’d been adopted from Romanian orphanages in the ’80s and ’90s. I remember nodding my head and thinking, We got Julia young. It shouldn’t be an issue. Shut up, Judith. Go home!
Then, when I raised concerns with Dr. Traister about Julia’s elusive but controlling behavior when she was a toddler, he also mentioned Reactive Attachment Disorder. Did I want a referral to a therapist, he wanted to know. No, I wanted to be like the other mothers sitting in his waiting room, worrying about a sniffle. Now I remember something he said: The signs of Reactive Attachment Disorder usually reveal themselves fully when a child reaches five or six years old and they start having trouble in school settings.
But Natalia Higier, that canary in the mineshaft, that ghost of Christmas past, she’s the one who reached out from the television in her jailhouse jumpsuit and put her hands around my neck and said, Get help now, before it’s too late for your child and for you. Before you end up like me.
When is it too late for a relationship to establish or to reestablish? When I married the first time, at twenty-six years old, I believed in unconditional love. I really did. I assumed my mother would always love and adore me, and I thought the same about my first husband. I thought I’d always reciprocate their love. Divorce altered my thinking. I called it “my mental apocalypse” because it brought a cleaver down on just about everything I had once believed. I did not love the man I’d married, and he didn’t love me. Love was finite. Even more shocking was that my mother and I seemed to stop loving one another. At first I thought it was going to be a temporary bad spell, but our relationship kept dete- riorating. Now it barely exists. A mother’s love, badly broken, may be beyond repair. Am I in that situation with my daughter? She was cut off at birth from nurture and love. There was no one there to soothe her. Just because I want to love her doesn’t mean she’ll let me—or let anyone. But I will do everything I can to make love happen between Julia and me.
I retrain my eyes on the computer screen. There are scores of hits on “Reactive Attachment Disorder.” I could scroll for days and there would still be things to read. I click through to the Mayo Clinic website. It says, “Reactive Attachment Disorder is a rare but serious condition in which infants and young children don’t establish healthy bonds with parents or caregivers. A child with Reactive Attachment Disorder is typically neglected, abused, or orphaned. Reactive Attachment Disorder devel- ops because the child’s basic needs for comfort, affection, and nurturing aren’t met, and loving, caring attachments with others are never estab- lished. This may permanently change the child’s growing brain, hurting the ability to establish future relationships.”
I read the paragraph twice, then a third time. Can Reactive Attachment Disorder be treated? Can it go away?
I’m remembering something. When the adoption agency sent us Julia’s grainy video, the counselor repeatedly used the phrase “she’s an orphanage favorite.” When I asked what that meant, she said that because Julia was especially beautiful and animated, she enjoyed special attention from her caregivers. “This is a good thing,” she’d assured me. What she was really saying, in code—not that I realized it at the time—was that Julia was more likely to bond with adoptive parents because she was accustomed to attention and affection. It would have been better if the counselor had asked me if I understood the risks of adopting a child who’d begun life in an orphanage. I rub my temples. Another memory floats up. The fleshy babushka caregiver in the orphanage bouncing and coddling Julia in her arms while smiling slyly at me. She said something to Olga. Olga translated: “They will miss her. She’s a favorite.” I didn’t pick up on how Olga in Siberia and my adoption counselor in North Carolina happened to use the same phrase. At the time the comment made me happy. She is a “favorite!” Now I whisper, “Bullshit.” It’s a game.
I go back to the page. This is what it says: “The core feature [of Reactive Attachment Disorder] is severely inappropriate social relating which can manifest in two ways:
“1. Indiscriminate and excessive attempts to receive comfort and affection from any available adult, even relative strangers. 2. Extreme reluctance to initiate or accept comfort and affection, even from familiar adults, especially when distressed.”
Bingo! I’ve often seen this behavior in Julia: she wants to be in control, and she’s more interested in manipulating than in truly relating. In public, Julia is the waving beauty queen, the mayor of wherever, the cheerful, friendly, squeezable, adorable mascot. She runs to adult strangers, hugs them, works the room. She solicits their attention and wraps them around her tiny, agile fingers. She’s good at it. As for children, she shows little interest in them.
Strangers or fleeting caretakers tell me I have the most adorable, delicious, precocious, confident child. Some say she’s the most adorable, delicious, precocious, confident child they’ve ever encountered. I nod and smile and pretend to share their sentiment. I keep my knowing mother thoughts to myself. How can I explain to a stranger that at home this child is distant, elusive, emotionally closed off, and defiant? What stranger will not say, or at least think silently, Really? I don’t see that. It must be you because she’s not like that with me.
I keep reading. Page after page, document after document. I’m so engrossed I can’t leave my seat and go to the bathroom. My backside has gone numb. I let all phone calls go to voicemail. The documents mimic one another. In nearly all, there’s a list of behaviors RAD children display. Like anyone who has ever had a persistent stomachache or something similar, there’s an urge to type in symptoms and self- diagnose on the Internet. By the time you’ve typed in your symptoms, you could have anything from a bug to cancer, so you learn to resist this exercise.
But the list I’m looking at is uncanny. If I had been asked to describe Julia, this is the list I would have come up with independently. The child is “Superficially charming and engaging, particularly among strangers she feels she can manipulate.” I’m thinking about the swim instructor at the Y who felt compelled to take Julia for a bathroom run twice during every one of her thirty-minute weekly swim lessons even though we had told the instructor time and again that Julia had been to the bathroom before the group lesson.
Next, the lists say the child “doesn’t have close friends.” One day, Ricky saw I was trying to play “dolls” with Julia, but I couldn’t get her to role-play. He’d casually said, “Maybe she doesn’t know how to play with someone else.” At the time I said, “hmmm,” and thought it must be me. Maybe I didn’t have my heart in it, and Julia sensed it. I realize now it was a brilliant observation. Julia can keep herself entertained, perhaps longer than a “normal” four-year-old, but the only way she can “play” with someone else is to direct or orchestrate. It is never give-and- take, never back-and-forth. It’s why Barbara freaked out when Brandon wouldn’t play peek-a-boo. She knew what to look for.
“Doesn’t make eye contact. Has a severe need to control everything and everyone. Is hypervigilant. Is hyperactive. Is lazy performing tasks. Has trouble understanding cause and effect. Has poor impulse control. Chatters incessantly.” Uncanny!
I’m often asked by a teacher or babysitter, “Does she ever stop talking?” I smile a Botox smile because they think Julia is simply a chatty, precocious child. But it’s not like that. She chatters from the moment she wakes to the moment sleep steals her from her worn-out vocal chords. She chatters incessantly at the table, in the car, while she’s playing. She escalates the chatter when Ricky and I start to have a conversation or when the phone rings and I answer it. She uses the chatter to control her environment.
Ricky has a theory about it. He thinks Julia chatters constantly to soothe herself, to make herself feel present. He thinks silence and stillness scare her because she’s afraid of her internal thoughts. Afraid to be, not by herself, but with herself. This is a fascinating theory because it reminds me of my mother, who also has the need to manufacture noise because she too fears her inner world.
The problem with living with the endless loop of chatter is that it’s hypnotic. Sometimes it even makes me sleepy. I’m not kidding. But also I’ve learned to tune it out so if and when there is a moment of lucid substance, there’s a decent chance I’ll miss it. Ironically, or maybe not so ironically, when Ricky and I try to have a pointed conversation with Julia, she will say “What? What?” She averts her eyes. She pretends not to hear the question. She turns the exchange into a power play.
Thwack. The mail truck has come. I push myself back from the desk and grab my keys. The white light of the near-summer sun makes me squint. A row of purple irises are abloom. I stick my nose into the fancy flower. They smell like bubble gum. It’s hard to be pessimistic when roses are climbing the fence and a rabbit nips at the fringes of your vegetable garden. I grab the wad of mail and head back to the house.
I return to the list on my screen. So far the first eighteen traits are a perfect match. But then I see other characteristics that absolutely don’t describe Julia. She is not “cruel to animals.” She has not shown any “fascination with fire, blood, and gore or an interest in weapons.” She is not “self-destructive,” and even though she does not take care of her possessions herself and she does not show any affection or pride of ownership for a favorite toy or teddy bear, she’s not intentionally destructive in our house. Nobody has suspected she has any “developmental or learning delays” and she doesn’t “steal or lie.”
My head is spinning. I reach for the phone. “You busy?”
“I’ve spent the last three hours reading up on Reactive Attachment Disorder.”
“There’s a ton of information about this on the Internet. A ton. It’s overwhelming.”
“What did you find?”
“Well, there are several sites on RAD. Each site lists characteristics of children with RAD, and what I’d say is that most of the descriptions on the lists really describe Julia to a T.”
“Okay. Let me read this to you.”
I go down the list, reading slowly, one trait at a time. When I finish he emits a heavy breath.
“What do you think?” I ask.
“I don’t know what to think. Like you said, it sounds like a list we could have made.”
“I know,” I say. “On one hand, it’s upsetting. But on the other, I feel a weird sort of comfort. Like, it’s not my fault. There’s a reason things are as they are.”
I tell Ricky the research says young children who were cut off from their mothers early in their lives display these kinds of behaviors because they instantly learn the world is a cold, untrustworthy, uncaring place, even if they’ve had a caregiver. They feel like this because most of their urgent needs either had to wait or were never met.
“So now what?” he asks.
“I don’t know. I think we should read what I’ve found on the Internet together, tonight. I’ll print out a bunch of stuff. And then, maybe on Friday night instead of a movie, we should head to the bookstore and see what we can find.”
“Sounds like a good plan. Talk to you later.”
I glance at the clock. It’s 2:00 pm. I have three hours before Julia needs to be picked up at school. I must process some of this. I walk upstairs to my bedroom and gather my swim gear. I will drive to the Y. Before I head downstairs, I go into Julia’s room. My eyes travel along the bookshelves, which are lined with tattered picture books and framed pictures of Julia. I run my hand along the shelf to fix a frame that’s toppled over and feel something obstructing it. I reach a bit further and clasp something leathery. I lift it up. It’s one of her white, worn baby shoes with the multicolored shoelace holes. I clutch the shoe against my heart and sob.
I slice through the cool water. My body feels more vulnerable because my heart is hurting. But the determination of pumping blood, of going back and forth until thirty minutes elapses, of fighting for breath, reminds me that life is always a struggle. But I push past discomfort. I focus on one thing only. I can make change. This is my child. I’m all she has. I have to make love happen between Julia and me.
Tina Traster is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in scores of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including the New York Times, New York Post, Time Out New York, the Daily Beast, Huffington Post, Family Circle, Parade, Audubon, and many more.
The above excerpt is from Tina Traster’s new book Rescuing Julia Twice.
Portrait of an Adoption is hosted by Carrie Goldman, the award-winning author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.