Everything Changed At Nineteen Months

In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the fourth annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days.  Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences. 

By Leslie Kahn

The most common question I was asked about my adopted son was “are you his grandmother?” I was certainly old enough to be his grandmother, but I never saw that question coming, nor many others I was asked.

In 1988, when my husband and I were thirty-four years old, we decided to try to conceive a child. We finally adopted our son at two days old in November, 2000, when we were forty-six years old.

During the ensuing twelve years, we had endured five years of fertility treatments, intramuscular injections, 7:00 a.m. clinic appointments, artificial insemination and the roller coaster ride of ovulation, fertilization, waiting and then the disappointment when no pregnancy occurred.  For five more years, we mourned the loss of the child we couldn’t have.

And then we started the adoption process.  After two years of invasive questions and a lengthy home study plus foster care and adoption classes with two fall-throughs, we picked up our son one winter morning. We were given twenty-four hours notice to get ready for him. His birth family wanted absolutely no contact with us or him, and that remains their position to this day.

The first nineteen months of motherhood were the happiest months of my life. Our son was a very easy infant; he slept well, ate well, didn’t cry much, even when he had a wet or dirty diaper, and he hit all his milestones early; crawling at seven months and walking at nine months.

Virtually overnight, at nineteen months old, my baby started biting, spitting, hitting, throwing things, assaulting us physically, and then verbally, when he learned to talk. We started to see professionals by the time he was two. By age three, he was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder at Tuesday’s Child Treatment Program. At that time, SPD was the “disorder of the month” so we didn’t take the diagnosis all that seriously.

Things didn’t get any better as we dragged our son from one expert to another. We tried prescription medications and cycled through fourteen different drugs, none of which helped for any length of time. We referred to it as throwing a dart at “the pharmaceutical wheel of fortune” which is how it felt every time we saw the psychiatrist.

We had terrible experiences with some of the doctors; one restrained him, called him a “twit” and told us we were bad parents and sent us to parenting class. Another doctor freaked out when our son overturned a cabinet of toys, because he didn’t want to answer her questions, and the last “expert” put his hands around our son’s neck, chocking him and screaming, “get out of my office!”

We eventually realized that our son did, indeed, have severe sensory processing disorder.  We read everything we could on the subject. He also had severe problems with executive functioning, which is the ability to manage oneself. This includes memory, reasoning, flexibility, time, problem solving and planning. Ever so slowly, we began to understand why our child did the bizarre things he did. He overreacted to all sorts of stimuli; we finally realized he had underreacted when he was an infant. Tags in clothing bothered him; he could feel a tiny grain of sand in his shoe; finding clothing he would actually wear was a nightmare; shoe shopping was a “trial by fire.” He had sleep problems, which exacerbated his ability to cope with stresses.

He struggles immensely with transitions, forgets events and people, is unable to acquire  time management skills and has always been extremely rigid. When he makes a decision about something, he never waivers from it, even when circumstances change. He perseverated about having things to the point of obsessive compulsive disorder. When he was four, our three-year-old neighbor got a violin. My son decided he wanted one, also. One day he spent forty-five minutes chanting over and over “I want a violin.” He finally stopped just at the point when I really thought I was going to lose it. He never got one. He also never mentioned it again.

He was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward more than once. As he grew older and bigger, I lost count of how many times I called 911, because we feared for our safety. None of his hospital stays proved at all helpful. During his last hospitalization, the doctor actually asked us what drug we would recommend, since they were at a complete loss as to how to help him. I loved him, but the painful truth is, I didn’t like him, and I resented what he did to me: I became a hysterical, raving lunatic. I’m sure I lost clients; nobody wants a stressed-out massage therapist.

He needed more help.  What could we do? I finally got so desperate that I started calling residential care facilities and even applied to one, even though it would cause us to go into debt. My son overheard me on the phone, trying to get help for him. He started crying and asked me not to send him away. I was honest and told him that things needed to change. Since then, he has made a much bigger effort to control himself.

Thankfully for all of us, he appears to have matured significantly within the last year. The same boy that was unreachable now constantly surprises us in a good way.

It used to be very difficult to get him to shower on a regular basis. We are talking about a teenage boy, here, so the hormones have kicked in, and his room doesn’t exactly smell like roses. Just this morning, he woke up early and took a shower before getting ready for school. This is not how most mornings go. He likes to cut things very fine. His bus picks him up between 8:20am and 8:30am. On a good day, he gets up at 8:10am and is just putting his shoes on when I hear the bus honk. It’s very mind jarring, but most of the time, he gets on the bus and goes to school.

More often than not, he now shrugs off things that used to make him fly into a rage. He really is the perfect American consumer. When he sees a commercial for a product, he wants it and he wants it right now. If we are at a store and he wants something and I tell him no, then he has learned to accept it, and we move on. In the past, it would turn into an argument that became a tantrum that turned into property damage for the store.

He seldom perseverates these days, although every now and then, seemingly out of nowhere, he will revert back to an old obsession with heelys. He had some when he was much younger. They are extremely dangerous. You rarely see them these days. I think he does it to try and be funny. He’s a mischievous, funny kid with a sarcastic sense of humor, just like his parents.

Transitions have always been extremely difficult for him. Even if we were going to a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese where there would be all his favorite things — pizza, cake and ice cream, rides and games — we still could not get him to leave the house. It was exasperating and frustrating. This went on for years and years, but he has improved dramatically within the past year. Now, when I mention it is time to leave the house, he gets ready to go and walks out the door, like a regulated person.

It is a miracle! No more yelling, no more tears!

We still have our moments, but I mostly walk away when he starts getting aggressive or argumentative. He hates when I refuse to interact with him. He’ll typically do what I ask when I remove myself. He is now almost fourteen.

We have had such an unusual parenting experience, with him improving as he hits the teenage years. Most parents have “toddlers from hell” with a big break until they become “teenagers from hell.” We’ve had an impossible child for twelve years who is now, as a teenager, turning into a reasonable human being. I can finally say that I enjoy him these days. It took a long time and a lot of hard work to get to this point.

Leslie Kahn is a culturally Jewish, geriatric massage therapist, married for 35 years to a crazy native Brit. They have an Hispanic/Black teenage son, which makes them their own version of the United Nations. Leslie’s sarcastic, weird sense of humor has kept her moving forward through her parenting journey, by far the most difficult thing she has ever done in her life.  Leslie’s work can be found at http://www.chicagonow.com/soapbox-momma and www.facebook.com/SoapboxMomma

This year’s Adoption Portraits series is filled.  You may send a submission for next year’s series to Carrie Goldman at portraitofanadoption@gmail.com.  Follow Portrait of an Adoption on Twitter and Facebook

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Check out Carrie Goldman’s award-winning book Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear


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