My battle with attachment after adoption


Over the years, I’ve written many articles about adoption. Those articles have often taken a passionate stance for the orphan, especially those whom experts dub the “functional orphan,” ones who may technically have a parent somewhere but remain unparented and empty. My passion is  twofold. The first is practical, in that if we as pro-lifers are successful, we will be left with 3500 orphans a day. I’m not okay with that.

But my second reason is personal, a story I only shared publicly for the first time on Orphan Sunday, and which I share here now because I am learning my story is less uncommon than I thought, despite my unique circumstances. I’m learning that as a group of pro-lifers, unless we are prepared to deal with the reality of the problems that may come our way, we will have little reason to argue against abortion, for we must be willing to nurture and love, at personal sacrifice, what we claim should not die.

My story begins in a manger in Bethlehem, but that’s where most of the similarity with a more famous Bethlehem manger birth ends. I was an orphan, abandoned on the city streets. There I was found and taken to the Holy Family Hospital, which calls itself The Crèche, another word for manger.  When I would speak publicly about my story, saying I was born in a manger in Bethlehem was a captivating opening line– a lighthearted quip, masking the darkness on the other side of that adoption, my dark secret.

It’s that side people today need to understand, both to reduce the fear of adopting “unknown” kids as well as to empower them to deal with it and eschew the internet horror stories, which are often written by people who overgeneralize.

My mom died with the secret of how she acquired me, the lies on my adoption papers, and her real reasons for taking me.  I was likely a child to an unwed Palestinian woman. I was found in the West Bank/Gaza Strip, the wrong side of the tracks from birth. I don’t know if I was left literally on the street or left on the doorstep of the hospital/orphanage like a cheesy orphan movie, but Fr. Emil, the head of the court that facilitated my adoption simply said in 2011, “you were collected from the street.”

My adoption papers, which call me “Catherine,” say, “The name and whereabouts of Catherine’s father are completely unknown.” I didn’t believe that for a long time. In 2011 the court officials, the Latin Patriarchate in Jordan, told me they likely lied to push the adoption through. At 6 months old my adoption was complete and I went home with her, in Jerusalem.

And never, ever in my life, not one day, did I feel loved.

If you have children, you know what happens with newborns. They cry: they get fed; they get held. You stare in each other’s eyes and fall in love. Parents bond. Children attach. The first few months of  babies lives with their parents are probably some of the most precious. That bonding/attachment happens at the deepest level then.

The first 6 months of my life my mom apparently came to visit me, but not enough to establish a primary connection. Whether or not the frequency of her visits was her fault or not is irrelevant; the only question was, to whom did I attach? I wasn’t abused that I know of. I have no information on my in-utero development. Science tells us that matters. Palestinian culture tells us a woman pregnant out of wedlock may be killed to avenge family honor. All I know is I never attached to a primary caregiver, and it made life difficult.

Usually the stories are about crack addicts and promiscuity. Kids with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) who never get a family, never get to attach in the right ways, seeking all the wrong ways, doomed to destruction. Your local prison population houses many poorly attached folks. Few adults really live well enough to analyze it, to overcome it. Some of us make it, but the ache lingers, indescribable.

My life was a tale of trying to fill a hole. I grew up wild and free, did anything I wanted to, dropped out of almost every year of school and conned my way into the next year (except 7th grade where they had truant officers). I shoplifted from Sears at 14, got arrested, thrown in juvenile hall because no one could come get me from the police station, started smoking then—a habit which continued to over a decade until I had a vision of Jesus and never smoked again.

In between were a couple homeless shelters and drug overdoses, not because I wanted to die, but I wanted to live and didn’t know how. I was kicked out of my conservative church at 13 for being too wild, and took a proficiency test at 15 to get done with high school so I would stop getting beat up by bullies. In college at 15, I dabbled in everything that looked interesting. It’s how I lived all of my life. I floated until something looked good, then honed in like a hunter finding her prey. I’d take anything that would satisfy for a season, whether school or work or friends or food. But if that something looked like a mom, then my life was reordered because maybe she would love me, want me, emotionally adopt me. Maybe then, the torment would end. Maybe then I would be safe.

I’m not unlike many adopted late or to families who didn’t know how to love them. Most of us never had words for it; no one would talk about it. When I was growing up, people said adoption screws you up. Lots of adoptees I knew were a mess in all the ways we describe someone as messy, from anger to rebellion to drug abuse to promiscuity.

I grew up with the idea that adoption was bad. At 15, I was against adoption. I just knew a bunch a screwed up kids. We were adopted; we were a mess. Therefore, adoption was bad. As a syllogism it failed. In my broken mind, it was the only answer I had. My own adoption had cost me a family, something from which I never recovered. I wanted to, but my brain and my heart could never connect. Attachment, the joy of the parent-child relationship, seemed my curse. The truth is, adoption is good, adopting kids with attachment issues is really good, but it must be informed and deliberate because adoptive parents need to address the holes. The prognosis is good when it’s addressed, even in older adoptees.

When you aren’t attached to anyone you never feel safe. I could handle not having a family like all the kids I knew, but I couldn’t handle the hole that seemed to be hollowed out inside me. It’s the worst kind of orphan mentality because it feels floundering, detached from everything, a state of living so vulnerably that the only survival mode is to erect permanent walls because anything that flies by might hit you. Might kill you.

And ironically, while I couldn’t attach, detaching was easy. I could make anything disappear if it was out of sight.  With attachment disorders the actual part of the brain affected is the orbital prefrontal cortex That is the part that regulates images. Faces. There is a phrase I use a lot: Faces and voices. Without consistent faces and voices, it was easy to make things go away. Unfortunately, that also meant I could never internalize the good. Later I met people who loved me, who expressed it, but unless they were reminding me often, it faded. Every time I saw them again, I needed them to speak first, needed to be sure they had not changed their mind. Internalization was my greatest desire and more elusive than a unicorn.

Nothing I could ever explain helped anyone to understand. I am highly educated; I spent years writing and speaking publicly, but I couldn’t explain what it felt like to be in a prison of RAD. I got a lot of canned answers the few times I did tell. “You need to attach to Jesus,” some said, conveniently ignoring the part of the Bible where God says it’s not good for man to be alone—before there was any record of sin. So the religious comments didn’t work. “You need to make a decision to act in spite of your feelings” said the amateur psychologists. They didn’t understand it was beyond feelings. It was more like cancer, destroying cells that give life; it was like telling me to out-will cancer.

Theoretically, a child at 6 months could pretty easily attach to a single caregiver once adopted. Why that didn’t happen is not clear, but my mom wasn’t affectionate or loving, not ever; she simply didn’t know how to be, and we had no resources. I have no memories of her looking me in the eyes with love, of embracing me, of tenderness. So the only conclusion I can offer as grown-up-Susan is that I went from multiple caregivers in the orphanage setting, who probably were very good to me, helping my mind stabilize to some degree as an infant, to one caregiver who didn’t give care. This happens often with foster children who arrive to homes this way.

At first when I learned more about attachment and even had a professional confirm it, I told others thinking that this would help them understand. What ensued was one of two things. I’m still not sure which was worse. Either people got scared and suddenly pulled away and/or passed me along—or they tried to deliver me from some demonic power. And because I wanted to be wanted, I didn’t chase the former—and I always gave into the latter. A friend once likened me to an abused wife, who kept going back for more out of a desperate need to be loved. He was probably accurate in his assessment, and my intelligence told me to stop. But my heart I was captive to a curse. I knew nothing else.

This is the (preventable) story of so many orphans, unidentified, labeled as difficult, and research tells us, often mistaken for having ADHD. It’s the story of the somewhat trendy phase of adoption that glamorizes the sweet baby, but forgets the older child. And it’s probably the story of many of the 100,000 plus kids in foster care today who need to be adopted. It’s a hard story. We like simple answers. Pithy tweets make us feel profound. But the fact is that there isn’t an easy answer for these kids, whether they are victims in the womb, or they are traumatized by life after that, from badly screened adoptions, bumping from foster home to foster home, or simply from those who don’t understand.

If being pro-life is being pro-child, then we have to recognize that in a fractured society where thousands exist as at least functional orphans that many will have issues with attachment and their lives matter. Some will have problems with it, and some, like me, will have RAD and believe they are not worth fighting for. For multitudes of kids, they are aware they are not the first choice, not the one people want because maybe they have a notation of “Reactive Attachment Disorder” in their files. Or perhaps worse, there is no notion since it often goes undiagnosed, and then stunned parents feel trapped, or worse yet, send a child back. None of this furthers the reality of being pro-life. We must walk out of fear and into the hearts of these children.

I don’t know what it feels like to be connected in a familial way, though I have some dear friends. It’s an odd, unanchored feeling, but beyond that it is a feeling, a mission, if you will, that I must help fight for others who can be rescued as children. If we are pro-life, we must stop passing around children, stop rejecting the ones with problems too difficult for us, stop valuing our lives over theirs and jump in with our eyes wide open. Thousands of kids need us–they need to attach to us so they can see the value of their lives, and, in turn, see the value of life so one day we will have an answer to the classic pro-choice question:

What are you going to do with all the kids who are born?

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