|Photo by Robert S. Donovan via Flickr
I am an adopted person, which means I was once an adopted child—which in turn means that I was separated from my original family. I was without any family at all for several months of my life. I am also a mother.
These experiences are the lens through which I viewed a recent video on HuffPost Live in which four adults who describe themselves as “adoptive parents” discussed the “reactive attachment disorder,” aka RAD, of the children in their care.
The segment begins with Nancy Thomas, who I discovered is well known for her wrong-headed thinking on RAD. She helped her daughter deal with attachment issues by appearing with her in an HBO documentary. She calls herself a “therapeutic parenting specialist,” though it’s not clear whether she’s had any more training than I have in this area. She comments that RAD kids are “affectionate with strangers but not with their mothers,” conveniently ignoring the fact that the so-called “mothers” are, in fact, strangers to these children.
Next up is Tiffany Junker, a documentary filmmaker who, naturally, featured her adopted daughter in a film on RAD. Because exposing the child’s difficulties to the general public and preserving them forever on film can’t hurt, right? And I’m sure the time spent on making the film didn't adversely impact the child’s “therapy” in any way.
The real gem of this HuffPo production is Eric Kinzel, who says the child formerly in his care (I won’t call her his daughter) “made no strides to heal” during the four years she lived in his home. He blames her behavioral issues on her heartbreaking early years (before he took her in), says she was once labeled as a “potential psychopath,” and talks about her defecating herself. All of this preserved forever, thanks to the magic of the internet. Eventually, he and his wife “gave up” (his words) and sent her out of their home, separating her from her own biological brother. She was “almost four” when they adopted her, which puts her at around eight years old when she’s kicked out.
(My eight-year-old gets cranky, breaks rules, and throws tantrums when I’m busy for a few weeks on an editing project. Maybe she’s borderline RAD.)
Last to appear in this horrific, vile video meant to appear as journalism when it’s actually an example of a media outlet being used as a marketing platform is Tina Traster. Thankfully, she’s not on long, though she manages to point out that the eight-month-old baby she adopted “defied everything that one would expect from a mother/child relationship.” Defied. At eight months old. By the time she was two, though, Traster knew the girl was messed up because she didn’t bond with the full-time nanny either. Let me say that again—Full. Time. Nanny. For a child who was having difficulty bonding with her new “mother.” Somehow in the midst of struggling to bond with her daughter, Tina Traster managed to write a book about the horrors she’s gone through (so far) in dealing with a RAD-afflicted child. She (lengthily) describes the book here on a site by the same name.
I wonder—don’t you?—how the children described in this video might speak about their experiences. I suspect they might have a very different take on RAD than their caregivers. Adoptee and author Matthew Salesses—likewise untrained in any type of psychotherapy—thinks so, too. He’s imagined how Traster’s book description might be written from the viewpoint of the adopted child. It might sound something like this:
Rescuing Tina Traster
Maddox and Zahara make it look easy. Their famous parents adopt kids from all corners of the world and the media broadcasts images of perfect Kodak moments. They’d have you believing families bond and blend instantaneously.
They don’t. Not always. Not in my experience, or in the experience of many others. Sometimes the road to “loving” your adoptive mother is long and twisted and scary. You know something is wrong—but is it her? Is it you? You drown in shame and confusion, hiding your feelings from the world. It can’t possibly be that some strange woman has come from the other end of the world to take you away from your home and she expects you to be bonded after a month, six months, two years.
I knew something wasn’t right early on. The stranger adopted me from a Siberian orphanage in February 2003. She kept trying to clutch to me or gaze in my eye. She wanted me to rest my head on her shoulder or embrace her. I tried to ignore her singing and reading in her strange language. I wished she wasn’t there, but she was.
For a while, weeks, maybe months, I sank deeper and deeper into depression, thinking she’d made a terrible mistake. Maybe she wasn’t cut out to be a mother?
The stranger was a little more patient with her husband, but only somewhat. For the first 10 months, I suffered guilt, shame and sadness. After traveling 10,000 miles, taken by this stranger, I was unwilling to let anyone know how I really felt. Then the “revelations” began. The stranger hired a day-time nanny in early 2004. Anna was 21, “experienced” and energetic. She’d come with a glowing review from the mother of her last charges. When she mentioned I was having trouble warming up to her, the stranger got angry with me. Why? Why did she think I wasn’t connecting to another complete stranger who took me daily to strange places, to forced interactions, to “mommy-and-me” classes. She thought for sure that Anna might be able to give me what she couldn’t.
A year later, the stranger enrolled me in preschool, and saw only what she wanted to see: a child who was not “bonding” with teachers or other children. I was as much an enigma to other strangers as I was to her. Everyone treated me as different and tried to put me in a box.
So of course, I was aloof, hard to figure out. When the stranger picked me up at the end of the day, I was always by myself, sometimes sitting under a desk, but she didn’t sympathize, she worried. She told my pediatrician I was behaving oddly. That was the first time she got an excuse: “Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).” The doctor, who worked with “foreign” adoptees, explained RAD was common among “institutionalized” children. The early break from birth mothers causes trauma that makes it difficult for the child to trust or attach to another adult. Duh. This, he explained, is a disease? Is why I recoil when I am held? Why I don’t have a favorite teddy? Why I won’t make eye contact?
The stranger was ready to hear this. She told herself we just need more time. She stored the doctor’s excuse in the back of her mind, but pieces of it drifted out now when she watched me try to stay awake like all kids do and wander away to explore like all kids do. Finally, when I was four, she made me face her demons. It was during a nursery school recital that she broke down and sobbed, despite how lonely and displaced and isolated I was. I didn’t want to sing along with the group. My teacher forced me off the stage and out of the room. This may sound like terrible teaching—but “put in context,” the stranger believed this was my fault and she needed to “intervene.”
Her husband and she banded together against me, reading everything they could on “the syndrome.” They made a dogged effort and a conscious commitment to “help” me and make us into a family. It was their daily work. They believed that parenting a child who has trouble bonding requires counter-intuitive parenting instincts—even if those instincts disturbed and surprised family and friends. Of course others could not understand that they’d respond to my desire for love with a passive poker face rather than giving me love. They’d laugh during my tantrums until I gave up and learned to pretend as though nothing had happened. They didn’t understand when I wanted a hug or not, so they didn’t ask me to do so. With the help of “research” and “case studies,” they had a tool box. They kept trying different advice. They kept trying different techniques. We were living inside a laboratory. The stranger was lucky to have a partner like Ricky because he would agree that so many marriages and homes are ravaged by the challenge of adopting difficult children.
Over time, there was more “engagement” with me. It wasn’t loving and warm but they said it was moving in the right direction. They were wearing me down. I became more capable of showing anger rather than indifference, which they took as a good sign. As my English skills developed, they had the advantage of language.
Hiding my pain took time—and the work of staying bonded with a wounding parent is a life-time endeavor. That’s okay though, because at least I have stepped out of the danger zone. I’ve put on a different helmet and armor. I have let the stranger believe she is my mother. And I keep that trust by struggling, each and every day, with her subconscious demons, and by remembering how mighty her battle is and will always be.
Guest contributor Matthew Salesses was adopted from Korea at age two. He is the author of Different Racisms and I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying. Follow him @salesses.
For better information on RAD, this Report of the APSAC Task Force on Attachment Therapy, Reactive Attachment Disorder, and Attachment Problems from 2006 may be helpful.