It has been two years since we brought our foster daughter her Cinderella costume at the mental health hospital.
She was trapped in the facility where she spent four months being “snowed” (a term insiders use as code for the state of over-medicated kids). Children in foster care have seemingly endless access to facilities, group homes, hospitals and drugs.
M was thrilled by the costume that trailed glitter every time you touched it, but on Halloween when we came to visit her we found her face painted as if in some sick joke. The meds gave M’s pretty face deep, dark circles. The staff exaggerated those circles with paint making her a zombie Cinderella. M was too disturbed to care. Only days before she’d been told her mother had given up her rights and would never see her again and her sisters were going to be adopted.
As a zombie, M spotted my daughter and me from across the sparsely decorated visitors’ wing. She cursed us, called us bitches and told us she never wanted to see us again. When we left we were almost relieved. Maybe she really meant it. Maybe this experiment in foster care was over. M called that night (after processing her anger in the padded room). She apologized and begged for us to return the next day.
So much has changed since those early days when an invisible force kept nudging us to stay connected. So many layers have been peeled back, and, with each layer, new and sometimes ugly revelations and behaviors emerge. Kids who’ve been abused to her extent often take their anger out on the mother figures in their new homes. Many women report having suicidal thoughts after adopting extremely abused children (not there yet).
Survival for kids who have been hurt before the age of two, before real words to name their abuse, suffer from fears that make no sense—even to them. An Irish fishermen sweater may have the texture of a blanket in a child’s crib. How does a toddler understand the time her mother fractured her tiny sister’s skull and broke her clavicle before throwing her into your crib? Stress and neglect damage the brain.
This year has been tough. Loving a low-functioning kid with bizarre survival skills is loving a dog who keeps biting you. Yeah, they’re cute but you have to wonder if you’re a little crazy too. Luckily this kid is only verbally abusive—and it’s more a constant need to control me. It’s like being locked in a bubble with a crazy person. She wants help yet she’ll fight for three hours (if you let her) insisting 3+3=7. We have to keep an alarm on her door now because she threatened committing suicide with kitchen knives. Once we got to the hospital (because as foster parents we must bring kids in for evaluation after suicidal talk), M ordered some food, flipped on the TV and admitted she was just angry at me for not letting her date (tests say she’s functioning at between 3 and 7 years old mentally).
While there’s a whole host of more important issues to deal with, the one that drives my husband and I crazy is her Cinderella dress from two years ago. The experts say to pick your battles, so we let her dress in the torn, too small dress over her play clothes after school. She gathers a bunch of toys, rocks and pieces of string into a bag, hops on her bike and parks it a ¼ of a mile down the road where it curves around a neighboring cow farm. She practices cheering imaginary teams with her tiara tilted on her head. On ninety degree days she wears the princess outfit, 7 scarves and a Shrek-like furry vest someone gave her at the group home. M thinks it’s fashionable.
Last week our son’s friend drove to the house. “I almost hit some crazy person in a crown blowing bubbles in the middle of the road!”
“Yeah, that’s my sister,” our son replied.
We’ve considered throwing away this costume so many times but it’s so important to her we haven’t had the heart. We’ve considered keeping her on a tighter rein but she’s finally not afraid to be out in nature on her bicycle. We’ve considered cutting our losses.
This weekend she came to apologize to me yet again for picking a fight. She knows she seriously may not be able to stay with us if she can’t begin to follow our safety rules (children of neglect believe they actually do know best about most things).
M stood before me in the open fields waving her arms with emotion. “Yeah, I do take everything out on you! I’m afraid to go to school tomorrow because the dog ate my paper (true) and here’s why I wear the princess costume. You really wanna know?”
“Okay, I guess so,” I replied, waiting for a lame excuse and not really wanting a discussion about fashion.
“So when I wear it, it’s the only time,” she began, her brown eyes welling with tears. “It’s the only time–when I wear the tiara and the dress—that I don’t feel like who I am for real: the ugliest person alive.”
***Photograph Library of Congress