Looking back, it amazes me that the health care officials in charge of this place were so blasé about thrusting an obviously highly traumatized child into my car after a fifteen minute introduction playing Junior Monopoly. As a former fifth grade teacher I noticed that M had trouble counting steps around the board and had no concept of the value of money. The game was played with no coherence whatsoever.
As the staff stowed a few bags of M’s things into my trunk, M whispered, “They don’t like me because I scratched their arms.”
The director pulled me aside to mention that M had been worried she’d strangle babies. She just wanted to make me aware of that. It obviously was hard to believe some of the things I was told because M presented as a charming little girl. There was an odd and real connection from the start. I won’t deny that. The connection is still there to this day, no matter how fractured our relationship can be.
That evening my husband came home and he watched M in horror as she ate spaghetti. One of the social workers had said to me before we actually met M that she was a “hot mess.” I’ve never forgotten it. Right after dinner M’s braces broke. It was a Friday night and the idea of navigating an emergency visit seemed overwhelming. The wire had come loose and was poking her inner cheek. She didn’t mind it when my husband used wire cutters from my little toolbox to temporarily fix the problem.
She walked on her toes and carried her arms in a stiff, odd way. Her hunger was enormous. We knew that victims of neglect often had a preoccupation with food so it didn’t seem strange that she would stare at the pantry for long periods of time, but when she started eating things off the floor of public restrooms we became more concerned. She ate dog and cat food as well, goat food, chicken food, dirty ice … and was never satisfied. She probably gained ten pounds in the first two weeks she was with us. Preoccupation is not even a strong enough word.
Sometimes she drooled. She saw shadows. She showed me inappropriate dance routines she was taught by her mother. She thought I’d be impressed.
At the mall and supermarket, she pointed out every time she saw the word sexy (you’d be surprised at how saturated our culture is with that word). She wrote sexy on her blankets and the bathroom mirror. Her hugs felt weird, and I grew to loath them. My husband felt in way over his head. I didn’t know what I felt exactly. There was so much to take in.
She wet her bed, teased our animals, talked gibberish, spent very long periods of time in the bathroom. If we left the house we had to stop every five minutes to take her to the bathroom. She peed in the car once and in her closet because she was afraid of getting in trouble for asking. In fact she had been in trouble for this very thing. At her old foster home this need to use the toilet made it really hard for the family to function. Miss B had six other children to take to baseball games and M made them late every time. Once at the field M would wander off with her sisters and they would talk about doing sexual things to each other like their mom taught them.
Miss B had said from the start that she could not keep the girls long term and advocated that they be separated because they triggered each other so much. Doctors involved in the case agreed, but the judge was adamant they stay together. This meant that they would have to compete with each other to get even the basic levels of love and attention they craved. They craved far more than one woman could offer. It was an impossible situation.
Every day M believed her mother would come to get her.
She was terrified if we walked around the neighborhood. We’d role play and game plan what we would do if she ever found us. This seemed to help but needed constant repetition. At night she was afraid of wolves and needed lights kept on. She would pace the room all night keeping us all awake.
Managing all of the medications she was on was a job in itself. The social workers who knew her said that this new M was not herself. The meds were wrong, but the county had a shortage of pediatric psychiatrists who accepted Medicaid. M had a therapist from before. I attended a session and watched as the therapist through clenched teeth tried to speak softly and compassionately to M who made it clear that she wanted no part of the therapy. I understood why.
Certain people are truly unable to hide their contempt for children. It was obvious to me that the therapist needed to retire. M may have had cognitive delays, but I was impressed at her ability to see through this woman. To be fair, M was being impossible. She was overmedicated and bored. It was at this session when the therapist mentioned that children often were released from mental health facilities “snowed” which was slang for highly overmedicated. The facilities were only there to stabilize their patients. I was beginning to wonder what they considered stabilized.
Sometimes monsters are invisible, and
sometimes demons attack you from the inside.
Just because you cannot see the claws and the teeth
does not mean they aren’t ripping through me.
Pain does not need to be seen to be felt.Emm Roy, The First Step
Read PART TWO