Sunday, January 29, 2012

Adoption, Trauma, and the Young Brain

Oh the brain.  It is an amazing organ, no?  Were it not for its plasticity, my life and my blog might be a good deal more dreary.  You see, the brains of two of my children were not given a fighting chance from the beginning.  Born into poverty in Haiti, one nearly dead upon arrival, their brains were starved of the very markers of life: a full supply of mother's milk or a decent facsimile thereof, consistent attention, safety, medical care, and uninterrupted love.

According to nearly every naysayer regarding adoption out there, they very well should be standing over our bed each night with a butcher knife in hand, ready to pounce.  It sounds wildly dramatic, doesn't it?  Except that this very scenario was uttered to us on more than one occasion during our adoption process.  "Haven't you heard of the adopted child who stabbed her adoptive parents in the night?"

My response, always, was to list the serial killers who were raised in their family of birth.  There have been many.

That is not to say that these early traumas do not affect a child's brain.  Indeed, we have waded through many a swampy situation resulting directly from our children's early years in Haiti, particularly due to the  horrific orphanage where they resided for many months before moving to a safer place and then coming home to us.  We will undoubtedly continue to face challenges.

Some are small and seem insignificant in the scheme of things: delayed reading and difficulty with spelling (those two could happen to anyone), minor health concerns, insecurities, early hoarding of food.  Others strike a more serious chord and require greater attention: behavioral concerns, post-traumatic stress, anger, sadness, loss, anxiety.  We have journeyed through all of them.  We journey still.  And there are those who count their challenges by the minute, not weeks or months.  We are very fortunate in this respect.  Our challenges, those related to early trauma, are not insurmountable.

And, truly, this is what amazes me.  After all, during those times when we have found ourselves steeped in a struggle, time moves like molasses.  We all, all of us, from child to parent, seem to lose sleep. We cry.  We feel the losses profoundly.  We can taste the anger.  We wonder where this struggle will lead.  We think, "Will my children head down an irreversible path?  Have those years without food and love and someone to hold them as they cried deprived their brains and hearts of so much of what they needed that there is no repair?  Will we lose them forever to the byproducts of trauma?"  It is an agony that only those who have to know that their children went a single day without belonging to someone, without arms surrounding them, can truly understand.  And the children, of course.  They understand too, though they cannot always say.

But then, because those little brains are so explosively malleable, the clock suddenly starts to tick a little faster and the fog magically begins to clear.  What seemed like an eternity while in the throws, we realize, has only been a few months or weeks or days even.

Then, when we no longer worry that we will have to visit our children in prison someday or that they will never truly be able to love us as much as we love them, we laugh at all the places our own brains went.  We laugh because it has passed and we are all stronger for it.

And we are desperately thankful and hopeful that the plasticity of young brains allows them to forget or release just as much as they remember.

My son's drawing of the brain

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