By Melissa Hart
“Stupid Mommy! I hate you! You’re an idiot!”
It’s 2:45, the end of the school day. I cower in a corridor like a kicked mutt surrounded by serene hemp-clad parents and their eight-year-olds. Patchouli oil emanates from their golden arms and legs. They bend their sunny open faces toward one another—faces that cloud and pinch at the sight of my second-grader.
She’s flushed and furious, sweaty curls standing on end. She smells of spilled tempura paint and noodle soup from her overturned Thermos on the floor. Her green dinosaur boots stamp a frenzied tarantella around me as she screams.
“You never do what I want. You’re the worst mother ever!”
Shame flames my cheeks. The other mamas in the hallway, the bearded longhaired papas, probably believe her. I’m Snow White’s Evil Queen, Rapunzel’s Mother Gothel. In short, I most surely suck.
I don’t meet the eyes around me, I don’t say a word. I turn, chin ratcheted at an ignoble angle, and walk out the door praying my child will follow. She does, still shrieking insults. Then, she kicks me.
My transgression? I’ve left the Honda in the garage on this sunny day and asked her to walk a half mile home with me.
* * *
“She needs medication if she’s going to stay at this school.”
My daughter’s principal, boyish and skinny as a weasel, sits in the counselor’s office across from the tranquil second-grade teacher and me, and delivers his verdict. “In the classroom,” he tells me, “she screams over math and reading assignments. She does cartwheels behind the teacher when she’s delivering a lesson. A boy called her ‘weirdo’ and she slugged him. She refuses to sit at her desk for anything academic and wants to spend all her time at the Peace Table.”
The Peace Table. Most schools have detention. My kid’s classroom has a hand-carved wooden table where a troubled student can go to chill out. My child has, I discover, taken up permanent residency there. We’re gathered together in the principal’s office today because two hours earlier, he bent low to her ear to suggest she return to her desk, and she shoved him.
“She threw my back out.” He reaches behind him to massage his injured lumbar. I bow my head, but he isn’t finished. “I saw a documentary on kids adopted from Romania. They had reactive attachment disorder—all the same issues as your daughter. The only thing that helps these kids is medication . . . mood stabilizers.”
Gently, the teacher’s mouth falls open. Marijuana’s about to be legalized in Oregon and the smell of it competes with patchouli in the afternoon corridor. My fellow parents may rock the ganja, but our school’s a hotbed of anti-vaccination activists. They carpool up to the Capitol to protest mandatory inoculation, hold chicken pox parties and embrace each other in celebration when their kids present with the itchy red spots. Once, I mentioned to a father in the corridor that I’d taken my child for a flu shot, and he got up in my face.
“Why,” he snarled, “Would you poison your daughter?”
Me, I’m a fan of modern medicine. My child is vaccinated, and when she falls ill, she takes Tylenol. But mood-altering drugs? For a second-grader?
I want to remind the principal that my husband and I adopted our daughter at 19 months old from a skilled foster mother in Oregon—not from Romania where kids once languished, cribbed in their own excrement, for a decade. Instead, I spread my palms out on the table in supplication. I’m beaten, pummeled by years of similar meetings in preschool, in kindergarten, in first grade. I think of a summer camp counselor who summed up my child’s temperament in one sentence:
“She’s not one who earns a lot of stickers.”
At last, I address the principal. “We’ll do,” I say, “whatever you think is best.”
The second-grade teacher stands up, long hair swinging. At six-foot-four, she’s quiet royalty in the shabby room. “I’ll meditate on her,” she says, by which she means she’ll actually stay up an extra half hour that night to sit in lotus position and ruminate upon my child and her issues. “I think there are alternatives,” she concludes mildly, “to drugging your daughter.”
I’d love to believe her. But I think we’ve run out of options.
* * *
Research abounds on the effects of constant loving touch and eye-contact with babies. In parks and grocery stores, infants dangle from frontal packs like Sigourney Weaver’s alien baby. My husband and I wore our own daughter in a soft cloth backpack until her feet nearly touched the ground; we gazed into her eyes and hand-fed her long after she could feed herself. But even those ministrations weren’t enough to soothe prenatal exposure to god-knows-what substances, coupled with early emotional neglect.
At birth, relinquished by parents who—in social worker speak—”had priorities other than child-rearing,” she moved in with a career foster mother—a woman who devoted her life to giving bereft babies a decent start in life in exchange for financial stipend from the state. The foster mom—a stoic big-hipped brunette with a passion for dragon decor–drove her charges to medical appointments and arranged for occupational and physical therapists to visit her home. With four children roughly the same age howling the same basic needs, she found little time to coo and cuddle. My husband once walked into her kitchen to find four toddlers arranged in a high chair assembly line, opening their mouths in turn to receive spoons of canned pears.
“She’s a feisty one,” the foster mother told us on the day we met our new daughter. She chuckled, a toddler under each arm, their chubby hands clutching hand-knit stuffed dragons. “Falls asleep squalling in the middle of the living room floor. I just step over her.”
I gazed at the strange little girl tottering across the sunny summer porch. She was dressed in a peach pantsuit with her curls gelled backward. Somewhere, she’d picked up a pointy lawn ornament, which she brandished it in my direction. With her face wrinkled into a scowl, she looked like an aggrieved elderly bingo player who’d been dealt a crappy card.
I didn’t know then about the trauma that foster babies experience—hadn’t considered what it felt like for her to be ripped from the only body, the only sounds and smells she’d known for nine months and embraced by an incubator for a week, and then a car seat and a high chair and a crib, but not by much else.
Perhaps, when no one responds to her pleas for assistance with a wet diaper or with a favorite ball that has rolled under the couch, she learns to holler like hell. She learns to kick and yell and scream because it earns her attention—even if it’s attention in the form of exasperated assistance. Lacking that, she shuts her eyes and withdraws into herself. Alone behind her closed lids, she ignores the fuzzy dragon-slippers that step over her. She searches for peace.
* * *
It’s Parent-Teacher Night. My husband and I walk into the second-grade classroom with its walls plastered in colorful drawings and watercolors around rows of two-seater tables. We weave through a crowd of parents embracing and planning play dates and roller-skating parties to which our child is never invited. We stop at a desk in front of the teacher’s podium. “Here’s her name tag,” I tell my husband. “Front and center.”
“She’ll always sit where I can put a hand on her shoulder if I need to.” The teacher looks down at me from her awesome height. “A soft touch helps to focus her.”
As other parents exclaim over their children’s hand-knitted flute cases and beeswax candles molded into the shape of Mozart or Lao Tzu, we look at the curious one-legged stool that stands in place of a chair at our daughter’s seat. “It gives her sensory information,” the teacher tells us, “and helps her to be aware of her body in space.”
We look at her, blankly. She smiles. “It calms her down.”
We heft the weighted blue blanket under our child’s desk—another calming device—and note the noise-canceling headphones. There’s a necklace on her desk—a black string with a blue and white rubber triangle. It’s for chewing; otherwise, she gnaws her pencil in half.
We move toward the Peace Table at the back of the room. “She spends a lot of time here looking at books,” the teacher tells us, “particularly if she’s having a rough day.”
My husband and I sink into the little chairs at the scrubbed wooden table. We grip each other’s hands, no words for our humiliation.
“Breeze is racing through the Little House series,” I hear one mama tell another. “She wants to be Laura Ingalls Wilder. She sewed her own sunbonnet and apron.”
“I wish Moss would read,” a father says. “It’s all about lacrosse at our house.”
My daughter refuses to read. We’ve blown through soccer lessons, basketball, ballet, gymnastics, horseback riding, aerial silks. Each coach and teacher says the same thing. “She doesn’t like to listen,” by which they mean, “She’s giving us a boatload of grief, and we’re sinking. Please, please bail.”
“We’re sorry,” we tell them and slink away from the field or gymnasium or dance studio in the wake of our failure.
At home, presented with requests to feed the cats or set the table or finish lessons sent home from school, our eight-year old howls. If we persist, the insults begin. “I hate you! You’re stupid!” And—wait for it—”You’re not my real parents.” She calls it the “Everything Feeling,” those emotions that collide within her and explode in all directions, causing her hands and feet and words to lash out and hurt someone else as much as she’s hurting.
I look around at the life we’ve created for her—the bedroom full of books and dress-up clothes and musical instruments, the photos on the wall of our family vacations to tropical beaches and wildflower mountains and national parks. I fight an urge to shake her little shoulders and stare into her big brown hostile eyes and yell, “Why can’t you just be happy?”
But I don’t . . . because I know better. The Everything Feeling’s got me in its grip as well, and has since I was her age.
* * *
I’m eight years old. My mother—my confidante and playmate and Brownie leader–buckles my siblings and me into our station wagon and flees from our chic Los Angeles suburb. She deposits us in a scrappy duplex half an hour north in a scrappier beachside community. A makeup less woman–Budweiser in one hand and Marlboro in another–embraces her. She’s my mother’s new lover. “We’re leaving your father,” Mom tells me.
And, I add silently, my friends and my school and my Brownie troop, our cats and never-ending rabbits and the cute neighbor boy who’s taught me to shoot the bird and pass gas like the Fourth of July.
I don’t say a word; I don’t cry. I’ve heard the midnight screaming and the shattered glass. I’ve seen the black eyes, her bruised nose. I’ve felt her fear and mine, and I’m old enough to grasp the necessity of loss.
To a point, and then, not.
Something in me begins to hate my mother for not protecting me from trauma. I despise her new girlfriend—her rasping voice and her habit of striking a match on the zipper of her Levi’s. I flee our duplex every chance I get and run wild on the beach with a pack of stray dogs. I go feral. I growl at the nicotine stink of the living room as we eat dinner on tired carpet in front of the cold empty fireplace. I fall asleep to the wail of the foghorn on the jetty with my teeth and fists and stomach clenched tight.
It takes my father three weeks to find us. He appears at the front door with a patrol car’s lights whirling behind him and demands that my mother meet him outside. She and her girlfriend stand in the doorway, arms folded across their Superman t-shirts, sans bras. They shake their heads. “No way,” they say.
An officer steps from the car. Red and blue beams flash across the sandy volleyball court between duplexes. He walks up the steps and presents a piece of paper. My mother’s face crumples. We follow our father—me first, then my younger sister and brother, down the stairs and into his Buick. It’s 1978. The DSM IV has recently deigned to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. Still, a psychologist declares my mother unfit to raise children.
I never live with her again.
As a concession, the judge allows us to see her two weekends a month; apparently, she can’t turn us gay in 48 hours’ time. Every other Friday, she drives down in her VW bus to pick us up from our father’s house. I murmur tearful goodbyes to the stepmother we’re learning to love and shed more tears on Sundays when I’m ripped from my mother. I can’t feel her arms around me, smell her, or see her for ten days at a time. I forget how to draw a deep breath; I walk on tiptoe and read a novel a day between school and bedtime, four on the weekends I’m not with Mom.
“Why can’t you just be happy?”
Each of my parents demands this throughout my adolescence. Every other Sunday night, I sit in my bedroom on the ice-blue carpet, head pillowed on the rosy bedspread, and replay my weekend at the beach. Saltwater and sand still cling to my calves as I sit there for hours, eyes shut tight, hands shaking. No one comes into comfort me.
Therapy? No one has time. Mood stabilizers—out of the question. The Reagans are in the White House; red ribbons tied on the fence around my school remind me to just say no to the hooded stoner kids lounging in my classroom’s back rows. Drugs are for weak people, my father and stepmother tell me, mixing a third gin and tonic. “We’re fine. We’ve got this.”
My insomnia begins that year. My mother’s first girlfriend leaves her. I lay rigid in the darkness, worrying about her until the wee hours. Is she lonely? Is she suicidal? What if she dies? In my father’s bedroom, the battles begin anew—the slamming doors, the screams, the shattering glass. My brain waves twist and warp, training themselves into terror.
But I know nothing of neuropsychology. All I know is a longing to run the safety razor across my wrists as I stand in the shower at six AM. A crushing depression follows me to school, trailing me onto the high school track and the drama club stage.
I don’t do drugs—I do musical theater. I try unconsciously to restructure my neuropathways, boosting serotonin with exercise and music and laughter with friends. Some days, I almost achieve a retraining. But fear triggered by years of Sunday-night separations, by domestic disturbance and an officer at the door suggesting my stepmother take us to a friend’s house until my father stops losing his shit—these incidents reinforce my faulty neuropathways until I stand sobbing in the shower at dawn
* * *
I make it through college eschewing all other meds save Benadryl—two of the pink pills at night when chamomile tea and melatonin tablets fail. When diphenhydramine stops knocking me out, I add acetaminophen to the mix. Tylenol PM enables graduate school, marriage, and the adoption of my daughter.
In the daylight, I’m functional. My child is in preschool each morning with a teacher who loves her. But then, she hits kindergarten. Our world becomes afterschool meetings with principals, IEP circuses. The rooms of our house echo with screaming and slammed doors. At night, I lay in my husband’s arms and curse the anxiety that robs me of sleep.
He finds me a psychologist, a mellow and intelligent young man who tells me how much my husband loves me, how much I need help. He tells me a story of his husband—a man my age plagued by insomnia until he went on a low dose of Ambien. “It’s okay to take sleep aids,” the therapist concludes, but I shake my head.
Beholden to a prescription, I explain, means more than just a half hour wait at Rite Aid once a month. It means inadequacy, a failure to function like everyone else, to get a grip.
“Lots of people take prescription meds,” he argues.
I think of Nancy Reagan’s red ribbons and shake my head. “I’m fine,” I tell him. “I’ve got this.”
I take up long-distance running; now I’m thin and muscular and exhausted. Periodically, I break out in hives. An allergy, I tell myself, to sports gel or Gatorade or the flax seeds I spoon into kale smoothies. But when my lips bulge and my eyes swell shut and my husband drives me to the emergency room looking like the Elephant Man and with his same wheeze, the doctor refers me to another who diagnoses Hashimoto’s Disease. Three and a half decades of anxiety and sleeplessness have caused my immune system to attack my thyroid.
“Take this pill every morning.” The pharmacist at Rite Aid shows me the little blue oval of Levothyroxine.
“For how long?” I ask him.
He blinks surprise behind his spectacles. “For the rest of your life.”
* * *
Shortly after Parent-Teacher Night, I attend a regional adoption conference. Adoptive parents, foster parents, and social workers share watery coffee and stale maple-glazed donuts in a chilly borrowed office suite, listening to a sociologist talk about the effects of early trauma on a child’s neurological development. Brain scans appear on her PowerPoint like a couple of cauliflowers. “This is the brain of a normally-developing child at three years old,” she tells us. “And this is the brain of a three-year old foster child who’s experienced trauma and neglect.”
We study the runt cauliflower, significantly smaller, and listen to the list of potential stressors affecting our kids. They start in the womb with little pre-natal care and periodic baths in drugs and alcohol. They extend to the shock of delivery and removal from the birth mother, then placement in a sterile neo-natal unit and a transfer to foster parents who may or may not offer physical affection and a tranquil, structured environment.
Some foster parents—mostly retired and courting sainthood—have the luxury of accepting one drug-affected infant at a time. They carry the child everywhere, cuddling, crooning, and feeding them pudding while gazing into their eyes–the works. Others juggle several needy kiddos at once. Money and time, in short supply, don’t permit a whole lot of baby wearing and eye contact.
“Foster kids’ brains have a different structure,” the sociologist tells our goose bumped group of conference participants. “They have a low volume of calming chemicals and a high volume of excitatory chemicals. Our kids view conflict—any conflict—as a threat to their survival. Adoptive parents, no matter how noble their intentions, represent one more trauma.”
Someone raises a hand. “What about medication? Anti-anxiety drugs, anti-depressants?”
The presenter taps the poor little wrinkled cauliflower on the screen with her pencil. “Meds can help,” she says. “A lot.”
She clicks off her laptop and invites questions from the group. I flee to the restroom. In a sterile stall I sit and stare at the door. Right there on the cold toilet seat, I have an epiphany that changes my life.
My brain needs help.
I slink toward my little white anti-anxiety pill at 44 years old, resolute but convinced that I’ve failed at the basic human tasks of sleep and moderate optimism. Within two days of swallowing it, I sleep an eight-hour night. “Everyone’s getting medication for Christmas!” I joke with my husband.
Everyone that is, except our daughter.
* * *
Our eight-year old, I continue to insist, needs affection and attention and hip hop lessons—not mood stabilizers. Never mind that she screams over her plate of spaghetti because it’s got the wrong sauce, screams over the loss of her favorite TV show, chases the cats, fists me in the stomach, and falls into bed squalling. “We’ll find her a good therapist,” I tell my husband. “That’ll help.”
We agree on a kind Polish counselor who does sand play therapy with innumerable plastic Disney figures and teaches our child to lie on her back in a warmly carpeted office and blow soap bubbles, breathing deeply to combat stress. The woman teaches her “rabbit breaths” —short bursts of inhale and a long exhale designed to replace hyperventilating over second-grade math assignments and requests to set the dinner table.
None of it helps. My daughter shoves the principal, who begins sending her home from school mid-morning. “We’re a charter school,” he says. “We’re not set up for behavioral disorders. Think about moving her to a special education class at the public school.”
I grit my teeth. I’ve been a special ed teacher, know first-hand the challenges of wrangling a class full of kids—each with specific needs and none getting optimum attention. I’ve stepped over plenty of squalling children myself to attend to the one toppling computers from desks and punching holes in the walls. “She is not,” I tell the principal, “switching schools.”
In the dank patchouli corridor, when my daughter actually does manage to make it to 2:45, I meet no parent’s eyes. The other second-graders line up in the doorway and shake the teacher’s hand and grasp their hand-woven lunch baskets, heading off in pairs for afternoon play dates and Friday night slumber parties. My child’s the last to leave. She huddles at the Peace Table while the teacher gently reprimands her for the latest shrieking/hitting/spitting incident. At home, she shuts herself up in her room and slumps on the bed.
“I feel like a broken light bulb,” she tells me, surrounded by piles of schoolwork she hasn’t completed.
“What do you mean?” I ask her.
“I’m different from everyone,” she mutters. “I shouldn’t be here.” And then, “I want to be dead.”
I stare at her—my suicidal eight-year old in her blue Frozen t-shirt. The words under a smirking blond Elsa read “My castle, my rules.”
For the second time in a month, I experience an epiphany. What other choice did Elsa have, I think, after 18 years of loss and neglect? Her parents were dead. A propensity for frigid temper tantrums kept her locked in her room. Why wouldn’t she retreat to the top of a mountain, build a fortress of solitude, and take charge of her environment?
Maybe if she’d just swallowed a little mood stabilizer once a day, she wouldn’t have iced an entire kingdom.
I call my husband. He phones a developmental pediatrician and makes an appointment for diagnosis and a prescription. I call the principal and withdraw our daughter from her second-grade classroom. “We’re going to homeschool her,” I say, the sentence absolving me of IEP meetings and outrage and shame. Elsa’s words ring through my head, full of triumph.
My castle, my rules.
* * *
It’s 2:45, the end of the school day. My child, a third-grader now, runs to meet a bus full of friends outside the building that houses their afternoon program. They race into a classroom full of art supplies and sewing machines and games and books and beanbags. She has time for a quick hug, a swift, “I love you, Mama,” before melting into a group of giggling girls.
At home, I open my laptop beside her colorful math and literature textbooks, the flash cards, the globe, the Borax crystals and the paper-and-string robotic finger she’s created. We’ve been homeschooling for six months now. We laugh a lot. Sometimes, we argue. On our worst days, when I resent having to wake up too early and stay up too late to attend to my own work, or my daughter fumes at having to study when she wants to lounge on the couch reading Garfield comics, we cry. But mostly, we relish small daily revelations and the one big one—she’s finally happy.
She takes mood stabilizers for six months. They chill her out, but give her a Winnie the Pooh physique and a slowness not conducive to gymnastics and hip-hop classes. With the pediatrician’s permission, we cut the dosage in half and wait for the return of our demon child.
She doesn’t resurface.
Instead, she wakes up smiling, singing, even—excited about her day.
We quarter the pills, then abandon them altogether for a low dose of Ritalin which allows her to learn multiplication and fractions and spelling without chewing her pencil in half.
Several mornings a week, we walk up the hill to a forested park, on a quests for newts in the stream and Cooper’s hawks in the Doug firs. We discuss planets and poetry and how baby chickens can breathe inside the egg.
One day, on a sunny morning on which we’ve discovered four types of lichen on a fallen branch and spent 20 minutes identifying a colossal mound of gleaming black opossum dung, she slips her hand into mine.
“Remember when I was so bad at school?” she asks me.
“You weren’t bad,” I respond automatically. “You were scared and angry.”
We walk past a patch of sunny daffodils. I point out a deer path winding through the tall grass, but she persists.
“I was mad at you for leaving,” she says. “Every day, I missed you.”
I squeeze her little shoulders and stare into her big brown affectionate eyes, remembering what it felt like to be torn from my own mother 10 days at a time.
“I know,” I tell her, and we walk hand in hand toward home.
Author’s Note: It’s been almost a year since I completed the final draft of Rabbit Breaths–a year of homeschooling, of meetings with developmental pediatricians and counselors who diagnosed my daughter with severe ADHD. We’re still looking for the right medication that allows her to function calmly and happily in the world. Not medicating isn’t an option, but my husband and I have greatly stepped up our attention to nutrition and sleep and exercise and outdoor exploration and the arts. As well, we discovered Russell Barkley’s excellent Taking Charge of ADHD and a local parent/child support group. We take each day an hour at a time, practicing (and sometimes failing) our patience and creativity. Most days, we remember to laugh.
Melissa Hart is the author of the YA novel Avenging the Owl (SkyPony, 2016) and the memoirs Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family (Lyons, 2015) and Gringa (2009). She’s a contributing editor at The Writer Magazine.