When María was entrusted to our care, she barely cried. She could express distress, she knew how to throw the mother of all temper tantrums, but weep, or express sadness? She couldn’t do it. That’s one of the realities of reactive attachment disorder. How can you allow yourself the vulnerability of tears when you are a toddler and responsible for your own emotional integrity? How can you allow anyone to be a source of comfort when adults leave you over, and over, and over again? No, this young woman Luz Maria has not wanted to have anything to do with sorrow. Rage is way more safe.
Tonight, the three of us and our dogs were invited to a goodbye meal with a group of dear friends. Maria was uncomfortable from the beginning–you could see the withdrawn anger etched all across her face. The discomfort grew as more people arrived until all of a sudden, she asked to be taken back to BARC immediately. We had not walked all the way out through the front door before the tears started falling, big fat tears running down her face. In the car she was scared because her nose stung, it was hard to swallow and she couldn’t stop.
As her mother, I know that adult attention is Maria’s crack cocaine and I have to calibrate my responses to any emotional expression of her’s carefully–what starts as genuine, coming from the depth of her being, can quickly become another means of manipulation that is first and foremost harmful to her. I have learned two things: to make sure she does not hook into any of my own emotional responses and to be very low keyed in my response–I acknowledge what I see, I try to help her name it, but I work incredibly hard to not give any indication that it is in some way affecting me.
Years and years of practice have made this almost second nature for me. Along with that careful response, I have to compartmentalize–carefully tuck away–my own feelings. When I saw my woman-child weep like she wept this evening, I wanted nothing more than to gather her into my arms, to hold and soothe her, to comfort her. We held hands and I talked about what it is like to cry, reassuring her that the physical components of crying are OK, that we all feel those things. I told her that a number of times this week, including out of the blue at least once, I have had to stop and weep, grieving the end of my pastoral relationship with St Ambrose. I described what that had felt like in as much detail as possible. We even managed to laughed about how gross all that snot can be if you don’t have a kleenex. But I made sure to give her plenty of space to keep weeping.
When we got to BARC, two staff women were there to receive her. Like me, they are highly trained to walk carefully with Maria. One of them, a tall strong woman, simply gathered her against herself and Maria sobbed. I kissed my girl good night, I promised her I’d see her tomorrow and I walked back out to pick up the pieces of a life that keeps shattering and rearranging itself inside me constantly these days. After I had allowed myself to acknowledge just how hard that drive had been, I quietly rejoiced: That Maria is able to grieve means my girl is also able to love. In a time when I slip into questioning if I have accomplished anything in these past 8 years, it is something to say I have loved this child enough to open spaces for her to learn to love. Tonight I am grateful that she has come to know the gift of sorrow–that she has loved and been loved by many in the years we have had here in Fort Lauderdale so that she, like I, is so very sad to leave..