There's a really dark side to raising these kids with special needs which a lot of people don't see. Ruth, for example, seems to appear to most people as a bright, warm and cuddly young girl. She seems to have charmed many with her affections and even her smile but deep beneath all that is a very troubled little girl. Ruth came to us at 18 months of age already traumatized beyond belief. She was the unhappiest child I had ever met - she cried about 70% of her waking hours and could not be consoled. She's come a long way from there but still there's a persistent unhappiness in her, a void which can't be filled by us. Our counselor has us reading a parenting book which I read long ago and have since tried to apply the principles to my own parenting. It was in re-reading this book that I realized the depth of Ruth's pain as I contemplated the author's suggestion of using eye contact and physical touch to fill the emotional tanks of our children. Here is what I wrote in an email to the counselor about this:
I continue to read the Relational Parenting book. Unfortunately I have a terrible memory for books I have read in the past but I am certain I have read this book before and gleaned some useful things from it which I try to use in my parenting. Eye contact and touch are two things I have always made a conscious effort to use in my parenting style. They are also two things that are very problematic to me with Ruth.
She has some very strange eye contact herself. I could lose myself if I spent too much time looking into her eyes there is so much pain and confusion there and I don't know how to answer to it. A lot of times she will be staring straight at me but completely disassociated so that she doesn't really see me - just staring, staring...it's weird. A lot of times she stares at me questioningly like I am supposed to be reading her mind and meeting some need. But if I ask her what she needs from me she can't tell me. I never feel like I can fill the void in her eyes. Her eyes frighten me and frustrate me. I know why, when she draws pictures of people, they all have big vacant circles for eyes. That's how I see her eyes when I look into them - big, vacant, painful holes. With the other children I can look into their eyes and settle in on some emotion or some shared expression or experience but there is never that "settling in" with Ruth - just a deep, deep hole that can't be filled. It's creepy.
I also struggle with touch with Ruth since this is also a place where she struggles to be appropriate. I am always afraid a casual, friendly touch anywhere will illicit an inappropriate response. Often she will lean into a hug just too much or cling too close - not really obvious but enough to cause an uneasiness in me. Other times, she will lose herself in the touch. If I touch her maybe on the cheek she will melt into my hand until I practically am holding her up by the head. She craves touch but her response is so intense that I don't like to touch her. Again, I could get lost in that touch. Her need is so great I can never fill it with a single touch. I think if I just held her for a long time she might just cry and cry and cry and not know why. I don't hold her for long periods of time. I am afraid of the big vacant hole in the touch too. I can't meet her need, I can't fill the void. I am inadequate. And it's not as if I feel like if I just hold her enough or touch her enough she will eventually climb out of the hole. It seems too deep to me, it seems like I would lose myself in it before she was ever able to climb out. Sometimes I just pray that Jesus who is bigger than anything else I know will fill that void. I think He's the only one who can.
Our counselor was very taken with this description. So far he's diagnosed her with Reactive Attachment Disorder - a serious inability to attach appropriately within close relationships, the closer the relationship, the harder to attach. JT has the same diagnosis. After reading this description, our counselor was alarmed to realize that he could have lifted these paragraphs out of a textbook definition of Borderline Personality - an incurable inability to even become a whole emotional person. He wasn't giving her this diagnosis based on these few words but he was startled into the realization that Ruth needs to be counseled in such a way to keep her from falling into step with this diagnosis as an adult (it is not a diagnosis given to children anyway). Her prognosis suddenly got slightly dimmer.
Of course God alone can fill this void in her but we know that hard work, consistency, boundaries, love can begin the process. But, truly, our love is not enough.