Raising a child with two competing special needs

I silently nudged her in the darkness. Slipped her out of her top bunk. Wrapped her in a blanket and ushered her to the van.

Maybe if I didn’t wake her just yet, she’d forgive me, I thought.

The sun wasn’t up yet, but I’d already been up most of the night, fearing the next few hours. The bag was packed with coloring books and snacks for later. My mind anxious for the morning and what the rest of the day – the week, even – would be like.

Because the hardest thing about parenting my daughter is walking the tightrope between her two special needs: attachment disorder from early life in foster care, and profound developmental delays from being FTT as a toddler.

You see, they both are fully present. And treatment for each one causes problems with the other! Attachment disorder creates behavioral havoc in our home and social/emotional fallout in her life. It also fuels some of her physical problems. On the other hand, diagnostics and treatments for the physical issues fuel her fears and attachment issues. NOT doing the treatments or tests keeps her debilitated… which, again, leads to diminished trust and connection with people who love her. How is THAT supposed to work??

You can’t separate the psychiatric from the physical special needs. Thus we’ve had to simultaneously work toward healing on multiple fronts for years.

Which brings us to that early, still-dark morning described above. We arrived for an MRI to rule out an outstanding contributor to her condition, and I was on pins and needles more than she was. I calmly explained what would happen, trying to maintain our emotional connection and all the attachment work. She seemed distant, which usually leads to reactive behaviors (read: holes in walls, lying, hurting people) afterward. But I tried to remain hopeful.

I took her to the anesthesia room for the MRI, holding her hand until she turned away from me with that look I’ve seen hundreds of times in hospitals before: “I hate you. How could you let them HURT me like this?” It didn’t matter than there would be no needles, no incisions… no owees.

As she went under the anesthesia, I whispered – pleaded – I’m sorry, little one.

Numb, not wanting to expect the worst, but not having much reason to expect better, I made my way to the cafeteria. The whole time she was in her procedure, I sipped my coffee, sitting across the courtyard, watching the building… hoping, praying, for better than we’ve ever experienced in all our visits here.

Hoping that things would go well for BOTH special needs she has, rather than one or the other.

The MRI center’s pager buzzed in my purse, jolting me from my prayer. I followed the nurse into the recovery room. As the door opened, I expected to see my daughter turned away from me, a vacant look in her eye (the way it had always been before).

But she was sitting up, sipping Gatorade, flipping through the cartoon channels.

She looked over at me and grinned. GRINNED. Her eyes lit up when she saw me. “Mom! I did great!” She proclaimed, overflowing with pride.

“I see that!” Was all I could manage. My knees week from the ebbing adrenaline, I sat next to her, staring at Dora the Explorer. I grabbed her hand and kissed it. She turned and smiled again. At me – really looking at me. Not through me. Not away from me. But right into my eyes she looked when she said that.

My little girl. So brave – so joyful! So connected. So confident. And a little of that confidence seeped into my heart that day. Confidence that maybe we’ll get through life with these two special needs wrapped in one… and come out the other side proudly proclaiming together “We did great!”


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