Carrie O'Toole was faced with a decision no parent ever wants to make: giving up an adopted child.
Attachment disorder has never been a well-known phenomenon, but the all-too-real consequences are getting a lot more attention these days. Children put up for adoption often feel abandoned, and the lingering trauma can wreak havoc on families bent on providing a forever home, said O'Toole, who grew up in Littleton and now lives in Parker.
O'Toole “knew enough to be concerned” about attachment disorder as she researched adoption, and although her first adopted son display some symptoms, therapy seemed to do the trick. It was the family's second adoption, in 2000, that proved more difficult.
“Sam,” as O'Toole calls him in her new book, “Relinquished: When Love Means Letting Go,” immediately showed signs of attachment disorder when he was adopted at age 3. He lashed out not through violent outbursts, but rather systematic mental manipulation that eventually led O'Toole to believe she was losing her sanity.
Rejecting any attempts at love and affection from his adopted mom, Sam would act out in a variety of ways: taking and hiding an item just laid on a counter, and then denying it; staring at O'Toole instead of watching a movie at the theater; getting messy on purpose before a formal affair; sneaking into his sister's room at night to play with her hair. Sam's emotional and psychological issues took their toll.
“Attachment stems from a place of feeling like you're not valued, and they're trying to control everything around them because they don't trust anybody,” O'Toole said.
Sam would put on a different face in public, cheerily greeting shoppers at the grocery store and charming neighbors and family friends. It was at home, often when the two were alone, that attachment disorder would manifest itself. Few outsiders saw what was going on, even O'Toole's husband, who would sit mom and son down at the end of the day to work out their problems.
“He gets it now, but he couldn't see it. He was really trying to work on this relationship and what he didn't realize is that he was being played,” she said. “It's really hard to hold a family together like that.”
At that time, there was little information on the Internet about the disorder and no forums where O'Toole could connect with other parents who were experiencing the same issues. O'Toole sought therapy for herself and would cry herself to sleep every night, all the while feeling hopeless and powerless to the whims of a 5-year-old.
“It was me feeling crazy all by myself,” she said. “You start to question your memory, your judgment, your intuition. I didn't realize how deep it could go and how drastic it could become.”
Meanwhile, Sam would “buffalo his way” through therapists and teachers, convincing them that mom was to blame. Her self-esteem and sanity became frayed after seven years of constant struggle. O'Toole soon felt that Sam's behavior would lead to the demise of her marriage, or even her own demise.
She looked at every possibility to fix the situation — camps, in-patient treatment, medications — but nothing dealt with the core problem, just the symptoms. O'Toole tried to find her own solace, too.
“I was on anti-anxiety meds, antidepressants and sleep meds because I had pretty much quit sleeping,” she said. “I felt panicked all the time.”
Her other two children were withdrawing and no longer invited friends over. Relief finally came when Sam began hanging out with another family from church. His visits became more frequent. At one point, the mother of the family said God was telling her that the family was going to adopt and that it would be a local boy.
Then came a conversation O'Toole never thought she would have: the subject of relinquishing was broached. Sam and his new “brother” hatched their own plan to get Sam into the family. During a particularly rough weekend, O'Toole asked if Sam could stay with them another night. The mother's response was “he can stay for the rest of his life.” Sam was the oldest child, and had more control in the family.
O'Toole was hit with a bizarre mix of emotions — relief, terror, guilt — but she was able to get her family back. It was an ending she never envisioned and she was judged, harshly by some people, for the decision.
“The whole thing with adoption is you talk about how you're going to be their forever family, and we were going to be that forever family,” she said.
The book, available on Amazon and at www.carrieotoole.com, explores the subject in great depth and is meant to help others who are having similar problems.