Charting the Distance

Creative Nonfiction by Matthew King

Charting the Distance

When children are securely attached to their parents, there is a positivism that glows from them. John Bowlby used the analogy of a thermostat to talk about this phenomenon. Children and parents who are close seem warm. When separations are too long, the ensuing chilliness warns them to move closer together.

Deborah D. Gray, Attaching in Adoption

If, however, the child perceives the attachment figure to be inaccessible, the child experiences anxiety and . . . attachment behaviors continue either until the child is able to reestablish a desirable level of physical or psychological proximity . . . or until the child exhausts himself or herself and gives up . . .

R.Chris Fraley

In the dead of winter I deliver my child to a residential treatment center for substance use. It's over three hours from home, through a winding mountain pass. J is fourteen. I adopted him when he was eleven. Before this, our longest separation was a four-night summer camp stint but even then, he called each evening. Here, he cannot call for one week. I cannot visit for ten days.

I kiss him goodbye and climb in my truck. I head toward the open desert. Once I leave, they have him strip naked. He dresses in a hospital gown while they search each thread of his clothes, observe all parts of his body. He must squat and cough. The protocol manual states that the staff member conducting the search should face the client during this portion so as to "not directly observe the anus."

I wander beneath high rock walls along a serpentine river. I cannot stop imagining him squatting and coughing; I picture it over and over: his eyes on the floor, his paper-thin gown, the spectatorial gaze of a strange adult. I am still on the trail after sunset. I miss the turn back to the parking lot. I tromp through the darkness for over an hour, retrace my steps, picture my son squatting and coughing, squatting and coughing.

The following day I can't bring myself to drive through the mountains toward home in the valley. I'm not ready to be separated by a rising mass of earth. I retreat further into the unknown, to a rented mother-in-law apartment, a tiny town, a remote part of the state through which I've never driven. I walk down Main Street, past the single general store, the tiny brick Catholic church. Back inside, I settle into a massive recliner and tune the satellite TV to men's college basketball. I pour whiskey and eat a sandwich. I measure the distance between us.

The alcohol weakens my inhibitions just enough. The seething anger I’ve carefully submerged erupts, raging waters bursting the dam that bars my subconscious. I'm flooded with white hot, blinding rage, carried away by the roiling current. I pace the apartment. I rave in imaginary confrontation with the twenty-four-year-old who forced my child through the degrading experience of having his orifices inspected. I fantasize that I am massive, sweeping, and destructive. I lay waste to everything and everybody in my path. I reshape the landscape of a world that is designed for people other than my child.

Later I lie in bed and my phone rings. The treatment center’s number flashes on the screen. On the other end I hear the sing-song voice of the young woman who's been assigned his therapist. She tells me she thinks J should make some check-in calls as part of his therapy, even though normal protocol is not to call for the first week. She says he will earn the extra calls by "being the leader we know he can be." I flinch at this. If it's part of his therapy, it shouldn't be conditional. Moreover, it's unconscionable to tell a twice-abandoned child who has bravely attached to a third dad that he can have access to his father's affection only if he behaves. My love has been reduced to a sticker on a reward chart. I want to object, but I do not want to begin the relationship with J’s therapist in confrontation. And anyway, he's right there. I just want to hear his voice. On the phone I can't place how far away he sounds. We both seem to be floating in space, collapsed by the technology of cell phone signals.

I learn afterward that J threatened to run away if they didn't let him call me. My mind floods with scenes of him crossing the barren land around the treatment center, trying to warm himself in the frigid air, the police in chase, orienting himself based on the white mountains in the distance.

Deborah D. Gray describes attachment as a delicate dance, relying upon "thousands of successful interactions" until parent and child become "intimately tuned" to each other. Secure attachment with a parent "becomes a template for all future relationships and core beliefs." There is little more important to an infant's initial days, weeks, months, years than forming an attachment to a sensitive and caring parent who meets their needs. There is little more destructive than being deprived of such attachment.

Ice covers my windshield the next morning. My truck coughs and sputters as I turn the ignition. I blow on my hands, rub them, wait for the air in the vents to convert from freezing to comfortable. I drive the slippery roads with care, deep into blank earth to wander again along rivers and through canyons. When I hike out, I realize it's time to face our deserted home. I have to place the mountains between us. I have to work. I have to feed the cat.

Our hushed and vacant house seems cavernous. I keep busy. I go for walks. I attend meetings and keep appointments. I drink at my favorite bar, a place I rarely visit since becoming a parent. I sleep on the couch. Our 926 square feet of space is too immense. I attend my first support group meeting; experience that particular vulnerability and comfort and grief. I cry and cry in front of strangers who, in this case, understand better than most of my friends and family. When I emerge from the meeting, dusk has settled. I look toward the mountains. Clouds obscure them. J and I both drift, distant, in that amorphous fog.

During our first weeks together, J became alarmed if I did not eat when he was eating. He'd break apart his sandwich or tear a chicken nugget in two and thrust it toward me, eyes pleading and searching. He only calmed when I agreed to take a bite. He wouldn't accept that I wasn't hungry, or that I did not want another bit of fast food or freezer dinners. He was stuck in a past habit of trying to keep his parents functional enough to meet those needs he couldn’t meet himself.

J had formed maladaptive attachments to abusive and neglectful parents. The dysfunctional attachment strategies acquired in these prior relationships are, as Gray writes, "used in children's subsequent parent-child relationships." They must be unlearned and replaced with healthier strategies in order for new attachment to form. J came with a million stratagems for getting himself invited into friends' homes. Once there, he'd exude so much charm and helpfulness that he'd become accepted as a feature of the house. Many of his friends' parents, past and present, tell me they think of him as one of their own. They believe it is laudable, charitable, to fill the role of surrogate for a child who comes from a rough situation. And perhaps it was when he was living in an unsafe home, protecting himself as best he could. Now though, I hear only the ignorance, the devaluing of my parenthood, the counterproductive confusion it causes. Nurturing an attachment with an adopted child requires arduous, conscious work. These other “homes” and “parents” undermine the healthy attachment I’ve deliberately and painstakingly cultivated. J must be able to clearly distinguish parent from friend, to understand how to appropriately be a guest in someone's home. He must internalize that it is I who will always, always meet his needs. That he now has a home where it is safe to shut off the hypervigilant part of his brain, the part constantly scanning the environment, reading people's facial expressions, voice tones, body language, plotting strategies to survive, the part that holds his brain hostage, making learning almost impossible.

J put on that charm through our early weeks together, but when the honeymoon period ended, the rage-filled tantrums began. His therapists told me I should receive these tantrums as a compliment. He felt securely enough attached to me that he no longer believed he needed to perform to earn my love. He knew I would love and accept him no matter how he behaved. Those who've told me they see J as "one of their own" can't imagine the difficulty of actually parenting him, how frighteningly intense his outbursts can be. Children who lack the brain development of healthy attachment are prone to becoming lost in a sea of rage and sadness when they become upset. J has smashed a cell phone with a baseball bat, bashed a door with a heavy skillet. He's put holes in walls, shattered glass picture frames and ceramic bobble heads. He's lit a stuffed animal on fire. He's made a pretense of running away from home, backpack filled with food from the pantry, as I've followed on my bicycle. I told you, I'm fucking leaving. Quit fucking following me. He's directed dozens upon dozens of profanity-laced tirades squarely at me as I’ve stood calmly, absorbing each insult. I hate you I fucking hate you I hate you so much. I want to call my mom. Fuck off. Get the fuck out of here. This is the reality of disordered attachment. In the abstract it is easy to have empathy for children who have survived abuse and neglect, but it takes intense practice to stand in the midst of a storm and respond to these episodes with the empathy they deserve, hearing the pain that underlies them. More than that, to receive them as an offering of love and trust. I am the one person he allows into this world, the one person to whom he gives a glimpse of the intensity of his needs. Most adults aren't willing or able to undertake this commitment.

Once I arrived at his middle school to pick him up for an appointment. I was summoned to the gym where, I was told, he was having "a tough time." He was in anguish, face crimson and tear-streaked, screaming and grunting. They had cleared the gym of all other students. He paced, alone, unable to calm, the assistant principal blocking the doorway so he wouldn't escape into the hall. I approached calmly. I stopped a few feet from him. "Hey bud," I said, gently, "I'm gonna put my hand on your back. Is that ok?" He nodded while choking on his sobs. I slid my hand up his shirt so he could feel the skin-on-skin contact. It was as if a valve closed. His breathing calmed. His face cleared. He calmed. Other adults, especially in schools, typically respond to his rages as if he's a vicious animal to fear and cage rather than a vulnerable child in need of care.

For J, this separation from me, for sixty to ninety days, is another sorry wound added to a deeply wounded childhood. I grieve the eleven years for which I was not present. I missed feeding him from a bottle, changing his diapers. Staying up nights with him. Caring for him when sick. First steps. First lost tooth. Riding a bike. It's in these years that most children deepen the attachment that is the basis of brain development necessary to learn, as Gray writes, "to regulate extreme frustration and anxiety." Early developmental milestones provide the arena in which the securely attached child learns to "stretch out positive moods and signal for help when in pain or frustrated." The emerging ability to calm themselves eventually becomes "hardwired in developing brains."

During these stages, J was being whipped with electrical cords and belts. He was waking in the middle of the night to find no adults home. He was scrounging for loose change, biking to McDonald’s for food, walking into a nearby convenience store empty-handed but with the creativity of desperation: pouring sugar packets into a styrofoam cup, adding the contents of small coffee creamer cartons, lifting the mixture to his lips, stemming hunger pangs. He was slicing a potato he found in the kitchen, spraying it with Pam, sliding it into the oven. I was teaching high school and coaching football. I was running marathons and traveling the backroads and wilderness areas of the American West. I was searching for a meaningful way of being in the world. He was grappling for safety and stability. When I began my teaching career, he was 2,000 miles away. On the other side of the Rockies and the Great Plains and the Mississippi.

J watched his stepdad beat his mother, pull her by the hair across the floor. He saw his mom point a gun at his stepdad. Stepdad "dealt with him" by throwing him on the bed and assaulting him with hand, paddle, belt, often until his bottom was black and blue. He was terrorized by the nightly arguments. He would wet the bed and hide his sheets and pjs to avoid the inevitable spanking. He was spanked all the more when the smell disclosed the soiled laundry. His stepdad shoved his face into the urine-soaked sleep clothes.

He lost his stepdad, the little stability he'd known, to prison. Mom dropped J and his siblings at the Department of Human Services. Mom entered treatment. J landed in a foster home with his sister. His baby brother went elsewhere, to a home that could supposedly accommodate his intense needs stemming from cystic fibrosis and developmental delays, but baby brother was soon removed. The foster parents were hitting him in the face. They too went to jail. I was writing letters of recommendation for students who were being admitted to Harvard, Yale, Stanford.

Before the adoption, we separated once. J entered my life through the foster care system. He was placed with me for one month. The day before I was to return him to his mother, I took him to a playground. While he played basketball with other kids, his caseworker called to plan the drop-off. He told me to drive him to the DHS office; someone would sit with him until his mom showed up.

I was shattered at the image of leaving him with a stranger in a sterile, white-walled office. I wanted to keep him in the safe shelter of my home. My vision blurred. My legs buckled. I found myself crying. I walked down the sidewalk, away from the park, hoping he wouldn't notice. But he noticed. When we returned to the car, fat tears rolled down his cheeks. At home he sat in my lap while I held him. That night, we laughed and laughed as we watched Tommy Boy. I sat all night in a rocking chair next to his bed. In the morning he wanted to wake forty-five minutes early so he could feel me hold him.

In the end it was I who drove him forty miles to the apartment of his mom's boyfriend. Along the way, he read aloud in piping childish treble from a Calvin and Hobbes comic. He looked up now and then to observe the passing buildings, scanning the streets for familiar landmarks to chart the distance to the apartment.

He exploded into a frenzy of tears and snot once we arrived. He dragged me by the hand to the back bedroom. I sat with him on the bed in the home of a man whom I'd never met, and held his fragile body tightly in my arms while it convulsed with sobs.

During the summer that J was travelling in the backseat of a station wagon across the Rockies and the plains and the Mississippi, I was riding trains through France, Italy, Spain. His mom and stepdad were trying to escape drug use, legal troubles, a white supremacist group with which they'd become entangled. They escaped the group but could not escape legal troubles and drugs no matter how many mountain ranges they crossed. I was walking the halls of the Vatican Museum, the Musée d' Orsay, the Picasso museum, riding trains past the Italian Alps. Rivers and mountains and an ocean stood between us.

His birth dad abandoned him when he was a toddler. His stepdad he lost to prison. Both abused him. Psychologist Claudia Black notes that "repeated abandonment experiences create toxic shame." The broken self-image that emerges from early abandonment requires a secure attachment to heal. But it also serves as an obstacle to forming attachment. This self-image "arises from the painful message implied in abandonment. 'You are not important. You are not safe.’'' During tantrums, J hides his face, retreats to closets. Once I found him cowering in the dark next to our vacuum cleaner. He'd pulled his hood over his face so that I could see only one of his eyeballs peer from the black void.

Thus, our attachment is tender, only three-years-old. It's not to say that his attachment to me is a neurotypical three-year-old’s, but it is characteristic of a much younger child. He's filled with irrational fears when we separate: I will die in a car accident, an intruder will break into our house, I will fall asleep and not wake up, like his relatives who've died from drug-related causes. Gray notes that many children who've had attachments threatened by abandonment or removal from home "worry that their parents will die or go away." She also writes, "Sometimes, children fear that 'bad guys' will kill their parents."

We have "attachment rituals." We cuddle while watching Netflix. I rub his back. I pick at his skin blemishes. I lie with him until I hear his breath drop into the rhythms of sleep. If he wakes in the night, he calls out to me, and I lie with him until sleep comes again. On our last night before treatment, he asked me to give him a bath, like I used to. I tenderly washed his back and his torso, shampooed his hair. Placed my hand gently on the back of his head while I poured water over, scrubbing his hair to rinse away the soap. Then we lay down together. He began to sob. I wrapped him in my arms, squeezed him as tightly as I could. I whispered how much I loved him. How proud I am. How tomorrow he will need to be big and brave, but tonight it's okay to be small and scared because I am right here. I am right here.

Each evening he's away, an empty feeling invades my chest and spreads through my body. If J calls on the phone, the feeling dissipates just enough to be tolerable. Even though I set up a communication plan with his therapists, it's not followed consistently. Some nights they facilitate the call, other nights they don't. When he doesn't call, the feeling lingers into the following day. I walk through the world a hollow man.

One week after he first came, on a Friday night, we pitched the tent in the living room. We stayed up late eating pizza and watching Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. We crawled out of the tent in the morning to make pancakes; he drowned his in a cataract of syrup. When we finished, we crawled back in the tent and cuddled under the blankets while I read to him from our book, The BFG. That was the morning our attachment became fully and irreversibly formed. It was a feeling as unique and unmistakable as seeing your child for the first time. When we finished reading, we wrestled in the tent. His eyes glowed. I felt his need to be simultaneously challenged and protected, to test his own strength while resting secure that I had everything under control. A pattern emerged then, lasting months, wherein J found method upon method to test the boundaries of our parent-child bond. He was conducting experiments in what psychologists Karyn Purvis and David Cross call "Felt Safety." This is the first step toward disarming a traumatized child's perpetually functioning fear response system. In a friend's hot tub he devised a game, sinking underwater and holding his breath as long as possible. Then he would thrash and flail to signal that his breath was running out, summoning me to pull him gasping from the water, hug him tight to my chest, and whisper, "You're safe. You're OK. I love you. I am here."

During that first wrestling match, I felt the physiology of my body, the geography of my entire self, shift and change. From then on, I’ve felt wholly responsible for the little spark that is his life, down to the health of sinew and bone, his lungs and liver and brain and heart. I felt the emerging strength in his spindly arms and legs, his little bird body. I felt his intense vulnerability, my obligation to safeguard him always. I felt our heartbeats catch the same rhythm. I felt the way one of my friends did when he first laid eyes on his newborn daughter: "like a completely new person." I’d watched J come alive in response to safety, stability, boundaries, affection, love. New life was born in the world.

The myth is that parent-child attachment emerges from shared DNA. While it is rooted in the body, it's not biological; it's physiological. It emerges from the delicate dance that parent and child perform: Child communicates need through behavior. Parent interprets behavior and meets need. Attachment forms. Co-regulation begins, what Fogel and Garvey describe as "coordinated action" between parent and child, "a continuous mental adjustment of actions and intentions." When infants cry, parents pull them close and use speaking tones that, at first, mimic the distress. Then the voice slows and becomes calm. The infant perceives this and also the rhythmic and relaxed cadence of the parent's body. The child experiences physiological syncing; their own body learns to calm itself with the parent's, much the way young children learn to dance by standing atop a parent’s feet, or learn to use a knife having a parent hold a hand in theirs, directing the blade safely, surrounded by the protective circle of their body. A therapist friend of mine asked, rhetorically, "How many thousands of times does a parent do that?" David Belford describes this as "an interactive dance in which the infant and parent provide moment-to-moment feedback." It is this that forms an invincible bond between child and parent.

I am especially sensitive to our attachment being undervalued. What're you doing, my neighbor asks, like a Big Brother program on steroids? A friend: So what do you get out of this? Another: Wow, you do all this for him and he's not even your kid. No one understood the way my body began to miss him, even before he was gone.

I get to know J's therapist over the phone. She tells me one night before I speak with him that I should make sure to let him know I am doing okay. That I'm making it through. If he senses Dad is having a tough time, she explains pedantically, that's going to make it harder for him. I understand this concept without the lecture from a twenty-five-year-old who does not have kids. She and I are on different planets. She addresses me as if I were a naive and emotionally negligent parent, and I'm perturbed that she sees me this way, that anyone could ever see me this way. She also suggests, as if this were something that never before could have entered my mind, that I check out the sports his school offers. He told me he likes sports, she informs me, as if that would be news. I despair that this person controls my child's access to me and mine to him. The eastern hills continue to hide behind a perpetual wall of white clouds.

I write to him each day, something to read before bed so he can hear my voice as he drifts to sleep. I tell him about my Catholicism. I explain a sacrament: a symbol that makes present what it represents. I write about the theological idea of transubstantiation. However strained my relationship with the Church, I am haunted by the beauty of the Eucharist, the idea that we take the divine into our bodies. How we give it to each other. How the sacred can become enfleshed in our lives.

On our third morning together we sat at the kitchen table at breakfast. I made bacon, pancakes, scrambled eggs. I asked him to list people in his life who care about him. He listed his mom, his sister, his little brother, his Nana. At the end he listed me. How do you know that I care about you? I asked. Because, he said, you feed me.

At treatment they don't allow any outside food, even on visits. I can't feed my own child. I miss the process of preparing his food, converting the energy of my body into money, and the money into food. I use the energy of my body, again, to prepare the food for him. This is how I'm broken for him, given to him. This is how the energy of my body becomes the flesh of his body.

His therapist tells me he's struggling in evening group. He tore a poster off the wall. He wandered out of the room. What do you think? she asks. I tell her that evening group is during the time that, at home, we'd perform our attachment rituals. I tell her a hollow void opens inside me at this time each night. I can only imagine how his body feels. She suggests that we try a weighted blanket, or a pillow or stuffed animal with a voice recorder tucked inside. J suggests that he could just call at bedtime, but the staff act as if this is unhealthy, or impossible, or both. The implicit message is that he should be more independent. I want to confess that my guilt for forcing another abandonment on him, for leaving him there, is overwhelming. I go walking to flush this sensation from my body. I look east. The fog shrouding the hills seems ominous. The mountains behind it seem distant. A barrier of snow and wind and swirling blank clouds.

Visions of J when he was little take hold of me. They manifest when I am doing laundry or washing dishes and find myself folding or scrubbing a bit more tenderly than usual. I hold him in my arms and wander through the house bouncing rhythmically, patting his bottom, gazing into his wide and active eyes. I sing to him: lullabies, old hymns, folk songs. Winter in the valley is long and dark. Often the hills on each side join with the cloud cover to create a tunnel that lasts for weeks. Shades of gray dominate the landscape. The exposed branches of the white oaks stretch toward the sky in supplication. Cold drizzle saturates the Earth. Even as a native to this climate, I want to escape my own skull and skin. But as Earth turns toward Spring, mornings come when I can see from the valley floor the snow-capped mountains rising above the foothills. Miles of precipitous, winding road lie between us. I can smell the Earth just barely beginning to warm. I point my truck toward the distant peaks. I fix my eyes on the next curve.

About the Author

Matthew King

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Matthew King is a teacher and writer living in Corvallis, Oregon. He also does advocacy work within school districts on behalf of students who've experienced early childhood trauma. His writing has appeared in The Oregonian, The Sun Magazine Readers Write feature, the website of the radio show A Praire Home Companion, and on the parenting website Oregonkid.com.