After my article last month about the challenges of dealing with my adopted daughter Jolanta’s health when we arrived in the States from Lithuania, I received a number of people requesting “the rest of the story”.  Everyone wanted to know how it turned out.

The rest of the story, like life, is a bit complicated.  It’s full of dreams, fulfilled and unfulfilled, challenges, successes and failures.  Since it’s a very personal story, I asked our two adopted children if they were comfortable sharing their story.  They graciously, cautiously agreed to share it, feeling that it could possibly help others who are dealing with the challenges of adopting older children.

We agreed that I would talk about things that happened and then Jolanta would write her perspective on the events discussed.  While this easily could have developed into an entire book, we outlined five major steps that occurred in their process of adapting to life in a new family and in a new country.  Hopefully, this may prove to be a help to some to those in the throes of similar challenges, or  those seeking their own self-worth, or even to those who tend to find themselves frequently critical of others.

Jolanta’s and Thomas’s father was Russian. When Lithuania gained its freedom and fell out of the orbit of the former U.S.S.R, the Russians were no longer welcomed in Lithuania. He abandoned the family, and it is assumed he went back to Russia. That left the mother with the responsibility of the two kids, as well as two older brothers.  Overwhelmed, Jolanta’s mother became an alcoholic.

We learned at the court adoption hearing that Jolanta was often beaten by her mother coming home, intoxicated from a drinking binge. These binges often lasted up to three weeks, during which time the mother was absent from the home.  The children had no food and no one to clean their diapers (Jolanta had no bowel control due to her paralysis).  Neighbors would complain about the smell and the two children would be removed to government care.  During various episodes they both had contracted pneumonia, Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B through the filth due to the neglect. Once, after a particularly long binge, Jolanta was taken out unconscious. Then suddenly, mama would inexplicably show up, pick up the kids and the cycle would begin again.

Since Jolanta was paralyzed and couldn’t get away once the beatings began, her defense became a life-and-death matter.  She scooted under the kitchen table and cowered in the corner, hoping that Mama wouldn’t see her when she came home drunk. Hopefully, out of sight, out of mind.

So Jolanta lived under the kitchen table. To feed her, her mother would simply throw food under the table.  Jolanta was also left sitting in her own excrement, whenever the mom was out on a drinking binge.

When anyone would come to the house, the mother would point to Jolanta, say she was no more than an animal and could do nothing—she couldn’t feed herself or even go to the bathroom properly. Jolanta, visitors were told, had ruined the mother’s life.  Then the mother would try to give Jolanta away.

As Jolanta heard her mother try to give her away over and over again, to total strangers, her heart broke. To stop the pain, she literally stopped feeling. She felt neither pain nor joy—only fear. This is when she opted out of life emotionally. She simply quit participating in living. She became an elective mute, neither speaking nor feeling.

As Jolanta retreated within herself, Thomas had the opposite reaction. He reacted with anger. Seething with rage and resentment from abandonment, he became hyperactive, destructive and also motivated by fear. He struck out at everything and everyone he came in contact with.

Because the needs of the two siblings were so different, I’ve decided to talk about their individual steps of progression in separate articles.  This article will focus on Jolanta.

It was very difficult to get Jolanta to interact with us or anyone else. Although she wouldn’t speak, she would answer a question with an almost inaudible “yes” or “no”.  This would be spoken with her head and eyes downcast, and you had to bend down, right next to her mouth to catch which word she was saying. Sometimes, her answer was simply a movement of her head.  All communication with her had to be framed as a “yes” or “no” answer. She would only answer our family members.  She never spoke to anyone else. People thought her rude and unresponsive.

She wouldn’t dress herself, even though she was nine years old and capable of doing so. I had to dress and undress her. She wouldn’t brush her hair or her teeth. I also had to catharize her every three hours, due to her paralytic condition.  At school she never opened a book or picked up a pencil, she simply watched the teacher and the other students.

Thinking music might help her healing, we arranged for piano lessons, but she never put her hands on the piano keys. She just stared straight ahead. She wouldn’t play with dolls, wouldn’t watch TV, wouldn’t play Nintendo with the other kids. She simply sat in her wheelchair and watched everyone else live.

I’m a person who talks incessantly.  I talked to her non-stop, often laughing.  Jolanta was completely unresponsive. She would not make eye contact. I never saw a smile, a frown, a tear, nor heard a laugh nor even a sigh.

In order to get Jolanta to engage, I decided to focus on something easy—brushing her teeth.  When she arrived, she had 6 rotten teeth and multiple other cavities. She had apparently also refused to brush her teeth in the orphanage.

I talked about how important teeth were to health. I bought a big set of instructional teeth with a toothbrush and I showed her over and over again how to brush her teeth. I sang songs about toothbrushing. I found some cartoons about toothbrushing, which she watched wordlessly and without expression. Yet she refused to touch her toothbrush.

I bought a Seventeen Magazine and blacked out the teeth on some of the models.  As I would flip through the magazine, I would ask her if she thought this girl was pretty, or that girl.? She nodded her head up and down. She thought they were all pretty. Then I turned the page to a model who had half her teeth blackened out.  Is this girl pretty?  Jolanta nodded her head “no”.  I asked her “Why not?” Jolanta pointed to the girl’s teeth. I explained that this girl did not brush her teeth and so some had fallen out.

We did this throughout the magazine.  It had no effect.  Jolanta refused to pick up a toothbrush.

Jolanta loved her older sisters, Amber and Dianna. I tried to enlist their help, but neither one of them could get Jolanta to pick up a toothbrush.

Every night I prayed desperately and asked God to help me know how to get Jolanta to join life. Then one night I had an epiphany. I suddenly thought I knew why she wouldn’t do anything—even something that was necessary for her health. I decided that Jolanta was convinced that she wasn’t worthy of good health, shiny hair, or even clean teeth.

The next morning, I wheeled Jolanta’s wheelchair to the kitchen table where I had some paper and pens. I proceeded to ask her a series of questions.

  1. Did your mother tell you that you couldn’t do anything? Jolanta silently nodded her head up and down.  I wrote down: I can’t do anything.
  2. Did she say you were worthless? She nodded, yes.  I wrote down, I am worthless.

I mercilessly continued in that manner.  Did she say you had ruined her life? Yes. Did she say you were dumb? Yes.  Did she say she wanted to give you away?  Yes. Did she say no one would or could ever want you?  Yes. Did she say you were deformed and ugly?  Yes. Now there was a tear slowly making its way down her face.  It was the first time I had seen her cry.

I listed maybe ten things. I wrote down each one.

Then I said, “Jolanta, none of these things are true.  They weren’t true then and they are not true now. Your mother said these things because she was sick. Sometimes when a person is alcoholic, they say things that are not true, even though they know they are not true.  These things are lies. Lies are trash.”  I crossed out all the lies with a big black magic marker.

I then asked Jolanta what we did with trash?  She pointed to the trash compacter in the kitchen.  “That’s right, we put it in the trash” I said. I crumpled up the paper and put it in the trash and turned on the trash compacter.  “What happens to the trash once it is compacted?” Jolanta pointed to the garage.

“That’s right, we put the trash bags into the big trash cans.”  I took the bag out of the trash compacter and put it in a big trash can in the garage. “Then what happens to it?” Jolanta pointed to the end of the driveway.  “That’s right—we take the garbage cans out to wait for the trashmen to pick them up.” I wheeled the trashcan to the end of the driveway, Jolanta following behind me in her wheelchair.

“Then what happens to the trash?”, I asked her.  This time she simply stared.  She didn’t know the answer to this one.  I told her we were going to find out.  I put her in the car and drove her to the county dump where the trash is burned. This area was surrounded by a lot of trees, but you could see smoke rising into the air. I explained to her that this is what happened to the trash—the trash made up of lies.

I then took Jolanta back home and to the kitchen table. I said, “I want you to know what your mom would have told you if she had not been sick. She would have told you the truth. Since she wasn’t able to tell you that, I’m going to tell you the truth now, so that you will know.

We made a new list and once again I wrote the items down as I said them. As I wrote each sentence, I asked her to repeat each one out loud. Interestingly, even though she would not utter a word on her own volition, she would dutifully repeat after me when I asked her to. And so, we started out:

  1.  I am a precious child of God. 
  2. God loves me dearly.
  3. I have inherited wonderful talents, gifts and abilities from my eternal Father and Mother.
  4. I have eternal worth.  It is priceless.
  5. My parents here love and want me.
  6. My brothers and sisters love me.
  7. I can develop my talents with the help of my parents.
  8. I can be anything I want to be if I am willing to work hard.
  9. I can make friends.
  10. I am lovable.
  11. I am beautiful.

And so it went. We listed 35 truths that Jolanta should have been told.  I was completely taken by surprise that she was literally unable to repeat aloud the words, “My parents here love and want me.” It made me feel that I had failed in one of my most important tasks. . .

We then took 3X5 cards and with magic markers, wrote one truth on each card. We went into her bedroom and taped all the cards up on her bedroom walls.  They covered two walls.

We practiced saying aloud each truth. I told her that I would come to her room every morning before school and we would repeat every truth, just to remind ourselves of things that were most important in our life. Then we would repeat them again, out loud, before going to bed.

About two weeks later, Jolanta started brushing her teeth!

As I thought about this, I was mortified at how terribly I had misjudged her. I had assumed she was “difficult,” “rebellious”, “stubborn”, “not smart”.  I had it completely wrong. She was wounded. She literally believed all the terrible things that she had been told. She had been crushed. She felt that she was worthless and did not merit joy or happiness or success. She believed she was unlovable. Naturally, her assumed new family would reject her.  She would never have a friend.

These horrible, hideous lies had been drilled into her spirit until it had shrunk in pain.

I believed that this insight was the beginning of a healing process. I would be amazed at how long it would take before Jolanta would muster the courage to take another step. But in the meantime, I had learned a very valuable lesson. Instead of judging another kid or teenager as rude who came home from school and went straight to their room, I began trying to sense if they had been wounded at school.  After all, high school can be an emotional jungle! I learned that gentleness, rather than being hurt by a perceived slight, would reveal some well-hidden wounds. I must admit, I began to look at some of the kids and teenagers I had thought of as difficult, and wonder if there were wounds they were hiding, instead of judging them as rebellious.  I think this lesson blessed our family many times over as we had children navigating the social shoals of high school. I think it helped me to be a kinder parent.

Jolanta: Tom and I came with so many challenges, but for us a lot of it was emotional. We were extremely emotionally damaged. We as children, had to endure so much abuse and rejection that no normal children our age should ever have to endure. We didn’t really have a normal childhood upbringing before we came to the US, so we basically had to be raised all over again even though we were 9 and 6. Our birth mom wasn’t involved with us the way that most parents are with their kids from the beginning. No one taught us to do simple things like dress ourselves, brush our teeth and hair. Our mom was hardly ever around to do anything for us. We were left to fend for ourselves sometimes for weeks and we were both babies at that time. When we were in the orphanage, we were taught to do those things, but they didn’t care if we did those things or not. A lot of those things were still being done for us at that time.

We really wanted to be a part of a real family. Every year or so a kid in the orphanage would get adopted and we were always hoping to be one of those lucky kids. When the day finally came, we were very excited, but also extremely overwhelmed. We didn’t know what to expect and we didn’t realize how challenging it was going to be for our new family and especially for us. Because of the abuse and rejection that we faced at such a young age, we had our own defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from getting hurt physically and emotionally. For Tom, it was to be more aggressive and verbal. For me, it was to be completely mute. I guess I thought that no one could hurt me if I just stayed quiet all the time.

The only person I would talk to was Tom. He was the only one I felt safe with. We only had each other when we were going through the worst times in our childhood with our birth mom. So, opening up to our new family took a really long time for me. I wasn’t just mute, I wouldn’t do anything to take care of myself. I wouldn’t dress, brush my teeth, brush my hair, etc. I knew how to do those things; I just wouldn’t do them. I just didn’t think that I mattered enough to look decent. When you are made to feel worthless and unwanted at an early age as a child, you end up believing it and it takes a long time to believe otherwise.

My adopted mom had to work so hard to help us overcome the challenges that we came with and to help us change how we viewed ourselves. When she wrote all those positive things on index cards and when she was trying to get me to believe that I was worthy of love and that I deserved to look decent, I really had a hard time believing those things. That’s how emotionally beat down I was at 9 years old. It took a long time before I was finally able to believe in my own self-worth. I had to practice reciting those things to myself every day to where eventually I believed them. What helped the most was that we were able to see how loved and wanted we were because for the first time, we were with a family who didn’t give up on us and reject us despite our challenges. We will forever be grateful for that.