Hurricane John

by Marcia Alice Mitchell

Fierce wind bowed the tree tops and buffeted the vines that grew against our house. I snuggled in our warm living room and watched Hurricane Carol destroy the familiar and redesign our street to a new beauty. At age eleven I loved storms, but this was my first hurricane.

Before Carol left town, it ripped up trees and tossed them like sticks in the wind. It also knocked down the old, ugly school I’d attended. In its place the city built a beautiful new building.

God used that hurricane to change the beauty of our town. Since then I’ve discovered He uses other kinds of hurricanes to redesign and change me. One was my youngest son John.

Love at first sight

In 1981 as I watched the kindergarten class sing at school, my friend, Edith, pointed to two boys. “See my latest foster children? Ours is the third foster home John has lived in since he started kindergarten last September.”

I knew instantly John would be mine. My husband and I were in the process of adopting a girl to add to our four children. I wanted John next.

A few weeks later Edith’s daughter called. “My folks are out of town. Can you take the kids for the night?”

I was glad to. As I handed John his dinner, he looked up, smiled, and said, “I love you.” I was hooked.

Troubled past

The social worker told us John’s birth mother didn’t want him raised in foster homes, and so decided to release him for adoption.

Once John mentioned his stepfather (a policeman) had handcuffed him to the bed when he’d done something wrong. My heart went out to him.

Though John spent many hours inside himself, the social worker assured us, “All he needs is love and he’ll come out of his shell and be a real part of the family.”

First shock

My first shock came a few months later when I discovered John had defecated on the closet floor. When I asked him why, he just shrugged.

Then the school called. “John defecated and smeared it all over the walls of the school.” I was shocked again. Why was he acting that way?

As he grew older, John began lying and stealing. He didn’t care if he got caught and he wasn’t sorry. Once John told me, “It’s OK to steal if it’s something you need.”

Despite my stern instruction that this was wrong, he didn’t change his mind.

Threat to safety

One day when John was nine, one of my other sons yelled, “Mom, the field’s on fire!”

John had a hose to put it out, but the fire had spread too far. As I watched the fire department fight the flames, I refused to believe John had deliberately set the fire. However, when neighbors complained that John played with matches, I had to change my mind.

I prayed for our safety. What would John do next?

Oddities

Things only got worse as John grew older. When he was in sixth grade, his sisters complained that their underwear had disappeared. I figured they went the way of socks that always seemed to vanish on laundry day.

Then one night John walked in his sleep wearing a half slip, girl’s panties, and nylons. I felt sick to my stomach. I talked with John about it the next day, but he just shrugged. “I don’t know why I do it.”

Later as I took dirty dishes and leftover food out of John’s room, I discovered more panties, nylons, slips — and sanitary pads. I almost threw up. As time went on, he stole my underwear as well. If John couldn’t get them from me or his sisters, he stole them elsewhere. No matter what I said or how I punished John, he always promised not to do it again. But his odd behavior continued.

Seeking help

When John was thirteen, his middle school teachers complained that he didn’t pay attention in class.

In desperation I hired a tutor named Doug. John wouldn’t follow through on anything even when Doug promised him rewards. John didn’t care. When he did do the work, he didn’t bother to turn it in.

I knew John needed counseling, but money was tight. Just before his adoption was final my husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. To help me out a retired pastor friend agreed to counsel John. In the many hours he spent with him my son wouldn’t open up.

When I described my fifteen-year-old son’s problems to our high school youth pastor at church, he told me John was beyond what he could handle.

Anger and questions

I was more than frustrated; I was angry. “Why, God, did You want me to adopt this kid?” I’d always believed God had placed the desire in my heart for John to be mine.

I asked the high school for a psychological evaluation. After they tested John, they said, “We could only evaluate him as far as his school work is concerned.” Although he failed most of his classes, John tested at or above grade level in all classes except math. What could I do now?

Nothing it seemed. John also had no interest in learning to drive, date, work, or anything else except draw, watch TV, and play video games. He was an excellent artist but drew only violent scenes of space aliens with weapons.

When I mentioned some of this to friends, they said, “He’s such a charming boy. It just must be his age.”

Threats

Though I grounded John for cutting school, he didn’t care. He cut right through fall semester finals and flunked the whole semester. When his sister caught him cutting school, John pulled out a butcher knife and threatened, “I’ll kill you if you tell Mom.”

Just before final exams in his junior year, John refused to do his homework. After a brief argument, he grabbed me around the throat. I froze in horror.

When he let go, I walked over to the phone and called Bill at my church. “Would you please come get John?” I asked him. “He just tried to strangle me.”

John stayed with Bill a few days. On Sunday Bill called to say that John didn’t want to come home.

“That’s fine with me,” I said. “I don’t want John home.”

Seeking counsel

Bill and I met with the youth pastor the following Wednesday. Dave told us, “John needs counseling.”

I stared daggers at him. Hadn’t he heard me beg for someone to help John?

Over the next six months I asked Dave if he’d begun to counsel John yet. “He’s not ready,” he told me. I felt John had been “ready” for years.

Kids without conscience

Bill kept John for six months before sending him home. Shortly after that I heard a program advertised on TV about kids with no conscience. This fits John, I thought. I watched it and cried. It shocked me when one mother said these children are the future Ted Bundys of the world.

Two weeks later I met a woman who’d been on that program. For the first time someone understood what I’d been going through. She told me about a Christian support group I could attend.

 Attachment disorder

When I went, I discovered that neglected and abandoned children, like John, will often behave in ways that control others. Sometimes these children are charming; other times they destroy, preventing them from getting too close to others. The distance makes them feel safe.

Often children who do not bond to a loving adult in the first two or three years of life develop a problem known as attachment disorder. In addition to this, John’s sex and bathroom problems are all classic signs of sexual abuse in his early years.

I learned other things. Selma Fraiberg, a specialist in childhood behaviors and the author of many books, notes three specific growth areas filled with problems for attachment-disordered people:

  • They form attachments based on their personal and immediate needs, with little regard for one caregiver over another.
  • Their development is retarded and their conceptual thinking remains low even when a good educational and home environment is later provided.
  • They have trouble controlling their impulses, especially aggression.

Also it seems that once a child is past age twelve, it’s almost impossible to help him. Most counselors reach children with attachment disorders by methods that redo the first year of their life cycle. This involves being able to express rage, love, and gratification and involves subsequent tension-relaxation and development of trust and bonding. The cost can be $3,000 for two weeks of intensive therapy.

Trouble at home

When John came back home, he was six months away from turning eighteen. I gave him a list of rules and made him read and sign them. I told John that if he followed these rules, he could stay home. If he didn’t, he would be out on his eighteenth birthday.

John didn’t believe me and called my bluff, so I kicked him out on his eighteenth birthday. The week after he moved back in with Bill, he got arrested at school for carrying a knife.

The courts put John on six months’ probation, but eventually Bill kicked him out of his house. John lived in two more homes before his probation was up.

Redesigned

Today John is in the Army, stationed in Germany. It’s wonderful not to be afraid of what he’ll do next.

I’ve asked God why He wanted us to adopt John. The only answer I found is that John could have been a lot worse if he’d ended up in another home or in many other homes.

With God all things are possible. Despite what I’ve been through, God has given me peace that while I may not see it in my lifetime, He can grab hold of John and change his life. For this I praise Him now.

I believe God used John to build me into someone new. I am not the same person I was before this hurricane hit my life. For one, I have more compassion for families with difficult children.

I’ve also learned God is in control of physical as well as spiritual hurricanes in our lives. I don’t ever want to forget that as Jesus calmed the winds and the waves for His followers, He calms my heart from the storms that rage around me.

 

What is an attachment disorder?