We had a big fight with our 17-year-old daughter Casey that weekend in January, 2008 – yelling, crying, slamming doors, saying ugly things we didn’t really mean. A typical teenage power struggle. I left her in a puddle of tears in her room cursing me, practically counting the days until she went off to college that fall. She’d been accepted at Bennington College in Vermont and seemed to revel in the notion that she’d be free of us. I didn’t take it personally. Just another teen mouthing off at her parents, trying to get under their skin. We were actually really proud of her for getting into such a great school.
My wife Erika and I retired to our bedroom, exhausted from the shouting and Casey’s seemingly endless wailing. Later that evening I went to the kitchen for a glass of wine, passing her in the living room. She sat on the burgundy leather sofa, watching America’s Next Top Model, pounding away on her iBook, probably chatting with a friend about her despicable parents.
We shot each other icy glares, saying nothing. And that was the last time I saw her.
I awoke the next morning to find her room neat as a pin, but Casey was gone. On her desk was a note: The car is parked at the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m sorry.
I froze. The blood drained from my face. A frantic search by the local police, California Highway Patrol, Golden Gate Bridge Patrol and Coast Guard revealed events beyond our worst nightmare. Casey had driven to the bridge at dawn and jumped. The world we once knew, the most precious person in our lives – our only child – was lost that morning. Her body was never found.
Casey – née Joanna – was born on May 3, 1990 in Giżycko, Poland in the gorgeous Lake District northeast of Warsaw. She was a preemie, her twin sister stillborn. Little is known of her infancy, but we suspect she went straight from the delivery room to an incubator to an orphanage in the nearby county seat of Mrągowo where she spent the first year of her life. For reasons we’ll never know, her mother, who lived with her parents and her other children, gave up her parental rights. She may never have held Casey in that brief moment in delivery.
Erika and I chose the foreign adoption path in January, 1991. Our options were limited and the timeline to parenthood several years at least. But by some fluke we stumbled into an opportunity we thought never existed – Poland, where foreign adoptions were extremely rare. Erika was of Polish decent and spoke the confounding language. We connected with an adoption attorney in Warsaw who was initially discouraging until Erika asked, “What about a special needs child?”
According to Polish authorities Casey was classified as special needs because she was a preemie, weak and underdeveloped. It’s likely that she spent much of her first year in her crib because a great many of the children in the orphanage were at risk of self-harm. The caregivers – themselves absolute saints – could do little more than triage and damage control to protect the older children.
We received Casey in July of that year. Indeed, she couldn’t do anything expected of a 14-month-old – sit up, crawl, feed herself, engage with others. The diagnoses ranged from lack of stimulation to cerebral palsy. But we were mesmerized by her – the wispy blond hair and hazel eyes that she fixed on me in a cautious stare. Perhaps she’d never seen a man before. We wanted her … desperately.
Within days of that first encounter, Casey’s developmental rebound was nothing short of astonishing, and by the time Erika flew home with her in August – after obtaining her visa – Casey was walking the furniture. By the age of two, she was no different from any other toddler. As the years progressed, she developed into a beautiful, smart, popular young lady, a gifted writer accepted at an elite college. Her infancy became a distant memory.
But she wasn’t perfect. From the beginning Casey suffered violent meltdowns and tantrums out of proportion to age or circumstance. She was almost impervious to discipline yet suffered terrible self-loathing, all of this hidden from everyone but Erika and me. Pediatricians, doctors, school counselors, pastors, therapists and psychiatrists – all of whom knew about her past – assured us she’d grow out of it. We should set boundaries, be tougher.
We found ourselves alone and judged by others, floundering from one parenting technique to another in a futile attempt to control her. Never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined how things would unfold on that blustery January dawn in 2008.
Casey’s suicide left an entire community in shock and in tears. It was simply inconceivable that a young lady with so much to give and so much to live for would take her life. She left few clues behind, as if to hit the delete button on her life. But we found some fragments that were revealing. On one private message board for troubled teens she summed herself up:
I never let anyone get too close. I want someone to fix me, to hold me, to love me with all my imperfections. I’m hopelessly flawed.
I began to write. In that process I stumbled onto something called attachment disorder that is common among children who’ve been orphaned, neglected or abused. It was a theory developed in the 1950’s by Dr. John Bowlby, but wasn’t widely known beyond a dedicated group of clinicians and researchers until the mental health community studied the effects of abandonment, deprivation and institutionalization on Romanian orphans. Then Dr. Bowlby’s attachment theory became more widely circulated.
For us it was too late, but it explained a lot about Casey – the tantrums, defiance, self-loathing. How could we have missed this? More importantly, how could the “professionals” have missed it?
I read everything I could find from the attachment experts – Bowlby, Harry Harlowe, Michael Rutter, Deborah Gray, David Brodzinsky, Ken Magid and Carole McKelvey, Robert Karen, Gregory Keck, Ruth Lynn Meese and Nancy Newton Verrier, to name a few. I interviewed attachment researchers and therapists who were willing to talk to me. Everything I learned about parenting and therapy techniques for children like Casey was completely counter-intuitive. Here are just a few revelations:
• Don’t change her name. That is her identity.
• Take her home in her dirty, ill-fitting orphanage clothes and try to bring something with her – a blanket, pillow, doll. She needs to cling to something from that experience, the only one she ever knew.
• Don’t banish her to her room when she acts up. Stay with her.
• Power struggles, you will probably lose.
• Just loving her enough may not be enough.
• A closed adoption may avert discomfort for the adoptive parents but deprive her a vital connection to her past, something she may avoid through adolescence but crave by adulthood.
• It isn’t enough to consult a therapist. It has to be the right kind who knows what questions to ask and how to ask them.
• Too often we entrust our loved ones with professionals to help us understand what ails them and how to help. We follow them faithfully. Unfortunately, sometimes they get it wrong.
• Without a proper diagnosis, you can’t be properly treated.
• A qualified professional should distinguish between behaviors that suggest attachment disorder from ADHD, FAS, autism, Asperger’s, etc. Attachment disorder and “RAD” are too often casually tossed around when other illnesses may exist as well.
I learned how traumatic that separation at birth can be on a child, something that can last forever, oftentimes imbedded in the subconscious. How could it not be? Casey had so many losses before we’d received her that it amazes me today how much will power she had to become the magnificent young lady that she was.
I learned that parenting a child like Casey meant putting her first, even if it meant a family experience that didn’t fulfill our Hallmark fantasies. After all, she didn’t ask for this life, so who were we to impose our expectations on her?
Make no mistake. Erika and I feel like the two luckiest people in the world to have been Casey’s parents, even if Casey felt differently about us. She was a fighter from day one – Taurus the bull – who grew into a genuinely compassionate, unfailingly loyal, ruthlessly honest young woman. Her imperfections and flaws made her human and made us love her that much more. We were so proud of her many accomplishments and grieve the good that the world has lost without her.
There will never be another Casey Joanna Brooks. But hopefully other families will read her story and be touched. Maybe they and their children can be helped.