Yesterday I was watching the Oprah Winfrey show. Oprah and I go way back, and many years ago I was an avid fan and regular viewer. I often wanted to be a guest in her audience (I mean, who doesn't? She hauls people to Australia and gives away free cars!) and thought she had really interesting shows. I'm not sure when I became less enamored...maybe ten years ago? Probably sometime in the nineties, when our country was in the middle of Oprah-mania, I wore out. No more book club, no more star interviews or concerts. I reclaimed my afternoon and moved on.
However, yesterday I was channel surfing and found Oprah interviewing a young man named Clayton. His story immediately caught my attention. Thirteen years ago, Clayton was a six-year old boy spending the majority of his days wrapped in a dog chain and a wire fence, locked in a small closet by his father and stepmother. His story is rather remarkable, because a case worker had already been to the house, seen Clayton, and decided he was not in any danger. Clayton's fourteen-year old stepsister had run away from their home in Indiana to Kentucky and was picked up by the police. When she begged not to be sent back to her home in Indiana, her story stuck with the officer who she spoke with. He requested a caseworker to investigate the girl's claims of abuse, and the caseworker who visited the home found no reason to remove Clayton. Fortunately, the girl's story was so vivid that the officer couldn't let it go, and told the family they would have to come to Kentucky to retrieve the sister. The family did just that, and upon their arrival, the officer took Clayton and conducted an interview that revealed severe physical abuse and neglect.
Clayton ended up being adopted by his biological mother's aunt. It was at this point in the story that my heart met this woman's in an empathic nod. She talked about how skittish Clayton was; how his nights were filled with terror from dreams and recollections of his trauma. She wanted everything to be as normal for him as it could be, but the one thing she said that stuck out to me was how overprotective she became.
As a parent of two children who were neglected and potentially abused in early childhood, I could identify thoroughly with what she said. Often times I have thought that I was paranoid. I've been told by other parents I am overprotective of my children. Clayton's adoptive mother described her fear of someone trying to kidnap him from the front yard and her need to keep an eye on him at all times. I can identify with those feelings. When your children have been traumatized by things that aren't supposed to happen to anyone, the bogey man is real for them--and for you. Nobody can prepare you for the secondary trauma you experience reliving those moments with your children. The fear that children experience when dealing with trauma is incredibly real and vivid. For the adults who choose to walk beside them, the journey is a long one.
Watching Clayton discuss his past so openly gave me hope for my own children. The last four years have been particularly challenging for our son. We all have lived through tremendous turmoil and difficulty, including plenty of days (and nights) where I have prayed for guidance in making the right decisions for this child. There have been moments where I have doubted myself and feared for my son's future. There have been moments where I have tearfully thanked God for the opportunity to be in this child's life. But mainly, I've been grateful for the support of people who have guided us along this journey.
The last couple of months have shown a tremendous growth in my son's emotional capacity to listen to reason, to calm down and work with other people, to build positive relationships with the people who love him. For years I worried I would never have the chance to laugh with him again or to enjoy his funny, sweet personality, because he was so clouded with anger and hurt. That anger and hurt is still at the forefront of his thinking, but he is learning how to balance and manage it with more positive strategies.
Lucky we are, Clayton reminded me. Lucky to be together and to heal.