Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Distancing Self From Relationships

In upcoming postings, I will continue to explore the issue of drugging foster children and the need for medical advocacy. However, in this posting, I want to address why survivors of foster care might seem to distance themselves from relationships.

I've been editing the second half of my book, and as I read through old journals of mine from college and graduate school, it seemed so obvious what my peers were trying to tell me.

The messages had a common theme:
-"Connect with us."
-"Take a risk and date me."
-"All men aren't bad or dangerous."
-"Slow down and let people love you."
-"Take a break from saving the world, and play a game of volleyball."

Time to mourn
One thing that I believe foster care survivors need is time to mourn. Even more than the initial loss experienced upon entry into the foster system, the denial of that loss and inability to mourn it can impede personal development.

As Joanne Bernstein wrote, "If in the face of trauma, mourning remains absent or delayed throughout childhood, it can interfere with normal adult life. Children who will not allow their emotions direct expression are in effect saying, This event hurt me so much that I can never again let anything touch me."

Walled off from pain - and from love
Remaining fearful of rejection and abandonment, those who cannot mourn as children often shy away from relationships as adults.

As long as the initial losses remain unprocessed, new attachments will be difficult to form and internalize. As Fynn noted, "The soul is imprisoned, protected. Nothing can get in to hurt it, but then it can’t get out either."

What's the cure? No magic bullet to be sure, but there are several factors which can help:

1.) Time plays an enormous factor. Time to be nurtured, time to heal, time to wait before taking big risks again.

2.) Emotional expression within a context of acceptance and a caring community is also very important. Learning to react to losses as they occur also helps survivors reconnect with their core emotions. (I found my 'second home' in my college dorm).

3.) Reaffirming personal identity is vital. Foster care survivors often disassociate from past trauma in order to survive. Much of their emotional energy is spent on adjusting to each new placement.

To quote from Heineman, "For children whose histories are littered with separation, loss and abandonment, time with a past, present and future is anything but linear. Many of these children have little sense of self through time.

Consider it from the point of view of the foster child:
1.) No time to mourn initial loss of family; the child (or teen) must adjust to foster care.

2.) At each placement is a new environment with different expectations. In a sense, at each new placement, the child is forced to prove themselves.

3.) By going from one placement to another, the child learns the tenuousness of relationships and the inevitability that people will fail them.

Risking intimate relationships
Once a foster alumni has aged out of foster care, adult relationships pose a tremendous risk. Paradoxically, what they fear most is also often what they need most. However, it is their choice as to whether or not to receive it.

Speaking from my personal experience, I had a bad dating experience in college - and reacted to it by not dating again for eight years. An overreaction? Yes, most certainly. (I was reacting less to the young man I dated, and more to earlier experiences with men in my life. The breakup was a trigger that forced me to reexamine them).

Yet, looking back, I don't regret the time I took to heal. Those eight years before I met my husband were among the most productive in my life. I needed that time:

- To reflect, and process through the events in my past.
- To immerse myself in a caring community, and spend carefree time with friends.
- To build positive memories of friendships with many "good" men.
- To finish college and graduate school, and start my career.

I believe that the time that it took me to be ready for a serious relationship was well-spent. I wouldn't be as stable as I am today without it.

Sources
Bernstein, Joanne. Books to help children cope with separation and loss, Vol. 2, p. 11-12.
Fynn. Mr. God, This is Anna. Ballantine Books; 1985.
Heineman, Toni and Diana Ehrensaft. Building a home within: Meeting the emotional needs of children and youth in foster care. Brookes Publishing, 2006.



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Comments:
I'm so glad I found your blog. We've had quite a few rainy days lately; you give me rays of (hope) sunshine :)
 
I don't often admit this out loud (It's rather politically incorrect), but John and I often say that we wish we had met each other sooner. Like when we were 18. Would have made life a lot better. :-)
 
Teri, you have my 100% suppport. Please email me anytime, and I will send you my flight itinerary for my trip to California.

Danielle, that's kind of romantic.

Many of my college friends (male and female)went through a series of losers in college before finding the right guy. It was a painful process.
 
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