Vol. 19, No. 2 • May 2015

Window Pain
A broken porch window was the wake-up call our family needed

by Mark Maxwell, PhD

My eyes immediately went to the broken window pane next to our front door. Justin lay asleep on the front porch bench. It was an 85-degree summer day, but he wore a long-sleeved flannel shirt and sweats. There was broken glass but, thank goodness, no blood.

"Justin, do you want to harm yourself?" I asked.

His answer: "Yes."

We feared the worst. Dealing with Justin had pushed our family to its limit. Would he self-medicate? Take a knife to his wrist? Or would it be just another 16 hours of sleep and nothing else?

We loved Justin, but the broken window was a wake-up call.

Meeting Justin
Justin came into our lives in 2012. A Guardian ad Litem friend told me about a 15-year-old young man who was an outstanding student, had no behavioral problems, took no medications, and self-identified as gay. My spouse and I agreed to meet Justin.

The GAL was right. Justin is an amazing young man. He's studious, a gifted writer and orator, and wants a good life.

Over several months, Justin met our three other sons and other family members. Shortly before his 16th birthday, Justin's adoption was finalized. We became his forever family.

It wasn't until after Justin was an intricate part of our family that we discovered the periods of despair and mania that clung to him like thorns on a rose.

As parents, we were accustomed to teenagers' moods. Justin's struggles were something else, but we didn't see it at first. It wasn't until the blinds started to shut in his radiant eyes, his grades slipped, and his normal prideful appearance changed to oversized sweats that we realized our beautiful son carried deep mental scars from his experiences of abuse and neglect.

Staying Strong to Help Justin Heal
Helping Justin heal requires us to first acknowledge that his past trauma is real. Helping Justin reach self-sufficiency is our goal. We love our son, but we know that his health depends on the state of our health.

What do we do to take care of ourselves? We surround ourselves with a support system of friends and professionals. We ask lots of questions. We look for family-friendly documentaries that help us understand that Justin did not create his pain, but he is responsible for asking for help and allowing those who care about him to keep him healthy and help him heal. See a list of recommended documentaries below.

Related Learning Resources

Call Me Crazy. An anthology of five short films exploring the impact and stigma of mental illness. Three of the five stories are connected. This excellent film offers a peek into the impact of issues such as PTSD on individuals and families.

CAMP. Eli is brought into foster care when his mother dies of a drug overdose. Placed in a group home, he attends a summer camp intended to help foster kids form relationships with caring adults. Eli is assigned to Ken, a counselor who cares more about money than about kids. However, Ken eventually learns to care for Eli. He becomes trustworthy, and Eli becomes able to trust.

The Dark Matter of Love. Documentary on the psychological aspects of growing up with and without parental love. Centers on a family with children that adopts three orphans from Russia.

Note: Some agencies offer training credit to foster parents who document that they have watched relevant movies and/or documentaries. Always check with your agency before using this approach to meet training requirements.

Justin is one of the best gifts we have ever received in our lives. He cannot be blamed for the impact of his reactions to past emotional abuse and neglect. He is a child and he is learning to cope.

Life Today
Today, because of his internal fortitude, the right medications, and the love of family and friends, Justin is thriving, writing his first book of poetry, and preparing for college. His smile is back. He understands that there are consequences for breaking things. He works part-time and agreed to repair the broken window.

We chose to share our story to encourage other families not to give up hope. When we as a family felt love and logic were not enough, we started honest conversations with professionals, family, and friends. We asked for help and support and we continue to get it. Children like Justin matter. During the emotional storm, we reflected on photos from family vacations and his gifts as a writer and artist. We allowed ourselves to feel the anger and emotional pain.

As a family we laugh a lot. As a father, I proud of my son for realizing that his existence is a gift to our family and the world.

Mark Maxwell and his life partner Timothy Young-Maxwell have four children adopted from North Carolina's foster care system.

I Needed Help by Justin

I was sixteen when winter crystallized over my skin. Like dirty road salt, it exfoliated my pride and joy.

Below-zero, I lay frozen, attached to my bed. Tears dripped onto my Pima Cotton sheets and feather mattress handpicked by my parents for my comfort.

lashbacks rolled through my mind of the singlewide tinfoil trailer planted into the dry dirt on the outskirts of the city that I once called home.

Tap water, a loaf of bread, and a fist of knuckles that stood out like stones. Those knuckles stepped across my face more times than I can count. A dark pine forest grew around my heart, blocking out the sunlight.

On a lakeside sits a skeleton staring at purple bruises and crooked teeth. "This blood family doesn't flow right."

On January 26, 2010 I stared at the barrel of gun. Mom owed them money for drugs. They came to collect and shot my dog.

The word "mom" chaps my lips. I can't give blood during a routine doctor's visit without seeing her with a needle in her arm.

I sat in therapy sobbing the words "I can't go back." I exited Hell for foster care. Like a bird, I landed into a forever family at age 15.

Finally...family meals and family outings that didn't end with me picking up the mess. I am just a kid!

For a year, I hung up my memories of abuse like a dropped call on a payphone...just gone. I was vibrating and happy.

At 16, I got the call from my past life. My mind and body became like a building that had been vandalized. I got high just to eat and forget. Nightmares rolled through me. My mind was drenched in gasoline. I couldn't sleep, I cut myself, and I put amphetamines into my nostrils.

Multiple hospital stays later, the journals and the scars on my arms remind me that I wrote the same poetic suicide note over and over again. I saw the hurt in my dad's eyes the first time he hospitalized me. On the day I broke the window pane I didn't care.

But I knew I needed help.

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~