Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Beast Has a Name

Five years ago my hands were full with our toddlers Mercy and Hope. So full, my husband and I imagined we wouldn't be adopting again. At that time, I was part of a small private forum of adoptive moms of Korean children that has since disbanded. One night, a brave mom who was in the middle of a long wait to travel (in those days, the quota backlog had doubled the 10-12 week wait to into 20-24 weeks) confessed that she though she was going crazy. Not metaphorically. Literally. Crazy. One by one, each of us admitted that we had felt the same way during our wait for a referral, or our wait for travel, or both.

It scared us that the experience was almost universal among us. Yet none of us had ever discussed our feelings with our Social Worker (SW) because we shared the (until then) unspoken fear that if we were honest, our agency would be compelled to amend our home study to "not currently fit to parent." Who would want to send a child home to a crazy mother?

I was the only person in the group who was not in process. With our adoptions finalized, I figured there could not be much harm in calling up my SW, admitting I had felt these feelings in the past, and on behalf of my friends, asking what it was.

With their permission, I talked to my SW. She was (politely) surprised. Of course she understood that waiting was stressful; she was the facilitator for our agency's IRL (in real life) support group for waiting families. But, she said, she had not guessed from my demeanor during our adoptions how I was feeling and had no idea it might be as common as it seemed to be among my adopting friends because no client had ever confided it to her. No, she didn't know what it was, but asked my permission to discuss it with some of the counselors in the post adoption department and get back to me.

This is a composite list similar to the one I shared with her that day. Few people, at that time, experienced all of these feelings during their wait. Those who experience some, did so to varying degrees. Yet these features all seemed common:
  • paranoia
  • doubts about or inability to trust adoption professionals or the adoption system
  • compulsions, obsessions, rituals ('stalking': forums, phones, mail, information)
  • anger at the adoption system and people in the system
  • savior convictions focused on our child or children in the system in general (alone against the word)
  • numbness or detachment or alienation from self or support system or process or referred child
  • insomnia (the inability to stop racing thoughts) and fatigue
  • chronic anxiety
  • depression
  • helplessness, hopelessness, despondency
  • feeling out of control
  • acute self-awareness of irrationality, feeling out of character or like we're losing our grip on reality
  • (or the opposite: denial that anything is atypical even when others express concern)
  • the feelings waxed in the absence of information, and waned (temporarily) with news

My social worker called back a few days later. The consensus of the counselors was that we were describing situational anxiety.

situational anxiety
Etymology: L, situs, location
a state of apprehension, discomfort, and anxiety precipitated by the experience of new or changed situations or events. Situational anxiety is not abnormal and requires no treatment; it usually disappears as the person adjusts to the new experience. (Mosby's Medical Dictionary, 8th edition. © 2009, Elsevier.)

I recalled a few examples from college. "Really?" I asked my SW, not quite confident of my associations. "Situational anxiety as in stage fright? Like anxiety before taking a big test?" "Yes," she said. "Like that. Except in this case, the 'big test' is adoption."

I thanked her and took the idea back to my friends. At first we were skeptical because our feelings seemed much too intense to be as ordinary as situational anxiety. But after talking about it for awhile, we agreed that it did fit for reasons I'll discuss in the next post.

Once the beast had a name, we had some power: we started investigating the ins and outs of situational anxiety and figured out that we were not helpless; we could cope.

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