Saturday, September 5, 2015

One Year Orphanage-Free: Then and Now

Today marks one year since the day Sean got Alexander out of the orphanage once and for all, also known as "Gotcha Day."  Oh, what a blessed day!  And how far we have all come!  God's providence brought us to this amazing little boy, and His grace and providence has been with us every step of the way since bringing him home, too, through all the ups and downs and bumps in the road.  September 17 will mark one year since Alexander arrived home and became a US citizen.  These are a few areas of development and how Alexander has experienced them over the past year:

1. Attachment 

There are hundreds of books on the subject of attachment in adoption, and what happens when children are unable to form attachment with parents or other close caregivers in utero and after birth.  For Alexander, this primarily manifests with him approaching complete strangers with an embrace and wanting strangers to perform his care (feed him, change him, carry him, etc.).  When he first came home, it was a given that he would run up to and hug any and everyone who crossed his path.  We'd gently step in and redirect him, and explain to the person on whose leg he was hanging that he is still learning about personal space.

Now, he still goes up to strangers sometimes (maybe once or twice for every ten times that we are out in public), but much more often than not he sticks close to us and wants us to perform his care.  He still has a long way to go, but his steady improvement in this area is very encouraging.

Alexander is very interested in books and loves to be read to.
He has always enjoyed snuggle time with parents and older siblings, which is a blessing we are so grateful for.

We were able to have a lengthy cocooning period with Alexander once he arrived home.  Now that we are no longer cocooning, we have noticed some attachment issues/orphanage behaviors manifest when people come to visit us in our home (jumping on visitors, wanting visitors to perform care duties, acting overstimulated, hyperventilation, etc.).  We went to visit our extended family for a few days this summer for the first time since Alexander came home, expecting to have to deal with many orphanage behaviors.  Much to our surprise, he acted pretty much like his normal self when it's just the 8 of us here at our house.  For some reason, having people visit us in our house seems to trigger more orphanage behaviors than when we go visit people in their homes.

2. Nutritional status

Alexander was malnourished and underfed during his time in the orphanage (which for him was from birth to 2 months shy of 5 years).  He was the size of an average child half his age.  His joints appeared large in comparison to his emaciated extremities, and he was short in stature.  He wore size 3T clothing and was barely taller than his 2 year old brother.  His hair was dark brown with a discolored patch on the back that had a grayish hue.  He also had a bald, calloused spot on the back of his head, presumably from banging his head on the floor/wall in the orphanage.

Here are some pictures to illustrate the closing height difference between Paul and Alexander.  Paul is 3 months older than Alexander:

November 2014--from left to right:
Paul (5), Felix (2), Alexander (5)
June 2015--from left to right:
Felix (2), Rosemary (8), Paul (5), Alexander (5), Joey (10)

Now he wears size 5T pants and size 6-8 shirts.  He is a comparable size to Paul.  He has plump arms and legs, and his joints look well proportioned.  He has a head full of thick, gorgeous, shiny and healthy hair.  His bald spot has grown over with hair, and the discolored patch of hair is now the same dark brown color as the rest of his hair. 

It is very common for children with starvation backgrounds to hoard food and/or eat food out of the trash.  Thankfully, this is something Alexander has never done.  Instead, he often feeds some of his food to his baby brother (which made things exciting for Mom and Dad back in the days before Leo could eat solids).  While he doesn't hoard food, he is always front and center asking for food whenever food is being dished up or put away or prepared, etc.  He is very fascinated with the preparation of food, which is something the orphanage workers told us as well.  He would like to hang out in the kitchen and watch the food being prepared, both in the orphanage and now at home.  He also enjoys play-cooking with toys.  Maybe a career in the culinary arts is in his future?

Alexander helps scramble eggs for breakfast while Joey and Rosemary flip the bacon

I will take a moment to mention drinking here, too.  It is very, very, very common for Bulgarian ex-orphans to want to drink almost nothing once they are home, and most parents struggle to entice their children to drink an adequate amount.  Fluids are often severely restricted in orphanges, presumably to cut down on the number of wet diapers the caregivers need to change.  We were rather shocked when Alexander came home happy to drink just as much water and other drinks as his siblings and parents.  Getting him to drink has never been a problem, and we are so thankful for this blessing.  He is well in tune with his body's hydration needs and happily and confidently lets us know when he needs help getting a glass of water. 

3. Dental status

Alexander came to us with the worst state of dental decay we have ever seen.  Every single tooth in his mouth had some decay, and the outer enamel on many of his teeth appeared to be completely gone.  Many of his teeth looked like nothing but nubs, barely protruding past the gums.  Brushing his teeth gently would give him pain and result in bleeding gums.  He could only eat soft foods such as yogurt.  He would not take bites of any solid food.  Even something as soft as bread had to be dipped in liquid to soften it for him to be able to chew and eat it.

We took him to several dentists, and they all agreed that his decay was so extensive that ALL of his front teeth needed to be pulled, and his back teeth all needed to be capped, under general anesthesia at the hospital.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, as we came to find out), there was a lengthy waiting list to get him into the hospital, and the earliest opening in our town at the time was for a date after our moving to New Jersey.

Once we arrived in New Jersey, we found a holistic dentist, Dr. Jeffrey Oras in Whitehouse Station, who has helped and guided us to heal Alexander's teeth naturally through a special gentle cleaning regimen and supplements.  He did end up needing three baby teeth extracted, but the rest of his teeth have all improved noticeably.  He shows no signs of pain.  He now can eat and chew a variety of hard foods, including taking bites out of raw apples and chewing grilled meat.

4. Language

Alexander was completely non-verbal and knew no English when he left the orphanage.  It is common for children raised in an orphanage to have few to no verbal skills due to neglect and not having anyone spend time talking to them.  Alexander also has a repaired cleft lip and palate, which also often leads to verbal delay in children by itself without other contributing factors.  When Alexander first got home, he would communicate by grunting and pointing at things that he wanted.  We spoke to him primarily in English and used gestures of our own to help him learn the language, although we also used basic Bulgarian phrases.  We weren't sure how much Bulgarian he knew and understood.

Now Alexander is beginning to use words to communicate in addition to his gestures and other vocalizations.  He speaks several words and understands many, many more English words and phrases.  He can follow verbal instructions that we give him, such as taking something to the other parent, getting something from a certain sibling, throwing something in the trash or putting his shoes on when we are getting ready to leave the house.  He is gaining other oral skills such as blowing out candles and spitting water in the tub, which help strengthen his mouth muscles and improve his abilities for pronunciation of words.  He has also recently started being able to sip liquids out of a straw, something he has not been able to do up until now due to the weakened muscles in his mouth from the cleft lip repair.

5. Play

When Alexander first came home, he did not play with toys or with his siblings.  He would simply carry items around or repetitively put items in and take them out of containers for most of his "play."

Playing with trains.  Yes, those are silicon oven mitts on
Alexander's feet.  They didn't work well as mitts,
so he repurposed them as play-socks.  He loves them!
Now he enjoys interacting with all members of the family.  Some of his favorite activities are playing games of chase and ring around the rosie with his siblings.  There are still many toys that he doesn't play with in the way that they are marketed, but he does play with many toys as the manufacturers intended.  He helps his siblings build train tracks, drives toy cars around on the floor and table (before he would just hold toy cars and spin their wheels or tap them on various objects--which he still does on occasion), completes wooden peg puzzles quickly and without help (just a few months ago, he would only carry the loose pieces around the house, using the puzzle board as a tray), and uses musical toys such as xylophones to make music of his own, to name just a few.  He has also started playing some apps on the Kindle Fire tablet, including "finger painting" type apps and other games where drawing is involved.

When Alexander first left the orphanage, he was scared to use playground equipment on his own.  Now, he is happy and eager to slide down the tallest slides on playgrounds and run around and climb up various structures.  However, he still does not enjoy swinging one bit.

I will add TV in here too.  When he first arrived home, Alexander was not interested in watching TV at all.  He would ignore it.  Now he enjoys watching videos with the family.  He repeats some simple words and actions that he hears and sees on videos.

6. Sleep

When Alexander first came home, he used to have to rock himself to sleep each night.  This would usually include a period of time of banging the back of his head against the wall.  He would wake up several times during the night and repeat the process.  He had a quarter sized callous, bald area on the back of his head, and a little lump back there too.

Thankfully, after a few months, this behavior was completely gone.  It's just a memory now.  Alexander sleeps soundly through the night.  We tuck him into bed just like we do the other kids, and he lies down and goes to sleep like his siblings.  Sleep problems are common among children with traumatic pasts, so this is a very big blessing and one that we don't take for granted.

New Year's Eve 2014 in Harrisburg, PA
He didn't like having a blanket covering him when he arrived home.  On New Year's Eve, we spent the night in a hotel en route from South Carolina to our new home in New Jersey.  And that was the first time that he accepted having a blanket on him.  He liked being tucked in with a blanket from that night onward, until summer arrived.  He hasn't wanted a blanket all summer long.  We will see if the approaching cooler weather will bring about a change of preference for him in this matter.  Not accepting blankets is a common phenomenon in children with orphanage backgrounds, so we're not sure how much of this is due to his orphanage history and how much was weather- and comfort-related.

So how are we going to celebrate this amazing milestone?  By being together as a united family of 8, lots of playing, and a visit to Double Trouble State Park (doesn't NJ have the funniest attraction names?)!  And tomorrow, Sunday Mass together with overflowing thankful hearts!  This journey has been very difficult and overwhelming at times.  But may we never lose sight of what an amazing blessing each and every one of our children is, and how very rich we are in the ways that truly matter.