My daughter has an acquired heart condition. She was born with a hole in her heart. Not the kind, mind you, that requires a skilled cardiothoracic surgeon to repair, but the kind in which you can dump anything, including the kitchen sink, and it still won’t be filled. This type of hole is the “black hole” of emotional ans developmental wounds.
Abandoned at birth, she was found on a dirty street corner in a bustling northern city of China at one day old. She weighed in at 5 and one half pounds. To complicate matters, she had a uni-lateral cleft lip-plate. Destined to become a social pariah, a Good Samaritan took her to the city police station after a day of care in his home. From there, she was delivered to the city’s social welfare institute.
The institutionalized years took their toll. She has shared with us that in those early years she was often cold and hungry. She cried to me one day, early on, that when she went to school, her back pack was empty. She had no supplies. This deeply frustrated her. On the floor in our Colorado kitchen, I consoled her as she grieved for that empty back pack, vowing to myself that she would never want again. On another occasion, she shared with me that the kids in the orphanage did not have breakfast, and usually only had a “bun” for lunch. This was the norm, and this was her life.
She has scars on the back of each ear. For years I thought they were cigarette burns, inflicted as a type of punishment. In time, my forensic training revealed they were more consistent with human bite marks. Some scoundrel bit my daughter’s ears to the point where the tissue has been permanently scarred. Both of her feet have a permanent outward rotational position which causes her walking gait to appear glide-like, similar to an ice skater. Once, when she was calming herself down from a tantrum, I understood why. As she sat on the floor with her knees drawn to her chest, she wrapped her arms around the outside of her legs, and firmly grasped each foot from the inside. While rocking back and forth in a trancelike state, she pulled her feet outward to a ninety degree angle and held them there, rocking to and fro. Left to her own devices in the orphanage, no stimulation, little play, rampant cold and hunger, she likely rocked herself for hours as a self-soothing activity.
Back to the present: She has a tremendous need to be accepted, I believe, more than the average 16 year old girl. She longs to be normal, to feel normal, and to be a typical student. In many ways she is a typical teenager. She loves listening to music on her I-pod touch. Her favorite food is spaghetti. She changes her hairstyle almost as many times as her outfits in the morning before departing for the school bus, always asking, “Mom, does this matching?” My response: “Yes, this matching.” She cares greatly about her outward appearances and the perception others have of her. She dreams of being able to drive someday, and wonders what will happen to her if she is not able to accomplish this goal. She has failed her learner’s permit exam three times now. Maybe it’s because she reads at a first grade level? What are we to do? Extinguish her dream? Help her to dream realistically?
LiLi has 854 friends on Facebook… yet we still were not able to come up with a list of peers to invite to her sweet sixteen birthday. She has created a virtual world for herself where she can play out her fantasy life. She can be the most popular girl, the most intellectual, and the girl whom everyone wants to be at their party. She takes photos of herself, stunningly beautiful photos, and changes her profile picture almost as often as she changes her hairstyle. She has befriended people half a world away whose language she doesn’t speak. LiLi has tried to “friend” so many strangers, that Facebook deactivated this privilege because of her misuse. She became a public nuisance.
Last year my husband threw a surprise 50th birthday party for me. At this party, he mistakenly gave LiLi the job of taking photos. Anyone who knows LiLi knows how much she loves getting a camera in her hands. This particular night, she did a great job taking photos; she took over three hundred as a matter of fact. Unfortunately, 95% were of LiLi and her two friends who attended and 5% were of me and my party. It’s all about the image, pun intended. LiLi lacks a comprehensive self-identity. Seeing her own image enables her to create an identity for herself. She is putting together pieces of a puzzle. The damage of institutionalization runs deep in this child. Although she has been with us nine years, the seven years she spent in an orphanage left her scarred. The scars may fade, but her memories of the infliction carry on.