This article was originally published in Sword & Spade magazine.
Brian Speck tells how adopting a son with attachment disorders held great challenges. But then the story changed.
I converted to Catholicism in 2000 after marrying my wife, Leslie. For the first 15 years of our marriage I prioritized my career over my faith. I didn’t have time for God. I always knew that I should put God first, but I never made that choice. Leslie and I very much wanted to have children but we were not able to, so we decided to pursue adoption. I would like to say that our primary motivation to adopt was to give some children a much needed opportunity to have a normal life that they would not otherwise have had, but in all honesty our reasons were also very selfish. Looking back, I see how the path to my fatherhood was also the beginning of the path to a closer union with God.
After several years of waffling between adoption agencies, we finally found our way to adoption day. We adopted two siblings, my daughter who was then nine months old and my son who was three-and-a-half. We knew that they were coming from a very challenging situation. We also knew that our son had been diagnosed with several psychological disorders: PTSD, ODD, ADHD and some form of disorganized attachment disorder, which would later be diagnosed as RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder). This was a tough scenario since doctors do not fully diagnose attachment disorders like RAD until the child reaches a certain age. At this stage there were many more questions than answers.
RAD is caused by early trauma experienced in the tender years of a baby when a child is deprived of the intimate love and care that every baby needs. For a kid with RAD, the first lesson of life is not one of trust and care but of abandonment, and this can result in a lack of affection and seemingly the lack of a trusting bond with those who love them dearly. Their experience teaches them that love and trust are dangerous, so they don’t offer either of them easily, if at all.
We knew this would be a great challenge, but we were very excited to be parents and to have the opportunity to be a stable, loving home for our new children. And it was only a few days after adoption day that I realized we could not raise these children successfully and continue answering the demands of my job. We were living in Atlanta at the time, and I worked 60 to 70 hours a week, so I was trying to figure out how we were going to get through all of this. We had family and friends coming to visit us on a regular basis to help Leslie with the children, but we knew something had to change.
In the middle of all of the chaos it seemed like God led me to an opportunity to move back to my hometown to start my own business. It was perfect. We would be close to my family so we would have all hands on deck to help with the children, and I would be home every night for dinner and free on the weekends. As soon as we settled in to our new routine we began our search for a parish. Committing to a parish was important for the children and for me, too. Our new situation provided an opportunity to heal: healing for myself and my family and most especially for my son. Because of his past traumas and attachment disorder, getting him to connect with me was like trying to get a mountain to jump in a lake. It seemed impossible. But the words of Christ echoed in my ear
“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed . . .”
I worked endlessly and tirelessly to reach my son, and every day he wanted nothing to do with me. Imagine trying to offer yourself in love only to be either rejected or received with skepticism or coolness. But I didn’t give up. He is my son, and his identity is steadfast in that reality, even if he doesn’t fully comprehend it.
I love the outdoors, so it was a great to discover that my son loves it too. This gave us something to share. Going outdoors gave me a little bit of traction for the first time in our relationship. I finally had something to work with. Camping out became something we did as often as we could. This helped, but not to the measure I was hoping. I had to remain patient.
Then we had the opportunity to camp with a group of fathers and sons. My son was excited mostly because he would have a lot of boys to play with and do the things that boys do in the great outdoors—rolling in the mud was completely acceptable. But something was different about that weekend, and it was then that the story of his life—and mine—changed dramatically.
I didn’t realize the impact this trip was having on my son until we got home. From the time we drove up the driveway until bedtime he never stopped telling his mom about it. He was on fire! Every night Leslie and I rotate which child we tuck in, and of course it was her night to tuck in my son because he had been with me all weekend. As I was walking toward my daughter’s room, I passed by his room to tell him goodnight, but after one step he stopped me: “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,” he
“Satan lives in the chaos of the world, but away from the chaos a man can sense the love of our heavenly Father, who is also trustworthy.”
said, “Wait!” As I turned around he jumped from his bed and into my arms, and giving me the biggest, tightest hug a young boy could have possibly given, said, “I love you Daddy! I love you!” In shock, all I could say was, “I love you too buddy, I love you so much!”
Still reeling from what had just happened, I managed to walk to his door. As soon as I reached the hallway, however, I fell to my knees, sobbing uncontrollably. I literally had to crawl to my daughter’s room to tuck her in. It was the first time since we adopted him almost three years prior that he showed any affection or any form of attachment to me. I never saw it coming and it was, hands down, the most powerful feeling of love that I have ever experienced. After thousands of hours of praying, “God I am yours, show me what to do, please bring healing,” He did! And it has helped me to know the love of God, my Father. He patiently waits for us to receive Him without reservation. Now it makes sense to me why all of heaven rejoices when a sinner returns to the Father.
In working with Fraternus I have come to a greater understanding of what made that camping trip different than all of the other camping trips—there were other fathers and sons present. The reality of those relationships was so powerful in moving the apparent mountain of my son’s deep seated insecurity about my love for the following reasons: 1) Where two or more brothers are gathered in my name, Jesus is present. 2) It was being modeled over and over again that fathers must be safe and trustworthy, because all of those other boys loved their fathers so much. 3) It became clearer to my son what a father/son relationship looks and feels like. 4) The other men and boys were communicating directly and indirectly the love between fathers and sons. 5) We were on God’s “homefield.” Satan lives in the chaos of the world, but away from the chaos a man can sense the love of our heavenly Father, who is also trustworthy.
Since that day, our lives and faith have still not been easy, but the struggle is ours instead of mine and his. Since then I have become a Fraternus Commander. Fraternus creates an opportunity to engage our sons in living out our Catholic Faith. We men are not perfect fathers, but in giving our time intentionally to God and each other we can model over and over that fathers are trustworthy. We must help each other carry our crosses and week after week challenge each other to deepen our Faith, to practice virtues more, and ultimately to live closer to the Father. It’s not always easy, and opening our hearts totally to God can seem like a risk, but, like my son, we can eventually come to realize we can let Him in, He is trustworthy.
Paratum Cor Meum, Deus, Paratum Cor Meum. My heart is ready, O God, My heart is ready.