My son, who will be 28 next month, suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome and some form of mental illness difficult to diagnose because he also has a substance abuse disorder. And since he was adopted from the social services system, he also had the abuse and identity issues that often come with these children.
This diary is by way of a remembrance of Halloweens past.
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My son was in a six-month behavioral program in a children's hospital when I met him. Or, to be more precise, I met him because DSS wanted to place him in the program, but could not find "visiting resource" (I kid you not) to work with the hospital in his home city, and the adoption worker there knew my social worker ... well, you get the idea.
The story of those six months is a volume in itself. I did not get along with the staff there, and they ended up keeping him for seven months even after DSS rejected their recommendation and decided to place him with me anyway. He came home just before Halloween.
Now, I have my own issues with Halloween. When I was a child, I always wanted to be a princess, and always wound up being a hobo. It was never much of a holiday, and my family never spent money on things like costumes. So I was determined to let it be fun for him. I realized that he needed structure and support to enjoy it, and so we went to the already familiar YMCA for their holiday party, which was on a Sunday afternoon, and also went to trick or treat in the neighborhood on Halloween itself. I stuck to as many regular routines as possible, and he had a light meal before going out.
He went as a Chinese Mutant Ninja Turtle. That was his favorite thing at the time (he was almost eight years old) and I became very good at drawing them for him to color until he was brave enough to draw them himself. He didn't seem to have a favorite turtle, and I forget which one his costume was.
Getting ready was very difficult for him. Finally he was able to dress in the costume, but not the mask. That was my first clue into his real issue with the holiday. He didn't seem to have much fun, and he got tired after trick or treating two houses.
Getting dressed was always the hardest part of the holiday for him. The next year, he couldn't decide what he wanted to be. We tried the his karate uniform, and he was discontented. Then I cut a pillowcase for him to wear (he was that small) to be a ghost, but he didn't like that either. Finally, exasperated, I said he could dress all in black, with a bandana, and be a robber. He kept the bandana around his neck since he could not cover his face.
The problem with dressing up, I learned later, was object constancy. It is a frequent issue with adopted children, and involves the fear that when something is not visible, it does not exist. This is a normal developmental stage that generally occurs when children are toddlers. It is the time when a child loses interest in a toy no longer visible; one funny phase is when a child can find a toy you hide while he can see you, but when he sees you move it to another place, he goes to the first place to find it. This is the stage of the transitional object, the blankie or stuffed animal that seems to be an extension of the child, and that stands in for parents and home.
For my son, it was as if he himself stopped existing when he was disguised. He could not bear to cover his face so he could not recognize himself in the mirror. When he had a bandaid or a splint on a finger, he kept taking it off. Only years later did I realize that he had to keep checking to make sure the covered spot was still there.
I have sometimes wondered at the grown-ups who make their houses as scary as possible for trick or treaters. For so many children, it is all very serious. At one of those first houses we went to, there was a tall man dressed as a monster of some sort, with creepy music playing and cobwebs hanging around him. We were early, but I'm sure that some younger children would have been really scared.
I think that in some ways Halloween has stopped being a children's holiday, and grown-up fantasies have taken over. Let's remember that for all children at some time, and some children for longer, the line between fantasy and reality blurs. I'd like to see more fun costumes, and less really scary ones for adults around children.
There are more structured places now - shopping malls, fire stations and such - and we always went to these places very gratefully. My son was better able to enjoy himself in such places as he grew more comfortable generally.
So here's to an enjoyable Halloween for all the children in our lives.