I started my life in a small town outside of Bucharest Romania with no father and a mom who had two kids she couldn’t take care of. To that end, there were moments as an infant that I would spend time alone, crying on a counter when my mother went to work. Eventually I was put in an orphanage. But as we all know, the orphanages in the 90’s were crowded with children who needed to be held and loved. So, I adapted and learned to soothe myself from a young age and in affect, numbed myself to the nurturing I should have been getting. This numbing continued after I was adopted. Adoption is a wonderful thing, but it is still another change. And for a child who had to learn how to adapt on his own while still in infancy, it was traumatic. I would cry when I was held, I rocked myself to sleep, and when I woke up from my nap I would play contently on my own. There were many times that I would have rather spent in my room alone than with the entire family. One time while driving with my adoptive mother, I heard a story on the radio of a mother who sent her child back to their native country because she couldn’t “deal” with the behaviors. I remember sinking in my seat; making myself as small as possible thinking, I don’t want that to happen to me.
All my life I have struggled with something called reactive attachment disorder or RAD. RAD presents itself differently to everyone. Some form unhealthy affections and connections towards individuals and use it to manipulate them, while others take everything on themselves and refuse to ask for help for fear of disappointing others, losing control or being abandoned. I am of the later nature. Therefore, I’ve struggled to trust others initially and have spent most of my life working to be one step ahead of everyone else. I wouldn’t ever dare be caught off guard and disappoint someone I love. At the root of both versions though, the individual just wants to be seen as they are and not spoken for as if they were already broken.
As a child of adoption who was diagnosed with RAD, I spent much of my time in therapy to no avail. Like so many other mental health issues, RAD at first was not well understood, and best practices of the time were very damaging. One such therapy that did exist in the 90’s was holding therapy. What happens, is that the parent or counselor takes the child in their lap and holds them tightly to make eye contact and maintain physical touch. It was thought that this could make up for lost time. But what studies have shown is that this is a very damaging. Because you are taking a child who already struggles to trust those around him and you are teaching him that it is ok to submit to the will of another person. But thankfully this experience didn’t put me off to therapy as a support. It did however reinforce the numbness within for me.
Adopted into a religiously conservative family I was always taught to help others first. Furthermore, if you had problems, you didn’t talk about them, you dealt with them internally and you stayed focused on helping others. The plus side of this, is now I have a successful career in philanthropy. The negative, is that I never really learned how to ask for help. So, when I came out to my parents at 16, I didn’t really know what I was asking for. I even went through several months of conversion therapy. And from there the numbness within strengthened itself. In some ways, I was the perfect vessel for the useful lesson of “helping others first”, because I was already well equipped to help myself in every way. But it meant allowing other to make decisions for me that, at the time went untested.
For me, I already felt constantly at odds with the people who saved my life. And coming out gay, only enhanced that. So, it was easy to fall back inside the closet. Numbing myself to who I really am and putting on the front that was more acceptable. Living in that numbness was easier than the feeling of abandonment.
5 years later, I found myself working in an incredibly rewarding career teaching adults with intellectual disabilities…but every day I hated myself. At this point there were two defining moments in which the numbness started to wear off. Christmas day 2016, I remember sitting around with my family and we were sharing moments from the year. It came around to my turn and I remember having a moment of such clarity and grief. I said…. I hated who I had become this year. Silence. I am going to go back to therapy and get help.
The second instance in which that numbness started to fall away was when my livelihood was threatened when it came out that I was gay at work. My life changed after that. No longer were the years I had spent in service to the school and the students of any credit to them. I instantly became unnecessary to their greater mission. It was another moment for me in which, had I not spent the year previous getting support, I would have allowed this treatment of me to go unaddressed and my numbness to take ahold again. So, after some incredibly difficult conversations, I left that toxic environment.
I believe in a world where I can help others, but only because I push the boundary of my personal
development and growth first. I recognize that my RAD has its struggles, but it doesn’t have to take up
all my time and exhaust me. Eventually the numbness wore off for me. And underneath it all I was still intact. And for the first time I was able to sit in everything we as humans are meant to feel. Shame. Joy. Greif. Delight. And a value. More than sitting in each of these feelings though, I found a purpose and place for them in my life.
And so, as I close I have one final thought It is ok for you to help yourself first. It is ok. I love my parents and it wasn’t their fault there wasn’t better information to support them in raising a child with RAD. But we do not live in that world today. Today, we live in a world where there is an endless supply of knowledge to be digested by parents that will support them in raising children with mental health issues. Mistakes were made. These words were said at a time when admitting a mistake was a sign of strength; not weakness. And so, we must move forward in conversation. And those conversations should include the hopes, dreams, thoughts, questions and concerns of the individual with whom the diagnosis is concerned. Because if we choose to include them and provide a safe space for them to share and truly believe them; then perhaps we can stop the numbness from taking an effect for so long in the next generation.
Jordan Debbink is an author, TEDx speaker and the founder of Refining our Practice. He brings over 12 years of experience in non-profit capacity building to his work. His experiences in the past include being a nonprofit founder, board president and youngest executive director in the state of WI. Two of Debbink's past nonprofits have won Top Nonprofit Awards during his tenure (Music Matters Inc. and Pioneer Center). Debbink is passionate about the multi-generation workforce as it pertains to nonprofits and creating workshops based in contemporary philanthropy.