Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Healing Emotional Wounds

Having heard the story before it was written, I anxiously awaited the publication of this 2013 book (http://healingemotionalwoundsbooks.com/) by my college classmate Nancy Welch, a pediatrician and Director of the Health Department in Chesapeake, Virginia, my home state.

We had met during orientation week at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, VA, in 1964.  She took the biology and chemistry academic track and I took the English and humanities track, so we didn’t have a lot of classes together, but we always knew each other.  In 1968, she went off to Duke Medical School and I,  to the University of Virginia.  I can’t remember exactly how we reconnected in the 90s, but she always sent a Christmas card after that, and when I visited relatives in the Tidewater area of Virginia, we would get together for lunch.

That’s how I came to hear the story behind this book, not only of the events it recounts but also the story of its composition, the editing process, and, finally, the long-awaited publication.

It is hard for me to believe that I know someone who went through the experiences Nancy narrates in this book, the story of suddenly deciding in her fifties to adopt two children from the Ukraine and raise them as a single parent.

I had lived, as the military dependent of my career Army father, first in Taiwan, then in Okinawa; later I had lived in Germany for nine months as an adult, never having studied the language.  Even so, I was shocked by the conditions Nancy endured on her two trips to the Ukraine, not knowing a word of the language.  Those circumstances, it would turn out, were the least of the challenges she faced.

The two children she adopted (Alec and Alyona—not their real names) had both suffered early infancy and childhood trauma from neglect and abuse.   Alec was later diagnosed with Asperger’s and Alyona with Bipolar Disorder.  Into Nancy’s staid, professional, single life, they brought chaos, disruption, and violence, which were what they knew and how they coped with their own internal pain.

Alyona had already been adopted once by an Italian family and returned to the Ukrainian orphanage because she was so violent.  Nancy was determined, however, that she would succeed with these children.  It took years of patience; the support of church, neighbors, colleagues, friends; the help of therapists and counselors; professional care; sheer endurance; a stubborn refusal to give up; and a seemingly bottomless reservoir of love; but eventually Nancy, Alec, and Alyona became a family, bonded by love, trust, and a sense of pride for having overcome such tremendous odds. 

Were you to meet Alec and Alyona today, at age 21, Nancy says, you would not believe the events of the book were true.  They are thriving young adults ready to move on into their future lives, knowing that their mother will be there for them, no matter what.  It is hard to imagine how any obstacle they might face in the future could be insurmountable, given all they have been through.

When Nancy wrote the first draft of the book, she says, her editor tossed it back to her, saying, “You've told the story of the children, but you haven’t told your own story, the story of why you did this and how.  This is your story too.”

A private, professional person, Nancy had to learn how to open herself up to self-disclosure, allow herself to become vulnerable, and share her motivations; her doubts and fears, as well as her hopes and dreams; her failures, as well as her successes; and her own personal story of growing up in a loving, supportive family; building a successful career; and finally deciding, based on a personal conviction of being called by her faith; to become a mother.

As a literature and rhetoric scholar, I recognize the story of the children as a classic redemption narrative, following the pattern of sickness-recovery-health, and the story of the author as a kind of quest tale, as trials are suffered and obstacles overcome.  It could also be read as an identity quest as Nancy's character and self-concept are repeatedly tested and ultimately vindicated.

It might not even be too great a stretch as to view the narrative as a kind of salvation story, for Nancy, with help from her community and from health professionals to be sure, was the primary agent by which these two severely wounded children were saved from what could have surely been a very dark fate indeed.

But, for the most part, I read her book, as a personal friend, full of admiration for all Nancy had accomplished, not only with her children, but also with her task of turning her parenting experience into a readable, sometimes heart-pounding, sometimes heart-wrenching, always inspiring testimony to the power of determination, commitment, and ultimately, of love.