She used to lie to stay safe. She used to steal to eat. Lies and thefts became part of her existence. These practices were critical to survival. A habit was formed.
When she moved home, to our forever family, we began to break the habit. She learned it was wrong to lie and steal. She learned to recognize the impulse and stop it.
We prayed to be able to tell the difference between lying and four year old mistakes. It was an answered prayer
. Whenever she lies, she gets hives. The more she lies, the more hives she gets. Then they get bigger and itchier. The moment she releases the truth, the hives disappear – instantly
. Even today she continues to get hives when she lies. She’s learned if she sneaks and we don’t ask directly she can get away with dishonesty. She’s learned if she doesn’t look at us and keeps her head turned she can lie without being caught.
This week she learned liars and thieves eventually get caught. She has a lot to fix and a lot of trust to rebuild.
Over lunch, my friend, a mental health therapist, helped me to understand that there’s more at play than making a poor choice. “Remember her original habits. Lying and stealing were part of her survival.”
I remembered. It’s taken years to help her recognize and curb the impulse to lie and steal. “She’s learned that lying and stealing are wrong. She has to think about how to get away with it. She recognizes the impulse and knows it’s wrong. What does she need to learn now?” I asked.
“She’s doing it because she can lie and steal in order to get what she wants. Help her to learn how to get what she wants without doing something wrong.”
At the end of the day I received an email from Steph’s teacher, regarding a note from a substitute teacher, I think Stephanie lied during writing.
“You’ve gotta be kidding,” Andy said when I called him. “After all of that the night before, she goes to school and lies. Again?”
We talked with Stephanie tonight. I wanted to yell. I wanted to bang my fist on the table. I wanted to be loud so she would quit lying and stealing.
Instead I remembered her history. I knelt in front of her and looked up into her eyes.
“Do you remember life before you were adopted?”
She shook her head, an emphatic no. And so I remembered for her.
“I know you don’t remember much about life before you came home. I know you don’t like to think about it, but you need to know something in order to understand how to overcome lying and stealing. Before you came home, you had to lie to stay safe and you had to steal to eat.” Tears dropped from Stephanie’s eyes. “Those things were part of your survival and your brain learned if you want something you can either lie or steal to get what you need. Then you came home, to your forever family, and you had everything you needed and most of what you want. You didn’t have to lie to be safe or steal to eat. But remember how you still lied and stole?”
She nodded. “That’s when God gave me my hives. I hate them.” Big tears plopped off her nose and chin.
I wiped a tear away with my thumb. “I know you don’t like them, but it’s important you learn to tell the truth and the hives help us teach you to tell the truth. They helped you recognize your impulse to lie and so you’ve learned to control it. In fact, you’ve learned it so well that you figured out if you don’t look at us and you answer quickly and turn away you can get away with lies.”
“Not forever, though. You find out.”
“Usually lies catch up with people. Now that you recognize the impulse to lie and you know that you can lie or steal to get what you want, you have to help your brain learn to make a different choice. You have to teach your brain to figure out how to get what you want without doing the wrong thing.”
She doesn’t respond for a few moments. Her tears keep falling off of her nose and chin. One lands on my wrist and rolls down my arm. Her voice is quiet, but strong. “If I ask instead, I can usually figure out a way to get what I want. Sometimes it’s a compromise, which means nobody gets what they really want, but it’s better than doing the wrong thing, because you get some of what you want. I don’t like doing the wrong thing.”
“So retrain your brain. Learn to ask, what can I do to get what I want without doing the wrong thing?”
She wipes her eyes. “It’s not going to be easy. I can do it, though.”
She falls into my arms and hugs me tight. She holds on like I’m her lifeline and keeps squeezing until I can only breathe in short, shallow bits.
“I will,” she whispers.