The journey back to where I began

Finding myself at the Child Study Centre

“You do not know what wars
are going on down there
where the spirit meets the bone.”
— Miller Williams

I’ll never forget my first day at the Centre, the beginning of a nearly two-year period that would alter my life forever. They’re not all bad memories, but still, they stand as reminders of a traumatic childhood and a time of immense and difficult transition in my young life.

The Child Study Centre was a children’s mental health facility, equipped and designed for children with a variety of psychosocial and behavioural problems. The building itself sat on the grounds of the University of Ottawa, at 120 University Private. I was ten when I first went there. It was the summer after I had completed grade four. I was there because my adoptive family could no longer manage my disruptive and self-destructive behaviour.

There were a number of issues that led me there. I was a “behavioural” kid, diagnosed at age eight with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and prescribed Ritalin and later Cylert (it was the mid 1980s). As I grew older, my behaviours escalated more towards self-harm, violence and physical abuse of my family members and others around me. Several “behaviour modification” techniques were attempted. As a form of punishment, my parents had gradually removed all of my personal belongings to the point where all I possessed was a mattress on the floor of my room. I would break things, smash holes in the walls and damage property in my intense fits of anger and rage. Things got so bad that, for a time, a lock was installed on my door and I was contained for hours of the day alone in my room.

I was assessed and reassessed over the years. Meanwhile, my family and I had moved from Almonte, Ontario, to Kanata, a suburb of Ottawa. My mother and I routinely rode the OC Transpo bus into Ottawa in a never-ending series of visits to doctors, child psychologists and psychiatrists. Numerous attempts were made to find out what was wrong with me, including CAT scans, EEGs and various psychological assessments. Many suggestions were made, but I don’t believe there was ever a firm diagnosis. Attachment disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder were all suggested. They thought I may have been manic depressive, then decided I was likely too young for such a diagnosis. I think they eventually settled on fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Whatever the case, by age ten it had become clear that I could no longer reside at home with my adoptive family.

So, in the summer of 1987, I moved into the Child Study Centre. I shared a room on the sixth floor residence with another boy. I had a primary worker named Linda. I didn’t mind being there. I enjoyed the food, the big-screen TV and the pool table. It felt luxurious. I enjoyed the outings, and the constant companionship of the other kids.

For me, the Centre quickly became my home away from home. There was routine there. There were timeouts if we were disruptive or acted out. There was the padded “Quiet Room” where we would be restrained or carried into if having a fit or temper tantrum. Most of us were medicated. There was a gym with a trampoline where we also played floor hockey and basketball. I saw a psychologist, Muriel, once a week on the fourth floor. There was a special needs school on the main floor but my parents had managed to keep me in the regular school system. I was sent to a public school in Kanata every day by taxi. Embarrassingly, we rode around in an old school bus that had been painted red and had the words Child Study Centre—-University of Ottawa scrawled along the side. That was our transportation when we went on outings to the park or other places.

My behaviours eased while I was there. I was soon one of the most well-behaved kids, and was rarely reprimanded for anything. I earned extra privileges and could be trusted by staff to run little errands for them like going to the store. I was also able to leave for short periods of time. I often went for walks around the campus or through the neighbouring area of Sandy Hill.

On Friday afternoons after school, I would go home to be with my family for the weekend. Often, though, my old behaviours would return and prove too much for us all, and my parents would drive me back to the Centre. Sometimes I was the only resident there and a staff member would come in for the weekend just for me. It was during these one-on-one occasions that I functioned best, and I looked forward to them.

I became close to many of the staff there. The Centre had become my safe place. One of my favourite people was the breakfast cook, Sophia. I would often wake up early and go down to the fifth floor kitchen to help her make breakfast or set the tables. I enjoyed helping out.

“I was dark-skinned and knew that I looked different from everyone else in my family. I could never understand why.”

Why such fury at home, then? I have only inklings as to the root of our problems, not firm conclusions.

I was adopted just before my first birthday. I was told I had been “chosen.” As far back as I can remember, I was always told I was adopted, though in those truly innocent years, I never really understood what it meant. I had two fraternal twin sisters, my parents’ biological children, who were four years older than me. We seemed to live a good life. I had everything I needed, at least at first.

I didn’t know the whole story, though—-what had happened or why I was adopted. My parents had just told me bits and pieces. My mother had some problems and was quite young. That was it. Oh yeah, and that I was “Native.” I never understood what that meant.

Growing up, I remember feeling different and detached from everyone around me. I don’t remember ever feeling close to anyone, including my adoptive parents. It bothered me to feel so estranged and alienated from everyone else. I was also dark-skinned and knew that I looked different from everyone else in my family. I could never understand why.

I think I was loved by my adoptive family, but I had always felt unable to return that love. I acted out this frustration, unable to communicate or voice what I was experiencing. As I grew older, these emotions intensified until I became too disruptive to continue living with the rest of my family and moved to the Centre.

The staff at the Centre observed nothing like the behaviour that was being reported at home. The difference was like night and day. Every Friday when I would have to go home, I would feel overcome with anxiety and fear and all the feelings of disharmony would come flooding back. It would start the minute I walked through the door. For whatever reason, I didn’t want to be there. There were rarely any positive home visits, and the idea of me ever living with my adoptive family seemed unachievable. I had a deep-rooted distrust that left me unable to connect with them in any meaningful way. It was becoming clearer that a reconciliation was unlikely. Finally, I began staying at the Child Study Centre fulltime while my adoptive parents terminated our adoption. I became a Crown ward at age 11.

When an adoption involving an Aboriginal child breaks down, there is an effort to reunite the child with his or her birth family whenever possible. This happened with me and I returned to Winnipeg to meet members of my birth family. I met my birth father, David, for the first time, but sadly learned that my birth mother had died in a house fire on the reserve in 1986. My grandmother and uncle on my mom’s side had died in the same fire. A few years later, I met my birth sister.

For many different reasons, the decision was made to finalize my Crown wardship, rather than have me return to my home community of Little Saskatchewan First Nation in Manitoba. I moved into a group home and then another foster home before leaving the care of the Children’s Aid Society at age 17.

It was not until years later, when I was about 26 and had assembled the bits and pieces I had discovered over the years, that I would learn my whole truth.

I had really wanted to connect with my birth father. I also wanted to learn what had really happened to me, including dates and times of specific events in my life. I met with my former Children’s Aid Society worker and requested that specific information be retrieved from my file. What I learned shocked me.

My mother, Daisy Sinclair, was born in either 1957 or 1958. There were no permanent records. She was 19 in 1977 when I, her third child, was born. She and another man had my sister in 1973 and my older brother was born in 1975, also with David. David was 11 years older than my mother. My parents both had problems with alcohol and solvent use. We children were all adopted at different times by different families. I had been apprehended by child welfare authorities and taken from my grandmother while out on the street with her one evening. I was then shifted between five different foster homes, two “emergency homes” and an orphanage—-all during my first year of life. And then I was adopted.

No wonder I had problems adjusting to this family. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. Post-traumatic stress and the sudden loss of my birth mother were never considered as contributing factors for my behaviour. In the struggle to label or diagnose me with something, no one had seemed to consider where I had come from or the early childhood trauma that I had already experienced before I was adopted. After all, the perception at the time was that adoption could remedy such problems. What felt worse was how this information had been kept away from me.

In any case, I finally had the answers I’d been looking for. I knew my mother’s name, my father’s name, that I had a brother and a sister and that there was more to me than I had ever known. The term “adoption” finally meant something. For me, these discoveries also showed me that my problems ran deeper than what I had originally thought. I began to free myself from thinking that there was something wrong with me. I also refused to allow myself to be defined by a mainstream mental-health diagnosis rather than by my own experience. I attributed my feelings of confusion, loneliness and negative self-image to my history of abandonment and loss.

I began researching Aboriginal history and learning about things like assimilation, oppression and cross-cultural adoption. I hit a turning point when I read Geoffrey York’s The Dispossessed, a vivid portrait of Aboriginal life in Canada. In it was an entire chapter devoted to the “60s Scoop” a term used to describe the “lost generation” of Aboriginal children cross-culturally adopted around the world. It is estimated that 3,000 Aboriginal children from Manitoba were adopted between 1960 and 1980. Many other adoptions, besides my own, had also broken down. I no longer felt alone, and I began to explore these systemic causes.

“I was shifted between five different foster homes, two ‘emergency homes’ and an orphanage—-all during my first year of life.”

I first attended psychotherapy when I was 22. I wanted to understand why I felt the way I did about my life. I wanted to understand why I was so prone to periods of depression that I could not express, and why I had a tendency to self-destruct. I also sought to discover more about my childhood trauma, how it had impacted me and why I had felt so unlovable my entire life. No more psychiatry, no more medications. No more covering up.

I have since become an advocate of psychotherapy as a holistic approach to addressing, realizing and understanding childhood trauma. I believe that symptoms of emotional distress often have a root. Sometimes we need to go back and uncover that root as a means of easing our suffering and understanding our pain. This process can hurt like hell. For me though, it has set me free.

As I began to understand the cultural dislocation of Aboriginal peoples and the concept of intergenerational trauma, I became less angry. I became less angry at my adoptive family for the decision that they had made and for what they could not have provided me with. I also began to understand why my birth parents made the choices that had rendered them unable to care for their children. They had been suffering as well.

Now, at the age of 30, I understand these things at a much deeper level. I am finally at peace with my life. I describe this process as my journey to self. I know my truth and where I come from.

It’s been nearly 20 years since I have last seen my adoptive family. At their request, we have had no contact. It has been hard, but I now choose not to internalize those feelings. I no longer use their last name and have also reverted to the first name given to me by my birth mother.

My father David and I reconnected last summer after 17 years. When I first visited him in Winnipeg, he told me that I was named after his brother, my uncle Stanford. On our last visit, he recalled for me the night I was apprehended. He explained that he had been at work until the early evening, and when he came home he was simply told that I was gone. My dad still lives a hard life. He is still in a lot of pain. I feel his gentle spirit through his rough exterior and I feel nothing but love and affection for him. Now that I understand, we are growing closer.

In Aboriginal culture, there is a belief that life is a circle. I finally feel as though this journey has almost come full circle. It has been a journey from trauma, pain and suffering, to anger and rage, to understanding, peacefulness, truth and compassion. To view my life as a circle has helped me to stay focused on the path of healing and recovery. When I am focused on healing and recovery, I want nothing more than to help others like me understand what has happened to us. This is the intergenerational impact. My life is just one example of this shared history.

“As I began to understand the cultural dislocation of Aboriginal peoples and the concept of intergenerational trauma, I became less angry.”

My time at the Child Study Centre was an integral part of my journey. In 2002, I attended a conference of the Canadian Counselling Association at the University of Ottawa. The Child Study Centre had been closed down almost ten years prior. I snuck into the building at 120 University Private, and rode the elevator up to the sixth floor. It was all too familiar. I wandered the halls, sneaking into what used to be my room, then cruised down around the empty stairwell to the fifth floor where my adoptive father and I had once played pool. The dining room was empty and the big round tables were gone. Seeing that place again, knowing what I knew, I found closure.

In the building there were no more tears and no more laughter, no sounds of children this time. No screaming and no yelling. No hyperactivity. Just silence.

In me, there was also no more pain and no more suffering.

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