The Power of Unstoppable Love

I’ve condensed the radio interview that featured on This American Life, Love is a Battlefield. What do you make of this woman?

For seven-and-a-half years, Daniel was confined to a crib. He ate in it, stared out the window during the day and slept upright in the space he shared with another boy in the orphanage. He had no idea that across the Atlantic, a woman named Heidi had picked him out of a magazine from an adoptive agency. She would fly to Romania with her husband Rick to take Daniel to his new home in Ohio.

The adjustment for everyone was relatively smooth the first six months. Until Daniel’s eighth birthday rolled around. He had never contemplated what a birthday meant and started wrestling with the realization that he had parents who could have chosen not to leave him in an orphanage. Anger overwhelmed him and “he needed to hate someone. Heidi and Rick were the people closest at hand. And so his tantrums became tornadoes of rage. Seven, eight hour marathons where he would throw literally anything he could get his hands on. He put more than a thousand holes in the walls of his room. They had to move everything out of his bedroom except a mattress.

Social workers and specialists left their home bleeding, needing medical attention. But Daniel’s greatest pleasure was in hurting Mom. She shared, “One time he gave me a black eye when I was trying to help him and he smiled like he was so happy.”

And what did you think when you saw your son smiling?

Observe her unemotional response.

I thought he really needs serious help.

Rick had to hire a bodyguard for Heidi and they called the police regularly. Rick could take only so much and threatened to leave. When Heidi was asked point blank if she would’ve sacrificed her marriage, her voice trailed off, “I didn’t want to…”

I was so exasperated. She obviously had been willing.

Then one day when Heidi was preparing Daniel a snack, he grabbed a knife from the counter and held it to her throat.

The interviewer asked, “How do you love somebody who is homicidal?

And I was disarmed: “Well, because he was my son. I mean, you have to love him or else there’s no way out of it. It’s like, if you’re lost, you want to keep moving forward to get to the end place. I don’t think I ever questioned my love.”

She was his mother. As simple and as definitive as that.

What Heidi feared was that Daniel would end up seriously hurting someone else. After consulting a string of psychiatrists, she settled on a highly intensive program related to attachment therapy under the guidance of Dr. Ronald Federici in Virginia. She and Daniel were required to spend eight weeks side by side, literally no farther than three feet apart.

The goal of his plan is to try to recreate the bond that never occurred because I wasn’t with him when he was born. But it’d be very natural for a newborn baby to spend an extensive amount of time just next to the mom.”

Daniel reported: “I didn’t go to school. She stopped her job. When she would go to the bathroom I would be right outside the door. When I went to the bathroom, she’d be right outside. The only time she was not next to me was when I was sleeping. And like literally, that was it.”

Like mothers and their babies, Heidi and her son also had to spend time looking at each other. Daniel was required to look into Heidi’s eyes in every interaction. Every time he resisted, he was subjected to greater gestures of intimacy. They would sit on the couch and she would punish him by hugging him. Initially, Daniel’s behavior deteriorated.

But then he gave in.

He actually came to understand, likely for the first time, that his mother loved him. The transformation came slowly, and when stealing replaced the violence, the therapy changed. Rick and Heidi cradled him 20 minutes like a baby every night. At 13, Daniel was bigger than Mom but complied for the ice cream they spooned into his mouth to keep him still. He started opening up, talked about what it had been like in the orphanage. Slowly helped around the house, made friends.

Then he won the Brickner Award from synagogue, given to the valedictorian of the confirmation class. Though Mom had taken Daniel to synagogue hoping it would help develop morals, he was kicked out many times over the years with the help of the police. The distinction he earned was a miracle. Sharing the troubles of his early life in his acceptance speech, Daniel kept his composure – until the end. He shook:

Before I finish, I’d like to thank two people, my mom and dad. The reason that I’m here today and the kind of person I am today is because of you. Dad, you’re one heck of a guy to put up with a crazy family like this. And you guys are both amazing. I love you very much.”

Heidi said it was “without doubt, the most spectacular moment of her life.”

This moment made for an exultant redemption of an arduous journey. But the closing footnote was what I found most interesting.

Heidi and Rick were able to take a seven-year-old with no direct experience of adult affection, and with a certain amount of pain and suffering, turn him into a loving son. The only problem is that the actual participants in this story see things differently.”

Heidi said she doesn’t feel one can teach love.

Heidi: I don’t think the goal was ever love. The goal was attachment.

She seems utterly practical about the whole thing, even about whether or not her son now loves her.

Heidi: Yeah, I feel loved by Daniel. I don’t think he wants to hurt me. I don’t worry about that at all.

It’s a very unsentimental view of her relationship with her child. But that is probably exactly what had made Heidi so successful. She is an unusually pragmatic person. She’s not a flowering earth mother with a wealth of love to give. She is fundamentally realistic, tough-minded. And these are precisely the characteristics that are needed in this situation. If you’re the kind of person who actually needs love, really needs love, chances are you’re not the kind of person who’s going to have the wherewithal to create it. Creating love is not for the soft and sentimental among us. Love is a tough business.

What do you think of Heidi’s missionary zeal, her unflinching devotion to her son even against the threat to her life? And the closing commentary? A lot of women – a lot of people – would’ve wrung their hands and most understandably taken it personally to have a knife put to their throat in this context. I was fascinated by the thought that anyone more emotionally needy than Heidi would not have been able to pull off the change of heart in her son. Parents who are abusive are in fact often acting out the disappointment of not receiving the love they demand from their child. You also wonder how much grief biological parents would take from their kid. But Heidi’s parenting reveals that to her, Daniel was her blood. Any thoughts on this woman’s bottomless reserve of patience and determination?

85 thoughts on “The Power of Unstoppable Love

  1. Wow, What a story. Her determination almost seems crazy. I doubt I could have survived or put up with what she did. I admire the results. Did she love enough to transform him or did life/ love/ God transform him? Life is a mystery. Thanks for asking and examining the tough issues Diana.

    • While those who look at things with a spiritual purpose will bring up God, the interview was pretty matter-of-fact that it was under Heidi’s persistence Daniel transformed. Her tenacity threw me in for a loop. I do think the interviewer tapped something there, in Heidi’s willingness to gamble her marriage. But she really is such an inspiration.

  2. Who would have thought that this could come to a good ending?
    What these parents were able to endure with their adopted son is truly mind boggling.
    ” . . . . she settled on a highly intensive program related to attachment therapy under the guidance of Dr. Ronald Federici in Virginia.” I think this therapy was the turning point. I hope specialists are going to study it and apply it in cases like this, possibly sooner rather than later.
    “If you’re the kind of person who actually needs love, really needs love, chances are you’re not the kind of person who’s going to have the wherewithal to create it.” What an interesting thought! Something to ponder about, really. The ‘creators’ of love we cannot praise enough. Heidi and Rick both may have had a very loving upbringing themselves which made them very suitable parents. It shows that it is immensely important that a baby receives a lot of love. Babies in institutions should be looked after by a very loving nursing staff. In an ideal world this would be the case.

    • Insightful of you to consider the parents’ own upbringing, Aunty. The glimpse we get of Daniel’s yrs in the orphanage is very sad. He doesn’t recall one adult name. The adults had hundreds of kids and babies to feed and wash and watch in their cribs.

      Thanks also for settling yourself here with us. So nice to have you.
      Diana

  3. Wonderful. I keep thinking about the point made about needy people who would not have handled the situation as well as Heidi. So true. Heidi did not require Daniel’s love, just as all parents try not to require their children’s love.

  4. You know, you are very awesome at writing…you would be a very good novelist or a short story genius. Either way I can sit and listen to you for hours because there is always a true message of life’s realities within, which you will share, that will make the rest of us sit back and ponder delightfully!

    • Wendell, you have no idea what your encouragement does to me. I should say for me, but it triggers the frustrated longings you spoke of under my other post today.

      Thanks a whole lot. I wouldn’t be here without the amazing, faithful support like yours.

      Diana

  5. I didn’t read the original article, but the mother must have had some real conviction that she could find the help, somewhere, for her child. Of all the possible discipline techniques out there, I’m so, so glad she found the attachment therapy. It’s possible to earn attachment even when early attachment bonds were not formed or ill-formed and that’s what this child learned through that attachment therapy. Daniel Siegel, a neuroscientist, talks a lot about that in his work. He’s got a great parenting book called Parenting From the Inside Out as well as other books on the neuroscience of mindfulness. I’ll have to look into that article more about how she found out where to go get help.

    I have been interested in attachment parenting practices for years. I had to learn, still am learning, to re-parent myself since I had moderate attachment disruptions in my own childhood (as many children in alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional homes do). Many adults struggling with depression, anxiety, and addictions (to chemical substances or process addictions) also have had some attachment disruptions in childhood- no, I’m not talking as radical as the kind this boy had, but enough to cause cumulative problems in a person’s life. It’s usually not detected until mid-life, when much time has been lost. I’m glad this mother had the determination to find help for her son.

    I have a child who had selective mutism, separation anxiety and sensory processing disorder (she had both hyper- and hypo- sensitivities) and while I know she couldn’t at all help her 20-30 meltdowns, it took a lot to ride some of them out (my husband had much less patience too). I had a choice to either leave her on her own – where they would get worse – or pull her close to me and help her ride them out, sometimes pushing me away (occasionally hitting, kicking or trying to bite). There were times she just to scream in my arms and then went limp in my arms, and you could tell that her emotions scared her a lot, even when the expressed emotion was anger. Anger is usually always a cover for fear and grief that the person doesn’t know how express.

    She would push me away at the same time of desperately needing me. This child was breastfed and co-slept with and in arms a lot, so it wasn’t that she was left alone in a crib. Her limbic system (the emotional regulator of the brain) was just underdeveloped even though her cognitive abilities were advanced.

    Her toughest years were about 3 to about 8, though now, still, if she’s hungry or tired or overwhelmed with schoolwork (she’s in a gifted class so she has a lot) she will still have meltdowns. They don’t last nearly as long, though, and holding her through them still helps reduce the intensity and severity.

    In my situation, that daughter was the one who challenged me the most to grow and learn about attachment parenting because this was the child for whom all ‘conventional wisdom’ backfired. Because I learned about attachment parenting practices, I had to meet my own grief of what I had lost in my own formative years. I’m older, but still, the pain cuts deep. I have skills to manage it but it’s a slow process – one step forward, two steps back sometimes.

    So, yes. I definitely can relate to that mother’s and child’s experience on a very personal level.

    Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Sorry, a typo.

      My child would have 20-30 minute meltdowns, sometimes 4-5 times a day for a few days in a row. It was a difficult time for a while, until her nervous system developed more. Now, we just have maybe one stress-related meltdown every other day. We are learning more strategies and games to teach her and her sisters mindfulness based stress reduction.

    • Casey, I’m sure readers will find your story helpful. Thanks so much for sharing with us your ongoing challenges. I put up both the audio and the transcript of the interview. It did say attachmt parenting got a lot of bad rap in the 70s and was trying to move away from the more controversial, radical therapy methods. This dr was among the few to pioneer the better way.

      A lot has been asked of you in dealing with your daughter’s meltdowns, both in the grapplings with your past and the literal ones with her. It seems almost insensible to pull her close, as Heidi did her son, when she is biting and pushing you away.

      “Anger is usually always a cover for fear and grief that the person doesn’t know how express.”

      A cover for shame also.

      You’re amazing.

      • “A cover for shame also.” That too. The socialization process includes a lot of shaming…unfortunately.

        I’m really so excited to see the new movement in psychology is moving toward mindfulness and attachment theory. A lot of this stuff is gaining ground because neuroscience has proven these techniques, which were once a natural part of child rearing practices, work.

        The blessing with my child is she’s an amazingly sweet person when she’s feeling connected, well-fed and unstressed.

        I learned a great deal about many different subjects, so, in a way, it’s been wonderful to continue to study and learn about the myriad things – SPD, selective mutism, mindfulness, highly sensitive persons, human development, resilience.

        I still do some outreach with my other blog about selective mutism. SO many parents have written comments about their children with SM and the parents with brand new diagnoses get to read their comments as well as some of the articles I wrote and at least feel like they aren’t alone. When I first found out about daughters SM, there was hardly anyone blogging about it. So I did. And I still get parents and teachers contacting me for some information. It’s been great.

      • And, well, I don’t consider myself amazing. I haven’t always made the right choices. It’s taken some time to see progress. But as I’m learning what my own needs for self-care are, I realize I can meet them where they are at.

        My daughter’s pediatric neuropsych is a wonderfully gifted woman, trained in mindfulness techniques and the latest neuroscience research. We are learning some new things recently and what she tells me is that we push our children to excel, without teaching them how to reduce stress, relax and have fun. She says real intelligence comes not just from the intellect, but from understanding the body and the emotions, which signal to the brain it’s needs.

        So, it’s been a wonderful learning process for me. We will be teaching the kids some games and mindfulness strategies – mindful eating as well as some interesting movements to make just before bedtime to ensure a deeper sleep!

      • Yikes, and when I mean “we” I mean, culturally, in America, the push is towards excelling academically without learning how to manage stress and cultivate relaxation and fun. I’m definitely in agreement about that and want to ensure a healthy balance.

  6. It is a remarkable story, and sometimes someone touches you “so” and you can’t let it go…you want to help and will do everything you can to help. Even to the point people think you are crazy, if you believe it, do it. I admire her very much for doing it, when most others would have given up. These are the types of people that make the world a better place.

    • “Even to the point people think you are crazy” That’s just it. What I was getting at. I almost named the post something like Irrational Love. Imagine if we had more people like this – if we sought to be like this ourself? So nice hearing from you. =)
      And thanks for the support at OM’s. I enjoy every visit of mine at your place.

  7. It’s a remarkable story. I was already heartbroken at the seven plus years in a crib. I am aware of attachment. My wife and I adopted a child a year ago or so. It was a good upbringing for him – he lived with his one set of foster parents for his whole life. He was three when we entered his life. We had studied attachment and read books and had taken classes on attachment. That was our biggest challenge – getting that bond. It didn’t take long. He hasn’t acted out (yet – who knows if he will get a touch of anger – nothing like Daniel there) and it’s been quite a remarkable thing. Not all adoptive families are that lucky, from those in the adoptive family circles we are in.

    But this story is just bottomless in it’s aching, it’s despair and yet it flourishes with the pragmatic and devoted attention of the mother. There is a line that starts to dissolve in adoptions – that of adopted child and biological. I sometimes forget that our youngest is adopted. That’s a wonderful thing to feel. I think that breaking moment in the story when Daniel finally sees it, gets it…wow. A turning point. Worth all the pain and suffering. He has come home in many ways.

    Thank you for sharing this powerful story, Diana in only the way you can – with deftness and an eye for the compassionate.

    Blessings,
    Paul

    • “There is a line that starts to dissolve in adoptions – that of adopted child and biological. I sometimes forget that our youngest is adopted. ” Just beautiful, Paul. That’s the point, isn’t it? To give someone a name, a family in which to lay his roots and start his own history. To do so beyond a legal standing to an identity a child can claim. The gospel of the Cross stands apart from religion because it is more than a faith, but a vital relationship where we are not floundering for a God but rejoice to know He has come and we now belong. We are sons and daughters of heaven. And yes, wasn’t that something, the gradual but sure turn of tide in Daniel? To observe was to feel an extraordinary relief – of triumph.

      It’s precious to have learned you adopted, Paul. Thanks for sharing your remarkable journey.

  8. As someone who doesn’t have children but who does have parents- I can definitely say that parents are capable of a love and endurance that defies logic- even when being pragmatic- and will hang in there with you and for you even when you can’t. What a beautiful message on Valentine’s Day and V-Day, Diana.

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  10. ****stands and applauds****

    I believe this mother practiced what she believed, the Faith she had read about, the Love that compelled her and her husband to adopt….. I believe she, like we all do , need to know there is something better out there ❀

    Thank you .

  11. As someone who used to do Attachment Therapy with kids, this is an amazing family. There are few families who can hang in there this long. Also, few family have the resources to leave home for 8 weeks of treatment, which is often the only way to help. I am so happy that they did and that it worked! The mother’s ability to be “pragmatic” and to not be “needy” of her son’s love was also a huge key to the success. Kudos to all of them!

    I love the way you write, your expression is so clear and heartwarming! I agree that you need to be writing books…I would be buying them!

  12. Such a heart-warming story, Diana. It’s remarkable that Daniel’s life could be transformed so positively from such sad beginnings. This is such a validation of the effectiveness of attachment therapy that is done well. I truly admire Heidi’s determination and strength of spirit. I know I couldn’t have done it.

    • I always said I could not even adopt. I would want to pour out myself for the child as I do for my son, and am not confident I could do that – come through. I’ve been dizzy busy. Thanks for the ongoing support and it was my pleasure to cite you, S. =)

      Diana

  13. Well obviously she demonstrated the kind of love the Bible says my God has for a rebellious people He is anxious to have with Him as they mature and understand what morality is all about. Very few people have that maturity and it helps us all to see it demonstrated. I’m in awe of that woman!

  14. This gives an entirely different dimension to the phrase Tough Love. A beautiful and incredibly challenging story, Diana. Thanks, once again, for sharing something so very thought-provoking. You are gifted *and* a gift.
    xoxo,
    Kathryn

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  17. Superb post, Diana. This story resonates with readers, obviously, and it certainly did with me. It appears to argue for the basic psychoanalytic tenet that early childhood experiences have a profound effect upon later development.

  18. I was sad I could not comment on your post about the prophetic dream, as it was a pleasure to read Ma’am HW. This piece resonates so deeply though. A Brilliant article indeed!!
    It makes me think terribly very many things of course about general societies attitude toward parenting and also toward people in general.
    Folk do not like to be given up on. Some take a whole lot longer than others and never receive such tenderness…actually not even that – wisdom – that this mother showed. It definitely takes a certain kind of person to be able to stand through anything and be available whilst a human being heals.
    Thank you for a wonderful read to the start of my week with children all back at school after Easter Holidays. An absolute to take these sentiments with me – refreshed and renewed in motivation πŸ˜‰

    • I’m humbled by your receptivity to the lessons in this piece on the power of parenting, IW. Actually, reminds me to patience as I face a tired morning.

      As to the other post, it was the first time I disallowed comments on this blog. My readers have bestowed enough affirmation; I did not want to take up anyone’s time, invite more praise about my work or how they’ve seen my fly. I appreciate your time and presence.

      Xx
      HW

  19. When one human commits to another living being, he commits for life. It should be so in marriage, in child rearing and even in the adoption of pets. ‘Till death do we part. ❀

    Too many in the world are like one of my students who said of her impending marriage to a fella who abused her often, "Well, it might not work out, but I can always find someone else."

    Was she truly committed to him? Unfortunately there is no allegiance, no faithfulness, no real love in most hearts. It is only, "What's in it for me?"

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