The Word Among Us

Marriage & Family Resources

On Pilgrimage for Nicholas

One disturbed child, two desperate parents, and a plea to St. Thérèse

By: Bernadette Nelson*

Nicholas was one year old and had been in four foster homes when my husband, Tom, and I adopted him from Guatemala. We realized he might have problems but were eager to love this little boy, along with our four other children.

It soon became obvious, however, that our new son had been severely wounded by losing one home and family after another. After six months of showing no emotion, he began erupting in bouts of angry screaming and violent behavior that worsened as time went on.

Deeply concerned, we began taking Nicholas to medical specialists before he turned three. It wasn’t until early 2008, though, when he was five, that we received a diagnosis: Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), a serious psychiatric condition stemming from his early traumas.

As Nicholas saw it, adults could not be trusted to take care of his needs, so he had to rely on himself. Because of this, he could not bond with us or receive our love; he actually saw it as a threat and did all he could to keep us distant. This played out in his disruptive behavior, lack of conscience development, and need to exert control.

Days of Rage. It was wrenching to see our home in turmoil, with everything revolving around Nicholas and his behavior. He could go from distant and subdued to violent with lightning speed, exploding over some insignificant issue.

I was the usual target of his tantrums, but if his siblings were nearby, Nicholas attacked them too. He hit them with hockey sticks, slammed one brother’s head into the TV, and threw scissors at his sister’s face. It was not unusual for Tom to come home from work and find that I had spent more than three hours restraining a kicking, screaming child.

My heart ached to see our other children suffering, especially the younger ones, who lived in fear of these outbursts. And I felt for Nicholas, who was so crippled by his inability to receive love. “I am just going to have to go to hell,” I heard him stating to himself one day—very matter-of-factly, yet with intense sadness.

I was struggling too. I begged God to help me love this difficult child and accept the situation. Deep down, though, my own anger was building: We didn’t have to adopt him. Why did we ever do it?

Turning to Thérèse. Despite all our efforts, Nicholas did not improve. Quite the contrary. We noticed that he seemed to enjoy hurting people. When he discovered that he could hurt us by expressing anger at God, he stood up during the Consecration at Mass one Sunday and screamed, “Stupid Jesus! Stupid Jesus!” He attempted to hurt himself too, and often tried to throw himself out of our moving car.

Sensing catastrophe just around the corner, Tom and I knew we had to do something. But what? Our therapists offered no comfort. Recovery was unlikely, they said. Barring any dramatic improvement in behavior over the next few years, our best hope was to keep Nicholas alive, at home, and out of criminal activity. In desperation, we decided to make a pilgrimage to Lisieux, France, the birthplace of St. Thérèse, to beg her intercession.

Why Thérèse? I have felt close to her all my life and have often experienced her help. And, I reasoned, she and Nicholas had things in common. Thérèse lost her mother as a child and was miraculously healed of an illness that may have been psychotic in nature; she also had an emotionally troubled sister.

Tears and Roses. Our time in Lisieux was short but filled with grace. On the last day, I prayed long at Thérèse’s tomb, sensing her with me so strongly that I couldn’t pull myself away till closing time. God was doing something in my heart—drawing me to set aside my anger and empowering me to follow Thérèse’s “little way” more closely. This had been my goal all along: to do my everyday duties with great love, in a spirit of trust and surrender to God. But that day, I received the grace to make a new start.

Leaving the chapel, Tom and I passed a life-sized statue of Thérèse. I glanced over as if to say farewell—and saw what looked like tears on her face. We stepped up to take a closer look. Sure enough, from the recesses of Thérèse’s right eye, water was dripping down her face and into a puddle in the crook of her arm. I took a cloth and collected three tears. Instantly the stream stopped, and the face dried up to the eye.

We tried to figure out an explanation. Condensation? No, the statue had been in the sun all day, with no rain for several days. Dew? That would have dried up too. Water dumped over the statue? No, it would have run down over the veil, not welled up from the recesses.

In the end, I took it as a sign that Nicholas would be cured. I started a novena and asked St. Thérèse to send me yellow roses as a sign of his healing.

From Heartache to Hope. Tom and I returned home in time for an interview with yet another RAD specialist. After hours of reviewing Nicholas’s history, she concluded, “In twenty years of working with kids like your son, I have not had a miracle yet.”

Leaving her office, we stepped onto the elevator. There on the floor was a single yellow rose petal. It was the first of four yellow rose “signs” that I received during my nine days of prayer.

Nicholas didn’t change overnight. Though we noticed that he never again made hateful remarks about Jesus and Mary, he behaved horrendously throughout the summer. But then came real signs of healing. He looked at us more and tried to control us less. His threats became milder, eventually disappearing altogether.

He began to display genuine concern for others. One day, finding me on the floor with a stomach ache, he got his blanket, covered me with it, and walked away quietly. I cried tears of joy.

“You know, I think you are well on your way to becoming a happy-ever-after story,” Nicholas’s therapist commented not long ago. And it’s true. Every day brings new evidence of healing and wholeness.

Spontaneous gestures of love come regularly to Nicholas now. He is loyal to his siblings; if someone is hurt, he is usually the first to give a hug or lend a hand. He is learning to control his emotions. Nicholas has improved so much, in fact, that he is no longer considered to have RAD. His three therapists now predict complete or near recovery from his remaining psychological and emotional difficulties.

Take Heart! One day I told Nicholas, “Isn’t it amazing that the God of the entire universe thinks each of us is special?” His eyes lit up as if this truth were hitting him for the first time. “Are you serious, Mommy? I am special to God?” More recently, I asked him what one thing he would choose if God offered him anything he wanted. “I would like to have the fire of the Holy Spirit in my heart,” he said.

I have no doubt that God will hear his prayer. And as I thank God for his mercy to our family, I have no doubt that he stands ready to answer many other prayers through the intercession of his servant, St. Thérèse.

*A pseudonym has been used at the author’s request.