About Me

 

 The greatest thing we can do is to show up for our lives and not be ashamed.

 -Anne Lamott

 

I'm a creature of the word, learning to tell my honest story.

I offer it here because telling stories is the road back home.

Motherhood is not a biological designation
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Tuesday
Feb112014

The F words of trauma

The day after I wrote a letter to my two year old, he fell out of his sister's bunkbed onto a wood floor.

I have four kids, and a kiddo falling from various heights is not out of the ordinary. It happened in a millisecond (as it always seems to); I turned around to grab a diaper, and boom- he leaned too far over the edge, and tumbled over.  

The bunkbed is about 5 feet off the floor rather than a full ceiling height, but he fell head first.  I picked him up immediately, holding him to my chest and rocking him, checking his focus and his breath.  Then, I laid him on the ground to inspect his little body.

But when I did that, his eyes rolled inward, his skin and lips went pale, almost blue, and he stopped breathing.

Maybe it was only for two seconds, but it was enough to scare the living daylights out of me. None of my kids had ever reacted like that to falling.

I snatched Phoenix up, saying his name over and over, rubbing his back to get his circulation flowing, even as I sprinted for my phone to call 911.  

As I ran, his eyes refocused, he caught his breath, and he looked me in the face; so I called my husband first and told him what happened.

I didn't really need advice as much as I needed to hear his calm voice, as much as I needed him to bear witness and be kind to me, and tell me that these things sometimes happen and it wasn't my fault.

 

By this time, Phoenix had stopped crying. He asked for juice; he asked where his sister was (school); when we got in the car to go to the doctor, he pointed out where sister has dance class; he seemed normal. Except for at one point when he put his fingers into his mouth (the sign that he wants to take a nap), and then in the next second, his eyes rolled inward again and he looked like he was passing out. I yelled his name; he snapped back awake; and nothing else out of the ordinary happened until we got to the doctor's office and he threw the biggest tantrum of his life.  

 

About a year ago, we had a terrible Urgent Care visit that took over three hours of being trapped in a tiny room with tons of prodding and poking and a throat culture, and other awful things, and since then, Phoenix has a Pavlov's dogs reaction to the doctor.

The instant he sees the person with the stethoscope, he freaks the heck out.

This time was epic. There is no way to describe it. If I could have freed my hands long enough to get a video, I would show it as proof.  He was kicking, screaming, throwing himself on the floor, you name it. The doctor, a kind older woman, just watched, detached and mildly curious, as if she was watching a fish in an aquarium. Only I was the fish. And Phoenix was the water current, buffeting me around.

"Well, he's acting like a normal two year old," she finally said.

I was embarassed.  Braced for judgment.  I told her, "If you have any suggestions on how to make him stop, feel free to share. I'm open to suggestions."

"I think he's really just two," she offered.  

How can an age be an excuse for all things? It's like me saying, "Well, I'm 33," as the reason why I do anything weird, or mean, or imbalanced, or inexplicable.

I'm 33.  My airtight defense.  

It's like saying, "God told me to act like this." Who can argue? I threw down the God card. Trumped all ya'll.

Husband: Why are you crying in the middle of Ace Hardware?

Me: I'm 33.

Husband: Why did you put a metal lid in the microwave?

Me: I'm 33.

 

Phoenix is throwing down the I'm 2 card.  Who can argue?

I ask if I can take him into the bathroom (which attaches to the exam room) to try to calm him down so she can at least examine his ears without getting wacked in the face.

I take him in there, kneel down, try to reason in a calm voice because the doctor is on the other side of the door...see, this is the thing with being two.  

They can sort of reason, like sort of understand what I am saying and what I want, and what they need to do, but they are still ruled by primal impulses.  They are stuck between a rock and a hard place, wedged in the sad little transitional stage between baby and preschooler, without the verbal acuity to express what they need, but with enough outward perspective to recognize that things are not ok, yet they are still powerless to change these things. Therefore, they must throw tantrum.

Phoenix calmed down after I told him he could watch Dora on my phone. I do not think this is successful parenting.  I wish he had calmed down after I explained to him that the doctor is his friend and wants to help him feel better, and that he is safe with mommy, and that he can trust me. But none of those deep thoughts with mommy seem to work. Dora works. Therefore, Dora.

We reentered the exam room, and I held him while he watched Dora for about fifteen seconds, and then fell asleep in my arms without warning.  (scary and out of character). The doctor, who was squatting on the floor staring up at him like he was still a tropical fish, asked permission to scoop him out of my arms and hold him.

This was a new one. Doctor sitting on floor, holding my son, rocking him, staring at his fishiness, and not saying a word. I prayed prayed prayed that this stranger would somehow intuit whether my son was okay, or whether we needed to get an MRI and take him to Children's in Denver.  Please give her intuition. Give her wisdom. Give me wisdom to know if I should trust her supposed wisdom, I prayed.

Then Phoenix woke up. And started screaming again.

We decided to keep a close eye on him rather than take any drastic measures.

And he has been fine ever since.

 

Although the doctor did tell me to make sure he did not hit his head again for a YEAR.  "Because football players, when they get more than two concussions, cannot play for a year, and often when they get three consecutive concussions, they die," she said. 

Awesome. (for the record, he hit his head two more times that day).

All of these things happened before 11 am. 

I was done. Totally emotionally shut down by 11 am.  My reserves were empty, and I just wanted to go to bed and start over in the morning. But it was only 11, and I had an entire day still to go.

I am going to use this term rather liberally, in that I am still in the beginning stages of educating myself about trauma responses (I liken it to dipping my toes into shallow waters of a deep, deep pool. I am still wading, not yet diving down deep) but in my understanding, when you suffer a trauma, you often exhibit characteristics of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and one of the characteristics is hypervigilance.

 

Hypervigilance is another way of saying hyperawareness.  It means that your body goes into fight or flight mode; you are like a deer on high alert, flicking ears, darting eyes, tensed muscles, ready to sprint at any second.  Looking for danger.

Because once you've experienced trauma, you KNOW there is always danger. Danger is just around the corner. 

I call it the "waiting for the other shoe to drop" syndrome.  

No matter how safe things appear to be, no matter how long your streak of good things has been going, you KNOW KNOW KNOW that give it enough time, the shit is going to hit the fan again.

No matter if there is no imminent threat. No matter if you have no justifiable reason to be in fight or flight. Once that place has been accessed through trauma, your body can return there in an instant, like flipping a switch.

 

Once the switch is flipped, it is very difficult to flip it back into the off position. No amount of reasoning can do it. No prayer. No mantras. Nothing that involves your cognitive processes can shut down a physiological response.

I've tried setting intentions. I've tried beseeching God. I've tried talking myself out of it, reasoning with myself like I tried to reason with Phoenix on my knees on the floor of the bathroom in the doctor's office. But it does no good. It's like being two years old again. I don't have control of what is going on inside of me.

Trauma sinks down deep inside your bones, inside your brain. It's primal and physiological, not intellectual. It doesn't give a shit about your reasons why you shouldn't be freaking out.

 

My switch would flip almost daily after the fire. It could be a very small thing, and I would freak out; similar to Phoenix's two year old tantrums, only mine were internal.  Some part of me knew I was being irrational ( I imagine Phoenix knew this too), but the other part of me, the dominant part of me (aka my BODY) was fighting back sheer panic.

It did literally feel like being trapped between a rock and a hard place, wedged inside of my own uncontrollable and irrational emotional reactions.  

Hypervigilance is exhausting. You are on guard at all times, attempting to exist in the "normal" world while everything in you screams like Chicken Little that the sky is falling, and why isn't everyone else running like hell for the nearest exit out of this place???

Guaranteed that anything physical: hitting my leg on the corner of a table, scraping my elbow along a door frame, would flip my switch.  Panic, instant anger, fear, feeling trapped.  Then, exhaustion. It's like I would live a full emotional day in about five minutes, and then I would flatline. 

Anything that reminded me of the physical sensations of the trauma would trigger me: smell of smoke, a flame, not knowing where my kids or my husband might be, something breaking in the house, one of the kids getting hurt, not being able to find my keys or my purse, getting a spot or a tear in my clothes, ...anything that had to do with loss of any kind, anything that made me feel out of control, or like a victim, would trigger me.

Here's how I know I've been triggered: the word Fuck.  

If my instantaneous response to something is to scream the word Fuck in my head, my switch has just flipped to on.  

I am reactive. I have no buffer. I cannot calm myself down, or reason myself out of it. I am buffeted by any and all stimulus, and I cannot choose how I react. I have no agency in my own life.

I stub my toe. I can't open a door. My mind screams Fuck; I am flipped into hypervigilance, and it's fight or flight for who knows how long?

For months, I did not even recognize what was happening inside of me, I just felt intense shame for my inability to control myself and my emotions.

It was not until a close friend gave me permission to name this thing and educate myself about it a little, that I began to understand the dynamics of PTSD, and I could let myself off the hook.

She gave me language. And the language shone some light. And the light gave me hope.


By the way, THIS is why telling our stories is so important. We can give each other language for the hard things in our lives and help each other break out of the prison of self-shaming and despair. It's like when Phoenix is getting upset or throwing a tantrum, and I tell him to USE YOUR WORDS. Tell me what you need. Tell me what you are feeling.  Then I can help you.

 

My friend said, "Me too."  And she said, Do Jumping Jacks.  Seriously.  She said that the jiggling of my brain would actually help flip the switch back to off.

She told me to breathe deeply. To lie on the ground and feel the weight of my body, and the support of the ground. She told me to go for a run.

She didn't try to fix me or give me a spiritual panacea.

She gave me practical tools for addressing trauma with my body rather than my mind.  

Another friend told me to do hot yoga. She told me I needed to sweat out the trauma toxins, that breath and movement and a consistent practice of showing up on my mat would help reintegrate my mind, body, spirit, and heart from the fracturing and dis-integration that occurs when you go through trauma.  

Another friend suggested the Emotional Freedom Technique.

And I started reading this book.

All tools to finding language, so that the muting effects of trauma could be undone; the hand clamped over my airway could be pried open.

 

When Phoenix fell off the bed, I could feel the switch flip. Now maybe a child falling off a bed seems like a justifiable reason to panic. Of course it is.  That's traumatic for anybody.

But I know myself better now, two years after the fire and counting (and by the way, everything we went through in our marriage was its own kind of trauma with its own kind of emotional fallout and triggers), and I knew that my reactions were more than "normal" Mom panic.

Here's the victory for me: I did not belittle myself for being emotionally done by 11 in the morning.

I recognized my responses were irrational. I recognized that the rest of the day I was on high alert, with a hair trigger fuse for any additional stimulus; when a friend came over around 5 pm to help me with the kids before we had community group, she saw me snap at them, run around like a skittish animal, and heave huge sighs when there were crumbs on the counter and I couldn't get a spot out of the rug.

But I could say to her, I am sorry for my behavior right now, but I am triggered, and I am in a state of hypervigilance, and I can't really snap myself out of it.  You are seeing me at one of my worst and most vulnerable states, but I want you to see this. 

Because chances are, if it hasn't happened already, life will throw you some craziness and you might suffer trauma, and I WANT YOU TO KNOW it's OK to be a mess. 

It's OK to not always be in control.  Because guess what? We are not in control. EVER. of ANYTHING.

Of anything EXCEPT how we choose to respond.  

Sharing stories, finding language for what I was feeling, letting people see me in my most vulnerable places, has given me the tools to not be a victim of my own life.

I can choose how I respond again. Even if that means I can recognize when I am triggered but can't yet flip my switch back to off.  Recognizing it means I am not a victim. Recognizing it means I have agency.

It means I will keep learning more about the skin I am in so that I can help myself, and maybe others, move through trauma, move through fuck, move through fight or flight (or freeze), and back into freedom.