I flew back from Bulgaria late Saturday night., I was in the hospital Sunday morning. Israel woke up with a leg swollen triple the size of normal with ‘concerning’ redness. Mentally and physically, I was exhausted and emotionally spent. Much of Sunday was a blur.
At one point during his stay, I was helping distract and hold him down as they tried for the third time to get an IV. He looked directly at me and then at the nurses, and said, “STOP, please NO.” And the lead nurse responded, “you are going to be okay, we are almost all done” Their eyes were intent on the difficult task, while my eyes read every single thought that crossed his face. I knew this was not going to be okay. I also knew there was no choice, it had to be done. In that moment of time, I saw the curtain drop and I saw him retreat deep within his mind.
The hospital staff was not at fault, they were doing a job that has to be done every day to help kids who are sick. But I knew there would be a price to pay and this was so much bigger than a child going through an IV stick. I knew that we had just lost ground. It’s times like these that jolt my heart and remind me that repairing a trauma brain is a lot like building a house of cards. If you jostle the table, the cards will fall and you start over again,…at ground zero.
We stayed four days in the hospital, and he struggled. I tried to explain this to staff, as they hugged on him and brought him treats. He charmed them and smiled, and collected compliments, a toy firetruck, coloring books, candy, and hugs. The moment they walked from the room, he was gone…rocking in his bed wringing his hands, while his eyes stared sightless at the ceiling…ignoring me as he sat at his ‘ground zero’.
I looked like a crazy, over-reactive mother as I encouraged staff not to give him this extra attention. I asked them to not hug him when he asked, and I watched as he frantically demanded their attention like his life depended upon it. I felt sick to my stomach as my son returned to the boy I had brought home from an orphanage 20 months earlier.
It is so hard to explain to others that my child’s loving behaviors and smiles; they are techniques, not emotions. It’s not real. It’s so strange to say these things. Naturally our culture engages with small children in this way, and unnaturally I have to fight this weird battle of telling people to treat him differently. There are many moments that his mind still lives in the orphanage, the trauma, the past.
You see, he was rewarded in the orphanage by being cute, by being sad, and by gaining adult favor. He literally survived and was fed because he was ‘cute and engaging’. And in this stressful moment, he is surviving with you. When you respond with favors and treats, you have reinforced attachment with the wrong adult. You take away my opportunity to teach him what a mother is, what a trust attachment should look like.
He wants you to hold him and pick him up, because in that moment, you might take him home. You might provide his next meal, a drink of water, or basic human attention because his brain is screaming that he is back in that orphanage,..alone. Food and physical contact mean survival. His brain is wired to survive and babies who live trauma cannot ‘fight or flight’, so they learn to ‘freeze and retreat’. My child learned that ‘not crying’ and being cute gave him attention and food in a place of complete deprivation. This cannot be undone by months spent in a family, it’s not undone by the affection of strangers, and my greatest fear is that it may never be undone. But, what can’t happen, is he learn to use strangers as a means to survive.
Dependence on adults, almost killed him. Reliance on a big person, resulted in a starved child who could not speak or eat solid food at the age of 4. He has a brain that sees the world through the lens of trauma. When he is stressed, each move is calculated and an act of survival. And here you have this boy, who you want to pity, who you want to erase all the bad that has happened, by pouring in good things. You want to show him that the world is a good place filled with good people. But there is nothing that can erase the past, it has left an indelible mark on his perception of love and attachment. So as a mother, I try to explain to people that we can never erase bad things with good. Instead we meet head on the nightmares, the pain and the fear. Because covering up a wound that needs dealt with is like putting a Hello Kitty band-aid on a hemorrhage.
We have spent the last 20 months taking an adult-minded survivor and teaching him to trust like a child. This has been a struggle each day to teach him to play with toys, not just sit rocking and twisting his hands. It’s been teaching him to sit in quiet moments, not fill them with endless chatter. It’s food issues and learning how to chew and swallow. It’s anniversaries and triggers, that jostle the table and the cards fall. It’s teaching him to cry out when he’s hurt or scared, instead of sitting alone in cold stone silence. Mainly it’s returning to ground zero, over and over, in a place of acceptance as we realize how deeply rooted the trauma is. And when we are sitting there. I repeat, “this is your home, you will never go back to Bulgaria”. “I am your mother and mommies stay” and he repeats it back, “mommies stay”.
As a mother, I understand the communication of my children when they ‘act out’, but I’ve found it far harder to interpret and understand ‘acting in’. The worst type of crying is not the loud cries and outward tears of my children or the wailing and righteous indignation of a toddler. No, what is so much more difficult, is the weeping of a soul that cannot be heard. A soul that is expressing itself in a language that I struggle to understand. Through my years of fostering and adoption, I am learning a new language.
Trauma has altered his brain, its altered everything.
He can’t sit still = trauma.
He won’t stop interrupting = trauma.
He struggles to eat = trauma.
He is hyper-compliant, hyper-vigilant, hyper-active, hyper-sensitive = trauma, trauma, trauma, trauma.
He can write his name one day, but not the next = trauma.
He wants to kiss you and sit in your lap at church = trauma.
He will not disobey = trauma
His thinking processes are hijacked by his emotions = trauma
I am learning that I must measure success differently. It can’t just be about growth, it needs to be centered around teaching resiliency. For a long time, I was frustrated when I found us sitting at ground zero…again. Now I’m realizing it takes him less time to rebound and start building again. This is how I now measure success.
This has happened because family, friends and teachers have helped build a community around my child that fosters his natural resiliency. A community that provides safety and security by pointing to the correct attachment-his parents. I see it at the school, because it’s written in his IEP, and his teacher is structured and understands. I see it around town and church, when friends redirect him to a handshake, not a hug. I see it with family, as they pour love into him because this is what is natural attachment.
Mostly, I’m starting to listen to what he really has to say. In the chatter, I finally hear the echo of silence. The hours of quiet solitude and the fear that wraps its finger around his heart. In the silence, I can hear his whisper for help. And I can interpret the behaviors for what they really are speaking.
“I’m scared and alone with no one to care for my most basic needs”
The critical conversation I must speak – “You are not alone and when you cry, I will wipe your tears. When you’re hungry, I will feed you. When you’re lonely, I will sit with you in the silence and hear the thoughts you cannot speak.