Our closet door hangs by its hinges. Our ironing board lies on its side. The iron itself sits toppled underneath a window. There is some chipped paint on the window’s frame from having the iron thrown at it. My arms are bruised and I’m bleeding from somewhere on my leg.
I sit Indian style on the floor with my little 8-year-old Mary crumpled in my lap. She clings to me for all she’s worth and sobs huge heaving sobs that just about break my heart. Her fingers cling to me in such a tight little hug that her knuckles are turning white. She is gasping and begging, “Don’t send me back. Don’t give up on me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m scared!” Her hair is filled with bits of string, pencils, and miscellany from things she has thrown around. I hold her securely and whisper, “Mama’s here. You are safe. Mama’s here. It’s alright, Little Chicken.” I say this over and over again.
That was what bedtime looked like a year ago. Every night. And it wasn’t just Mary who panicked and tantrumed at bedtime. So did Carl, at age 9. Sean, at 14, still has anxiety attacks and needs to be tucked in over and over at night. They have nightmares and sleep disturbances and they are afraid of monsters.
They are siblings. These 4 chickens need each other. They need to be together to feel safe. They have been through experiences in their bio-home that I just can’t fathom. Marcus visits on the weekends and the other 3 sleep better when their oldest brother is home to “protect them.” Marcus, at 17, doesn’t like to go to bed unless Sean is there.
What most of us don’t know before we foster is that the monsters are real. For our kids, they are real. They have seen monsters in the night. They may have experienced things I never need to know unless they choose to tell me. The sibling group that we are adopting have had a checkered placement history. Some of them have been in more homes than others. Three of them have been in group homes. Marcus never had the opportunity to be placed with his siblings. In our home they are together again. In our home they are safe. In our home we are offering “forever.” They just don’t feel it yet.
Logically, they know they are safe. The unfortunate thing about trauma history is that the triggers overtake a child’s logical brain. They become ensnared in their past. Their bodies succumb to the classic fight-or-flight response. Sean will flee. Mary will fight. At nighttime, she will sometimes hide. I prefer this to having her fight for her life.
Carl experiences his trauma in a cyclical fashion. At times he seems more calm and settled. At times, he becomes fully panicked and reacts on impulse. These times are typically at the grocery store. He often becomes scared walking by the fridge where the beer is kept. For the first few months I didn’t catch on to what the trigger was. Every time we went to the grocery store he would start yelling, “Don’t make fist. You’re making a fist! Are you going to hit me? Please don’t hit me!” I was baffled. Then there was the time he dropped to the floor and shouted, “Don’t get drunk. I don’t want you to be drunk. You’re gonna leave the car keys in the fridge, fall down on the floor, and DIE!” Needless to say I have never, to my recollection, placed my keys in the refrigerator and died.
Some trauma triggers made more sense to me than others. My husband and I figured out early on that our kids were terrified of bedtime and the bathroom. They hoarded food in their rooms. They had difficulty separating from us. They got nervous if Luke or I seemed annoyed with each other. They would beg us not to hit each other, when all we were doing was holding hands. Some trauma triggers took longer to understand. For example, the pool table. I will never quite grasp why Sean hates pool tables so much. Once, Marcus suggested we get one for the basement. Sean froze and became quiet. Later that night he made me promise not to get a pool table. Anything but a pool table. I honestly don’t ever think either of us will ever figure out why that particular object is so evil for Sean.
As a “Trauma Mamma” I’ve had to figure a few things out. Thank goodness I have to Luke for a partner. The first thing was band-aids. We obviously needed to keep a stockpile of the stuff available for tantrums. The next part was help. We sought out a team of therapists and psychiatrists for our family. The final thing Luke and I did was to purposefully provide corrective experiences. Instead of avoiding ever having a glass of wine with dinner, because it triggered Carl, I purposefully planned to have wine. I planned this at the advice of our therapist!
First, you figure out the trigger, and then you talk the experience, but with a happy ending. Then you reenact the experience with the happy ending. That’s right! I got to practice drinking wine! It went like this, I would say, “Carl, I’m thinking about having a glass of wine with dinner. It’s OK to have just one glass. I won’t get drunk.” Then my husband would vouch for me. He would testify, “Gee, I’ve been with mom for a long time. Sometimes she drinks a glass of wine at dinner. It’s only one glass and she never gets drunk. I know her pretty well and I know she won’t get drunk!” Then we would sit down to dinner and practice things that Carl could say to self-talk through my drinking. Things like, “It’s OK for grown-ups to have just one glass. My mom will still stay with me after dinner and tuck me in at night.” After the glass of wine Luke and I would make comments all night like, “I’ve had a glass of wine. But I’m still here and we’re all fine!” Ok, I’ll admit it. It was mostly me who was rhyming and chanting.
I knew it was working the night we went to Chili’s and I had a glass of wine. I pre-set Carl and said, “Honey. I’m going to have a glass of wine with dinner.” He rolled his eyes and said, “I know already. You won’t get drunk. Not this time.” I assured him matter-of-factly that I wouldn’t get drunk at any time. When our drinks came he panicked a little and started raising his voice, “Mommy, no! Mommy, no! You know what could happen if you drink that!” I took a calming breath and said soothingly, “Oh no, honey. This is practice. We are practicing how mommy is OK when she drinks only one glass of wine. I can drink wine and we will be fine!” He nodded and settled in, asking, “Mommy, why are the people all looking at us?” That’s when I saw the tables around us. Even the waitress was trying hard not to stare at us with her mouth hanging open! I laughed so hard about it with Luke later that night. It’s funny to us because I have never been carried drunkenly out of a restaurant and the very thought is hilarious. To our kids, however, that is what a “mom” does. Over time, this diminished.
That was a year ago. Now, I have wine with dinner sometimes. Hardly anyone looks twice. I don’t need to “practice” anymore. Beer still makes everyone nervous, but only if I drink it. Luke seems to have a certain trauma-immunity. He lucked out because none of our kids seem to have much experience with a “dad” or what a “dad” might do. Bedtime is better, it’s not perfect, but it’s better. And the pool table? That still appears to be evil. We can allow that because it’s unrealistic for Luke and I to become wine drinking pool-sharks in order to correct whatever experience has Sean so adamant about pool tables.
Mary sleeps on a mattress outside of our bedroom now. She has her own bedroom but the hallway just feels safe for her right now, and that’s OK. Luke told her she can’t sleep outside our door anymore when she gets to high school. Mary promised to compromise and just sleep in our bed when she turns 13!
I tucked her in last night with hugs and kisses. Before I tuck her in I sometimes sit cross-legged on the floor and hold her to me. I whisper into her sweet-smelling hair, “Mama’s here, Mama’s here.” She sighs and giggles and says, “Can we whisper about the boys we like? You have to go first because you always pick the same one. Every time, it’s always Daddy!” We whisper and snuggle for a few minute while I tuck her in and rub her back. There is no crying, no screaming, no attempting to break out of the window via an iron. I lean in and whisper, “if you could have the superpower of either flight or invisibility, which you choose?” I often ask her questions like this to soothe her as part of our bedtime ritual. “Invisibility, of course!” She replies. “Why?” I ask. “Easy,” she says, “that way you and daddy can’t stop me when I sneak into your bed to sleep!” Ah well, some things never change. I really really hope we aren’t debating this around the time of her junior prom.
At the end of the day, it’s doable. They can heal. It’s ok if our kids release their fears when they know they are safe. Our chickens know they’ve come home to roost. If they are safe enough to express their hurts, their fears, their angers, then they must have some sense of safety. It’s all worth it. I may never have a pool table but I do have a houseful of love.
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
**If you’ve ever considered foster care or adoption, I encourage you to get started on your adventure!