I am naked. I am wet. I am soapy and I am blogging. At least I am alone. The shower is my refuge today. I feel that I’ve earned some alone time and this is the absolute last place of refuge where I can be alone. My kids are easily triggered when I spend any amount of time in the bathroom so I do not take this lightly. Little Carl is riding the PTSD symptom train at warp speed this week and I need a break. Don’t get me wrong, I’m relatively used to dealing with the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in our children. All four of the siblings we are adopting from foster care have this diagnosis. This particular DX is very common among kids in foster care. After all, they are usually in care for a reason. As far as foster moms blogging from the shower? I’m not entirely sure how common that is. But I highly recommend it!
Little Carl has been having flashbacks lately. They usually occur during mealtimes or in the kitchen. He will re-enact scenes from his early childhood of domestic abuse he witnessed in the home.It’s sort of like a soldier returning from war. He is reacting as if he is still in an unsafe and scary place. He is underweight and tiny for a 9-year-old boy, but when he yells he sounds like a grown man. “Your gonna learn it now! you’re gonna get it now!” he tells me. “I’m going to use full-force and I’m going to hurt you!” He will stop when my husband comes around. When I took him to the psychiatrist’s office yesterday he was absolutely silent. As we were leaving the office I took his little pencil box because he isn’t allowed to take it into the partial hospitalization program with him. He lost it. He grabbed me and pushed me and fought for that box like he was fighting for his life. Taking things away from our kids, no matter how inconsequential to us, can be a huge trigger for them. It triggers all of the feelings they experienced when there wasn’t enough food or supervision or heat. Basic resources that we take for granted can be trauma triggers.
Carl screamed at me, “I hate her! Everything is all HER FAULT!” It took a few staff members to separate him from me when dropped him off at his partial hospitalization placement. He was referencing his bio-mom but I’m not even sure what brought out those words. Often Carl struggles with family loyalty and insists that he bio-mom did everything she was supposed to in order to parent them. Deep down he remembers the domestic abuse, violence, and neglect that they experienced while living with their bio-mom. Unfortunately for me I happen to be the only mom in his immediate presence. This means that I bear the brunt of his anger towards her.
His therapist later called and reported that Carl had a tantrum at the PHP program. He ended up hiding behind a filing cabinet and refusing to come out. Carl often hides like this, particularly after having a rage incident. He claims to be afraid that someone is going to hurt him. It may sound ironic coming from the boy who just spent a good amount of effort hurting everyone and everything around him, but his fear is real. When he is in a heightened state of anger, I believe that he is truly afraid. He is remembering what happened to him and taking it out in those around him. He is flashing back to a time when he may have been physically hurt for acting out. No matter how safe he is here, he must feel it on an emotional level in order to let go of survival skills, like hiding, that no longer serve a purpose. It is maladaptive skill when it comes to, say, shopping in a crowded mall.
PTSD comes with nightmares, flashbacks, and fits of rage. It doesn’t take much to trigger Carl’s “fight or flight” response. He is also hypervigilent. He knows the location of every exit to every public place he’s ever been in. His fear response is on the alert to what everyone around him is doing. Large crowds are overwhelming for Carl because it’s impossible to monitor every adult and monitor for every possible danger in a large area. When Carl is overstimulated he becomes “hyper-aroused.” This looks a lot like ADHD. His eyes dart everywhere and he literally bounces off walls and runs around in every direction. In this way he is controlling his feelings of insecurity and danger-alert. It’s a survival mode for him.
Through the nightmares and the rages I can always see his fear and his hurt. It may sound counter-productive, but we do not give punitive consequences for fear-based behaviors. If he steals money and food, we offer understanding and love. We allow Carl to keep non-perishables in his room in order to feel safe. He no longer requires a huge amount, but a few granola bars can help him to believe that he will never “run out” of food. When we caught him stealing money, we sat him down and hugged him. We promised to love him forever and to provide for all of his needs. We brainstormed some ways to earn money and where he could keep it to feel it was “safe.” Together we came up with ways that Carl could repay the money. Here is the proof that our love is working; Carl didn’t hide from us. He trusted us enough to handle these conversations without running under his bed. He used to hide all the time behind doors, under blankets, and even in small cabinets or behind furniture. When we acknowledge his fear and his hurt, when we re-affirm his safety, we are building a place for him as our son. A safe place.
Today was just a day that he was able to express the fact that a lot of his fear is about his bio-mom. Even though he was grabbing me and pushing me in the moment, it was her that he was yelling at. He kept saying, “Stop leaving me! I hate you!” He screamed, “You take everything from me. I want my dogs back. I want my family. You can’t hurt me!”
Here’s the thing. I let him get his rage out. I stayed with him and encouraged him to let all of the “mad” out of his little body. I am proud of Carl. I’m not proud that my kid tried to hurt me today. I’m proud that he expressed his pain and rage about what has happened to him. I’m extra proud that he actually mentioned her, that other mom, in his rage.
A lot of times children in foster care will build up a fantasy about their bio-family. They will believe that this family was somehow wronged by a mistaken system. Carl has been like that for awhile. He would defend the fact that she was drunk or that she would leave them home alone. Today was one of the first days that Carl expressed his anger. He expressed his hurt that she didn’t fight to get them back.
When it was all over he sobbed in my arms. We held hands and said a prayer for her that she finds peace and makes better choices. We thought of three good memories that he can hold onto about her. And I also acknowledged that Carl’s anger and pain were justified. I assured him that Luke and I would always be there and that bio-mom can have a supervised visit when and if she is ever ready for one.
He was still upset at bedtime but he didn’t hide. Hiding is a survival skill that served Carl well in his bio-home where there was a lot of domestic violence. It has taken a long time to convince him that I am the mommy that should find him to keep him safe.
The outcome of my shower time is simple. I get a few minutes alone to blog and process the day. Luke gets the kids ready for bed while I’m getting clean. I don’t even realize what a significant breakthrough this is for Carl until it’s my bedtime. It’s been a long day and I have a crashing migraine. Luke has tuck-in duty for the little kids so I can lie down in the dark.
Carl sneaks into our bedroom and I feel something cold and wet. He’s placed a damp wash cloth on my forehead. Then he tiptoes out of the room and returns to his own bed. He doesn’t say a word to me or try to take credit. He doesn’t wish to be acknowledged. He only wants to help.
It’s moments like this when I can see him allowing himself to love me. No matter how many scary and traumatic “mom” memories he has to overcome, Carl is trying. He is trying to show me that he can love a mom. He is trying to trust a mom. He is trying me. And how lucky am I? The more he faces those scary memories, the more he will be able to live in a world where it is safe. The more he will be able to trust.
I am so lucky that I get to be the “post” part of his traumatic experiences. I can show him a new way to be in a family. I can enjoy a little time alone in the shower. I can enjoy the cold wash cloth on my forehead. Someday we will be finished with the PTSD symptoms. On that day Luke and I will still be left with our son. Our wonderful, resilient, amazing son. He is the survivor. We are the lucky ones!
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved
**If you’ve ever considered fostering or adopting, I encourage you to get started on your own adventure!