“She doesn’t speak,” is what they told me, 2 years ago. Her disclosure paperwork referred to past trauma that caused her not to speak outside of her foster home. Her social worker spoke to her through an older brother. “Very sad, confused, little girl” was the description in a letter from her teacher.”Selectively mute,” said the hospital therapists. She stared at the ground with her head turned away. She simply didn’t respond in public. Mary would fold into herself and become as small as possible. She would hide away behind her brothers, or in a corner, anywhere she felt she would remain unseen.
Hypoarousal is the term used to describe this condition. It’s one way that children respond to continued trauma in their developmental years. They shut down, try to block everything out. They make themselves so small they are almost no longer a part of the abuse that is taking place. And yet, they are still there. Trauma stays with them no matter how they try to shut it out.
It’s hard to remember the Mary of 2 years ago who silently stared at the floor while picking at her fingernails. She spoke to me on the first day that we met. It was only a few words but it was enough. The second time we met she stared intently into my eyes, as if to size me up. She fell headlong into this family. Mary opened up in a way that was unprecedented for her. She began to engage and talk and she wanted to be heard. She would be silent no more. Along with this flood of words came a flood of pent up emotions.
The trauma she had fought so hard to avoid, to ignore, came crashing back. Along with her words came her rages. All of those feelings of hurt, sadness, and fear twisted into rage. Those feelings were simply too much for a 7-year-old girl. The trauma was too much. At times she would scream for hours. She smashed everything in her room. She bashed her head into the wall. She stabbed me with pencils and bit me and clawed at me with her nails. She tried to break out of the windows in the car. All the while her mind would be in another time and place. She would think she was with another mom, in another home. She was expressing all the anger she never let herself feel.
During those early days I questioned a lot. Maybe she didn’t like this family. Maybe she was unhappy living with her brother Carl again. Maybe taking her out of her foster home was a big mistake. Maybe she would never attach. Maybe she could never really love us.
In those times of doubt I would look at her sketch book. I would see her school art projects hanging on the fridge. In every single one she drew her family or wrote her full name with our last name. She drew the words “mom & dad” in curly cue letters all over each project and picture she made. She would leave elaborately painted flowers and mermaids with the caption, “Mommy” for me to find. They were love notes. Despite her unleashed feelings of rage, she was also experiencing great big feelings of love for her family.
Now, 2 years later, I can look back and see. I know she had to go through those early stages in order to trust in this family. She had to believe. She had to learn that she was stronger than her feelings, stronger than her past. Mary is 9-years-old now. She’s had 1 violent meltdown in the last 12 months, and it didn’t last very long. She is still learning to regulate her feelings, but she is winning against her trauma.
Today, Mary is a cheerleader on a team. That once-silent little girl shouts and jumps and leads the group in chants. People watch her and she loves the attention. Our daughter, who once wished to be invisible, is now the focus of the crowd. I am so proud of this little warrior.
Tonight I tucked Mary into her bed, and looked around. She has her artwork from the past few years displayed on the walls. I spotted an old rainbow etching she made me in those first months home. It said, “I love you mommy,” at the bottom. A love note. A love note from the time when those words were so hard to say. A love note from my daughter to me.
I love you too, honey. I’m so proud of you. This is my love note.
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.