I slept until 11:00AM! Instant panic on my part. Was Carl OK?! I went to bed at 9:00 PM the night before. I was exhausted after the physical therapy session I had at my house. I took my first steps without my walker (2 in grand total.) Thank goodness my husband was awake to care for Carl in the morning and meet his needs. It doesn’t matter that Carl is 11 and not 5 anymore. This can set off the trigger alarm.
You see, my kids come from a home with a junkie mom. She was an addict. She had mental health conditions. She would go to bed and not get up for weeks. Sometimes she would lock the kids out of her bedroom and let them take care of themselves. Mary was 4 and Carl was 5 when they were removed from her care during a drug raid.
I know it sounds harsh, but these are the facts. An unresponsive mom in bed has been a terrible threat to their survival in the past. It doesn’t matter how much of this trauma they remember. It stays in their brains and tells their bodies, “Warning! Fight or flight! This is survival!”
Later that day I ended up back in bed, crying from terrible back spasms. The pain ripping through my spine was nothing compared to the pain I could see on my son’s face. Minutes before we had been goofing around as a family, and my husband startled me. Somehow I jumped or moved in surprise and set off a series of merciless spasms through my surgical incision and deep into the muscles surrounding my spine. I took my pain meds, got on my ice pack, and reassured everyone that I was fine.
It didn’t matter, because in Carl’s mind suddenly his caregiver was unreliable. The following is the closest I could come to understanding the conversations we had with Carl the rest of the evening:
Carl: (whining,moaning and stomping around) I don’t want to take a shower tonight! I’m not as smelly as you guys think! I don’t have to shower!
Carl’s Brain: I must stay where I can see my caregivers. Something bad could happen to mom. No one would take care of me and then I could die. I must get some control over this scary situation. Control lets me feel like I can take care of myself.
When he is scared we offer choices to give him some control. He can pick to shower downstairs in his shower or upstairs in our shower, using my trendy new shower seat (you KNOW you’re jealous!)
Carl: (from inside our shower, where he has successfully showered many times before) “You guys have to help me! I can’t turn the water on! It isn’t working. I need help!!”
Carl’s Brain: Are my caregivers still out there? I’m scared I might be alone. What if they aren’t able to take care of me. I have to know they are still caring for me or I will be all on my own again. And then I might die!
My husband “fixed” the shower for him. Carl called out to us every so often and we responded from close by. Showers tend to soothe him. He came out of the shower and demanded (really close to bedtime, and quite rudely) to build the new crystal growing science kit he got for Christmas.
With soft words and soft eyes, I responded, “Are you asking or are you telling? Would you like to try that again? It sounds like you have something important to tell me but I need you to use your nice words.” (I am totally attempting to channel Karyn Purvis)
Carl: (Taking a deep breath) “Can we please build one of my crystal growing kits?”
Carl’s Brain: Are you still able to take care of me? Can I rely on you? If I cannot win your attention and care I will be all on my own again and I might die!
Me: “It sounds like you’re asking for something we may not be able to finish tonight. (Carl huffs and stomps and moans) Bring both kits up here and let’s see if we can make a compromise.”
In the end, after lots of groaning from Carlos, one of the kits was a 15 minute project. I suited up in my back brace and got on my walker. Carl ran and got all of the necessary ingredients. Now we are growing crystals on top of a filing cabinet upstairs. We agreed the big glow-in-the-dark crystal growing experiment would be saved for Thursday.
As I said goodnight to Carl I could sense he was panicking again. I held him close to my chest in a big hug as we practiced our deep breathing. I looked him in the eyes and said, “Honey I know you were having some big feelings tonight. You were panicking a little bit.” He nodded in agreement. “It’s OK, honey, I will always be here. I am always going to take care of you.”
After another giant hug and our normal goodnight routine, he followed Dad downstairs without any further issue. It seemed like he finally felt safe. Not every night goes this smoothly. Fear is tricky, because it can come out looking like anger and defiance. Tonight I was able to translate the trauma trigger coming from Carl’s words. So tonight, I’ll take that as a win.
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy involved.