adoption, family

Cycle of Anxiety

It started at night. After football practice Carl had an episode in the shower. For our children this is a place where trauma occurred, so fear is heightened there. Both Carl and Mary refuse to shower with the door shut. Carl takes the therapy dog into the bathroom with him to sit on the rug and guard the door. Usually it works for him.

Last night it didn’t. Luke was in our bathroom and I was upstairs when Carl began shouting and banging on the walls. I froze. The pounding of the walls grew more insistent and my heart skipped a beat. I struggled to take a breathe and my knees went week. For whatever reason I was frightened. Carl hasn’t been truly violent in months. He wasn’t mad. Mary isn’t here. It’s unlikely that I have anything to be afraid of but my body panicked anyway.

Then Carl’s shouting turned into bellowing and screaming as he began punching the shower stall and the surrounding drywall. I should have gone to him but I didn’t. Instead I locked my bedroom door and tried to slow my breathing. Carl’s outburst lasted for what seemed like an eternity but was really only about ten minutes. Eventually Luke was able to go and talk to him.

Anxiety is a difficult thing to explain. I’m not talking about fear over getting something wrong on a test or speaking in front of a crowd. Those things may cause anxiety in some but are mostly uncomfortable to others. I’m talking about a true and measurable physical reaction where the body responds as if mortal danger is near.

For people with PTSD, anxiety disorders or developmental trauma it’s quite different. When Carl is afraid his body flips into fight or flight mode. What he experiences is similar to what one might experience after a bad car accident. It’s sheer terror and panic. These are physical characteristics that can be seen.

For humans, a resting heart rate of about 60-80 is normal. When I measured Carl’s heart rate it was 144 after he had already calmed down! Mine was 103 and I felt like I couldn’t catch my breathe. I can only imagine what he felt. His breathing was shallow and his pupil’s were dilated. Carl’s hands were shaking.

He didn’t know why fear overtook him. He was just triggered. He’s been argumentative lately and controlling. These are actually signs of stress. It’s Carl’s way of dealing with uncertainty and fear. He didn’t logically decide to stand naked in his bathroom and have a tantrum. It just happened.

I didn’t mean to hide away and ignore him. It just happened. Somehow we will have to find a way to work around these symptoms. Until then, I hope others can understand what this kind of anxiety looks like. It isn’t pretty. It isn’t productive. It just is.

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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adoption, family

The Evolution of the Hug

When Carl first came to us at 8-years-old he didn’t know how to hug. He’d grab and pull or thrust himself at full speed into my arms. His expressions of love left red marks behind. He was a fighter. He would not be forgotten.

During visits with his biological mom he’d shove the baby away from her arms and forcefully climb into her lap. The social workers would say how sad t was that he was trying to get some kind of affection from her. Carl seemed to be always angry then or at least always on the verge of tears.

Before visits he would tell me that Luke was going to marry his biological mom and they’d be happy together with the kids. After visits he’d yell at me and tell me to get lost. Sometimes he’d tell me I was an awful mom and he knew I wanted to hit him. Carl would scream at me to just hit him already. He’d say he hated me.

But things would change before bed on those nights. I’d tuck Carl in and he’d dissolve into tears. The little guy would clutch me so tightly that little half-moon claw marks speckled my arms.

“Mommy?” he’d ask me, “Are we going to stay here with you and Daddy? If we can’t go back, I mean. Then can we please stay with you?”

He’d tremble and sob and ask me why she couldn’t take care of them. He’d ask if we could “play baby” and I could hold him. So that’s what I did.

Many times neither biological parent came to the visits. The office was so close to Bio Mom’s apartment that the kids would watch it out of the window, hoping to see her emerge. Often she didn’t.

Carl didn’t have as much anger on those days. Instead he was afraid. He’d clutch my left arm with his whole body. He was a solid 8-year-old but he’d ask to be picked up. Luke was the king of piggy back rides in those early days.

Eventually, Carl would come to me on his own for comfort. He’d climb into my lap and grab onto me roughly. He’d say, “You have to love me!” And I did. We dubbed him “The snuggle monster.”

When friends would come, when I’d watch TV, when I’d talk on the phone Carl would push his way in as close as possible and grab on tight. He might shout in my face or fist his hands tightly into my hair. His actions spoke so loudly to me. They said he didn’t want to be abandoned. They said he would get his needs met by force if he had to.

Carl always loved animals. He was so rough with the cats at first that he’d grab their tales or squeeze them too tightly. He seemed utterly baffled that they wouldn’t like that. He would be so rough with me even in the tenderest of moments. I had to wonder if he really knew how to do this. Was it possible he just didn’t know, “gentle?”

We taught Carl to be gentle as best we could. We’d make a game of it and practice a hug or an arm stroke. Then I’d ask, “Was that gentle or rough?”

By the end of the third grade Carl was the king of hugs. He replaced what we referred to as the “attack hug” (running at full speed and body slamming us) to a normal embrace. If he felt like he desperately needed the contact and we were busy, he’d use our code word, “applesauce.” Looking back it seems ages ago.

Carl became a warm and gentle snuggler. He’d lay his head on my arm and tuck his body into my side. He’d allow me to make phone calls without diving head-first into my lap.

He’s thirteen now. It’s hard to remember that he’s a teenager. He never cries “Applesauce!” anymore. I still have the urge to take his hand in a crowded parking lot, but I refrain! Carl is getting to an age where it’s probably uncool to snuggle with mom so much. He still won’t leave for school without a quick hug and an, “I love you, Mama!”

He’s getting older but I hope his hugs stick around. Perhaps a time will come when I am the one calling out, “Applesauce!”

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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