“If your parent is the bear in the living room, it is biologically impossible to run to that parent when they are either over or under reacting. If your parent is scary you can’t run to them.
And you also can’t run away from them because you are a child, you can’t function in the world on your own. You can’t make it out there.”
Donna Jackson Nakazawa
We can get so lost in theory, data and facts that our language about trauma, abuse and adverse childhood experiences can become clinical and remote. Abstract even.
Or maybe that’s just me.
Sometimes I deep into stats, graphs and outcomes in order to avoid feelings.
Not today. Today, the facts make me weepy.
I just watched this video where Donna Jackson Nakazawa talks about children’s fight, flight and freeze response when kids are in danger.
It’s fact but I’m filled with emotion.
It’s not the video that makes me remember anything new or specific. There are no triggers or flashbacks.
It’s how she nails the limbo, the helplessness of childhood so I can feel it seep up from the core.
Trauma – not as an event but an environment.
Trauma – not as the crack in the foundation but the way the foundation was never poured.
Fear felt average and normal and expected.
Fear was palpable, like a second heart beating in my skin that I couldn’t slow down or extract.
Fear was inhaled, swallowed and held in – forcibly ingested but not able to be absorbed, digested or expelled.
Held. Frozen. Stuck.
Marinating a developing human being. Me.
Fear shapes cells, beliefs and ways of being in the world in a body that changes from thirty pounds to five or six times that. Fear which lingers as a body grows from thirty six inches to sixty seven of them.
Fear that’s as ancient as amniotic fluid and forever a layer that between me, my deepest self and the world. Only it wasn’t sacred but soured. It didn’t nurture. It poisoned.
Fear like a hand-me-down or an heirloom that’s heavy and sharp and broken. I can’t offload or pawn or cash it in for anything.
Fear I thought I owned assuming it was part of my DNA, structure and personality.
As if there was no other way to be in a world where the word safe didn’t yet exist.
I’ve spent years of my adult life melting the cold numbness at my core. More years cooling down hot shame when it steams from my psyche and overpowers my senses. The work of learning to use thermometer and to repair the heating system so it will respond to instruction and care.
This work is difficult to do, define or describe on a diagnostic form.
I’m not alone. I know this. Now.
Symptoms and coping tools are not just proof of failings but also evidence of the circumstances and environments those of us with ACEs managed to live through.
I knew none of this as a child. And I don’t need to detail my adversities, to put names or dates to memories or to autograph every portrait of pain.
There are hundreds of thousands of us who don’t know any existence other than the post-traumatically stressed version.
This video reminds me that there are others who don’t know or understand or relate to bears. Who might not love, trust or be related to them.
It reminds me of hope and how not all feel stuck, trapped and frozen in childhood.
Pervasive helplessness where the world was as short on help as it was food or money. There was no coupon or voucher or stamp to get hand outs of safety, security or appropriate affection.
We learned to live without and to get comfortable that.
That’s the part that I struggle with now. Low expectations. But it’s deeper than that.
It wasn’t the ripped clothes, stains or smelly underwear that hurt but being unfamiliar with clean.
It wasn’t being dirty but not knowing there was warm water, soap and bubble bath play.
I carried the debris of others in my growing skin and self. Children don’t know how to lather up or shower off if not taught.
It wasn’t the lice but not knowing there were combs and kits and chemicals to kill them. It was the feeling guilty for crushing them between finger nails hoping to capture them before they climbed down my neck at school and got noticed by other kids.
The bear in the living room or kitchen or bed who leaves itchy skin and scars which are there even when the bear is gone.
When there wasn’t a mama or paper bear protector. When the parents were sometimes predators and the children sometimes prey.
My parents must have felt this too. I’m sure they had no viable people or places to go to or turn.
Nor did their parents. And so on.
I sense this is true as I age because even with all my therapy, yoga and privilege self-care is still grueling, tiresome and feels like navigating the transit system in another country. I’m changing deeply ingrained ways.
Generations deep and different.
Self-love and nurture need to be studied and are not yet intuitive, pleasant or relaxing.
Self-care still feels risky, requiring me to abandon survival skills I might just need and then what if I got all soft and squishy and lose the edge?
To commit to self-care is to trust the world to stay safe and some days, even decades after adversity, that is too big a leap of faith.
Nurturing, attachment, regard and agency – I study them like vocabulary words I can’t yet pronounce or say in public.
I know I’m missing stuff gained by familiarity and feeling entitled to safety. What if I never pass for fluent?
Where are the worlds and chapters which will catch me up for good and make me even?
The haunting fear that there’s always more I don’t know and haven’t learned. The fear that I’m failing my child at least a little simply by being who I am.
How I am.
I have to work at not being cold or numb or hot or shamed or deliriously crazy busy.
“Be more present,” I say like a prayer at waking or a before bed mantra.
“Be more affectionate. Pay more attention. Cook better food. Call loved ones. Exercise.”
I know the way a child needs a parent is like a flower needs sun and water. Desperately.
I know parenting is the most important thing I’ll ever do and it’s not done by yelling “Grow you tender fucker.”
It requires love and patience.
I know this and yet I’ve failed. I’ve fumbled.
Not always. But sometimes.
It isn’t just laziness.Not for me. Or others.
…. which I suppose includes my parents.
We all want health, happiness and health and a normal life span and to be the parents our children deserve.
And the past also lives in the present.
My parents didn’t fail me just because they didn’t try hard enough.
They did the best they could, loved me and failed anyhow too often.
They failed themselves and each other and their children – even with love.
That’s the killer.
The world failed them too.
I used think anyone can break the cycle if they treat the past like a block of ice and use their being as a pick to pummel it to pieces.
I thought willpower prevents suffering.
Avoid bad by being good was my silent mantra.
But I no longer believe it’s that simple which leaves me wrestling with the “F” word. Forgiveness.
“It’s really not the survival of the fittest. It’s the survival of the nurtured.”
That’s what Donna Jackson Nakazawa said and I believe her.
ACEs science doesn’t just teach us that those with six or more adverse childhood experiences die, on average, 19 years too early.
It points out that those with fewer, live longer and better.
In other words, their good fortune and foundation and nurturing. It protects.
How many healthy people thank their parents or consider themselves lucky to be so blessed and to have so much so easy?
What it those who failed me weren’t just too weak to lick their addictions or short-comings or history?
They did the best they could and it wasn’t enough. Just because it’s such an unsatisfying sentence to utter doesn’t make it untrue.
I keep thinking about the Boston marathon bombing a few years back.
At first, I thought everyone was overreacting by shutting down public transit, the city and even a suburb because of two violent and dangerous people.
I’m not saying my reaction was normal.
Lives were lost and people had physical and emotional injuries and some are still battling.
But the way we responded, as a city, state and nation shocked me.
It’s not how we respond to all tragedy and threat.
We all talked openly, rallied and worked together quickly and aggressively to make the city safe again.
We didn’t spend even one day talking about how to make marathon runners more bomb resistant.
We didn’t tell runners to wear different clothes or run a new route. We didn’t ask why they need another marathon or any other nonsense.
But when it comes to children who live in violence we spend too little time making them safe and too much asking how come they don’t recover better.
We ask how they could be more resilient rather than asking why we allow children to suffer so much and so often.
It’s infuriating and ineffective.
I get that when it comes to family abuse, neglect, trauma and pain, it’s harder to mark and name the enemy. Family stuff is considered private – not public – despite the numbers of children killed and injured each year.
Over and over and over.
Maybe we can’t accept that love and violence can co-exist so we pretend they don’t as though that pretending doesn’t have life-altering or ending consequences.
As if we can pretend it’s not my business and it’s not my problem.
Where does that leave people?
Children but also their parents?
I’m all for accountability but blaming people without providing more support just doesn’t work that well.
I want to be the mother my child deserves without excuses. I also want to be honest about why I’ve sometimes failed and offer honest and fair explanations. Why she never knew my father or isn’t closer to all the relatives.
As the feminists say – it’s personal and the personal it political.
If I were honest I would say this:
All humans need and deserve nurturing. It doesn’t come in equal doses or parcels or buckets.
I know, security and stability are heirlooms made in clay still wet and being shaped. I hope to make them hard and sturdy, reliable and familiar. I hope to pass them on. Should my daughter have the gift of secure attachment (please-please-please) it will be a first-generation inheritance.
It’s still fragile.
My daughter and I will always be from different places and the more different the better. It’s a strange wish for a mother.
But do I do truth to justice or justice to truth if I tell her some people are weak and suck and don’t try hard enough and others are just better?
I don’t actually believe it’s that simple?
Because I know that I too have failed as a mother. So as her father. Addiction and mental illness are in our family.
She deserved more and better.
Deserves it still.
As did I.
As did my parents.
But that’s not always what happens. People don’t always get what they deserve.
Not her. Not me.
I’m tired of broken things and breaking things – even the cycle.
I want to grow new things instead.
Maybe the seeds of forgiveness…
You Matter Mantras
- Trauma sucks. You don't.
- Write to express not to impress.
- It's not trauma informed if it's not informed by trauma survivors.
- Breathing isn't optional.