Shining the light on child abuse and it’s lifelong journey…
I want to share some of Christina’s growing up journey. Some will remain private, because it IS her story and not mine. However, some HAS to be shared because it’s a universal story of children being hurt by grown ups. Because it is not her shame. Because it is not her fault. And because, if we do not talk openly and honestly about what child abuse does to a person and to our society, it will never change!
Christina was born to a young mother into a loving family. But there were problems with the immaturity, lack of work and resources, and the childhood history of the young mother herself. At 2 years old, Christina witnessed her mother’s murder. The subsequent chaos in her young life included abuse and more neglect. Family tried to intervene, but a preschool child with SO much pain was a lot to handle.
I firmly believe that the Spirit put my path and Christina’s path to meet at that time (and though this is Christina’s story, the extended bio family of any child who has been hurt is a valuable tool and has been a gift to me as well, over the years). She was 4 years old when we met. And she had such a beautiful mixture of spunk, joy, exuberance, pain, anger, resilience, and love.
Over the years, we slowly worked through intense anger, fears, sadness, and pain. Day after day we cleaned up toys thrown asunder, washed up peas (and much more) spit across the room, fought in a strong grip of restraint to avoid physical injury, worked on apologies and amends, and created a strong, powerful safety net of family and community when the pain overwhelmed the growing mother/daughter relationship. Therapy, repetition, advocacy, consistency and love helped to slowly eased the intensity of the hard minutes, hours, and days and made more and more room for the normal childhood moments – bikes and gymnastics and swimming and church and birthday parties and homework. Year by year, the joy that is an inherent part of Christina’s personality had more room to just be there. Each developmental stage saw some new version of rage and pain come back into play, but overall, the growth was slow and consistent.
The transition to independence was pretty rocky, as it is with many young people, but the extra issues of her trauma and her fears made it pretty intense. When she finally settled into family life with someone who seemed like a nice young man, I’ll admit I breathed a small sigh of relief… safety, security, happiness.
But the demons of childhood abuse are always constant companions at some level for any adult who has lived through the childhood trauma. I would like to share some basics about what goes on in our brains and bodies when we, as humans have survived significant abuse and trauma. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is commonly thought to be a diagnosis for soldiers who have come back from war. But it is a very real life journey for any who have lived through terrible things. It is an entity defined by the memory responses of our bio-chemical and neurological systems to new perceived danger. It’s not cognitive fear. It is a physical, total body response to something that has triggered the intense feelings from what happened in the past.
This is how I explain it to my kids… over and over again. It helps ease the confusion and shame of bad “behavior,” which is often, in fact, merely actions based on unconscious triggers and the subsequent efforts to keep themselves safe.
“When we are in a scary situation, our brains and our bodies have reactions to help keep us safe. Our hearts beat faster to get our blood going so we can fight or run really fast. Our brains switch gears so that we can see and hear things better to catch what is going on, but the part of our brain that helps us talk about it shuts down. We don’t need words to keep safe in a really scary situation. We need our brains to think and act quickly, not talk quickly.
The problem is, if we are in many scary situations over and over again, our bodies and brains start to change so that we can be ready faster and faster for danger. If it happens too much, our bodies and brains change permanently. Sometimes, that means that we react too quickly all the time and don’t have a chance to think about what to do if we get scared or mad. Our bodies and brains go into action like it did when we were little when we really did need to keep ourselves safe. But now, we have to figure out how to slow that reaction down again, because you are safe now. You don’t have to fight or yell to keep yourself safe. You don’t have to hit anyone or push everyone away to make sure you are safe.
NOW, you get to ask for help. You get to learn and describe what your heart feels like and your stomach and your brain when you suddenly feel scared or mad and you don’t know why. You get to show me what is really going on and we are a team now. Your thoughts know you are safe here. Now we need to teach the rest of you how to feel safe.”
Back into grown up language… the damage that childhood abuse does to our bodies is no less potent than the physical damage that can happen in a bad accident. The problem in our society is that one kind of damage is visible and everyone wants to step up to help. The other kind is not readily apparent and the kids/adults can be a long way down the road in relationships before the friend/partner/family can see the injuries.
Most of the time, the damage cannot be healed, only treated or adapted to. Cortisol is a chemical that floods our brain when we go into “fight/flight/freeze” response. When our brains are constantly flooded, it changes the brain… most importantly, the Cortisol damages our hippocampus, which is a small part of the brain that is VERY important for short term memory. When your short term memory is damaged through repeated abuse, it has a huge impact on schooling, testing, careers and relationships. It’s hard to memorize and learn with an impaired short term memory.
If the abuse and trauma happens in early childhood, as it did with Christina, the language center of the brain is permanently affected. If you are two years old and you are supposed to be picking up a dozen new words a day and learning to follow directions and learning nuances of speech, but the fear of your daily life takes the attention away from the language center so that you can figure out how to be safe, you do not develop those language skills. There is a reason that Christina’s language was much like a two year old when she came to me at 4 years old, and a reason why she still needs people to repeat things differently or write them down.
A common response to trauma and abuse is something called dissociation, which is a wonderful trick the brain has at separating the feelings or even awareness of what is going on from it’s base functioning self. Some people describe it as watching themselves from a distance, but not feeling it. Others just have a blank space where they really don’t know what happened until the brain feels like it’s safe enough for it’s person to remember what happened. If a person is triggered often by something that takes their body and brain back to a dangerous time, can you imagine how difficult that would make it to attend to learning at school, or details at work, or deep work in a relationship? If you are sitting in a class and a smell wafts in through the window that makes your brain think of a previous dangerous time, it will protect you by dissociating from those feelings/memories. The problem is that you disappear from today, too. When I child has dissociated, you may not even be able to tell. They are sitting at their desk, quiet and normal looking. But when their attention comes back to class, there may have been 4 different topics discussed and they missed it all. Then they can’t do the homework. Then they feel stupid and discourage, or sad, or scared and are triggered all over again. It’s a wicked journey!!!!
All is not lost, though, because, while many neurological and bio-chemical changes in a person’s body are permanent after child abuse and trauma, our human systems are amazing at learning to adapt or work around the hard things. Such as Christina learning to ask for people to write things down. Therapy and parenting help children (and adults) learn to create a space between the PTSD reaction and their reasoning brains, by learning to recognize earlier and earlier when they might get triggered, how to recognize the early signs of being triggered, and strategies for changing course before the trigger, or intervening early with relaxation, bio feedback, imagery, etc.
All of this is a long explanation to help explain some of Christina’s reality on the night her little girls got hurt and all the subsequent days that have followed with lost memory, misunderstanding and misinterpreting a new, scary reality, new difficult language and decisions that have to be made, and a physical separation from her support system that would have helped to keep her coping skills and adaptive responses to triggers firmly grounded.
And now I am crying, because this has led to the bleak reality of one awful night. But the reality has continued and will continue and all of that joy and resilience and love that I spoke of about the 4 year old Christina is still there and she is amazing in her friendships, hope, and determination within her new reality. And everything she has learned about herself and her trauma and ways to treat herself are still in play.
I am thankful for healing. I am thankful for grace. I am thankful for love. I am thankful for Christina, who has given me a richer life than I ever would have known and a bevy of grandchildren who bless my days.