Heal the mother — heal the child
We aren’t the weeds in the crack of life. We’re the strong,amazing flowers that found a way to grow in the most challenging conditions
Jeanne McElvaney, Spirit Unbroken: Abby’s Story
I was recently diagnosed with severe, chronic PTSD — “like combat soldiers have,” the woman who diagnosed me said. (About PTSD)
Nobody who knows me well would be surprised — I’ve known it for years, but in our expert-driven world, it requires the words of someone with a certificate to make it real. Well, okay, now it’s real. Happy, doubters?
The first time I remember fearing being hit, I was about 16 months old. Yes, I remember that far back. I was summoned by my mother, who proceeded to strip me down to my diaper (cloth, with a plastic cover to prevent leaks). Then she held me in one arm with the other positioned back as if about to strike me.
I was terrified.
What had I done? I’d been good! I hadn’t done anything wrong, I knew it! I was so careful to be good always. And then my father snapped some pictures (which is not why I remember this, by the way).
I remember the giddy relief when I realized that the blow wasn’t coming. I still couldn’t figure out what that had been all about, but I wasn’t in danger — then.
Why does a 16 month old baby fear being hit?
Fast forward. I was seven, and I can’t honestly tell you what I did, but it rarely took much. Talking back, asking questions, being curious and poking into stuff — most of it not ill meant but some just normal, gawdawful kid, because kids do that. I was in the basement, which I can still pretty much completely walk through in my mind. I do remember that hand coming out of nowhere, fast as a striking rattler, the blow landing with enough force to snap my head sideways.
The agony took a second, then bloomed hard, the sting followed by the deeper pain and my shriek of pain and anguish — not merely the pain of it but the startled terror, the shock. The moment of silence, the length of which will tell you how much pain a child is in, and then screams and sobs that no amount of will and fear could stem.
When the sobs didn’t subside soon enough, she came down the stairs again. I remember her taking my chin in her hands and turning my head, seeing the livid hand mark, every finger clearly delineated.
“Oh no,” she said, “that’s too much. I’m sorry. I won’t do that again.”
I’m sure she meant it when she said it.
They both had vesuvial rages — Veva and Rob — never to be called by parent names, which confused me. Did I thus have no parents but only guardians? Or did they just dislike me that much? But no, they loved my perfect brother, so that wasn’t it. They were both the cause of this PTSD that has plagued me all my life, that blighted my parenting to the point where I seriously considered turning my daughter over to someone safe and then quietly killing myself.
But this is Mother’s Day, so it’s not about him today.
I have lived with this so long and, frankly, it’s exhausting. To this day, my biggest trigger is hitting my head, which, of course, I do continually. The freezer door when retrieving stuff from the fridge. The car door, too. I slam my head all the time and, without fail, I am triggered. That same goddamned shriek of shock, pain and anguish as the chemical rush of PTSD takes me — fear, grief, rage, terror — all pouring out in shrieks and sobs until I can finally rein it in.
After that, I am triggered for days.
I have good reason to deeply distrust therapists. I had more than my share of abuse and one tried to erroneously label me a sociopath because I wouldn’t trust him — after he made sure I knew trusting him would be a bad mistake. That helped get me into the juvenile institution that ramped the PTSD to hitherto unknown levels of dangerousness.
Yeah, I was dangerous. I finally had to train my daughter to jump back if she accidentally hurt me and I screamed. I nearly killed my husband when he thought it was cute to startle me from behind. Only that leap in the air gave me time to pull the punch that would likely have ruptured something crucial. It desolated me.
Finally, out of desperation, I sought help. I got the diagnosis I had waited so long to get — a validation that was surprisingly vindicating after years of a person I loved and counted on snarling that I could control it if I wanted to. If only, dude.
Then I found my radiant, kind, supportive therapist — a man impossible not to trust because of his sheer authenticity and gentle demeanor — who is trained in EMDR (About EMDR). I’ve been going to him since the end of January and the difference is noticeable. I’m not cured and may never be, but I have a better handle on the reaction — I can move through it more easily and quickly to a place of calm again.
It feels like a miracle.
It was at one of my weekly sessions that I told him about a hit to my head so severe that it left a really painful bruise that lasted a week and how it really was my worst trigger.
The first round of EMDR was to relive the cause of that trauma — the neverending slaps so severe that’s a surprise that I don’t have damage to my neck. The tears flowed and I shook — I was little again and there was that hand and that blow and those anguished sobs. And then we stopped and I sucked in a breath — I had been holding it without realizing it.
“Now let’s revisit that and you think of how you want to process it,” he said.
I had expected to have visions of punching her to the ground, standing over her with my fist raised, roaring that if she tried it again, she would not be getting up once I was done with her.
That’s not what happened.
Instead, I got a huge welling of compassion and in the silence of my mind came this question: “Who hurt you, baby?” I felt the tears rolling down my cheeks as my mother dwindled down to the spindly, coltish little girl she had been, dimpled and pretty with shiny, dark hair in a Dutch boy bob. “Who hurt you, baby?” I asked her again in our little pocket universe and I reached out to her and she was in my lap, cradled close with her head on my shoulder and me pressing kisses on her head and rocking her. “Oh, sweet love,” I whispered. “Nobody will ever hurt you like that again. I promise. I’ve got you. You’re safe now.”
He ended it then and I looked up, my face drenched with tears as I told him what had happened.
“What a wonderful, compassionate insight!” he exclaimed.
“I was so surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. Parents like that are made, not born and despite everything, I love her.”
Someone hurt my mother when she was young — perhaps for years. I don’t know. She was almost pathologically reserved and secretive. It blighted her own parenting as her parenting blighted mine. So who do I hate? Which wounded child should I despise? Who started this chain — or had it always been that way — untraceable back to the beginning of time?
All I know is that by loving and healing my mother as a child — even if only in my mind — I can start loving myself as a child and perhaps, even as a mother myself, because few set out to harm the children they love so much. She’s been gone these 19 years, so I can’t offer her the healing love I think she needed so desperately.
Perhaps, though, I can finally begin to heal myself.