My Middle had her tonsils removed at the end of September. What was supposed to be a simple procedure turned into a 9-day hospital stay when she developed an incredibly rare retropharyngeal abscess the day after her surgery.
Since then, we’ve been hit by a series of unfortunate events that have left us reeling – and depleted my creative reservoirs. I haven’t felt “the urge” to write in some time, but today I’m forcing myself to write and publish this blog post. As we come out of the holiday season – a time of year that brings so much stress to our families – I hope you will find the time and motivation to force yourself into doing something you’ve been struggling to accomplish, too!
Those of you who’ve been reading my blog a while know that Middle and Little are Husband’s biological children. Though our general situation looks the same as most other parents raising children with PTSD, Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and/or Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder (DSED), our circumstances differ from most of my Trauma Parent friends in small, but important, ways.
One difference in our parenting situation: we know a lot of details regarding their trauma histories. We know what happened, we know when it happened, and we have a general idea as to why it happened.
Though he was there for some of the terrible things my kids went through in their young lives, the vast majority of my kids’ traumatic experiences happened over the course of the year Husband deployed to Afghanistan and the following year when he was stationed in Hawaii while the kids were in Texas with Bio Mom. He changed duty stations as soon as he could, but it took about six months before everything went through, and another few months before he was able to secure their custody.
So, now, whenever Husband leaves the house, the threat of Meltdown City looms heavy over our household because that is their biggest trigger.
Things have gotten better over the last year – most of the time, Middle and Little hold it together when Husband steps outside on our porch for a smoke or takes a short trip to the store. They seem to tolerate him being gone well for about three hours these days before chaos ensues, and it’s amazing to see that progress.
Even though they’ve made such headway in this area, I had absolutely no confidence in myself nor my kids’ ability to cope with a long trip to Arkansas Husband had to take. This trip had to happen – it was a family emergency. His 25-year-old brother, LTM, has Friedreich’s Ataxia and his health has declined drastically over the last year. He entered the hospital via emergency air-lift just before Thanksgiving and today, Christmas day, he’s still in a hospital room. LTM is one tough dude – there have been several close calls and some incredibly scary moments since he’s been admitted, but he’s still fighting.
I’ll be honest – I didn’t want to stay here with all the kids while he left for Arkansas. The last time Husband tried to take a trip, I nearly had a stroke from trying to manage the kids’ triggered behavior while he was gone (not exaggerating – at one point my BP reading was around 200/110 for over three hours). Add the huge argument Husband and I got into over an issue we’ve been dealing with for over a year into the mix and I really didn’t want to watch the kids… “HIS kids,” as I so regrettably said out loud during our “discussion” of our disagreement. “Take your kids with you because I’m not doing you that kind of favor right now!”
“But… they can’t come to visit LTM in the ICU. What am I going to do?”
“I don’t know – you have enough family there. You’ll figure it out, I’m sure.”
What kind of nasty, selfish woman says something like that? What kind of wife makes it harder for her husband to visit his brother who’s been struggling to survive for the last several weeks?
What kind of mother so easily tries to send kids she calls her own away like that, just because she’s nervous about their behavior and angry at her husband??
I’ve written before about not always having my you-know-what together, and those of you who know me from online Trauma Parent support groups have seen me in my frazzled and unorganized state, and you know that I often need more experienced Trauma Mamas and Papas to talk some sense into me and guide me through it. So, after the big blow-up with Husband I got online to vent about him and the kids and I let myself get all, “Oh, woe is me!” for about twenty-four hours. Online friends rightfully called me out for entertaining the thought of refusing to help Husband in his hour of need, for referring to the kids as “HIS” in all caps, and helped me calm down.
After a vent session and a good night’s sleep (and beta blockers…), my general sense of morality returned and I realized that my main motivation in becoming so malicious was rooted in my anger at Husband over our major disagreement as well as my fear of Little losing control and hurting me… I also feared I’d lose control with the kids in reaction to their triggered behavior.
But I realized that no matter the validity of my concerns and anger, I would never forgive myself if I prevented Husband from visiting LTM at such a critical time. There was a high likelihood that LTM would become unresponsive, or worse, in a matter of days. I knew I couldn’t allow my selfishness to prevent Husband’s trip to see LTM. So, I sucked it up, gave my husband a hug, and told him to go to his brother without the kids.
“We’ll be fine,” I said. “I’ll figure things out if there’s a crisis. You go.”
The first night went off with only one small hitch – less than a minute after my husband said goodbye to all of us, Middle and Little went from playing nicely to growling at each other and threatening to slap each other in the face (an old threat I hadn’t heard it about a year. They used to throw those words around with abandon and the reemergence of it was a clear sign of being triggered). I called Husband, who hadn’t even left the parking lot, and he came back for one more pep talk on how families are supposed to act in a crisis.
The following morning went well, too, but everything fell apart when I picked the kids up from school.
But when I picked up the kids that afternoon from school, everything
exploded in a huge eruption of chaos and disaster fell apart.
Driving up in the carpool line, I saw Little sitting by himself.
Uh-oh, I thought.
When he got in the car he was silent – even after Middle told him he could go first in telling me about his day at school (an offer that had never happened before and likely won’t happen again).
Silence… from the child who lives to make noise, the little prince of nonsense chatter, who once asked me, “Why cats cats cats cats??” when he couldn’t think of anything else to say that made any sense. The quiet freaked me out, but I took some deep breaths, used my quiet and calm voice, and tried to roll with it.
In the apartment, he couldn’t stay on task with his after-school routine. I reminded him to go to the bathroom three times before gently putting my hands on his shoulders to physically guide him back to the toilet and he threw himself down on the ground, wailing. I tried to calm him but it didn’t work, so I carried him to the bathroom.
He slammed his head into the toilet tank, his face into the cabinet. I tried to stop him but he began punching and slapping himself hard enough to leave marks.
At this point, I abandoned our after-school routine. I carried him from the bathroom to his bedroom. He stood in the middle of his room screaming and beating himself. I tried to have him sit on my lap and calm down but he wouldn’t stop slapping himself. I then tried to restrain him, but the one safe restraint I know isn’t very effective and he’s big enough now to free himself from my hold, so that didn’t work either (and now I know I can’t try to use that again as we can both get hurt from improper restraining. CMA Disclaimer: Do not attempt to restrain your child unless you’ve been taught how to do so safely under the guidance of a mental health professional or self-defense trainer and then only in the most severe of circumstances).
I could feel my blood pressure skyrocketing – which means I was at risk of a stress reaction to Little’s meltdown. I had to take a break. I told him to stay in his room and took a few minutes to calm myself down – which I somehow managed to do even while he was trying to demolish his walls and bed and blinds and toys and door. He started charging the door and slamming into it as hard as he could. Then he started demanding I call the cops on him.
THUMP! “Call the police!” THUMP! “You have to call the police!” THUMP! “Please call the police because I have to go to jail! “THUMP! “Mom! PLEASE! CALL THE POLICE! I HAVE TO GO TO JAIL!”
After a minute or two, I went back in his room. “Little, why do you want to go to jail?”
“I have to go to jail for just no reason. Please! Call the police! Now!”
“But why, Bud? Why?”
“Because I want to be away from you!”
“Okay – I can leave the room if you need to be away from me.”
Little’s tears intensified and he leaped from the bed to attack the wall again, chanting his new mantra all the while. I tried a few more times to find out why he wanted to go to jail, but he wouldn’t answer. Finally, I asked, “Is it because you’re going to hurt me? Or going to hurt yourself?”
“YES!!” Little wailed. “And I don’t want to hurt you but I’m going to if I don’t go to jail and that’s why I have to go to jail!”
He resumed shouting, screaming, and pounding on the wall. I left the room and stood there, listening to him rage and despair, for a minute before I grabbed my phone to call 911.
“911 – What’s your emergency?”
“Um… I need a… I need either the police or an ambulance. An ambulance is probably more appropriate.” I explained our situation and she dispatched paramedics and a deputy.
I gathered the girls and animals in my room, downloaded a brand new game for them to play (thank you, Fire TV!). I returned to sit by Little’s door and make sure he didn’t really hurt himself. For the entirety of the 20 minutes it took between my call for help and the arrival of the paramedics, Little kept his tirade going. “Call the police! Call the police!”
I desperately wanted him to stop, to calm down, but at the same time, I needed him to stay amped up so that the emergency workers saw him in all his out of control glory. I’ve only taken Little into the ER for emergency psych services once, and by the time we got there he’d calmed enough to put on his “cute mask,” the face he slaps on to cover up any unhappy or scary thoughts taking over his brain. Little occasionally uses this mask with Husband and me, but not so often lately, now that he knows we’re safe adults. These days, he’s much more likely to use it in front of adults with whom he’s not supposed to attach (like teachers, doctors, strangers in the supermarket, etc.).
This mask is a protective mechanism for him – when he was a tiny little guy, he was much more likely to get the things he needed from the adults around him if he was cute and agreeable. Little’s mask is almost flawless – those who don’t know him can never tell he’s upset when he wears it, but those who know him best recognize signs of his distress even when they’re very well hidden.
This mask may seem like a small problem, but I believe it’s one of the biggest hindrances to his healing he faces in his young life.
His ability to hide his “big feelings” prevents those who don’t know him well from recognizing when he’s upset and needs extra support (this has emerged as a big problem for us this year as it relates to school. Little has come home with a meltdown every Wednesday and Thursday of his first-grade year. I’ve been able to spot the signs of Little’s distress (scowling or tense face, rigid or bouncy body, walking with his head hanging or chest puffed out, etc.) from the back of the carpool line every time. But, when I email his teacher and school counselor, they almost always express surprise at his negative behavior at home because “he had a good day” and “he seemed fine at the end of the day.”
Research is showing that children with the same diagnosis as my son (DSED – formerly RAD Disinhibited Type) are often more resistant to treatment than those diagnosed with RAD (formerly RAD Inhibited Type), and I think the difficulty in treating them comes from the abiilty to put on this mask at will (to contrast, Middle, diagnosed with RAD, may try to put on a mask to cover her negative thoughts and feelings, but she’s not able to pull it off with finesse like her little brother here). And because kids with DSED are a bit more likely to be explosive than those with RAD, we do not want to encourage this skill of his to full development!
I knew if he had a chance to put on that mask that he wouldn’t get the help he needed (and, honestly, selfishly, I didn’t want him to be cute and charming when the paramedics arrived because I didn’t want them to think I was overreacting), so I refused to answer Little’s persistent shouting of, “Did you call the police?!” When the flashing lights shone through my living room window, I ran outside to greet them and quietly told them what was happening. “Thankfully,” we could hear his meltdown from the parking lot. My explanation was cut short, though – we headed inside when he started slamming his fists into his window instead of just the wall. When we entered our apartment, we were greeted with Little opening his door and screaming his question. When I didn’t answer he ran around the corner to find me and stopped short when he saw the officials standing in our living room.
“DID YOU CALL THE —— Oh. Hi!” he said, and turned on his heels to walk back into his room.
Before the deputy and paramedics went in to talk to him and examine him, I pulled them aside. “He’s probably going to be very cute and sweet with you. But it’s not really real, if that makes sense?”
“Yes, ma’am. We’ve seen this before.”
“I just don’t want you to think I’m crazy.”
“Well, we heard him when we walked up, so we won’t think you’re crazy. Don’t worry.”
The relief I felt at that – I could have cried.
The paramedics and deputy went back to talk to Little, who told them he was going to hurt me. He told them he has hurt me, tried to kill me… That yes he knew what hurt meant kill meant and dead meant. That he didn’t ever want to hurt me but that he has before and that he can’t stop thinking about it when he’s mad – that he couldn’t stop thinking about it that day. They decided to transport him to the hospital nearest us with a pediatric psych unit. They assumed he’d be admitted – even though he was calmly explaining his intrusive and violent thoughts, the paramedics thought the fact that a seven-year-old boy with a history of violent rages was explaining such thoughts warranted a hospital admission, at least overnight for admission. They allowed him to pack up several comfort items and off they went, with the girls and I trailing behind through rush-hour traffic.
Was he scared? Maybe… but he certainly didn’t show it. He was excited to go with strangers in an ambulance to stay overnight in the hospital with no parent present. Which could be taken for bravery or just childlike enthusiasm for riding in an ambulance, but more likely it was a side-effect of his DSED. According to the DSM-V, to qualify for the DSED diagnosis, a child must have a history of maltreatment, a reduced or absent reticence in approaching and interacting with unfamiliar adults, a diminished or absent checking back with adult caregiver after venturing away, even in unfamiliar settings, a willingness to go off with an unfamiliar adult with little or no hesitation, and engage in overly familiar verbal or physical behavior (that is not consistent with culturally sanctioned and with age-appropriate social boundaries).
He left our apartment on a stretcher, smiling and chatting and charming.
He didn’t even say goodbye to me or his sisters.
The fiasco that ensued as all four of us sat up at the hospital is a story for another day, but, in the end, the staff decided not to admit him.
And you know what? During this whole misadventure?
I kept my cool and didn’t yell at any of my children.
I’m a little shocked myself that I was able to handle it without completely flipping my switch to “out of control mama,” although I did yell at the charge nurse when he came to discharge Little before he’d been thoroughly evaluated by the psych team and was threatened with arrest if I refused to take him home (I believed, and still do, that he needed observation at a minimum… but the threat of arrest was enough for me to reverse. Like I said… the hospital excursion was a dang fiasco!). But my duty isn’t to the nurse with a terrible bedside manner. My duty is to my children – and I survived this meltdown, ambulance ride, and ER visit with three special needs children and didn’t yell!
::high fives myself::
But that didn’t solve the problem of me being uncomfortable with Little – I was still wary of him because of our past and the intrusive thoughts he was having about hurting me. Thankfully, my in-laws stepped in and offered to take him for the weekend, and I immediately agreed. That little break allowed us both to heal a bit from the craziness of what had happened. It hasn’t been exactly smooth sailing since he returned last Sunday, but he hasn’t had a full-on meltdown since the first full day without Husband here.
Even better? Husband has been gone since December 14. He missed Christmas with us here at home. And we did fine. The day after Husband left is the only day we’ve struggled so badly. This is an amazing feat, IMO. My kids’ triggers are still lurking, obviously… and, in truth, those lingering fears from their infancy and toddlerhood may never go away.
We still have a few more days before Husband returns, and yes, I was incredibly reluctant to do Christmas on my own (because OMG the holidays are HARD for kids with trauma histories). But Christmas Day is wrapping up as I write this and we did it. We got through Christmas Eve with no major incident.
And our ability to handle all of the crises – big and small – over the last few months?
We are amazing.
And, if you’re doing this trauma parent thing and stay committed to your kids in the hardest of times…
You are amazing, too.
Products Mentioned or Related to This Post