We recently moved 800 miles from our previous home so that we could be closer to Husband’s mom’s side of the family. The move was pretty bonkers, of course, but we all survived and are happy to be living in our new house – it is the very first time Oldest has ever lived in a house with a yard instead of an apartment, and is the first time I’ve lived in a house since before she was born!
We are pretty dang happy about it, let me tell you.
But, with a new setting comes a new set of trauma triggers we need to readjust to.
Little recently had quite the meltdown at “Gamma’s” (their maternal grandmother/Husband’s mom/my wonderful mother-in-law).
It was quite the ordeal and stressful for everyone. On the plus side, my MIL now fully understands why we provide the kids with such intense mental healthcare. On the negative side… My MIL now fully understands why we provide the kids with such intense mental healthcare.
The worst thing about this meltdown is it was 100% preventable, but Husband and I just weren’t paying close enough attention to Little as he slowly dysregulated into a hysterical, screaming little guy.
Trigger #1: Setting
One problem with moving here – we will be spending time in a lot of places that trigger traumatic, ingrained memories in my Little and Middle. The setting that triggers the strongest reactions in my kiddos? My MIL’s house.
On top of the old trigger of, ya know, BioMom trying to kill Husband after his Afghanistan deployment in 2012,* they’re now triggered by something new, and the pain is fresh – the recent passing of their uncle with whom they spent a lot of time with when they were both littles.
By the time Oldest and I got to my MIL’s house, the kids had been there for a couple days and had settled in to where they weren’t tightly wound tops waiting to spring into action at the slightest evidence of something askew. I arrived in the middle of a wood chopping lesson between Husband and Little – Little was chopping “logs” (thick sticks) into smaller pieces for the grill with Husband’s small and dull army hatchet with close supervision, and it was totally safe.
For about an hour.
Unfortunately, it all changed when my husband said something about an axe.
“Axe?” Little said, stretching his brain to access a memory just out of his reach. “Wait, is this an axe?”
Then, thinking we were out of ear-shot, Husband pointed out the tire iron to me.
“TIRE IRON?!” Little yelled, climbing onto a wrought-iron chair. “Axe. Tire iron. Remember. Remember. Remember,” he said, punctuating each robotic repetition by bouncing up off his rear end just a bit and flopping back down.
“Calm down, Little,” I said. “Everything is fine.”
Pretty sure I need to scrub the words “calm down” from my vocab – so easy to say, so hard to do! Especially when I’m not there or in the mood to guide them through the calming…
Trigger #2: Dangerous Things
Now, the good therapeutic parent would stop what they were doing and tend to Little. That’s not what I did, of course, but in hindsight, that is totally what should have happened. I was enjoying the evening and I didn’t want to do the trauma thing, so instead we quickly changed subjects and got him back to hacking up a piece of wood.
Husband went inside to grab the potatoes for the grill leaving me and Little alone. With the axe. And the fire on the grill.
::hack hack hack::
“I like this, Mom,” Little said. “It’s good for my anger.”
“That’s good, Little. We need to find good ways to get your energy and your anger out. We have a fireplace now so maybe you’ll be our wood-chopper when you’re a bit older.”
“Yeah. That’s a good idea.”
::hack hack hack::
It was roughly 90 degrees outside, and getting too hot is definitely a trigger for Little. This time, I paid attention and said, “You’re getting a little sweaty. Maybe it’s time to cool off?”
::hack hack hack::
::hack hack hack::
“Little, put down the hatchet and let’s get cooled off.”
“Little. Put it down.”
Little tossed the hatchet aside, picked up a twig, went straight to the grill, and lit the stick on fire. “Look, Mom. Fire. Fire. Fire!”
“Neat. Okay, let’s go inside.”
Little threw down the stick and held his hands very close to the grill. “Hot. Hot. Hot,” he said, inching his face closer and closer to the smoldering coals.
“Little – inside. Now. Let’s go.”
Little bolted away from me at full-speed.
“Little-get-back-here-right-now!” I yelled. He ran back to me, again at full-speed. “You know a good way to calm down? Walking – slowly – to the – ” Before I even finished my sentence, Little was halfway across the lawn again. “Argh! Little! Get back here!”
::stomp stomp stomp:: “Huh?”
“Walk. Slowly. Inside. Get a cool rag and put it on your neck.”
He walked inside. He walked quickly, but at least he walked.
Again, in hindsight, allowing Little to use an “axe” and be near the fire and the grill were not such awesome ideas, but Husband wanted to teach his kiddo how to do “man things” and just like my desire to enjoy a nice family evening overrode my trauma parent instincts, his desire to do normal dad things with his son overrode his sense of “maybe I shouldn’t be giving Little these lessons just yet.”
Trigger #3: Me… And Old Threats
When I walked inside, Little was obviously not sitting calmly, nor had he asked for a cold rag to put on his neck. He was crawling around on the floor, headbutting the couch.
“Calm down,” I said.
“Okay,” he said, and continued ramming his head into the couch.
At this point, I scooped him up and put him on my lap. He grunted and squealed, as though I was hurting him, and lurched away from me. I gently wrapped my arms around his waist and held fast. “Let’s calm down together.”
After a few minutes, my MIL came over. “Little, what is going on? You didn’t act this way the whole time you’ve been here.”
::squeal grunt lurch::
::squeal grunt lurch::
“Little!” I saw my MIL wanted to help, and wanted to remain playful. “Little, if you don’t stop this I’m going to duct tape you to a pole!”
Now, she was joking, and all the other kids she’s dealt with most likely responded to this with a little giggle.
But, Little having gone through what he’s gone through, this statement made things get worse – and they got worse fast. And then, right as Little escaped my gentle hold, I remembered one of the audio recordings in which BioMom talked about threatening to do that to the kids in a far less joking tone.
Little ran away from me and found an empty box, which he promptly upended and hid underneath. “Little. Come out. I’m not going to let anyone duct tape you, I promise.”
MIL started another joke, and I softly stopped her. “No, Little. I won’t let anyone duct tape you. Grandma is joking.”
“Yes, I’m just joking. Come out of that box. Unless you want to be a little box turtle?”
This went on for some time before I decided to remove him from the room. We went somewhere more quiet, but he only escalated. Eventually, Husband got him into the shower… As he was helping Little undress, Little’s arm got caught in the string of his cross necklace which started him back into panic mode because he started choking, and my husband had to bite through the string to get it off.
“You ruined my necklace and you don’t care about GOD!” he yelled.
“Tell me what’s wrong, Little.”
My MIL looked at me. “Why does he do that to you? You didn’t do anything!”
“Because he has DSED, which means he doesn’t trust the adults around to be safe. He also has PTSD, just like Husband, only a big trigger is just me being here, as a mom, because he didn’t get stability when he was a baby.”
“Yeah. It sucks.”
Things calmed down, Little cried a bit after he cooled off (literally and figuratively), and we had a pretty good evening from then on.
Empathizing with Little
Later, Husband and I talked about everything that went down. “He’s going to have to get over it… We can’t just avoid my mom’s house forever. We need to go down every other weekend.”
“I know, but think about it this way. Say something magical happened and Afghanistan became a peaceful nation with no more war-torn provinces. Imagine the threats to your safety you ran into there were 100% removed from the entire country of Afghanistan. Now, imagine that you had to go to Nangalam or Honaker-Miracle (the bases where he was stationed in Afghanistan where he earned his Purple Heart) to see your grandma every other weekend.”
“How long would it take you to be able to go there without freaking out over small, non-threatening things?”
“Do I have to eat MREs?”
::blank stare:: “I see what you mean.”
I hate that my kids have these problems, and I hate that he and Middle can’t simply enjoy a night at Gamma’s without running into so many problems, and I wonder how many times we’ll have to visit before they really feel safe there.
But I know one thing is for sure – we’re going to make damn sure those yard-tools-once-used-as-weapons are gone during our next visit.
*::record scratch:: Say what now??
Yes. For those of you who do not know, the final kicker to Husband’s marriage to BioMom occurred when she assaulted him in front of the kids – she first attempted to hit him with an axe his mom had lying in the yard. When that failed, she grabbed a machete my MIL uses to beat back overgrown wilderness and BioMom hit him across the face with that. He disarmed her and restrained her against a truck, and while he was distracted by trying to calm the hysterical children as they waited for the police to arrive, she grabbed a tire iron and attempted to “blind him,” in her words.
I never know how much to share about that incident because it is my husband’s story and he shares it freely, but it is also the worst moment of my kids’ life and when they get older they may not want to share it as freely… So, even though a lot more happened, we’ll leave it at this: when the police arrested her (and only her) for domestic battery in the third degree at the end of that scuffle, my husband decided her actions constituted “until death do us part,” and he decided right then and there that there was no saving their marriage.
An interesting side note about this – Little doesn’t really remember this incident in part because he was two years old, but he will swear up and down that I was there during this incident. I sure do wish I had been there to shield him and his sister from the madness in the yard, but, sadly, I had not yet met Husband when this lovely moment in time took place.
I’m 100% positive that the addition of me to his memory only added to his mixed up state of mind this night and contributed to the meltdown that occurred right before dinner.