Thursday 3 July 2014

Mapping the Exits

So we went to see the social worker. Two of them, actually, and they were really nice. I know what you mean they kept on saying, while making sympathetic noises. Also That sounds exhausting, (and yes, it is, thanks for noticing).

We talked a bit about parenting strategies - what we could do, what we have done, what we might try. They asked us about all kinds of things, and the words just fell and fell out of me. Usually when I talk about parenting I hedge everything around with disclaimers about how much I love my children, but this time I didn't, really. I didn't feel like I had to apologise to these people for finding things tough, sometimes- these people are in post-adoption support; I presume they already know that adoption can be tough. So let's skip the chit-chat about the cuteness, shall we? Jay talked as well, of course, but not as much as me because the attachment complications we face in our family are very much concentrated along the mother-son axis.

mother and son
I talked about how bad I feel, sometimes, when I realise that my focus on Blue - my need to coach him through the simplest things, sometimes - affects how I parent Pink.  Do you love Blue more than me, Mummy? she asked me, after one particularly hard morning. Her voice was matter-of-fact.  Of course not, I said, trying not to sound as horrified as I felt. I adore both of you. (This happens to be true). Then why do you always cuddle him so much? she asked. Because his attachment issues manifest themselves in physical clinginess,  I might have said, but didn't, of course. Instead I said well, Blue needs a lot of cuddles, honey. She looked at me and said, still matter-of-fact, But mummy, so do I. When she said that, I felt all the air rush out of me. I know you do, honey, I said, and I gave her a hug right then, but of course in ten minutes time I was dealing with him again.

And has all of this affected your marriage? asked the older social worker, and Jay said no  at exactly the same time that I said yes. Make of that what you will. I feel like it has - it must have - affected our marriage, because it affects everything else in life. I feel so profoundly exhausted so much of the time. I have no energy to cook creative meals and light candles for some kind of date night - I just want to sit on the sofa and watch Veronica Mars. I find that I am completely unable to separate out what is normal parental exhaustion (surely, everyone feels this way) from the exhaustion that comes from managing our particular circumstances (nobody else can possibly feel this way, surely?)

I talked and talked. I talked and talked about how my son reacts to certain stimuli - how it seems that his reactions to some things are way outside of what those things warrant. I talked about how I'm trying to work out which things do what, trying to work out how I can manage those reactions. I read this thing I kept on saying and it made me wonder if - there's so much to wonder about. Why the really good days, why the really bad days? What are the uncommon denominators? I have no idea. The hitting seems to have stopped; for now, at least. I'm beyond relieved, but I have no idea how it happened so I wouldn't know how to make it stop again if it were to re-start. So much to read, so much to think about, and still, sometimes, when things go wrong, no freaking clue what to do.

(Have I mentioned that I love my son? Really, I love and adore my son).

The social worker interrupted my flow of words. You said you've done a lot of reading, she said. I nodded. Have you done any reading about secondary trauma? I hadn't. She wrote something down. The way you're describing your own behaviour, she said, it sounds like what you're describing is some hypervigilance. It sounds like your own reactions have become fine tuned so that you are always waiting for something to go wrong, always unable to relax. 

Have you ever played pinball, dear reader? I haven't, but I've seen other people doing it and that moment for me was like when someone makes that perfect shot in pinball. Her words arced into my brain and then bounced for what felt like forever, hitting piece after piece and connecting a whole head full of dots that I didn't even know were there.  One thousand points, I should have told her, you have earned an extra life. I didn't say anything though, because I was too busy feeling stunned. We finished the meeting and went home and I haven't been able to stop thinking about what she said. Hypervigilance and secondary trauma. In me. 

Honestly, I don't really know why this has shaken me up so much, but it really has. I thought I had bought into the whole 'attachment is a family issue' thing, but I guess I hadn't. I guess I really was thinking of myself as a person outside this difficult situation, a person who was trying to deal with it (not always very well) but a person who was fundamentally the same person she was before she found herself in it. I'm not sure that's true any more.  And the more I think about it, the more I think that there is nothing secondary about this trauma. Secondary trauma is something that caregivers experience when they have to process the pain of what their loved one has experienced. But if I'm traumatised, I honestly don't think it's through dealing with what he is suffering; I'm traumatised because of what I've experienced myself in this situation. Dealing with the fighting, the drama, the constant push-pull, the difficulties and the neediness - I've spent the last years on constant high alert and waiting for something to go wrong. It suppose all of this has short-circuited something in my brain. Feels about right, to be honest.

We see hypervigilance in our children and we understand why it's happening but we want it to stop. I have to say, it's been a profoundly humbling experience for me to see that it's happening in my own brain too. Now that she's said it, I see it all the time. I don't want to go places, I dont' want to do things because I'm worried that we're going to have a meltdown or an explosion. And when we do go places and something goes wrong, I catastrophise immediately.  This is the worst meltdown in the history of forever. I can't cope with this. The rest of the day is going to be ruined. Now that this is happened he isn't going to eat. If he doesn't eat he won't sleep. Tomorrow is going to be ruined too. We need to leave immediately. Right, let's go, let's go NOW please honey. Where is the nearest exit? It seems that, even when things are actually going fine, I'm always getting ahead of myself. I'm always mapping the exits.

Does this hypervigilance make me a better parent? Absolutely not, obviously. I've developed it as a coping mechanism, but right now it makes me less able to deal with stressful situations, less able to accurately assess risk, less able to think creatively to solve problems when the do occur. I'm trying to be conscious about this. I'm trying to at least talk to myself in a positive way - what's the worst that can happen? - was something I was using for a while, but actually, sometimes the answer to that question is pretty traumatising in itself. Ha.

It doesn't make me a better parent, but I don't think it makes me a worse person, either. The same way that we can acknowledge - hopefully without judgement -  that our kids' brains have reacted to what they have experienced, I think I have to acknowledge the same thing about myself. I'm still trying to work through how to deal with this.

So what does all this mean? Heck, I don't know. I just found her observation incredibly perceptive - if painful - and I thought it might apply to more people than me. A friend of mine was talking about something similar just yesterday and it made me wonder.

Feel familiar to anybody else?