Please note that this is a two-part series. Check out part two here.
Content Warning: Child abuse, neglect, abandonment. Some foul language because that’s the least of my concerns when I talk about this stuff. If the thing that scandalizes you most about this post is a couple of f-bombs, we should probably just part ways here. It’s not going to go well for either of us.
I had a weird experience yesterday: Someone thought my childhood might be relevant to help someone else.
Sometimes I feel like my family situation is so complex, so unique, so utterly bizarre, that it won’t really resonate with anyone else. For lack of a better word, I often feel like a freak. A whole old-timey circus sideshow, even. Step right up and marvel.
In case you’re not one of my closest personal friends, I’ll give you a Cliff’s Notes version of some childhood vignettes:
One of my earliest memories is of being scalded in a bathtub and beaten with a leather weightlifting belt. This was a punishment from my father, earned by drawing on my fingers with a Bic. I was about three years old. Just in case any of you other poor saps were planning on running for Father of the Year, he also enjoyed beating women, was in and out of jail for drug trafficking, and never paid one dime in child support.
Then I had my mother, my more safe/stable parent. She had severe mental illness, compounded by unresolved trauma. It was often untreated, sometimes self-medicated with drugs and alcohol, and almost always terrifying in any sense of the word. Living with a parent with untreated mental illness is like riding a rollercoaster in which you are too short for the harness, and also the ride is missing large sections of track. In my case, the ride operator was also often drunk.
When I was 12, my mother moved in with her boyfriend, leaving me alone in a two-room basement apartment with two cats and zero working toilets. I lived like that for a year, mostly fending for myself, and became as feral as one can become and still pass for your standard angsty adolescent.
We lived together again, here and there, until she abandoned me for good when I was 15. After our last eviction, she sent me to my aunt’s house for a “vacation” and never came to pick me up, because we were homeless. Well, I was homeless—she’d moved in with a new boyfriend and I wasn’t invited.
So, yeah. I have some parent trauma.
Anyway, back to my friend. His mom walked out when he was 8, and he’s still, about 40 years and a Tesla’s worth of therapy later, not okay about it. Despite his best efforts to move on, be an excellent husband and father, and inspire others personally and professionally, this living, breathing heartache insists on climbing out of the woodwork once in a while, to give him just enough attention to remind him that he ain’t shit to her. And everything he’s accomplished, all the work he’s done, is temporarily undone.
Triggers are a mother, y’all.
Knowing my history, my friend’s wife reached out to me. She described the deep, dark place he was in and asked, “How do I reach him? How do I help him climb out of this hole? What works for you?” So I made an effort to galvanize my plunges into the abyss for good.
What follows is an exploration of how to navigate a trauma trigger response, in yourself or someone you love. If you are the trauma survivor, may this help you make sense of some of the darker parts of yourself. If you are a support person, I hope this sheds some light on why it’s so intense, why the usual coping tools might not work, and how you can better love on the one who is hurting.
Parent trauma triggers are Next-Level.
If you or someone you love is processing parental abuse-related trauma, you need to first understand is that this is entirely different from any other brand of trauma. Not having your mother’s love really does fuck you up, down, and sideways. Daddy issues are also a shitstorm, but as someone who has both in spades, let me assure you, the mother stuff is Way Harder on the psyche. If the person you love has both…strap in, baby.
If your mother wouldn’t or couldn’t take care of you, there is a critical piece of your self-worth puzzle missing. It’s biological. Think about what happens to baby animals that get abandoned in the wild. They die. No matter what else good we may have in this life, the lack of a mother’s love tells us, on a primitive level, that we are unsafe. We are an anomaly within the laws of nature. It’s not a far jump for a child’s brain to translate this into a feeling of being flawed, broken, unloveable. We may drive ourselves and everyone around us crazy, trying to find something that replaces that love and validation.
You need to understand that when this stuff bubbles up, we are hearing an old, old song. The melody is eternal. The lyrics, etched on our soul. We have written our own four-part harmonies. There is elaborate choreography. It is extraordinarily hard to turn off. This is a Rick-Roll straight from the mouth of Hell.
Typical coping tools may not work.
I have a lot of tools to manage stress and emotions, and I can often use them quite effectively. Then there is this issue, which can take my actual breath away. It doesn’t come up nearly as often as it used to, but occasionally, despite my best efforts, the pain wells up. And this is after intensive therapy, EMDR reprogramming, journaling my entire life story, and going on a spiritual walkabout. If you or your person has not taken those steps yet, YIKES, you are dealing with a live grenade.
I’ve distanced my self from a lot of those events/feelings/experiences, but they did still happen, and no therapist (even mine, who really is super) or prayer or chakra cleanse is ever going to make them not have happened.
So when this switch gets flipped, honestly…sometimes nothing helps. This is kind of relating back to my post on toxic positivity. Sometimes, there’s nothing to do but lean into it and feel the hurt. It crashes like a wave, and I have to throw myself into it, because fighting it will exhaust me and maybe pull me completely out to sea.
Caught in the riptide of a trauma flare, I don’t care about my coping tools. I don’t care about what anyone thinks of me, either, because in that moment, nothing really matters. I already see myself as worthless and unlovable, so why would I care about your opinion of me? All I can see is this gaping biological/psychological/emotional void that can NOT be filled by anyone or anything.
We might not want to talk about it right now…and we probably don’t want you to talk about it, either.
I’ve recently realized that I shouldn’t talk much about my feelings when I’m having a trauma flare. This might seem counter-intuitive–our extroverted, solutions-focused culture certainly wants us to talk everything out, right now. However, when you’re in a primitive trigger state, your brain maybe isn’t in a place where it can do that effectively. The thoughts can spiral lower and lower, and the more anyone tries to talk me out of it, the more reasons I will find to go deeper into it. So trying to build us up with words can actually make things worse. It’s like a reverse defense mechanism, designed to keep you from feeling better. You don’t deserve to feel better because, after all, you’re bad.
This is when a support person might get frustrated with our “negativity” (in quotes because what they experience as negativity, we experience as the inevitable manifestation of the gaping void in our soul). So I’m just like “Yeah, you’re right, I’m the worst. Ask my mom, lol.” And the conversation gets less productive from there.
Phew, that was a ride. Here’s a picture of my baby wearing a unicorn hat.
Now that you understand how a trauma flare works, and what not to do, part 2 focuses on how you can help yourself or someone else get through one. You should read it! It’s much less depressing, I promise!