This blog is mainly about my two adopted boys who came to us at age 5 & 6 following a very horrific adoption breakdown and here I try to document our challenges as we navigate through our new reality together. Recently I wrote about the Weight of Adoption on my children. However, in this post I will write a bit about one of MY biggest fears because that has helped me better understand where my traumatised children are coming from and enabled me to be a more understanding parent towards their needs and their approach to life.
First I need to give you a quick scientific background information. I haven’t studied medicine and I did not know any of it before we went on a Full Circle training course designed specifically for adopters and foster carers who welcome traumatised children into their life. So, in short and in a very simplistic way (please feel free to correct me if I misunderstood something):
How the Limbic system controls fear?
The Limbic system (see picture*) in your brain supports a variety of functions like emotion, behaviour, motivation and long-term memory and it includes among others the hippocampus, hypothalamus and the amygdala, which is responsible for emotions and emotional processing. Because of their un-nurturing environment in early ages my boys didn’t receive enough cuddles, care, soothing and therefore didn’t /couldn’t learn to regulate their emotions themselves. They still don’t know! Cortisol is a stress hormone that fills their brain when they experience danger, which pushes them to flight-fight mode. The cortisol overload makes them hyper-vigilant and they perceive everything a threat and once they are there their ‘rational brain activity’ shuts down and they are in survival mode. Basically they get into panic mode in less than a second! They don’t hear what I say, they are not able to perceive the environment around them, they can’t recognise danger, they don’t remember routines or what is acceptable behaviour…etc.
These things happen inside their brain, but on the surface you might not see anything! Sometimes 8 keeps smiling and his usual nonsense chatter fills the air and it’s very hard to recognise that he entered PANIC MODE until something triggers a reaction. Then I realise what I should have recognised 30 sec ago and then we begin operation ‘minimalise damage‘ and we start some calming tactics. Sometimes it takes only a minute, sometimes it can drag out for hours.
My irrational fear makes me appreciate their rational fear
This all makes perfect sense when you read it in a book or hear a lecture about it. But to remember it when you have a kicking screaming child running towards danger instead of away from it for seemingly no reason is entirely different! Yes, it makes no sense! Yes, it often catches me off guard, because I couldn’t in my sane mind imagine that this scenario would ever take place. It’s completely irrational, it’s completely stupid! And yet, here we are more often than not.
And now let’s move onto my fear. I am in my late 30s and consider myself an accomplished and intelligent woman with a good understanding of who I am, what I am capable of, how much I did already achieve and generally I would say I am quite adventurous and brave. But none of that matters when it comes to driving! I have an irrational fear of driving. Recently I think I figured out the reason (without attending a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy session that I was advised to take), but that’s a different story. Sufficient to say I have been taking driving lessons on and off for the last 12 years without much success! Yes, it’s stupid, yes, it’s completely irrational.
My only goal is to be able to drive to the shop and back alone when there is not much traffic, therefore my driving instructor (bless him, very patient and very professional) keeps making me drive the same route every week. Still, at the beginning of each session he asks me if I can drive there without him giving me directions and the answer is still no! I genuinely can’t remember which turns and roads to take to get there. I, for the life of me, just can’t remember! It’s very sad indeed. He simply can’t understand how is that even possible. But I can!
Concentration and memory vs. panic and fear
As soon as I have to sit behind the wheel my brain is overloaded with the very same cortisol that pushes my boys to be hyper-vigilant and to perceive everything as a threat. Before I can start the engine my brain is already in panic mode. It takes all my energy and concentration to remember how to do the usuals (clutch, mirror, indicating, gear, handbrakes off…did I leave out something?) I can’t even do them in the correct order, let alone remember how to assess my immediate environment or, heaven forbid, prepare for the first junction ahead of me or see the road signs further down the road.
This week apparently I did something textbook style and I can’t even remember doing it! According to my instructor I joined a big mad roundabout beautifully, but I have zero recollection of it. The only thing I remember is ‘I don’t want to die!’ and ‘I don’t want to cause an accident’ and ‘what do I have to do to get out this as soon as possible’. Instead of looking at the road I am concentrating on the clock in the car counting back the minutes till my torture is over. At the end of each session he asks me ‘how do you think today went?‘ and all I can think of is ‘thank God I am still alive‘ and I really need to sit in the car for a few minutes before I can get my body under control again. I don’t want him to see me shaking so I wait till he drives away and then I stumble to the house, sit down on a chair and it usually takes an hour or so before I can say I am OK.
So, if it takes me an hour to calm myself down and I did have a safe and secure early childhood, how much more difficult it is for my boys to ‘just calm down’? I am able to verbalise my feelings, I understand the biological and chemical processes that cause this madness in my brain and I am trained in how to reduce the tension / drama / panic levels in and around me. But my 7 & 8 year old boys don’t!
it’s really not fair!
Not fair on them, not fair on people around them, not fair on my husband, who tries his best to remember these when we are in the middle of a massive meltdown, not fair on the teachers who don’t grasp my boys’ internal processes and only see a ‘naughty boy misbehaving again’, not fair on me who needs to keep buying new… well, everything really as both boys keep loosing everything (PE kit, school jumper, book-bag, water bottle, shoes, backpack, toys, pencils, lunch boxes – just to mention the school aspect).
In a sense I experience similar situations as my boys do on a daily basis. Because I do, I remember it well and can relate much better to my boys’ needs. I don’t fully understand it, but we have found a common challenge and it helps me to be more patient, less judgemental and occasionally more therapeutic when it comes to dealing with a problem differently. I understand the vulnerable position they often find themselves in because I have been there. I know how it feels when you really want to remember and do the right thing, but you simply can’t recall the right actions. When you can’t rely on your own memory to make a judgement call or use your past experiences (especially the ones you learnt through punishment or negative consequences) to avoid making the same mistake again. When the causes and effects just don’t line up and actions and consequences are not connected so none of it makes any sense to you… It’s bloody scary! And then you just choose the path of least resistance, which often translates into ‘I am just too stupid’, ‘I can’t do it’, ‘why should I even try?’ and ‘I will never succeed’. I know because I feel all these every single time someone mentions the word ‘driving’. 😦
*picture source: Illustration from Anatomy & Physiology, Connexions Web site. http://cnx.org/content/col11496/1.6/, Jun 19, 2013.