By Karen Skalitzky
I wake to bright lights, the warmth of my son next to me. “Mom, it’s 5:16 a.m. When can we go swimming?” My body is achy. My back, stiff. We arrived at the hotel long after it was dark. I sift through a maze of competing thoughts, remembering how he’d turned on about every light before we fell asleep. It slowly dawns on me that my 10-year-old son has slept through the night for the first time in a strange place. This is a feat.
You see, my son has a backstory. You don’t know it when you meet him. You see his big smile, his dark brown cheeks. His occasional swagger. Yet, he survived an abrupt loss at a tender age, years before we became a family. We do not know why it happened, but the trauma of that experience reshaped him then. And now.
Imagine having your sense of safety ripped from you without warning, without any sense of how or when, or even if, it will return. That is trauma. And trauma always remembers.
As a new mom, I found it hard to talk about trauma. The blank stares from other moms silenced me as did my shame around our struggles and not having it all figured out. I ached to be seen and affirmed, but without the misguided advice and unwanted pity. I do not want trauma to define my son, and yet it has shaped me as a mom. Seven years later, here is what I can say.
My son and I adopted each other when he was just shy of three years old. Imagine him at 20 pounds, wearing 12-month-old clothes and orange sneakers. I carried him everywhere; he happily obliged. He knew love long before me. He also knew fear, abandonment, hunger, and uncertainty. Unlike the happy-ever-after adoption stories we see—Despicable Me, Maniac Magee, The Secret Garden—real adoption stories have grit. They come with backstories.
Neither my son nor I slept through the night for well over the first two years we were a family. As it turns out, the defining event in his early years most likely happened when he was asleep. When he woke up, his family was gone. He was in an unknown place with different sounds, different smells, different arms holding him (if he was even held). Nothing of what he knew when he’d been awake remained, not even his name.
Imagine such sudden and definitive loss. That kind of trauma rewires the brain. For my son, it translated into hypervigilance. Night after night (after night), he fought going to sleep and then woke up later for upwards of 90 minutes to four hours—on high alert. He kicked and rolled around. He poked. He bit. When I held him, he usually banged his forehead against my chest in rapid succession, no matter how hard I tried to stop him.
Head banging is a common coping skill in orphanages when there is no one there to soothe you in the dark of night. But I was there. Why was I not enough?
Trauma, I soon learned, lives at a cellular level in your body, the places where words cease to exist. It is easily triggered—a smell, a touch, a circumstance. Once triggered, it activates a series of reactions in your brain. Most notably, your ability to regulate your emotions stops. They swirl uncontrollably as that part of your brain goes offline. The part of your brain that processes speech goes offline too. Understanding what is being said to you, especially by an overtired and distraught mother, is increasingly difficult. Author and therapist Aundi Kobler says it best: only half of your brain is working.
What I came to understand is that my son did not trust that everything he knew—me, his bedroom, our life—would still be there when he woke up. He couldn’t risk falling back asleep.
And it wasn’t just at nighttime. Trauma triggers were everywhere in our early years together: at the park, in school, church, whenever we went to birthday parties, a playdate at a friend’s house. Hunger was a trigger. Unpredictable and loud noises. A sudden change in his caregivers like a substitute teacher or new babysitter. Even an afternoon of respite for me was fraught with hidden mines of abandonment and uncertainty. Was I coming back?
The adoption counselors and sleep doctors told me it would take years to heal. I wasn’t sure I had it in me. On a steady diet of three hours of sleep, my compassion wore thin, especially on nights when work was stressful or when we’d had a full day and exhaustion claimed me. As a solo mom, I rocked him. I sang to him. I read to him. I paced the hallway with him pitched on my hip and then bit my cheek so I wouldn’t explode in anger and make him feel more unsafe.
When nothing soothed either one of us, I put him in the car. I sped down dark, empty freeways, praying for sleep to overtake him. I questioned my sanity and our safety.
It took me a long time to understand that trauma is bigger than me. I wanted to control it, to squash it. To make it stop. But trauma is not rationale. You can no more talk someone out of it than you can flip a switch inside the brain to get it working properly again. No amount of threats or consequences works either. They merely escalate and prolong the trauma.
Time, patience, and a calm voice help. A known routine that offers safety and restoration does too. That, and the opportunity to repair, to process what happened from a space of love and mutual acceptance. “Break and repair, break and repair, break and repair,” my adoption counselor taught me. “That is how you build trust.” I had not known. I was too busy obsessing about the “break,” that I was missing the important work of forging a bond that is tested and endures.
Accepting that we could fall apart and get ourselves back up—and then seeing us do it over and over (and over) again—is what made us a family. And finally got us some sleep! These days, we can anticipate the triggers and repair faster. I usually sit on his bed and read softly. No matter how dysregulated, he will eventually lay his head on my shoulder. I keep reading and when he is ready, we talk through what happened and what each of us can do differently.
All these years later, in a rather unexpected twist, I can see how trauma has brought out my best as a mom. It also made me keenly aware of other hidden backstories. Every child has unique challenges. All families struggle. Telling our full story is what makes us human and motherhood real. Being seen and accepted allows us to uncover the measure of our strength.
This morning, as I watch my son skip down the hallway and cannonball into the pool, it strikes me that our backstory is the full story, and I am finally ready to tell it. Perhaps you are too.
Karen Skalitzky is a writer and proud mama to a beautiful Haitian son. She writes about adoption, parenting, and spirituality. She believes our stories are meant to heal us.
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