I drive toward the neighborhood gate passing the frozen pond and ghostly trees that line the road leading to and from the place I call home. I pull over near the “mansion with the lion statues” as my kids call the house by the bus stop and wait for my middle school girl to climb in.
She gets off the bus with a smile. This year has brought me to my knees, and from this perspective, just the sight of my girls often overwhelms me. The love that wells inside me feels like it might just melt me to a puddle of holy water made of tears. It’s hard to keep any emotion inside, especially love. “Hello, Honey Bunny! How was your day, Ellie?
“It was fine. Can I sit in the front seat?” She assumes so and heaves her backpack with every book and notebook from every class on the floor, climbs into the front seat. I haven’t let her sit in the front except within the neighborhood, afraid of getting in an accident and she is only recently tall enough—mostly the former. Their requests wear me down faster than they used to. The unfortunate part is they are aware of this new power they have.
“Of course, we need to run to Target before we pick up Abbie and Lexie.” We drive out the gate and down the hill past the new hospital before stopping at the roundabout. Even though there’s a car ahead of me I see an opening and assume that person does too.
“What are we having for dinner tonight?” Ellie asks. I look over at my daughter who is next to me instead of looking in the mirror to see her in the backseat. I let my foot off the brake and start to pull out… My head slams the headrest, my foot already on the break, and then I hear what my spinning brain can’t comprehend. Like the delay of thunder after the lightning, I hear the CRUNCH! Ellie screams. I snap back together, turn off the car, and fly out of my seat into the road where there’s a short woman with angry eyes and flailing arms ready to fight me. It smells like burning oil and cars are lining up behind us.
“Are you kidding! What were you thinking?” She continues shouting at me but all I can see is the damage to my new car. The front end is bashed in and there is tan fluid pouring out all over the pavement, steam. I look back at her and instinctively touch her arm.
“It was an accident. This is a brand new car. Do you think I wanted to wreck my brand new car?” I say in a softer than normal voice still touching her arm. “I’m so sorry. This has been a very bad day. I just got served divorce papers. I’m a little disoriented.” She looks startled by my response and stops making noise. We both look toward her bumper. It might have been bent in, but clearly, I took the brunt of the impact. I get back into my car to get the insurance information and a piece of paper and pen.
“Are you okay, Ellie?” She nods. “Everything is okay. No one is hurt. We are okay.” I rub her leg and give her a hug. Ellie’s skin is a shade paler than a few minutes ago, maybe ghost pale. Her blood has been redirected to her heart and muscles, ready to run, but she sits and waits. One more hit is registered in my poor child’s nervous system log. My daughter who is wired like me when it comes to handling stress is too full. With every event, her true self gets shoved further and further to the bottom of a dry canyon. I can count at least ten stressful events, good and not so good, in the past couple years, not to mention the all out trauma of losing her dad as she knew him to be, her family. Every stressful situation becomes overwhelming and gets stuffed down to deep places out of my reach. Her cup is already spilling over and letting go is as hard for her as it is for me now and certainly when I was a kid. Drip…Drip…Drip. It’s an inverse relationship: the more change, stress, and emotional trauma, the less curiosity, openness, and joy. Children need to “grow where they are planted,” says my therapist. When there’s too much change and stress children can’t grow like they’re supposed to grow—from the inside. A stable life gives a child the time and space to change from within, to do what they innately know how to do—become. This requires both sides of the brain to be integrated like fishtail braids.
Traumatic events, like divorce, and the cascade of stress that follows for everyone, causes kids to become unbalanced in more ways than one, but especially inside their growing brains where one hundred billion neurons are busy connecting based on life experiences. The growth of the right side of the brain, in charge of emotions, creativity, sensuality, movement, imagination, sensations, color, peacefulness stagnates under traumatic experiences, chronic emotional and physical stress. However, school provides ample fertilizer for the left side of the brain where language, reading, math, music, strategy, analytics, drive, goals, logic, and organization play central roles. If the right and left sides can’t wire together during adolescence, traumatic memories get stuck in the body and not connected to a narrative about their life; over time an unbalanced brain can achieve whatever it desires in the outside world, but long-term health is affected, our ability to have healthy relationships is affected because learning to love and be loved cannot be studied in books or taught at school and that is the secret to life. There is nothing more important for my child to learn than to love another and to know what it feels like, on the inside, to be loved. If your emotions are locked down in the deepest caverns of self, life will have far more challenges within your body, mind, and spirit than a child growing into an adult who experiences safe, stable, loving relationships from the very beginning.
Depending on the depth, length, and age of the trauma, a cascade of emotional and physical health problems in adulthood can result and it’s very difficult to reverse, as I know. Researchers have found strong correlations with trauma and toxic stress during childhood and health consequences later in life such as depression, unexplained anxiety, suicide, addictions to food, alcohol, drugs, work; and then there are things like cancer, cardiovascular, liver, and auto-immune diseases, chronic migraines, unexplained illnesses and on and on. You will also be more likely to experience post-traumatic stress as an adult while others traverse the same treacherous waters but are able to let go much easier. It’s called The Adverse Childhood Experiences study or ACEs. Sixty-four percent, two-thirds, of Americans have at least one adverse childhood experience. I have six out of ten. I know the long term effects of toxic stress in childhood all too well even though nothing catastrophic happened—just chronic, unpredictable everyday traumas throughout my childhood and adolescence, stemming from my parents getting a divorce in the 1970s. I am the Forest Gump of adverse childhood experiences; every year was a box of chocolates, I never knew what I was going to get. And now, life has been an earthquake in my small family’s life for too long already. And this is happening at the very worst time for my oldest daughter.