Divorce and Childhood Trauma

IMG_3173

When we think of childhood trauma, we think of poor neighborhoods, inner cities, desolate rural areas, or other economically disadvantaged countries. Trauma sounds extremist. But, The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was not those other people, they were us. Researchers looked at 17,421 middle-aged adults with jobs and good healthcare living in California; seventy-four percent were college educated.

Divorce can and does set the stage for children and adolescents to experience chronic, unpredictable toxic stress, otherwise known as childhood trauma. And, divorce happens every day, it is ubiquitous it sometimes seems. It can be the loophole kids fall through even when they have good, healthy, loving, responsible parents. The stress caused by a family splitting can last a short time and cause one adverse childhood experience or it can set the stage for a cascade of negative experiences that change a child’s ability to deal with stress for a lifetime, setting them up for both immediate learning and psycho-social consequences, as well as chronic physical and emotional health conditions later in life.

It’s losing a parent in body, mind, and/or spirit. It’s being split between loyalties to one parent against the other, essentially handicapping their mind, psyche, and emotions. It’s trying to carry on as you always have when the world as you’ve known it collapses and everyone says, “They will be fine. Kids are resilient.” It can come from the parent introducing a new significant other and just moving on like nothing has happened. It can come from one or both parents being devastated and just barely making it through the day.

The good news is it’s not divorce, per se, that can cause real harm to our kids; it’s losing their secure attachment to one or both parents that can cause the real damage. The single greatest thing you can do for your kids if you are getting a divorce is to keep them connected to you (stay close even if you are the one to move) and to help them stay connected to their other parent too. This means fostering the attachment to the other parent. Yes, the one who is hurting you more than you thought possible or you are so angry at that you can’t look in their general direction.

The second most important thing you can do for your kids is to be kind, supportive, and compassionate to their other parent. Healthy, happy parents parent healthy, happy kids. The more turmoil, stress, hardship you cause for the other parent, the more of all of that you will cause your child. This is the case even if it looks as though your child is happy when they are with you. They will be their best self for a while, until the threat of you leaving subsides. Helping them deal with their sadness, anger, locked down emotions will bring the whole family out of the abyss and back into the sunshine of life. This is good for your kids and consequently is good for you too.

“Together, the two discoveries – the epidemiology of the ACE Study and the brain research — reveal a story too compelling to ignore:

Children with toxic stress live much of their lives in fight, flight or fright (freeze) mode. They respond to the world as a place of constant danger. With their brains overloaded with stress hormones and unable to function appropriately, they can’t focus on learning. They fall behind in school or fail to develop healthy relationships with peers or create problems with teachers and principals because they are unable to trust adults. Some kids do all three. With despair, guilt and frustration pecking away at their psyches, they often find solace in food, alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamine, inappropriate sex, high-risk sports, and/or work and over-achievement.”

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jane-ellen-stevens/the-adverse-childhood-exp_7_b_1944199.html

What Do We Owe Another Person?

fullsizeoutput_55ae

Relationships, in all the various forms from acquaintance to family, are they contracts written in the air between us but rarely communicated out loud? When we enter into a friendship, relationship, or even marriage, what do we owe the other person? Is there a difference in expectations at the beginning or the end? It seems universal to begin with our best selves. It can be intoxicating to meet someone new, a kindred spirit who says, “Yes! I feel exactly the same way!” It’s balm to the soul really; all our best qualities are coaxed from hibernation for a magical moment, day, or a season of connection with another human being. If we’re really lucky, the fairytale love of family, friendship, or the melding of body, mind, spirit lasts a lifetime—forever is our greatest desire.

Being held in another’s bubble, translucent colors swirling all around, creates a force-field, an invisible protection from an ending we can see from inside no matter how far off the ground the bubble has risen above our ordinary existence. We say, “Not this time…this time it’s the real thing, it’s forever. The End came in all the other stories but this one will be different; it will be the happy ending that my dreams are made of, eternal love.”

Alas, forever, eternal, the real thing is more rare than anyone would like to know. Family bonds can be broken or sometimes they were never forged, friendships move on, the one you thought was lovely turns out to be just a few more dates, and marriages fall apart too (even when there is no obvious end.) As a girl, I wanted to hold fast to each person who entered my life, to hold on to the magical feeling at the beginning, but as a woman who has lived through too many endings, I now know endings are part of a life well lived. An ending says there was a beginning that was magical, there were vistas and valleys, rivers with rocks and grasses and wildflowers and we were meant to surrender to the current, to let go when it’s time to let go.

Rarely do two people agree when to hold on and when to surrender to the flow of change. The unconscious or very conscious (as in a marriage) contract with another to care for each other is pulled back out for review. Unlike the feeling of euphoria in the beginning, the ending isn’t always our best selves—more is required. An ending brings an entirely different set of emotions to the forefront: sadness, disappointment, desperation, disbelief, depression, anger, entitlement, vengeance and rage. This person that you thought would be by your side forever has made a different decision and that can be devastating depending on the depth of the bond forged in a different time and circumstance.

Whether we are the ones left or the one to leave, what do we owe each other? And in the case of a marriage, this person who you once loved and who once loved you, a person who made you feel connected to humanity and understood, who shared a magical season with you, what do you owe this person? Do they deserve vengeance, your wrath, a slammed door because something in them whispered that it was time to let go? Are we trying to keep them bound to us by anger and revenge? And even worse, when we want to let go, is it fair to withhold peace and kindness, blame their bad character for our change of heart just to assuage our own guilt for breaking the agreement to love each other forever?

It seems that far too many who go through endings or even divorce unconsciously, try to destroy the person who once gave them all they had, who also wished upon a star that it would last a lifetime, and who is also devastated that it did not. And far too often people use their children as the weapons of destruction, rationalizing that they are the better parent or that the other person is trying to destroy them or take their children away and they are only protecting themselves. Everyone feels threatened and makes decisions from that awful place.

What is this behavior? What do we think is going to come of it? Do people think it will lead to their own happiness? That robbing every spark of light and joy from this person they once loved, in some cases their child’s other parent, will somehow bring love and light to them? Do they think it will lead to that feeling of euphoria, the winner mentality, they once felt when they were in the vicinity of this person they once cherished? Do they think they will receive more love from their child if the other parent is destroyed? It makes no sense whatsoever, but it happens every day in every community.

What do we owe another person? We owe them kindness. Yes, all the feelings are there. Yes, you can say a million F-bombs with their name attached. Yes, you can be devastated, but to hold another person in contempt for simply saying it’s time for me to go is a childish tantrum that can have deep, unconscionable consequences for everyone involved, especially when there are children—which is all too often the case. This is also true for the one who leaves but projects all the guilt and contempt they hold for themselves onto the person who once said they would protect their heart with love.

We can hold on until we know for sure it’s time to go, but once that happens, when we’re absolutely sure there’s nothing more to be done, the contract in the end is kindness to this other human being in front of you. Let go so you can go on with your life to find another, to search for what’s beautiful in this world, to experience magical moments again. Letting go and being kind allows the other person to do the same. And if there are children, happy parents parent happy children. We are all living within one ecosystem.

What we put into our world, we will get back. Isn’t it better to receive kindness? Isn’t it better to leave another life better than you found it? Isn’t it better to treat others, especially the ones who loved you, the way you want to be treated? Kindness is the foundation of our humanity and it never depends on anyone else but ourselves. xo

 

 

 

Magic Can Be Found in the Darkest of Places

IMG_9623

This is one of my favorite sunflower pictures. I was in Upstate New York at Old Stone Farms, an inn near The Omega Center. It was a healing journey that August after getting my family (all five) through a cataclysmic transformation that left me emptied of who I was, am, and would become. My kids would be away from me for two weeks; an incomprehensible amount of time in any scenario but especially this one. It was a nightmare I desperately wanted to wake up from. I couldn’t wait for them in the house where there had been magic a lifetime ago, moments ago.

Through the poisonous fog and acid rain, I reached out toward the only thing I could do – write. Despite my past career in marketing, a graduate degree in business, and an ambition that used to propel me through the narrowest of passageways, my soul gently told me to write books about people, everyday traumas we unintentionally inflict on each other, and relationships starting with the parent and child, my dad and me. I traveled thirteen hours by car, airplane, train, and a night in Manhattan to get myself to a memoir workshop where Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, would be speaking among others. I spent five days at this lovely inn, mostly numb in my exquisite room, a blend of old and new. On the door was the word Spirit.

The ones who managed the inn were soft and loving, made me feel like I belonged right there on the other side of the country from home. They checked in on me when I didn’t come to dinner. “Are you okay? We were concerned about you. Can I bring you something?” the woman asked. Equestrian therapy, massages by a goddess (a young single mother with a singing voice like an angel and a spirit for listening), walks, yoga, reading, seclusion filled my days until it was time to move to the more austere Omega Center for the five-day writing workshop.

This photograph, half blue sky and the other a dense forest with a bright, golden sunflower in the center, reminds me of how far I’ve come. Writing was but a seed three years ago, it was the only direction I could go, and now my book is in its final stages of being completed. I have walked through the darkest forest and come to the other side where blue sky and bright clouds can be seen again.

This trip was magical and not in a euphoric, picture-perfect sense like life used to be. It was magical because I was on my knees like I’d never been before; because I allowed sadness to overtake me and because I allowed the kindness and concern of others to envelop me at a time when I couldn’t meet them at that place. I could only receive and say thank you. It was magical because there was love. It was the love you feel for someone who has done something brave and courageous, it was the love I have for my girls. I allowed myself to love and care for me, for maybe the first time in my life, and it made all the difference.

Father’s Days Gone By

jcc_0560

The day is heavy as it is when it starts off with rain. Water hangs in the air, I can see it but my coat remains dry. Sage pulls on the leash, eager to go for a walk after being housebound too many days due to a cold I can’t seem to shake; the kind that renders you voiceless for days. The neighborhood seems abandoned, not even a car drives by.

Halfway down I hear barking from across the road but keep my head down shuffling thoughts of Father’s Days gone by. This is heavy too. My default expectation is stuck on everyone-all-together; it’s my favorite place. The BBQ, my children’s father, dad, grandfathers, father-in-laws plus our counterparts and children mixed in, is the perfect day. Things have changed since that day. I’m going to see my dad today and how grateful I am I can, yet the pin drop of euphoria from that other day in the past keeps me stuck.

Sage pulls toward the barking and I notice one gentle soul walking his small dog, which is now running across the street. His owner walking slowly behind. We both wave and smile. The man has white hair, lines that bend up toward the color of the ocean under the folds covering his eyes. He is wearing trousers and a Nordic sweater.

“She doesn’t like to walk with the leash, but then runs away when she sees other dogs or cats,” he says. I walk toward him so he can catch her. He is a sparkly one, maybe in his mid to late eighties. This man has been loved but he doesn’t wear a ring.

“You got her now?”

“Yes, thank you for waiting,” he says.
“Hope you have a really great day.” I wanted to wish him happy Father’s Day but I decided against it just in case. He’s the kind of person that draws you in by their gentle energy.

“Have you been to the Tall Ships?” he asks just as I’m about to continue down the hill.

“I haven’t yet, but I’ve seen the pictures,” I tell him. “It looks amazing.”

“Well, it’s not as good as last year. The ships from Argentina and Mexico and Germany didn’t come this year. Last year it was much better,” he tells me.

“I wonder why they didn’t come?”

“I’m not sure. Last year I went and talked to some of the captains and the owners. There was a woman from Germany who owned this great big sailboat. She was quite amazing. And it was great to talk in German as well,” he says as his voice trails off. Anyway, the parking is not great and the access is hard. I would save your money this year,” he warns.

“Okay, well thank you. I’ll take a look when I drive by later. You have a really wonderful day.” I smile as much as I can to show him kindness, that I see him.

“Thank you, you too,” he says with a wide smile. I continue on for a few steps and then turn around to walk backward so I can watch this beautiful man continue back to his home. I gather as much love from the universe as I can hold and send it all to him. I wish I could follow him, listen to his stories, and give him a hug. I wonder if he’s alone or if he has kids, where in Germany he’s from, how he got here to North Tacoma. I wonder if he’s thinking about past Father’s Days and if he has a favorite.

I continue on my walk feeling blessed to have been touched by someone who is closer to heaven than me, who lived well, who was loved, who lets his little dog walk without a leash.

The day feels  lighter.

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 8)

BW hammocks

Once they leave with their dad, my house is devastatingly still and silent but for the sound of Sage’s nails clicking the hardwood floor on the way to her bed. I fall onto the couch for time-lapsed hours not sad or relieved or depressed. I feel nothing like someone who just returned home from Normandy, France the summer of 1944. My eyes are open to see my family room with beautiful paintings, purchased at art walks and festivals, of mountains and rivers that hang on every wall, yet I see nothing. I listen for sounds of walkers and runners outside on a Sunday afternoon but hear nothing. Even my mind is still of its normal scrolling and replaying of past events, hypocrisies, and transgressions. I can’t feel my heart beating or blood pulsing through veins. I’m not sure I blink or swallow saliva in my mouth. I’m not sure I’m breathing. Darkness overtakes me, and my house, but I can’t move my arm to pull the string on the lamp next to my body. I’m in a void between the vigilance of fighting for all I have left in an apocalyptic world and the smooth, white light the child in me associates with goodness, purity, protection, God. I stay here until Sage nudges me from my trance hours later, reminds me I need to still take care of her. I get up, turn a light on to chase the darkness away and feed my only witness.

Slowly, I make my way through the empty rooms of my now oversized house in the darkness. Yesterday we occupied every room, the lights twinkled, the house vibrant, alive, and the happy sounds of my children filled the playroom where puzzles and American Girl dolls and dress up clothes gather dust, next to the boxes that remain unopened from our move back home from Sun Valley. I will my legs to step up each stair until I get to the second floor, then scuff bare feet on the beige carpet toward the bathroom. The playroom remains dark now, play a luxury we used to have. I don’t recognize myself in the mirror. This person is emaciated. She has devastated eyes that don’t seem to open like they used to, she can’t choose to smile, she has more lines than the person I used to be. She looks old but for her dark hair. I don’t have the energy to do anything more, not even to wash the mascara smudges from my face. I fall into the king-size bed with the same clothes I woke up in. I occupy a quarter of the space. I sleep on the edge, dreamless and dead to the world I used to belong in. Just go to bed has become a mantra when there is nothing more to do or say or figure out.

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 7)

Learning to fly the summer before sixth grade…

JCC_2618

“Hey, let’s go over to the other side of the lake with the guys,” Lisa says.

“Yes, let’s go. Do you want to go too, Janna? I think Jason likes you.”

“Sure,” I say, very unsure of what we are going to do over there that we can’t do right here. And unsure of what “likes you,” means, but I agree to follow nonetheless To be included in the group feels like lying on an air mattress with the sun shining on my face, splashes of cool water on my skin. I can’t remember when the last time someone asked me to come along. There is no way I would say no.

“Let’s go guys,” Monica calls. Eric follows Monica, Nate follows Lisa, and then Jason follows me. We walk the trail through the tall grasses and trees, over fallen logs and cross makeshift bridges covering small streams that funnel into Lake Annette.

“So, where do you live,” Jason asks.

“I live in Federal Way. How about you?”

“I live in Auburn,” he says. We keep talking as we make our way around to where our camp counselors can no longer see us. It’s easier to think of him as just another kid, like a cousin, when I don’t have to look at him. Monica, Lisa, and their companions have disappeared into the forest while I was preoccupied with keeping up in the conversation.

Jason and I reach the spot we all decided to venture to and sit down on a rock to wait for everyone to come back. Jason is almost as tall as my dad and a little heavier than the other two boys. He has light brown hair and a sloped chin. He seems kind of nerdy except he likes to talk about how great he is. The girls and I did a lot of collective eye rolling at the campfire last night. It occurs to me that I’m the only sixth grader in our group of eighth graders. He sits down inside my personal bubble but I don’t want to move or he’ll think I’m weird. I am weird, maybe awkward is a better word, but I’m trying really hard to not to let anyone here in on this secret. Everyone knows this at my school. It’s nice to just be one person in the group for a change. Jason asks questions and I answer while looking into the lake for fish or dead branches to hold onto or the Loch Ness Monster. There are long pauses while he thinks of new questions to ask. Where did Monica and Lisa go?

I haven’t been this close to a boy that actually wanted to talk to me, let alone spoken to one since Kevin in the second grade. Boys don’t like me—and neither do girls for that matter. I’m always the last one to get picked on a team in P.E. Dodgeball is the worst and most played game. The boys love it and are always the captains. I’m the last one picked—literally last—and then I stand in the very back with a bull’s eye on my head. Boys don’t want me on their team, they want me on the other team so they can practice their power shot. They certainly don’t “like me.”

I’m so busy thinking of what to say that I barely notice he’s moved his arm behind my back, scooted a little closer. “Are you warm enough?”

“What?” I turn away from the lake to find his face two inches from mine. Reflexes jump like a doctor tapped my knee.

“Are you warm enough?”

“I’m fine…” I say as I adjust my place on the rock, try to move further away without him noticing. The familiar dread sneaks up on me despite blue sky and big puffy clouds. Where is the Loch Ness Monster anyway? I feel like a deer on alert to rustling in the bushes.

“I really like you. You’re pretty cool,” he says. I look back into the murky lake for an answer. You make every hair on my body stand on end? In one motion he leans into me, drops his head down and puts his mouth on my mouth. I freeze like Bambi seeing hunters for the first time. The motor buried deep within starts trembling. His lips are touching mine and then his front teeth hit my front teeth. I can feel air coming out of his nose. There’s no air coming out of me. I forget to breathe, I forget where I am, and I forget that I can choose to move my body. My inside-self leaves the scene to figure out what I should do. I haven’t even seen the “Birds and the Bees” film at school yet. That’s sixth grade, next year. I had no bloody idea this is what was coming. I’ve been set up.

He scoots even closer to me. Just as I start to close my mouth to say that I think we should go back, his hand pushes my head forward and his tongue touches my tongue, stretches to my tonsils. It’s like a garden slug in my grandmother’s flowerbeds—slimy, thick, slow. The ones I pour salt on and watch curl up into a slimy ball. His tongue is writhing just like Morton’s has been poured down his throat. Peanut butter and jelly bubbles in my esophagus.

Instincts take over, my spirit reenters my body, and my head is yanked back by invisible forces. I am freed of the slug in my mouth. Luckily, I didn’t bite it off or throw up. That would have been harder to explain, embarrassing. “Um…we better get back to the camp. It’s probably getting close to dinner,” although the sun is still shining overhead. I put my hands on the rock and get up in one rapid movement like I’m doing a back handspring—if I could actually do gymnastics. I don’t wait for a response or even register his reaction. I want to wash my mouth out with the bacteria-laden lake water but secretly vow to spit this slime into the bushes as soon as it’s physically possible. Until then I hold it in my mouth. Mine has gone dry anyway.

“Wait,” Jason says. I stop to wait, to play it cool like I’m not so repulsed by what just happened that I can’t think straight. I concentrate on not letting his saliva drip out of my mouth.

“I’m waiting. I thought I heard Monica and Lisa, but it must have been a deer or something.” We walk back to camp in half the time it took to get here. I lead again. This time there’s no chitchat. I go straight into my tent and start reading my book, safe by myself inside my sleeping bag. When Monica and Lisa come back I tell them about what happened with Jason, at least the version of what could have happened if I were two years older than I am—not a kid who fell into a rabbit hole.

“You know, Jason is really nice but there’s another guy I like and so it was kind of weird.”

“Oh, tell us about this other guy,” Lisa says, her eyes sparkle, forgetting about her new backpacking boyfriend’s friend. Who knows what her at-home boyfriend is doing on the weekdays.

“He’s going into seventh grade next year. He has light brown, feathered hair. He lives in Kent and he’s really cute,” I say picking up details as I go. “I feel really bad about Jason. Will you tell him there’s someone else?” Words come out of my mouth like I know what I’m talking about. Being a reader helps everything, including instructions on getting through the most awkward of situations. Or maybe it came from watching General Hospital last summer. I’m learning how to do and say things like other people do and say things, like the characters in the books I read, television shows and movies I’ve seen. I’m learning how to watch, listen, and mimic my new, older more mature friends. I learn how to orient myself to the one who knows how things work.

“I will,” Monica jumps in. “It’s kind of weird that he just up and kissed you without warning.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t like that. That’s totally gross.” Lisa adds.

“Yes. You’re supposed to wait for signs that the other person likes you too, right?”

“Yeah, he definitely didn’t follow protocol.” I don’t say any more. In only twenty-four hours in backpacking camp I’ve learned it’s better to let other people fill in the details about what I’m thinking. The less I say the better. Just smile and things usually work out.

The Life Reshuffle…

IMG_5221

Divorce was the nightmare I didn’t remember in the morning until I was shoved into the front seat of the big screen called my life. It felt like being kicked out of the tribe, it felt like death — the death of my husband, my own death, my family, my community of friends, my home, my life projection, of my family’s collective innocence; it’s the death of every single thing I understood about who I was and what my life consisted of past, present, and future. Every memory, experience, decision, conversation, and even thoughts had to be reshuffled through this new reality.

The world you thought you lived in crumbles before your eyes yet no one else can see it. There is nothing to hold on to. The ones who haven’t been there don’t know (just like I didn’t know) and the ones that have, well most can’t look too closely at something that caused complete destruction once upon a time. This is called the hero’s journey, a spiritual transformation where the person you thought you were is hurled into the abyss to disintegrate. You didn’t get to choose your path because who the hell would choose that?

But, once you accept this new reality, you allow yourself to feel your broken heart, you finally get some choices once again. You get to choose to stay there decimated by the aftermath or fly out from the ashes like the phoenix of Greek mythology. The one glitch in the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ argument is you get to choose how long to stay under the fray as well. It has been said that the phoenix can remain in the ashes for up to 1,400 years. It’s only been three years for me. It took forty-five years of layers to become the person I was before the earth spun off its axis, it might take some more time before I’m ready to fly once again.

You don’t realize those layers of certainty were holding you up until you are shaken to your core. It’s okay to start again. Grace and compassion and love for who you are, what you’ve been through, and the journey ahead is required. And, who knows, maybe at the end of this life there will be a special room with fancier snacks and a view for those who’ve had to fly through the abyss. Maybe. xo

“Divorce is far more than simply a change in family structure. It’s a reorganization of your entire life. Your entire self. It’s a massive transformation. A time when everything is called into question and nothing is certain. It’s also an opportunity. A crack in the bedrock allowing a change in course, an alteration of spirit. You can stay at rock bottom. Or you can choose to build.”

https://www.divorceforce.com/article/5-things-you-don-t-understand-about-divorce-until-you-ve-lived-through-it-by-lisa-arends