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Anniversary Trauma

November 1, 2011

Way back when I was psychology major in college, the concept of the traumatic re-experience of events on the anniversary of the original event was pretty narrow. My textbooks discussed the common phenomena of sadness on the anniversary of the death of a loved one and the experience of soldiers on the anniversaries of horrific battles. Then I graduated and stopped following the literature.

A decade and a half later, Faith was in second grade. It was the next to the last day of school and she was home with an indistinct constellation of symptoms that made her feel bad enough to spend most of the day in bed, missing the yearly class pool party. Like she had missed the first grade party. Like she had missed the Kindergarten party.

Faith loves parties, and since Kindergarten has gone to a private school with the same group of kids. So there was no avoidance by feigning illness. Rather, she shed real tears about having a fever that kept her home on the last big day of the school year.

When the coincidence of three years in a row dawned on me I got out the thermometer and checked her temperature again. She had an actual fever: 101 degrees Farenheit.

I turned to Faith, still in her pajamas in bed, and asked, “Do you remember what we read out loud the year you were so sick right after Mercy came home? It was the first time I had read…”

“….all the Little House books in a row since you were in elementary school!” Faith finished the story.

I laughed. “Do you think it was any coincidence we started gifting you with the Little House books on CD right after that? I realized that now that you had a baby sister, it was probably the last time I’d ever have hours every day I could spend reading to you. And remember how sick you were? Did I ever tell you that Dr. J. wanted to put you in the hospital? But with Mercy only four days home, she knew I’d feel awful leaving either one of you so she said we’d try an oral antibiotic at home first. God made it work.  Even though you were too weak to stand or walk for a week, you very slowly got better.”

For five years, Faith developed an unexplained fever and felt sick enough to stay in bed for a day or two around June 7. Mercy came home June 3 and Faith was diagnosed with an abscess in her throat four days later. The original trauma was a real medical event, a one-time infection. On top of that physical insult, Faith experienced the emotional wallop of being bumped out of the first-and-only status by her baby sister.

Faith’s body experienced somatic aftershocks for five years.


God is good. Not only did he give me that experience, he reminded me of it Sunday morning as I wept my way through church.

Getting to church has become so hard that we’re praying about finding a church closer to home. After 25 years, changing churches will be very difficult. But seat-belt restraint is one of Hope’s triggers and the half-hour trip (one way) predictably produces a rage that usually spends itself by the time we get to church. So she’s tired and a little subdued –behaviorally angelic –through Sunday School before the ride home triggers another one.

It is not her fault. We have learned to help her regulate her way through similar minefields by diffusing the hidden bomb-triggers. But there’s not much we can do about the seat-belt law and trapped in a moving vehicle, there’s no way for any of us to escape the chaos unleashed when the seat-belt short-fuses some minor disappointment into an emotional hurricane. (Sunday morning a sister said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you,” when Hope was dead-certain she had been heard and was being ignored. For the record, none of us heard Hope make the alleged request.)

So Sunday morning I was on the verge of tears when we walked into the church  building. Not only because of the rage but because of how it affects her sisters. (At seven, Mercy counts down aloud the objects within reach Hope has not yet thrown to warn those of us sitting up front.) And because of how it affects me. I think God wired it into parents’ hearts to help their children and it is so defeating to be able to do nothing that helps.

But at least the arrival at church had released from the echo-chamber of the van and as soon as we distributed the children to their Sunday School classrooms, I knew I could escape to the sanctuary where it is not uncommon to see people shed tears in worship. By the time I got there, I really did cry. Not in despair. I thanked God for that certainty: that beneath everything else, He is a rock that cannot be shaken.

Rather they were more ordinary tears: I felt beat up and helpless. I felt worn out from the vigilance of constantly monitoring Hope’s emotional barometer to anticipate storms. I was feeling sorry for myself, envying families who (I imagine) spend the ride to church practicing Bible verses instead of trying to de-escalate meltdowns. Worse, these are all feelings I have been experiencing more than usual.

In the sanctuary, I dumped all my sin at Jesus’s feet and just tried to listen to whatever He wanted to say.

First came lots of reminders about God’s character and steadfastness.  Then, the story of Faith’s anniversary illnesses came to mind. “Ah ha!” I thought. But God took the story in a direction I did not anticipate.

It isn’t so much that Hope is experiencing anniversary trauma –although she certainly may be. Things have felt so tough recently because I am.

Exactly one year ago we returned from Korea and experienced Hope’s first full rage, which she repeated several time a day while the jet lag lasted. And jet-lagged and inexperienced ourselves, we could do nothing but go into lock-down mode to try to keep the other children safe. We emerged six weeks later shell-shocked and determined to seek a diagnosis. While she had never raged before, it seems like now that her brain has gone to that extreme, it takes her there more easily now.

Self-awareness is a strange blessing. Hope’s day after we got home from church was not significantly better until about 3:00 PM when the neuronal disturbance, whatever it was, passed and she slipped back into “better regulated.”

But it helped tremendously to know that the magnitude of my feelings (which have been verging on paranoia, panic, avoidance and escape) are not a directly proportional reaction to this moment. Rather, this anniversary makes me unusually vulnerable to past memories triggered by present events and to the stress hormones my body attached to those events a year ago. Now that I’ve been to that chemical-emotional place, my body takes me there faster and more frequently, too –and to an unusual degree at this first anniversary of our lowest point.

If I am a wise woman, I will write these things down and revisit them next summer in time to make sure I don’t plan any extra stressors (like moving) during this season. In fact, it would probably be the perfect time for a quiet little retreat with my prayer journal.

God is so good. He has heard my anguished, tearful prayers. And even though he has not chosen to change the circumstances right now, he has given me a new perspective on why it has been so tough recently. Being able to preach the truth to myself –that the magnitude of my feelings is not a measure of my present or my future, but of my past –has helped so much. God carried us through that, he is carrying us in the present, and because he is unchanging, he will carry us through every tomorrow, too.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 1, 2011 11:18 pm

    Hey, I was so blessed by this post. Thanks for sharing your experience… it’s so good on weary days to remember that God hears us. Psalm 56.

    I found your blog thru Urban Servant a few weeks ago and have been really enjoying following your family’s journeys. Thanks for writing- it has more fruit than you know!

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