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Trauma and Memory

April 9, 2012

Last week, before my husband’s heart attack, I was reading Bruce Perry’s book The Boy Who Was Raised as A Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook. In the fine tradition of Oliver Sacks (Awakenings; The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) Perry and his co-author, journalist Maria Szalavitz, use real-life stories to illuminate the hidden workings of the human mind, in this case, “What Traumatized Children Can Teach us About Loss, Love, and Healing.”

I thought I was picking up the book as my adoptive-mom-self, got sucked into the story as a historian (history hinges on  how survivors remember traumatic events), and ended the week incredibly grateful for the crash course in trauma as experienced by children.

Trauma is, Perry and Szalavitz contend, very depended on how we experience the present as filtered through our experiences of the past.

I’ll date myself in observing that I haven’t watched TV in so many decades that the last time I really tuned-in Quincy was the cutting edge of crime scene investigation. So you won’t be surprised that my formative template for “heart attack” dates back to those Saturday-night staples on TV in my childhood: Emergency and Emergency 51.

I have God to thank for passing on my dad’s “calm in a crisis” trait. But I have Johnny and Roy (Emergency‘s rescue heroes) to thank for strange knowledge like when a child (Faith, a decade ago) is panicked because her arm is stuck in the slats of a chair or a toddler (Hope, maybe 5 years ago) has her head trapped in the stairway spindles, dish soap is the lubricant that will help slide them free.

So, I learned this weekend, it goes with “heart attack.” People suffering a heart attack, I thought, need dramatic resuscitation. When they call the doctor’s office at 8:00 AM far an appointment, concerned that maybe they’re coming down with the pneumonia the kids have had, and the scheduler offers them a 2:00 PM appointment, people having a heart attack can’t breathe well enough to say, “Yes. 2:00 will be fine.” They don’t spend seven or eight hours walking up and down stairs, changing diapers and schedule appointments to get brake pads replaced, then drive themselves to the doctor’s office.

Much more heart-savvy than I was a few days ago, I realize now that by the time Johnny and Roy arrived on the scene in the ’70’s, the victim’s heart attack might have started twelve hours before the moment they were found lifeless on the floor. Today, God allows cardiologists to “save” people like my husband by intervening with tiny balloons and stents before the heart is so damaged that it stops beating.

What does this have to do with trauma and memory?

First, the girls have never known anyone who has had a heart attack. They’ve heard the words, but associate nothing negative with them.

Second, they didn’t see anything: not a father in distress, not a mom dialing 911. They didn’t see the ambulance that rushed him from one hospital to another. They didn’t see him in the ICU. God arranged it so grandma was free to come spend Friday afternoon with them while I went to the hospital. And since Grandma is one of Joy’s PCAs, they’re used to having Grandma in charge.

There really could be no less traumatic way for God to allow their father to have a heart attack. God orchestrated it perfectly.

As a result, they are doing remarkably well. Their sleep and behavior are not much more disturbed than when he is absent for a more ordinary reason  like a business trip.

As for me, it didn’t seem real until the cardiologist showed me the ‘before’ pictures of his heart where one branch of a tree (the left anterior descending artery or LAD) looked like somebody chopped it off at the trunk. In the ‘after’ photo, there’s a tiny Slinky-shaped shadow in the same spot, a stent, holding the LAD open so the blood can flow.

I will not tell you it isn’t traumatic to have your husband have a heart attack. It is. But the trauma was minimized by the fact that the event didn’t fit into any emotionally laden template for the girls. Even for me, it did not tap into the Hollywood-heart attack drama I internalized as a child. For both, I am grateful.

But now I have an emotional-template for “I almost lost my husband.” I don’t think I’ll ever be able to send him to the doctor for a quick office visit so casually again. And you should see the length of my list of things he does for our family that I now feel hyper-vigilant about making sure I learn to do –because I have opened a new mental file: potential widow before I expect it.

I don’t share that to be morbid but because I understand now on a visceral level why one of our adopted daughters has a deep-seated unconscious belief that I will not always be here for her. She came home at only six months of age, having already lost her birth mother, then bonded to her foster mother only to lose her another stranger: me. So far, my daughter and I have been together for seven and a half years. But deep down, she is still waiting for the next shoe to fall: losing me.

This doesn’t mean she doesn’t love or trust me. I believe she does. It doesn’t mean that she doesn’t love God and trust that he will be there for her. He will. In fact it is via her multiple early loves-and-losses that she has developed a precocious sense that God cares deeply for her.

And that’s where Perry and Szalavitz’s insightful, helpful, book falls flat. They are right that traumatized children can find healing in healthy relationships and healing communities that over time, and with insight, overwrite the negative templates and associations with positive ones. But the author’s ultimate hope is in the power of human goodness via adaptive evolution. The goals to be gained are supportive relationships and a kinder world.

Ultimately, that is so little.

I have tasted the sweetness of supportive relationships in these past few days of crisis and I am grateful for them. I am certain that if I needed to call in all the kind offers of meals and child care and other practical help, you would be there.

But that isn’t what is carrying me. It is God’s pattern of faithfulness throughout all time –in the Bible, in my life, and in history–that holds me up.

Beyond healing relationships, we need to give our traumatized kids so much more: an emotional template of unshakable hope in Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Joan permalink
    April 9, 2012 10:50 pm

    I just checked your blog today for the first time in a week or so and was shocked by your news. We’re praying for all of you and thankful that God spared your husband.

  2. tereasamansfield permalink
    April 11, 2012 12:52 pm

    You are so right. We recently experienced life-altering trauma. It was terrible. Faith in God, however, has made what was the worst time of my life also the best. One of the good things that came out of it, was the feeling that I understand my daughter’s fears. I understand her reaction to love. I understand PTSD and RAD at a very gut-heart level and I will never be the same. I am so thankful.

    I have enjoyed your blog so much. I added it to my side bar as a recommendation for adoptive parents. Keep the encouragement coming!

  3. Laurie Hinman permalink
    April 12, 2012 11:51 pm

    I needed to hear this today. Thank you….

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