Do you ever have those days? When your skin hurts? When a cocoon of blankets is the only place that will provide an ounce of comfort? When no physical touch, no matter how well-meaning, can soothe the inner turmoil? When the idea of a meaningful embrace actually invokes nausea? Do you have those days?
I hope your answer is no. But if you are an abuse survivor, the question is rhetorical. Those days are inevitable.
For me, those days come when I am processing my past trauma. Usually a memory is looming on the horizon, waiting to bless me with additional knowledge about my childhood. I am generally happy to receive the information. I am happy that my inner-child is willing to trust enough to share one more piece of the puzzle. The physical pain is worth it if I can understand just a little more of the trauma I am carrying. The emotions are tough, but if I can compartmentalize them from my current life, they can be tolerated for the sake of recovery.
But there’s a problem. While I am committed to the recovery process, I have not figured out how to balance it with my parenting responsibilities. The two don’t mix well. As a matter of a fact, they mix horribly. While my recovery efforts are pulling me in one direction for self-care, my parenting efforts are pulling me in another. And of course, self-care and parenting are hard to balance.
When I am feeling like another touch on my skin will feel like a knife has been plunged in to my body, my son will become especially affectionate. And guess what form of affection a seven-year-old boy needs most. Maybe he senses that my energy is pushing him away, so he needs to make sure I am still there for him. Maybe he senses something is wrong and wants me to know he loves me. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but probably not.
When I am feeling like the world is a horrible place and every person cannot be trusted, my daughter will bring me her latest gift of an art project, looking for my utmost gratitude. In my darkest place, I can be cynical, disappointed and hateful. I might be thinking, “Where am I going to put this piece of paper or sculpture?” In those moments, gratitude is not my strength, but it is what she needs. Maybe she senses that I need her love and this is how she has decided to show it. Maybe she is feeling a bit insecure about how I feel about her and she wants some positive interaction. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but probably not.
When I am filled with fear, not of the present moment, but of a past event, my kids become instantaneously fearful. And what does fear look like when it manifests in small children? Tornadic activity. And there is nothing that soothes my fear more than two children screaming and jumping off of furniture over and over again. Maybe they sense my fearful energy and they respond with their own fear. Maybe they just can’t process the fear they are feeling so they need to express it through physical exertion. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but probably not.
When I am dissociated and a little unsure of my reality, my children will ask me to play pretend. Suddenly, I am the queen of a make-believe land while I am still wrestling with the past and the present. Now, I am really confused and very unsure of how to play the game they want so much for me to play. Maybe they feel that I have left them and they are trying to bring me back home through play. Maybe they are trying to help me escape in their own special imaginative way. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but probably not.
While I am convinced that recovery and parenting don’t mix, in reality, it is exactly what I need. Without my children to remind me of my own pain, my recovery would be much slower. Without my children to remind me, my recovery might be non-existent. They trigger me in these moments. And those triggers are there to help me see where my recovery work needs to go next. And sometimes, the triggers are saying, come back to the present moment. Join us here. It is a much better place to be.
And the present is where I must try to stay. I must understand that my emotions and physical symptoms are based on the past, and that the two precious hearts in front of me are the present moment. Sometimes, I have to spend time naming my current environment. Sometimes, I have to acknowledge my children are not attempting to re-victimize me. They are only being children. And always, there is breathing. I know it is cliché, but there is breathing.
I do know there is something worse than balancing recovery with parenting. There is something far worse. I could continue the cycle of abuse at my own hand, or become so overprotective that I guarantee them a life of abuse at another’s hand. Those are just not options I am willing to accept. I have to be a conscious parent. I have to know what is driving my decisions. And if it is necessary for me to process the past, knowing that I won’t always be the best possible parent while I recover memories, then I will process the past.
Because I will break this cycle.
There is no other option.