Yavaş yavaş: On the work of managing childhood trauma


A boy and his father facing the waves of Hurricane Sandy

Lately, as you well know, dear readers, I am recovering from an injured (and re-injured) rotator cuff in my left shoulder (my writing side) – but what has started to happen during this period of slowed-down medical leave, has been painfully magical in ways that have nothing to do with that sore shoulder. I have realized that my workaholism, in part, stems from my childhood strategies for managing the witnessing of everyday trauma – the trauma my little sister inflicted upon herself directly, and on our family, indirectly in a physical way – but full-on in the mental and behavioral ways.

At this point, Kenne, the Queen of Manners, Etiquette and the Maintenance of Ladylike Behavior inserts her opinion in a shrill manner, stating: “maybe you should NOT air your, how do you say, “dirty laundry?” I pay her no mind.  This process I am going through is indeed work, and therefore fits with BlogHer’s December 2012 NaBloPoMo on the topic of work.

My little sister, who I love very much despite it all, is a person with “intellectual disability” as well as mental health issues – and certainly evidences some qualities associated with Autism as well.  Growing up, her violent, loud and blood-filled tantrums occurred daily – often more than once. My M. has entered an understandably angry and protective stance, which I sometimes feel is the most “Turkish macho” that I have ever seen in him (perhaps excluding the time we bought our car last spring).  M. does not agree with my assessment, and hates the word “macho” – often protesting that his Anne (Turkish word for mother) raised him with the stern expectation that he would NEVER “be a macho.” And he is true to this. M. is angry that my parents allowed me to live in the chaos of our home with my sister – and does not share my understanding of why they did so, and how they did the best they could.  He often says “I do not know how to deal with this violent behavior.” which he has only witnessed firsthand once, last Sunday night, after a family party.  Usually, that statement is followed by “in Turkey, people don’t take their kids with disabilities out of the home, they hide them.”  So, it is something that is apparently understandable in the Turkish cultural context – but not in OUR context, here and now.  We are working through it as a couple.

A little boy trying to block out a scary hurricane

And I am working on all of this individually as well, feeling, in some ways, the effects of her violence for the first time just this week after a particularly nasty tantrum my sister engaged in while we were driving home.  Yes this has been going on for years, but I think I just blocked it out for years as a coping mechanism to “stay safe.” So, as I am getting in touch with how 42 years of my sister’s crashing, banging and yes, bloody tantrums have impacted me – even with the many years I was not with her directly, I am working on writing several stories on the topic – from the perspective of a little girl, but with some of the knowledge of this grown up lady.

And, I am taking a brave step in sharing one of these stories, Living in Hurricane House, which is written from the perspective of the sibling of someone like my sister.  My sister’s behavior in this story is de-personalized as a “howly and growly hurricane.” In the story, the little girl speaks of her “important, focusing, packing work” – this comes from the anxiety dream I have had as a kid, recently deconstructed.  I, along with my therapist, hope that my writing on the topic will hasten the healing that needs to happen.  I would love any feedback you would care to offer, however critical.

ONE

Once upon a time, there was a girl who lived in a house full of howly, growly hurricanes.

Usually, she ran from room to room to find the least windy, dangerous place.

Sometimes she saw the lights go out because the power lines were down again.

Sometimes she saw furniture, dishes and lamps crash from the weight of the wind.

Sometimes she saw water flying at her horizontally.

While she was running from room to room, she saw a lot, but she pretended not to see it.

She got good at ignoring it and just living with it.

TWO

That girl, she wished she could go outside of that house full of hurricanes.

She saw flowers and trees out there.

She saw fields and mountains out there.

She saw birds and bees out there.

She got good at ignoring all that out there, and just living with the howly and growly hurricanes.

THREE

And even though this girl lived in hurricane house, this little girl always had a lot of work to do.

She had to pack things up to be ready to go any minute.

Just in case the hurricane got really bad.  Just in case her parents thought she was not OK.

She had to focus her mind away from the howler and growler hurricanes, and perform.

Sometimes she had to pack food in brown paper bags or live lobsters in flower pots

Sometimes she had to pack big clothes in tiny suitcases, or goldfish in cardboard boxes

Sometimes she had to pack many blow-dryers in plastic supermarket bags, or fragile lilies on coat hangers

Sometimes she had to pack bananas in bandaid tins, and giraffes in pasta colanders

She had to pack all these crazy things up to be ready to go any minute, just in case that hurricane got REALLY howly and growly.

She got good at ignoring how scared she was of those hurricanes, and how resentful she was of all that hard packing work, and focused on just living with those howlers and growlers. That was all she could do.

 FOUR

As the hurricanes howled and growled, she felt worse and worse in her focusing packing work, because she always had an inappropriate container for her job, and her job was very important.

And when this girl had an inappropriate container with which to do her job, which was always, it looked like this to her:

She was always late, someone was always yelling at her to hurry, so she couldn’t hear her thoughts.

She was always trying to calm her squeezing heartbeat so she wouldn’t get pushed around by the wind.

She was always trying to breathe deep so she wouldn’t faint from it all, so she could block it out.

She was always feeling like crying, but didn’t dare let out one salty tear for fear the rain would wash it away and nobody would notice.

She got good at ignoring all those feelings, and instead just focused on living with the hurricanes.

 FIVE

And this whole hurricane and focused packing scene went on for a long time.

Longer than clocks can tick.

Longer than days can dawn.

Longer than weeks can amble along.

And she just kept on trying to pack, with her inappropriate containers, and ignored all those feelings, and instead just focused once more on living with her hurricanes, and creating more and more emergency packing strategies – and doing test runs, a lot.

Those hurricanes, they were not very friendly. Yes, they were howly and growly, and it wasn’t pretty.

 SIX

And then one windy, wet day in hurricane house, a glowing presence appeared.

“Hello, I am your sunshine Godmother”

She didn’t know she had a sunshine Godmother, or what a sunshine Godmother was.

“Sweetheart,” said the sunshine Godmother, “maybe all this packing is just TOO MUCH for you to do, it’s not that you have inappropriate containers for your important packing work. Those howlers and growlers, they need to go.”

She had never thought of that, that those howly growly hurricanes needed to go.

She had never thought it was all just TOO MUCH.

She had never thought it was all just TOO MUCH to do, that focused packing.

She had never thought anything besides the fact that she was less than a good worker, because she had always had an inappropriate container with which to do her work.

And her sunshine Godmother helped her to feel warm, dry and a bit more calm about her important packing job even in the most howly and growly times when the hurricanes were extra furious.

She couldn’t ignore that, and the hurricanes began to raise their eyebrows despite their howly growly ways.  They were onto a change in the weather coming their way, and they did not like it.

 SEVEN

And then one day, that girl, she woke up to a different house.

That little girl, she presumed she was dreaming.

It was not windy.

It was not howly and growly.

It was not wet.

And it looked different, really different.

And her sunshine Godmother explained these things – “light,” “dry,” “warm” and “color.”

And right there and then, in something she was learning to call light, that little girl rubbed her eyes and sat up to see all the colors of the rainbow around her.

And right there and then, in something she was learning to call dry, that little girl looked around her and the only water she saw were the dewdrops on the flowers outside of her window.

And in that thing called warm, that little girl felt her body relax and felt that warmth on her face as she stuck her head out of the window.

She smelled the flowers.

She heard the birds.

And that little girl saw the hurricanes, all howly and growly, far away now.

“They may come back,” her sunshine Godmother said, “but you’ll know how to find this other place now.”

“You’ll be just fine.”

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8 Responses to Yavaş yavaş: On the work of managing childhood trauma

  1. Jack Scott says:

    Both Liam and I have disabled brothers. I’m my case, physical disability and in Liam’s case, both physical and learning disability. For Liam, in particular, it’s something that dominates family life and always will. It’s not bad, it just is.

  2. Rosamond says:

    Thank you so much for sharing Liz. Please DM me on twitter your birthday, place and time of birth and full name if you care to. It may not be that your workaholisim is all due to environment.

    I did my nursery nurses training in ‘children with disabilities’ and the child without the disabilities needs as much care and attention as the other for their wellbeing. Things were very different all those years ago otherwise you would have had more support and your sister also.

    I sympathise with the trauma in your life and hope I can send some positive energy across the pond.

  3. Alan says:

    . . this strikes me as the early days of ‘opening the mental cupboards’ – you know, those places where the bad stuff gets stashed and the keys get lost and the cobwebs and detritus of everyday life eventually conceal the cupboards from view. Except, they don’t.
    My father was an alcoholic abuser and my mother never showed anything that resembled love – my sister is 7 years older than me and left home for the safety of Nana and Pop (grandparents). She lived with the guilt of abandoning me for years and when I learned about her guilt, not so many years ago, I couldn’t understand it. She told me of stuff that had gone on and I had no recollections of it at all – until I happened to read a book and for some reason the cupboards began to pop open. I remember sitting in bed with J as we talked through the night – it was incredible as memories flooded back. I still don’t know how I feel about it all, but it explains a few things!!! This is not anything like your process, and to this day I have no idea if open cupboards really helped (J is convinced it did), but I think you know inside that your cobwebs and detritus need a broom taken to them or we wouldn’t be here now. Hugs to you and M and A (and keep on trukkin’)

  4. Hi Liz, thanks for sharing so much in this post. I don’t imagine it was very easy for you. For what it’s worth, I think you write really well.

  5. E. says:

    Dear Green and Ginger, oh my goodness I just saw this answer too – I am honored at your kind words about my writing. I am really enjoying getting back into writing after many years away – and many years of doing dry boring academic writing. Which I also love, because I’m a geek. But that’s another story. So this is something new for me and I really appreciate the feedback. Take care.

  6. E. says:

    Dear Alan, thank you once again for your comment. It means a lot to me that you shared so much – and I remember some of the story from the summer. I am absolutely with J. About the importance of opening those mental cabinets. It is very very painful at times, but I do think it leads you to a better place in the and. I’m so sorry you “came up hard” (A Ever way it comes. XO, Liz s my clients used to say )like that, I guess many of us are in the same boat. Just working it through. And enjoying life what Ever may come our way. XO, Liz

  7. E. says:

    Dear R, thank you so much for all of your amazingly supportive and thoughtful comments. I had no idea that you had worked with children with disabilities. Thank you for noticing the siblings. I am going to send you that information – and I appreciate wherever a lead. Thank you for taking the time and being my friend in this way. XO, Liz

  8. E. says:

    Hi Jack, thank you for your comment. Wow, I knew about Liam’s brother, but I did not know about yours. I wish I could say it just is – and at times yes it just is, but the violence aspect takes it to another level. So we’re making our way through it all. As are you two and your families I’m sure. Wishing you all the best for the holidays. XO, Liz

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