Dissociation and regression

I learned about dissociation years ago, from a friend who had been experiencing dissociative identity disorder. To cope with stressful situations, she often dissociated and regressed. Due to her life experiences, she was not given the same opportunities to develop into a healthy adult. Her identity is fragmented, and so is mine. Identities naturally have different parts, because we are rarely raised in isolation. As children, we take in bits and pieces from everyone we meet. We try out these pieces in the world. And eventually, enough of us is reinforced in practice that we become adults with integrated and functioning identities.

For many people, childhood was not so straightforward. These children experienced overwhelming and chaotic emotions and sensations. It was hard to make sense of the world and hard to know which pieces to keep.

Some children find dissociation is a successful way to navigate the very different demands people place on them. They develop personas which are often very different. And, as they grow into adults, these parts do not always grow together.

For me, the dissociation is simple. Once I learned that it was a primary coping strategy of mine, I could accept how my brain was organised and make better choices. It was easier for me than for my friend, because I used many other strategies to cope: intellectualising, distraction, sublimation. My core trauma happened at a much older age and I was genetically gifted with an extraordinary ability to learn, which meant that it was easier for me to navigate the adult world and give myself space and time to develop.

Infertility was a trauma that hit me where I was most vulnerable: my identity. When I went to the GP, unable to speak, tears running down my face, I had little idea that the road to mental well-being would be through such dark pastures. This was because I had dissociated a good part of my trauma. My brain, to cope, split the cognitive memories from the emotional memories. Infertility opened the door to these emotional memories and without the connection to their cognitive counterparts, I was overwhelmed and re-traumatized.

In therapy, I regressed to the age of my original trauma. Over time, I learned words for my un-met needs. I learned how to get those needs met.  Through meditation training, I learned to accept and sit with my emotions. I still regress. But I’m integrated enough to recognise it when I do and care for myself in a safe way. I see other “healthy” and “normal” people regressing all the time. I see that we are all still children, made up of many parts. That helps me feel connected. I no longer feel so scared about or by dissociation and regression.

Now, I am reaping the rewards of my years of hard work. My job requires a high level of emotional literacy and also the confidence to establish healthy boundaries. I judge people, I raise concerns, I give constructive criticism… I help people see things that they weren’t seeing before. They expect me to point out their weaknesses (that’s why I’m there) but in reality, I more often need to point out people’s strengths. Our greatest weakness is when we do not realise our strengths: when we underestimate ourselves and our ability to do better. To do more.

It is ironic that I am paid to re-enact healthy parenting with “healthy” adults, when I myself have experienced complex trauma and neglect. People become vulnerable in front of me, and I watch as they choose their preferred coping strategies. I empathise. I anticipate. I mirror. I do what I can to maintain their sense of safety. I receive, contain and make sense of their emotions. I reassure. I do all of this while reinforcing the boundaries and making clear my expectations.

I would never have been able to do this as a teenager, muchless in my twenties. And if someone dared to tell me that I would never be able to do this ever, because of my traumatic childhood, I would have laughed in their face (and then cried when alone). I know now that is impossible to judge where a traumatised child will be in twenty years. I never gave up on myself. Imagine where I would be right now if I also had that support from my parents?

I learned about healthy parenting, step by step, by putting myself in situations where I needed to be a parent. I challenged myself so that I could build a sense of identity that could process the trauma I had so neatly dissociated. As soon as I was able to process it, my body let me. I have been making sense of my childhood experiences at a rapid pace ever since.

I still need some support from the mental health services. This takes the form of specialized therapy and now also medication. Did therapy and medication make me into the person I am today?

No.

The reason I cope so well today is because of the strengths and skills I had as a child. I was lucky enough to see and use my strengths in a way that enabled me to identify opportunities for development and kept me safe (enough) to grow. I did not meet my milestones. I could not be a normal teenager. I may always be “behind” my peers in social skills. At thirty years old, though, I am no longer measured that way.

I look forward to being a parent. I know that there are never guarantees. I understand that my five year old boy may never make sense of his early experiences. But I hope at least to help him value himself and realise he does have the power and independence to make choices about himself and his life. I expect him to regress, even as a forty year old. And even as his 70 year old mum, I will still look for opportunities to help my boy grow.

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Sharing the News

There couldn’t possibly be a more lovely and nurturing person alive than hand-stitched dad‘s aunt. She lost her hearing as an adult, following a car accident, and has responded to life’s challenges with absolute grace. Last time we visited, we told her about hand-stitched dad‘s upcoming surgery. Hand-stitched dad expressed regret that his aunt was left confused about the news while other family members asked us questions. When I asked him how he would like to tell his aunt and uncle about this news, he was adamant that his aunt should know first. We discreetly prepared a message on our iPad and waited for the right moment.

Hand-stitched dad says:

We drove down there. I was feeling nervous.  We chatted about the ‘normal’ stuff first and then we had traditional Sunday lunch. Hand-stitched mum wrote a message on our iPad: “We are applying to adopt.” We showed it to my aunt and I said we were planning on adopting. Then, we told my uncle. My aunt cooed excitedly and asked some questions.  Later, my aunt took me aside and asked me if I had wanted to adopt. I smiled and nodded.

Afterwards, we went to my cousin’s house to tell their family. This time, hand-stitched mum said we were applying to adopt. I can’t remember what they said — I was nervous!

I was less nervous than hand-stitched dad. His aunt and I spoke later; she asked quietly whether we could have kids. I looked at hand-stitched dad sitting across the room and smiled, shaking my head. She repeated herself throughout the evening: “It’s your decision.” I wondered if she thought we were asking them if we should adopt.

At hand-stitched dad‘s cousin’s house, the news was much simpler to give. I smiled around the room and said we had news to share. Our cousins smiled at us. When I said we were applying to adopt, my cousins paused. Their response was positive, but deflated and confused. I told hand-stitched dad later that they were probably expecting me to say pregnant.  Well, a child joins a family of many layers. It is a transition for all of us.

We have now told most of hand-stitched dad‘s family and none of mine.  He is more nervous about telling them than I am. We both agree what will happen: my parents will coo insincerely and nervously and then, after a few minutes of chit-chat, start asking absurd and inane questions. They may blurt out something inappropriate. And we will all itch for the awkward conversation to be over. Nothing against my parents, but they, like many people, need to be eased into things.

We are reassured that no matter what people’s responses are now, they will change when faced with our actual child rather than our plans.

The Mid-Wait Wobble

I can see why people are keen to rush into things. Sitting with anticipation and anxiety leads to thoughts (messy thoughts) unless you keep an active reign on yourself. I’ve had a lot of time to think about the decision to adopt, but still I catch myself in the odd moment wondering if it will really happen: if we could really cope with being adoptive parents.

Several years back I would have (allegorically) hung myself in this annihilating train of thought. Now my reflective mind is a bit more resolute. I note the thought: Am I worthy? I look to the feeling: fear. I also look to my habituated response: self-doubt and sometimes even self-attack.

I remember the little, lonely girl and her bullies. I remember I’m no longer that girl. I hold her close to me; I hold that fear. And instead of turning on myself, I breathe. I remember that fear is natural, human, normal, shared. I remember that I’m here today, despite my fear. I remember that I am more than fear. I am worthy.

Slowly, with time, my brain and my body learnt not to be afraid of fear. The little lonely girl was learning to trust herself.

I wobble. Drenched in fear, I wobble.

But somehow, every wobble moves me closer to being that parent. I will not be perfect. I will yell sometimes, blinded by fear and love. My emotions will sometimes overspill in tears. I will feel helpless. I will feel unworthy. I will be afraid.

I will be all of these things. I will wobble, wobble, wobble up mountains and through rivers.

If that is the only thing my child learns from me, I’ve done my job. We are, all of us, broken in seen and unseen ways. We stumble, fall, and break some more. We wobble.

Maybe life is about learning how to wobble.

Making Decisions

Hand-stitched dad and I are notorious for our decision making skills. We like to sit with the question, weighing up an endless supply of ‘what ifs’ and second-guessing what we (and others) want. Social workers love that we took our precious time (three years in fact) between our first enquiry and our decision to proceed. They will love it less when waiting for our answers during home study, I’m sure.

The government was not thinking of me and hand-stitched dad when they decided to reduce the assessment period to eight, six and then four months. We genuinely need time to process and adapt to what we learn about adoption and about ourselves. We are thoughtful and considerate people. We are not good at making decisions.

Age? Not an exclusion factor.

Gender? Don’t care.

The social worker from Rural Adoption Agency pointed out to us that we needed limits, otherwise we would have thousands of children thrown at us once approved. We looked up BAAF’s matching criteria form and discovered we still couldn’t draw a line.

“You need to talk about it more.” The social worker suggested. I thought to myself: we’ve talked about it plenty; what we need is a way to make decisions.

The social worker’s face took on a dreamy look when sharing a story about the magic of telling an adopted child they had been chosen. “We chose you.”

I cringed.

Based on my own experience of trauma and neglect, the last thing I wanted to hear as a child was that I’d been chosen. I would much rather have had a choice. I would have wanted someone listening to me and giving me a say in the decisions. It’s not easy getting to know a traumatised child on that level. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

Where on the BAAF form does it say: “I would like the child who would choose me” ?

Hand-stitched dad and I were both on a natural high after the social worker left. We bounced from the kitchen to the dining room, putting away snacks and hanging up laundry. We reassured each other. “It went fine.” “Did I talk too much?” “No. Was I okay?” “Was I okay?” Yes. Yes. Smiles. Hugs. This is it. “The first step!”

We babbled excitedly about Rural Adoption Agency. I was pleasantly surprised by some of what the social worker described. It fit my impression of the agency from my research and monitoring. It’s nice when evidence corroborates like that.

Hand-stitched dad had preferred Little City Adoption Agency. But he shrugged, with a smile, “I can’t think of a reason not to go with Rural adoption agency.”

I paused and smiled. “Neither can I.”

We looked into each other’s eyes and our smiles grew. We bounced up and down together, both exclaiming in unison: “We just made a decision. We just made a decision!!!” Then we collapsed in fits of giggles at our absurdity. We smiled at each other. We held hands.

The first step.

Believing in yourself

For a number of reasons, Hand-stitched Dad and I were not gifted with a substantial dollop of self-confidence. This comes out in different ways.

Hand-stitched Dad is more reserved, considerate, and deferential. That’s him, through and through. He’s like that when you meet him. He’s like that when you get to know him. He’s like that, when you’ve known him for years. I love Hand-stitched Dad‘s calming consistency and carefulness. Most people agree: he’s very likable, albeit quiet.

I have an altogether different sort of consistency.

When we first meet, I will be charming. Many adopters will recognise this sort of charming. It’s the charm of someone who is too scared to fight, who just wants us all to get along, who wants you to smile and move on, who wants you to believe this girl is stronger than she is. It’s the charm of someone who has spent more time getting to know other people than getting to know herself.

It’s the charming face of trauma.

As we approach our first home visit, our confidence quakes. I remind myself: before we submit ourselves to their judgment, we opened ourselves up to our own. Our story doesn’t begin and end with trauma.  We are more than our charming faces and vulnerable hearts.

I think, ‘What if they reject us?’ but the train of thought only ever comes back to disappointment in them, because I believe in us. I think of our deepest, darkest days, and I remember: we made it through them with dignity. We lived and we are better people for it. Yes, we are made of grief, more grief than most people our age hold. But we are made of more than grief.

If I can learn how to grieve and still love, so can our child. I  may not be the most careful or considerate person. I have a hundred holes, and I will never fit in. I’m displaced. I’m forever learning my limits. But this: parenting a traumatised child. This I can do.