Sometimes raising a child with developmental trauma feels like drowning. During the pandemic, the usual lifelines of educational and community support are decreased or absent, and many parents are left feeling suffocated and alone.

Our son spent two years languishing in a Chinese orphanage and almost died.  He came to us twenty-eight months later with irreparable deficits in attachment, behavior, and executive functioning which I learned would probably be lifelong, despite our dedication, hard work, and professional training.   Resources are minimal and treatment is often counter-intuitive because of our children’s self-sabotage.  Superficial charm covers up the daily grind of never-ending control battles, and little effort (if any) given to follow through or task completion.  It’s hard, arduous work–this kind of parenting.  There are many families like ours, raising children with high-level needs during a pandemic, and I can tell you that we all feel like we are drowning.

Labor Day weekend our family visited my small home town located on the shore of glistening Lake Michigan.  It’s tradition to take our annual walk down the north pier out to the large, red monolithic lighthouse, where we are often greeted by friendly fishermen wielding nets of flopping crappie and salmon.  This year I was taken aback by the higher-than-usual water levels as we made our way out to the edge, where slippery algae and seaweed grew along the inclines on each side.  I have walked this way hundreds of times before, and know that the approximate 50 feet leading out to the lighthouse is where the breakwaters angle in.  As long as you exercise good judgment and there are no strong winds or high, crashing waves, it’s a safe and fun walk.

My son and husband walked in front of me and my daughter, and I occasionally pointed out the sailboat in the distance.  As I glanced out of the corner of my eye, I was aghast as I watched my son turn his head toward me while squatted down upon the algae-covered incline and slid feet-first into the inky black water of the bay.  On instinct, my husband flung out his arm in an attempt to save him, rushing over to the incline where his feet slipped on the algae and landed him splashing into the bay alongside my son.

Oh my God, neither one of them can swim well!”  I thought to myself, recalling my younger years working as a lifeguard on the very lakefront I now walked upon.  Lifeguard training apparently remained in the forefront of my brain as I forgot that I now wear a prosthetic leg.  Regardless, my rescue sense kicked into high gear as I rushed over in an attempt to reach both my husband and son, now scrambling to find a way up the slippery algae-covered incline.

In my rush and instinctive action, my prosthetic foot slipped on the algae as well, and all of a sudden I found myself splashing into the water along with them.  Dammit!  I felt embarrassed, angry, and horrified at what had just happened.

Thankfully, my daughter remained on the pier and did not follow along with us knuckleheads, who now resembled fledgling drowned rats.  A helpful fisherman darted over, yelling to the onlookers, now gawking at our pathetic family circumstance “okay everyone, step aside!”  He handed the end of his net first to my son, then to me, then to my husband as he pulled us each up the slithery incline and back up to the pier.  Embarrassed, with my hand bleeding (I must have cut it on a sharp object underwater) I thanked him profusely for being there to save us.  A nice woman reached into her purse to pull out a bottle of hand sanitizer and gave it to me to apply to my bleeding hand.  Scott scrambled for his car keys which he realized were now at the bottom of the lake.  Both of our phones were drenched and now trashed.

I handed my daughter my water-logged purse and phone as I sat down on a steel cylinder in the center of the pier and took off my leg to inspect for possible damage.  Everything was fine, minus the hissing sound of water in my leg suction valve.

But my anger was seething, under-girded by feelings of terror.  What if that man hadn’t been there to save us?  What if my husband had hit his head and drowned?  What if we hadn’t all gone into the water in the first place?  The looming reality of parenting a child with executive functioning problems hit me with full force.  It’s weight feeling like shackles.

My son is 14.  This scenario was not the first of this type for us.  Trying to save my son from himself had almost done me in before when he was much younger.  Chronic hypervigilance (secondary to parenting a child with a history of trauma) caused me to have a life-changing accident, which in turn, impacted our whole family system.

Rich in metaphor,  this disastrous routine walk out to the lighthouse illuminated some continued pressing realities.

A lighthouse symbolizes hope.  It lights our way when we are adrift and in darkness.  It’s bellowing horn warns us of the rough weather ahead and guides us as we learn to navigate the choppiness of the waves and harsh winds.  Hope is what keeps us trauma-mamas going when life becomes overwhelming.  Yet sometimes, it is still too overwhelming, and we need a hand or a rescue.

I pause to realize that I am a strong and resilient person, yet strength and resilience are no match for the tumultuous ebbs and flows of the fallout of complex trauma.  We know that trauma changes the way neurotransmitters function in the brain, causing erratic behavior and poor impulse control.  These issues impact entire family systems and beyond.

While on this day, the actions of my husband and I to save our son had literal implications–i.e. WE could have drowned in the process of saving him–they also have wider, more practical implications.

Trauma has the potential to pull in everyone in its wake.  

I think back to our Labor Day incident and ask myself what I would have done differently (after all, we learn from our mistakes, don’t we?)  I would have stopped to inhale before reacting.  I would have released my need to be the hero (again) and looked to the folks beside me for help before sliding into the chaos.   Understanding the insidiousness of complex trauma, I realize the need to allow for circumstances to be experienced for coaching and for learning.  I don’t always get to control the outcome, but I can control how I react to the chaos.

I talked with my husband about how trauma has wormed its way into our head-spaces over the years.  How we have fallen into the habit of reacting to the chaos that our son causes, and end up scratching our heads in bewilderment about how he doesn’t learn from his mistakes.  I shared my fears for the future if we don’t become more mindful of how we react to his behaviors, and acknowledged the difficult task that it is to parent him.  Sometimes, I admitted,  the best we can do is take better care of ourselves.

Self-care is sometimes not just an option.  It’s the ONLY option. 

In order to be an eye in the storm (or calm in the chaos) we need to tend to our own inner lighthouse to guide the inner compass that navigates how we respond to life around us.  The unrelenting ebbs and flows of trauma’s wake are challenging at best, disastrous at worst.   Our inner life-force beckons us to be still and to reach out when we need to.