What do you do when your kid’s painful experiences trigger you? I try to compartmentalize and be the grownup in the moment but how about after the moment passes and you’re left with a heart aching for both of you in a complex tangle of primary and secondary trauma? What if it’s hard to separate your different pains or the combined pain is more then you know how to handle?
Let’s start with compartments. I’m usually good at compartmentalizing. Sometimes, I’m so good I forget I need to unpack the compartment later. Stealth compartments, that’s me. I spent most of my adult life being just fine with all my yucky emotions tucked neatly away, I didn’t even know I was doing it. I’m a lot healthier now, but the skills, and sometimes the habits, persist.
In situations where I’m managing the pain of someone I care about, if I fully close the compartment and keep my shit together through the whole incident, I think it can make me see cold or indifferent. Plus, I get to pry open the compartment later to rummage around and see what happened. If I don’t get the compartment closed, there will come a time in the discussion when I will likely be overwhelmed with the weight of the combined pain. Being overwhelmed means I loose most of my capacity to stay calm, problem solve and be patient. Staying calm and in control of my actions is really important to me, so being overwhelmed is awful in many different ways.
This situation with my son is a classic case of history repeating itself. I grew up with unidentified depression and anxiety. By 5th grade, it was affecting me on almost a daily basis. The depression and anxiety got steadily worse until I was diagnosed with clinical depression in my early 20’s and treated with talk and drug therapy. I struggle with it to this day. As a teen, I never had a large group of friends and often felt isolated and without peer support. I got through the days pretty well but the effort left me sleepless and anxious too many nights. While the anxiety drove me to be an excellent student, it left me out of tune with most of my peers. I finally got help in my early 20’s when my then boyfriend (later husband, now ex-husband) gave me an observation and an ultimatum.
Observation: most people do not come home and cry every night.
Ultimatum: go talk to a professional or I have to leave (for my own health).
[I generally frown on ultimatums. However, he correctly judged that in this case it would take a shove that hard to get me to get help.]
Now, my 13 year old son struggles with many of the same problems I had. Fortunately, he is not undiagnosed nor untreated and he has four loving parents supporting him. However, treatment to manage depression and anxiety in young people means trying to hit a moving target. Think of a soldier crossing an open area under sniper fire: moving fast and constantly changing directions. What works today may not work tomorrow or may even make it worse!
Some of what he is going through breaks my heart because I’m a parent watching my child suffer through hard lessons. However, I also have heartache because I’m being triggered about my own past. Untangling that little snarl of trauma is a challenge. I keep hoping the untangling will get easier with time, but I find as his challenges change, they tap into new parts of my own experiences…some of which I haven’t thought about for a long time.
Over the past few years, I’ve gotten much better at sitting with the pain. That’s the way I describe the process where I let an icky emotion be experienced without trying to solve the problem, push it away or rationalize it. I let it be icky and in time it will start to ebb. Only after the icky begins to ebb do I start to consciously work on how to make the icky better, if there are options. Sometimes, all you can do is sit with the ick.
When I’m triggered, it is all emotions, not specific incidents or memories. It reduces my capacity but is rarely incapacitating. So the challenge is how to keep myself as healthy as possible while parenting in a situation that too closely mirrors my own troubles as a kid and is reminiscent of things I still struggle with.
I haven’t come up with any magic answers yet. What makes me most sad is that I’ve started having anxiety about my kids. They live with their dad half time and my wife and I half time. When it is time for them to come back, I start to feel anxious. Of course, I have good reason to be anxious. Going through these episodes with my son is painful and hard. However, I don’t want to feel that way about my kids coming home so I feel badly about my anxiety and worry I’m making it worse by…worrying. Sit in the icky or worry in circles? The options are underwhelming to say the least.
I do have my general depression/anxiety prophylactics: talk to my closest people, take my meds, get enough sleep, and set aside time to take care of myself (quiet time, book time, nature time). I try to separate my stressors so I can deal with them sequentially instead of in parallel. I also write and hope that my thoughts on the situation help someone else. However, the details about how to deal with this situation with my son and I will have to be improvised. I’ll keep unpacking the damn compartments, try to keep my personal pain from spilling onto my son and try to learn some grace in managing our shared experience. In the last month, I’m 0 for 3 on the grace part, but I’m sure I’ll get more practice.