For me, there is something about the month of April. The grass in Oklahoma seems to grow in neon green, the dark tree branches of winter are graced with life, the redbud trees begin to blossom with delicate purple flowers, and the sunshine starts to kiss my skin with hints of summer. I can literally feel the hope in the air.
April always symbolized the good: everything is being reborn and growing and blooming and radiant and beautiful and summer is right around the corner.
But when I was a kid, I also experienced two traumatic events that happened at the end of April, one I will write about and another I prefer to only share in real life. Years apart but somehow on the same day. Around this date, I often begin to feel dysregulated. As a busy working mom, sometimes I do not even know the day of the week, let alone the date. But these feelings in my body leave me asking myself, “Mandy, what in the world is wrong with you today? Get it together!” I might not remember the date, but my brain and my body do. Soon after asking this question, I recall, “Oh, it’s that day.”
My very own traumaversary.
Twenty-four years after one of the events and my body whispers to me, “On this date, your brain thought you were in danger.” And every year, that date in April comes along without warning just as that F4 tornado that caused so much destruction as it blew through my little Oklahoma town did. It tries to momentarily disrupt. It reminds me that dangerous things sometimes happen without warning, even among the beauty of spring. It reminds me that scary things can happen and do.
Even though it has been 24 years and I was physically unharmed, I remember the sounds, the pressure in my ears, the smell in the air, the debris, time moving in what seemed like slow motion, the fear, the path of destruction that seemed to make little sense, the happiness that our home was spared, but the sadness that people we knew weren’t so lucky.
It was not until I did lots of pre-adoptive reading and training that I learned that childhood trauma, even when it occurs at an age before memories can be recalled, have an impact on the brain. As one scholar puts it, “The body keeps score” (Van der Kolk, 2014).
Often, people say to me, “Kids are so resilient.” Sometimes, it seems big people think little people are somehow immune to the effects of trauma and loss, but current research shows just the opposite. It is easy for people on the outside to not see the lingering effects of trauma or to deny that it still has an impact. But, it does. Sometimes, people look at me like I am bonkers when I discuss childhood trauma, but the impact is there. And sometimes, it is hard for some of us to admit that really crappy things happened to people we love and to ourselves and that we could not protect them.
The day one of my kids was found, everything turns upside down. It took me two years to get it. “Oh, it’s that day.” My precious one’s arms flail, the tears come, the shrieks pierce, and my child’s body seems to communicate, “Everything on this day makes me sad, angry, fearful, scared, out of control, and alone.” Now, old enough to verbalize and more self-aware than most big people, my little one screamed out to me, “Mama, what is wrong with me today?” I know this feeling. On this date, your brain said you were in danger. Half a world away, a different climate, a new language, and different smells, your body still knows and reminds us that this date is indeed part of your story. It is not the story, but it would be irresponsible not to acknowledge it has shaped you.
I think owning and processing my own childhood trauma has helped me understand how my kids’ trauma still has an impact. I’ll never equate my kids’ losses to my trauma, but I recognize the dysregulation and the big feelings. I also think of Karyn Purvis often saying, “You cannot take your kids somewhere you have not been willing to go yourself.” For years, I went to therapy for the things that happened on those humid days in April. But lately, I have added neurofeedback too and it has helped me so much (I’ll write more about that another day). After the initial neurofeedback scan, the clinician asked me, “Have you experienced trauma? Your scan seems to indicate it.” I always fight the urge to feel weak when admitting that I did. Each time, shame seems to say, “Mandy, pull yourself together. A stronger person’s scan would not indicate trauma. You are weak for letting this affect you.”
And each time the one who comes to kill, lie and destroy whispers this shame message to me, I lean into my story and own it with more confidence than before. I won’t ignore the trauma, but I will silence the shame. To those who are safe, I boldly share my story and declare that indeed, trauma has shaped aspects of my life. Loving my kids has given me a reason to be brave, to be kind to myself, and the permission to acknowledge my own big feelings. Loving myself I acknowledge that I don’t have to “get it together” and that my body’s physical reaction to this date is not necessarily a weakness. My brain worked the way it was designed to.
In my own life, I have realized a kind and gentle approach helps me on my traumaversary.
Around that date in April, I try to minimize my crazy hectic schedule and I reduce our commitments.
I take the time to do activities that nourish my soul: pray, massage, acupuncture, a hike, marveling at the beauty of Spring in Oklahoma while laying in a hammock, time away with my husband, a night out with girlfriends, and planting flowers with my kids.
I seek professional help when I get stuck.
I write essays that I keep private. I process through writing.
I use that date to engage in random acts of kindness: paying for the person’s drink at Starbucks, adding a generous tip on the lunch bill, and writing notes of appreciation to people I love.
I remind my husband that around this date, I get big feelings.
For my little ones, around their traumaversary, we take a gentle approach. They do not know the dates yet and that this is indeed a traumaversary, but their behavior screams that their body does.
We increase Theraplay activities at home.
We seek professional help from a trauma informed, TBRI trained clinician when we get stuck.
We make our days predictable.
We remind our kids that it is okay to have big feelings. We also remind our kids that there is grace.
We go back to bottle feeding and rocking.
We let them sleep in our bed if that makes them feel safe.
We reduce stressors and commitments so that we can be present.
For one of them, we do filial play to help the child process trauma.
Our little one often processes through art, and so we provide lots of opportunities for our children to do that. We listen as they talk about their drawings.
We engage in activities they love: playing CandyLand, coloring, swimming, pretend play, bike rides, etc.
We lower our expectations.
We create space for our very verbal child to process at bedtime. That little one always talks about big feelings at bedtime.
We increase our own self-care so that we can continue to provide the care our little ones need.
Embracing my own trauma and getting help have made me realize that by doing so, I can be like that beautiful Oklahoma spring that I love. There are storms in Oklahoma each spring, but those storms bring undeniable beauty and growth. I want to show my little ones that their mama leaned into the broken, sad, and scary parts of her story, and by doing so, became a stronger mama. That trauma did not make me weak, but instead gave me permission to acknowledge feelings and become sensitive to my body, which I believe makes me strong and brave. I am proud of the way I have modeled for my kiddos the importance of getting professional help. Some might think that makes me weak, but I’ve learned that the strong ask for help.
Leaning into my trauma and owning it has made me a warrior mama, who is willing to go with my kids to places I have taken myself.
I am leading the way.
I am being reborn and growing and blooming and radiant and beautiful.
“I am strong because I am weak.
I am beautiful because I know my flaws.
I am a lover because I am a fighter.
I am fearless because I have been afraid.
I am wise because I have been foolish.
And I can laugh because I’ve known sadness.” – Unknown