Let's Talk About Trauma

On Tuesday, just a few minutes after I sent the boys into the backyard to play, I heard screaming that I soon realized belonged to my eight year old. Ben flung open the patio door and told me he’d been bitten by “a big brown insect or spider.” Sure enough, I found two small puncture wounds, one on his chest and the other on his finger. The chest wound had a small raised white bullseye already surrounding it. 

I used all my skills not to panic, because he was doing enough of that for both of us. He was shaking, his eyes wide open. His breath was shallow and fast. His arms were stiff and outstretched, his body language begging for comfort and help. There is no other word for it: he was traumatized. As someone who lives with complex PTSD, I know a lot about trauma. 

I scooped him up in my arms, validated his pain and fear and started talking him through breathing exercises to relax his body. I called the pediatrician and received a quick call back from the nurse who confirmed my suspicion that this wasn’t a serious *medical* emergency. I gave him motrin for the pain and put antibiotic cream on the affected areas. I told him he could sleep with me that night, which comforted him and me both by allowing me to watch for worsening or delayed symptoms. 

Of course, it took a LOT more than this to reassure Ben, who deals with anxiety on a daily basis. My nature lover was already declaring he might never go outside again, and was absolutely convinced that he had been poisoned. 

For the next several hours, my husband and I took turns comforting each wave of fear as it came. As we sat eating tacos for dinner, I reached over to pick up a piece of meat that fell on his shirt. Just seeing something brown in color instantly stiffened his body, and he burst into tears. I didn’t have any magic words. I made space for his fear because it was valid. I reassured him that he was now safe. I told him that the statistical likelihood of him ever being bitten again much less by something venomous is low. I dug deep (and took breaks) to find the energy and patience to remain present with him, to not minimize how genuinely frightened he was. Little by little, each episode got less intense and lasted for a shorter duration. I did Reiki on him before bed, and he surprised us both by sleeping soundly.

I’ll be the first to tell you that investing this much attention into the emotional health of my family is exhausting, and it can even be isolating. It takes daily, guilt-free self care to be able to give this much energy to not only my children but to my clients and friends as well. I’m sure many will read this and mock my husband and me for “coddling” our son, but I know the importance of getting this message out.

My experiences understanding and then healing from my own traumas over the past two years has opened my eyes to the inadequacies of our current belief system around what qualifies for the label of trauma. And frankly, WHO qualifies. For instance, did you know that former foster children are more than twice as likely to have PTSD than military vets who served in Iraq? Post traumatic stress can occur anytime someone fears for his safety or her basic needs aren’t met (this includes emotional needs); complex trauma results when this is a chronic occurrence.  

Let me be clear: I’m not in any way suggesting that my or any child would develop PTSD from one relatively minor incident. I am suggesting, however, that brushing aside his legitimate fear and telling him to “man up” as our society is prone to do with boys would have long-term effects on his mental and emotional health. And I’m even suggesting that--since our culture does this on a grand scale--this is contributing to some of the worst crises we face societally: namely opioid addiction, suicide and mass shootings. As the saying goes: only hurt people hurt other people. Imagine if those same individuals had been "coddled" with empathy and compassion as children, or even as adults.

I’m thrilled to report that as of yesterday, my child was happily playing outside again.

Kathleen Schwarz