Some Insight Into How We Carry Trauma in Our Bodies

Photo by Matt Popovich on Unsplash

Last Wednesday, while my older two kids were at school and my younger two kids were in my bedroom watching a video, I was tidying up the living room and wiping down the dining room table when I glanced out the front window just as a police cruiser pulled up in front of my house. It parked, and an officer got out.

While we do live in the city and there is a fair amount of crime in our area, a police cruiser parked in front of our house on our dead-end street is odd. So I watched to see what he was doing.

It was immediately evident he was chasing someone. He had his hand on his holster and everything about his body language told me he could see the person he was chasing, who appeared to be running between my neighbors’ homes.

After a few minutes, I started hearing sirens. Four more police cars pulled up in our street and officers got out and joined the chase. My head was spinning. Who are they chasing? Why can’t they catch him? Am I about to witness a police shooting? My kids are right upstairs—are they about to witness a police shooting?! I was glued to the window, standing a bit to the side and peeking out from behind a curtain, praying the DVD I had put on wouldn’t end so my kids would stay upstairs in my room.

I was very calm and assumed that everything was going to be OK. I live a very privileged life, in which this kind of thing is quite unexpected, and I also have a lot of faith in law enforcement. Still, I really did not want to watch them shoot or tase someone.

The police were surrounding my 91-year-old neighbor’s house. I called him to tell him to stay inside and lock his doors, but I only got his machine. I started to panic that someone had entered his house and he was in danger. I thought of my own children upstairs and our back door, which is almost always wide open to the back yard. What if whomever they were chasing came into our yard? (I am so grateful for our dog, Samson, who is an excellent watch dog and who has a pretty fierce bark. I always feel a bit safer knowing he’s on patrol!)

After a few minutes, everyone quickly got back into their cars and took off, lights on and sirens blaring. I stood there feeling a bit lost.

I was hosting a play date with several families from my kids’ preschool at noon that day. The last police car left about twenty minutes before families starting arriving, and we launched in to chatting, supervising and enjoying not being home alone trying to entertain our kids. As little girls ran around in princess dresses and toddlers played with a wooden train, I told the moms about the excitement in our front yard just before they came over, and we laughed at the irony of having a playdate for preschoolers while police were chasing a violent suspect around in our front yard. (I later learned that they were chasing a man with outstanding warrants for violent offenses. They had approached him in the apartment complex behind our house, he fled, and they gave chase. They apprehended him after he ran into some woods behind my neighbor’s house.) We had a great time connecting and they all left around two hours later.

That afternoon, I felt so odd. I was breathing differently, as if I couldn’t get enough oxygen. I felt hyper-aware, like I needed to check in with the kids, even though I knew they were playing in the next room. I couldn’t focus at all—I kept walking into one room and then forgetting why I was there (more than I usually do!). And every so often, my heart would start pounding hard for no reason at all. Why do I feel so strange?! I kept wondering.

Then it hit me: I had experienced something traumatic earlier in the day and had moved on as if it were nothing.

Five-plus police officers were chasing a violent suspect around my neighbors’ houses while I watched from my front window. Yes, everything turned out OK. Yes, they caught him. No, we were never in danger. But it was a traumatic (albeit brief) event in my otherwise predictable day, and my body, mind, and soul needed to process it. Until I did, until I recognized that what happened was a big deal for me and that it left me feeling really uneasy, my body would keep letting me know that something was wrong.

This was such a good insight into how the trauma my kids have experienced still lives in their bodies. What they’ve seen, heard, and lived through is far more severe and intense than a short police chase in the front yard. And at their young ages, they have not had the tools to process their experiences (which include being left alone for hours strapped in a car seat, being abused sexually and emotionally, witnessing domestic violence, watching parents be arrested, being separated abruptly and without warning from their moms, being placed with strangers, being separated from additional primary caregivers when they were in foster care for years and then reunified, before being placed back in foster care with new strangers, etc.)

Our kids carry their trauma around. It shows up in how they react when provoked (we would call them “overreactions”), how many times they ask what we are doing today, how concerned they are with when we are eating next and what will be served, how many times they come to see where we are and what we’re doing (we would call these things “hypervigilance”), and how hard it is for them to shut their minds off at night and go to sleep. A child who carries a lot of trauma in her body perceives others as a threat, even when they’re not. A child who carries a lot of trauma around in his body is likely to exhibit fight, flight, or freeze responses anytime they feel threatened, even if the “threat” is what we call “nothing.” Her ability to discern who and what is safe is compromised. A child who carries a lot of trauma in her body is often mistaken for a child with ADHD—she can’t sit still, she talks a lot, and she has a lot of trouble with mental focus.

This experience helped give me some insight into my kids’ lived reality. It also got me thinking about the fact that we who care for children with traumatic backgrounds need to reflect more often on things from our own past—traumatic events big and small that are part of our formation.

How about you? Have you taken time to examine where you might be carrying experiences of past trauma around in your body? Can you relate to some of the things your foster child might be experiencing?

If not, I recommend that you do. It will build empathy and compassion for the challenges they face as they seek to figure out their place in the world even as they carry around the effects of traumatic events in their lives.

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