Our 11-year-old daughter had not been home for 186 days. Never in a million years would I have believed anyone who told me she would be gone for this long. Never.
The professionals thought she was ready. I had waited 6.2 months to have our family back together in our own house. So, home she came.
“…And this presupposes the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive…human potential at its best always allows for…turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.” Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning.
This ordeal is replete with ups and downs. Committed to optimism, I will try to see opportunities in the negatives. I will acknowledge errors, change and adapt, turn guilt into an occasion for betterment. There are beauties of life that are borne from this struggle, for each one of us.
2 Days Until Christmas
For years we have spent the days leading up to Christmas at my in-laws. Violet wanted to go straight there and be included in the routine. I listened to her, instead of my instincts. The kid had not been HOME in 6.2 months, it clearly would have been better to let her reset at home first.
My husband and I met her plane and squeezed the life out of her, overjoyed to have her in our eyes and arms. We drove to the in-laws, where the other children and family were. Within minutes of getting into the car, she was asleep. My normal “mom alert” for emotional overload, I realized our error. Adoration for them aside, this meant she had to immediately deal with more familial personalities than she had faced for 6 months. I didn’t even THINK about how stressful it would be to have questions about where she had been and what it was like. UGH. Dumb Mommy.
We celebrated, did presents. Watching her navigate the complete immersion gave me guilt. She looked drained. I took her a few times to another room to have an alone check-in. She held it together; she did pretty well. She only needed to make it through the night.
We left that morning. FINALLY, we were taking our little girl home.
She was ecstatic. She bolted up the stairs, laid in her bed. Soleil, Ax and Violet all giggled and played, so happy to be together again.
Holidays for us feel magical. They aren’t about religion. They are traditions and family. Our tree was so tall and beautiful. Presents piled underneath. Glowing lights, Bing Crosby, pine tree smells and comfort food. No sleep the night before. Frost outside, insides warm. Loved it. Easily one of my favorite times of year.
Our family friends came for a Christmas Eve pajama throw down. Again, love for them aside, it was asking her to manage more dynamics. Not bad, just effortful.
My husband had ordered our family matching onesies, with nicknames he called everyone, sewn on. As he unveiled them, Violet’s eyes lit up from the affection of the familiar name. Her most desired love, affirmed in a single gesture.
We all ran, excited to put them on and laugh at each other.
Violet’s pajamas were too small.
She was the only one whose didn’t fit. I panicked and tried to make light, “No big deal honey, you’re not a kid size anymore, you need women’s! Take mine.” She cried. To a girl who was already self-conscious, this was traumatic. The sweet moment, contaminated.
The Big Deal with Little T Traumas: Trauma is just that - more than mind and body can bear without causing disruption in our lives. Big “T”s are the obvious – accidents, death, divorce. The Little “T”s are relative. (see link)
For Violet, it was pretty much anything that eroded her feelings of self worth – a look from someone without a smile, not being the best at something, feeling different. All related to personal issues and tolerance levels.
And here, the struggle began.
Violet was who she was. She WAS going to interpret smaller incidents as overwhelming; they WERE going to feel like Little “T”s. The only thing she could do was strengthen her skills for managing those feelings, by focusing on positives, gratefulness, and calming strategies.
We went upstairs in private and tried to wrap our minds around the pajamas.
She cried and tried not to get hysterical, “I’m so fat Mommy and these look terrible. They are so tight! And I want to wear MINE, not YOURS! I want to have MY nickname that Daddy put.”
“Honey, I understand how you feel. Look at the tag babe. These are for KIDS! You are 11! You are almost as tall as me, you just need a women’s small, that’s it. I know it’s disappointing, but all we can do is come up with another solution. Try and take a breath, put mine on, and shake it off.”
We switched, leaving her with “Ahmee the Mommy” on her chest.
She did it, soothed herself, used her tools. Changed into mine, came down to read the Christmas Story. By the third page, she was fast asleep on the rug. FRIED.
6 am, kids ran down and slayed the presents. Coffee brewed, carols played, paper schrapnel covered the floor. Hysterical laughter and smiles from ear to ear. Lots of thank yous. Ahhh yes, together. My heart overflowed.
Soleil and Violet had a dance party together. They tried on new clothes. Soleil was beside herself with joy that her sister wanted to play with her. We started to prep for dinner and set the table.
“I want to sit next to Violet!”
“Noooo! I’m sitting next to her!!!”
This kind of bickering, I would embrace. The internal smile in Violet was worth it.
I felt so content. Although not without its moments, I was able to have perspective and see that everyone was enjoying each other, including me.
We all got ready for guests. Violet “styled” Sol by helping her choose clothes. She beamed with feeling old and cool. Did her hair just like Violet’s. Ax wore a suit and wanted to show Violet as soon as his getup was complete. Sibling love in the air, the band was back together.
The day progressed, no major issues. We made it through some stressful dinner guests and bedtime without disruption. Tension, but no breakdowns.
The Day After
Violet’s flight back to school was the next morning. I could have guessed this would be a hard day. She saw her local favorite friend, who she was always great with, a perfect distraction. Still, she came home and looked completely ravaged. She seemed as if she had outrun her capacity for effort. The high of being home was wearing off.
We started dealing with packing. What to leave, what to bring. I saw something lurking behind the façade of “I’m fine.” The understandable anxiety and sadness of leaving again? Resentment that the other kids got to stay?
I went downstairs to make dinner. Heard some foot stomping and my stomach flip-flopped. We had not had aggressive sounds in months. Precursor to danger.
“What are YOU looking at?” Violet shoulder-shoved my husband as she passed him in the hallway. Oh no. He tried to help her…
“Vi, what was that? What’s going on? Feels like you need to use your tools, you ok?”
And just like that, the switch flipped.
I don’t even remember what happened in these mere moments. There were more disrespectful words and tones, it escalated quickly into yelling. My husband came downstairs. I got involved.
“Violet. Take this sheet of paper and go into your room and write down your feelings. You are NOT able to express them appropriately right now. When you are? You are welcome to come back and talk. BUT NOT NOW. Go.”
“I NEED TO EXPRESS MYSELF!!! You are not listening to me!!!”
“Please Violet, this sounds too out of control. Please go into your room and take space. You have to calm down before we can listen to you. PLEASE.”
“BUT YOU HAVE TO LET ME EXPRESS MYSELF!!!!! I HAVE TO!!! You have to LISTEN TO ME!!!!”
“Violet, I cannot listen to you like this. This is NOT our deal. Go into your room and use your tools. Breathe, write things down, listen to music. Please, you MUST take space.”
Door slam, crashing sound. Screaming. Refusal to use tools. I tried desperately to get the therapist on the phone. The Little Ts accumulated and just became too much for her to manage.
I watched the undoing redo itself. I was ensnared in the terrifying tangle of old, sticky, inescapable webs. I wanted to run out of the house and start over.
She had done so well for the past 3 days, I was desperate to save this deviation. She had made it through the initial overwhelming situation, a pressure-filled holiday homecoming, the pajama trauma, the weird guests, what was happening??? No Violet nooooo.
After 25 minutes on the phone with the therapist, she was quiet. I tentatively creeped up the stairs to spy and see if she was ok.
Axul, who had been listening in his room, creeped over too. I tried to wave him off. He slid a piece of paper under her door.
Finally, the door creeked open. Violet came out holding the paper. She came down and rejoined the family. She still couldn’t relax the tortured expression on her face. We tried to ignore it.
I had not done a good job with MY tools. I was too shaken from the flashback. I truly felt at a loss. This tapped right into MY Little Ts. It was too familiar, too reminiscent of old spirals. Too out of control, too unreachable, too scary.
Compassion: the response to the suffering of others that motivates a desire to help.
We sat in silence, all 5 of us. The weight of the tirade fresh in the air. Finally, Axul looked over at her.
“Are you OK Violet?”
Ice thawed. She hugged him, still solemn, thanked him for the picture. Soleil joined in. Pretended to fall off the stool and giggled on the floor. When it didn’t work the first time she did it again. Slowly but surely, Violet’s sullen face melted into a smile.
I sat quietly and watched these children commit to their unspoken pact to help their sister. As the dark cloud lifted, I looked at the paper Axul had given her. It was a little 5-year-old drawing of our family, with misspelled scrawl that said, “FEL BETR.”
Can you teach empathy? Can compassion be learned? Out of this struggle, we have all found our deepest human potential. Even though it IS suffering for me to watch my child, my children, experience this? Even though after all the loss, work, and sacrifice - it is STILL so hard? I get THIS. I get to watch my 5 and 7 year old find compassion. As the struggle dissipated into opportunity, I sighed. So grateful.
I drove her to the airport the next day. Held her hand the whole way there, heavy bellies in the car.
“Will I be able to come home again Mommy?”
Chestpains. Nausea. Violet. My darling little first born babe.
“Sweet girl, all of this work is so we can be together. That is ALL I want. I am dying for you to be home. I miss you so much every second. We just need to figure out how to make it healthy for everyone.” And we will.
She had used her tools. She struggled, she recovered. She succeeded and faltered. She made progress. We all had more work to do.
I mentally wrapped all of our Little Ts in a holiday bow and packed them away. The New Year would bring new visits. New opportunities for discovering our best selves. For creatively turning negatives into something constructive. Soleil and Axul had it down. I wanted to do it too.