Bartlett: Youngest child off to school… utterly terrifying, by a Complex PTSD survivor
For the 8th morning in a row, my little 4 year old boy was afraid, scared, terrified about going to school. Separation anxiety. How does a mother cope with having to ‘let go’ of her last baby at home to take him to an unfamiliar place where bad things could happen to him and she can’t be there to protect him? How does a mother cope with this event when the she has memories of crying and fear from the emotional disconnect and neglect of her own mother to child relationship memories, and all the abuse and neglect she was exposed to at his precious little age?
My one woman mission is to single handedly (my admission, regardless of my husband’s efforts to get involved) rear our two children with the love, nurture, kindness, education, awareness, security and equality. I don’t mess. I know I’m not the only mummy out there with this aim in life either. Fist up ladies!
Shit though… it’s f’ing hard. Not usually my beautiful public school education lingo, but it’s far from ‘jolly hockeysticks darlings’.
My weekly talking therapist (love her, the Mummy voice of psychiatric wisdom and my corner of the ring coach *welling up just thinking about her*) brought up the subject of my little darling starting at school months ago and honestly I just didn’t think about it much. I was far more focussed on the day to day of coping with the forthcoming summer holidays and keeping relationships around me in good health. We had a summer break from therapy for trips away on both sides and then BAM BAM BAM BAM it was 2 weeks to go until his first morning at school.
I was robotic and thorough in my preparations. I spent hours of an evening sewing name-tapes onto his uniform with accuracy as if they were about to be judged by The Great British Sewing Bee TV show judges!! What I hadn’t banked on was how triggering that was going to be… my poor darling 8 yr old daughter found me sitting on the sofa at 8pm after I hadn’t answered her call.
I had totally DISASSOCIATED and was unable to communicate with her. She spent almost 2 hours trying every trick in her amazing emotional intelligence repertoire to break through to me. In the end her father spoke to her on the phone from a conference trip in France to explain what must have been happening and she mustn’t be scared and I will come out of it soon and I won’t come to any physical harm. I was sitting there trapped inside my own eyes unable to stop sewing, unable to look at her as she was screaming or crying or shouting at me in total fear and confusion, as she hadn’t experienced me like this before. It was utter torture and unforgettable.
Once I came round I went up to her room and lay down with her on her bed and kissed and cuddled her and told her how much I LOVE her and that I was going to be ok and sorry it was so scary for her. She was amazing. She showed me some incredible skills that night, skills a little girl shouldn’t have to use at that age, but that resilience and persistence to ‘find’ her loving mother amongst that mess was worthy of the New Years Honour’s List.
What was the trigger? Playing over and over in my mind was a video of me standing as a little girl next to the arm chair in one of my childhood homes watching my mother sewing in my name-tapes into my uniform. The fear and stress in the pit of my stomach, the lump in my throat, the ache in my chest as I watched her every stitch. She ignored me standing there. No recognition of the significance. I was back off to boarding school, from one type of abuse to another. A little girl living in hell inside her heart and mind. Gosh that feels so sad to write and all the sensations are so alive today with every recollection. That’s Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – CPTSD.
So, back to my little boy… the significance of him going off to an unfamiliar little school in our new neighbourhood is immense. This is my little boy who has been with me in my life deeply connected to my soul and keeping me with purpose and identity as a stay at home mum since we had to relocate across the country for my husband’s work and I had to give up my high flying career. I underestimated the impact on myself and therefore I hadn’t reckoned on my son picking up on my anxiety and fear.
His school has been incredible. I met with them before the summer holidays to explain how hard this is going to be for my son! Imagine that! I had the foresight for what was going to happen to him, and it has certainly become a reality. However, I didn’t heed any warning or alarm bells for the possible triggers for me, for my own self-care and nurture during this time. I didn’t prepare myself enough at all.
The school have the most amazing Family Liaison Officer who is there every day and is a resource of support for the pupils and parents/carers equally. What an absolute life-saver this lovely lady has been. I sat with her in her office for 1.5hours yesterday morning, coffee in hand. We have come up with a plan, and if that doesn’t work then we will come up with another one until it’s all going well and life can find its balance again. I got to ask her questions as blatant and awkward as whether my son is safe in her school and how often the police have to come his etc… (there are only 4-7year olds in this school by the way). I only had to mention the highest level detail of my own childhood experience and it all clicked as she made me aware of how this is being triggered and led by me more than my son. I was so worried at first to share with her that I have ASD and CPTSD. She reassured me that she knows that I am mothering Otto in the most amazing and caring way… and that it all is so much clearer now she can see the full picture. It is going to be OK and we will get there, she reassured me, we will do this TOGETHER.
What should I have done differently?
- Had joint sessions with my husband in our Counsellor to discuss the impact of our son starting school, so that he would be able to identify the triggers and support us through it
- Diarised a self-care activity for every morning our son was in his half day school sessions for the first two weeks, and for the first full day (which is actually next Monday!)… e.g. massage, exercise session, hobby, cafe with magazine/book, catch up with a friend, shopping.
- More focused talking therapy (CBT) on the separation anxiety and how to recognised and cope with the symptoms of CPTSD so it doesn’t get an opportunity to blindside me. (Note to self: discuss this at my session on Monday!)
- Early bedtimes with a calm and meditative book, hopefully relaxed and falling asleep around 9.30pm at latest. (I have been reading: ‘The Art of Living’ by Thich Nhat Hanh)
- Don’t turn to chocolate (or whatever your self-harm method is) when the CPTSD attacks. Carry healthy and satisfying snacks in bag for the moment when it arises. Oh, and no alcohol and crisps of an evening unless it’s a weekend. (Need to lose the 7lbs I’ve put on over the last 2 weeks! Oops)
- Make sure I wrapped myself up in cotton wool. I am my number 1 protector and have been my whole life. Don’t read anything, watch anything or talk to people that might put me in a negative or fear mindset.
- Keep the school involved. Be open and allow my vulnerability to be my guide. It’s horrific and the most lonely and scariest of challenges, but no one is more RESILIENT and more of a SURVIVOR than someone living with and dealing with CPTSD.
- Don’t have a major knee jerk reaction wobble to husband at 11 at night bringing him almost to tears with my autistic hecticness and desperation to problem solve by almost demanding we either find money for private school or I home school him from the following morning.
Breathe. Rise. Fall. Happiness. Hope. Love. Breathe… Never suffer in silence dear ones…
…whilst listening to: ‘No Words Left’ by Lucy Rose (2019)
Bartlett: Youngest child off to school… utterly terrifying, by a Complex PTSD survivor (c) 2019 Laura Devlin