For weeks following the accident that nearly took our daughter’s life, she and I were arguing. We were staying at the Sheraton in West Philadelphia, which we jokingly call our August ‘vacation’ of 2015.
One area of angst was that our room didn’t have a microwave or refrigerator. This was a major challenge because Alex is not only a vegetarian, but she also had jaw surgery and could hardly chew. She desperately needed calories for healing and to support all her medications. Finding vegetarian food in West Philly with no car or knowledge of restaurants in the city was one of my many challenges for which I complained about often.
In response to my complaints, Alex proclaimed she didn’t choose to get hit by a truck and didn’t even want me taking care of her after living on her own for two years. Understandable, right?
I was not a joyful caretaker. Honestly, being an introvert with weeks of zero time alone, along with the impact of trauma, took a toll on me. ‘Acts of Service’ is not my love language.
When Alex expressed her frustration over my complaints, I heard, ‘You’re a failure. You’re a terrible mom who can’t even take care of your hurting daughter.”
I felt as if we fought more in those weeks than we did her entire 20 years of life.
Years later, I discovered my girl barely remembers the fighting. She has faint memories of stress and angst, but doesn’t remember one argument. Not one.
Why? Because she was in trauma. Her brain was functioning in survival mode, prioritizing her most critical needs: healing, eating, moving, and fighting pain.
Managing emotions healthily is impossible when one is in trauma.
Here I was, trying to take care of a daughter who desperately needed her mom and feeling like a failure, not realizing the conflict wasn’t about me.
Whether in trauma, or everyday life, power struggles, arguments, and heated conversations are rarely about the thing. Rather, conflict is often triggered by miscommunicated physical or emotional needs.
Hence, the ongoing fights about what to have for dinner when everyone is tired and hungry.
Though Alex reacted to my discontent, underneath it all she was really responding to her sudden loss of independence and lack of control.
What does Alex remember about our Philly ‘vacation’?
She remembers fighting for recovery, doctor appointments, her friends showing up to help, her well-loved stuffed lamb, Potato, who miraculously made it with her to the hospital, and watching endless reruns of “Naked and Afraid.” She also remembers me being there when she needed me, even with all my grumbling.
One of my biggest takeaways is the realization of how a brain in trauma literally hijacks normal function in order to protect the human from further harm. There is no way to win against such a powerful force.
Yes, I wish I had been more caring, joyful, and emotionally supportive. So now, when I’m tempted to argue or engage with someone whose brain is on fire or even sparking, I reach for my white flag, close my mouth, and do my best to listen. And I TRY not to take things personally.
My best is all I can do. Thankfully, my kids mostly remember me at my best.
In emotionally healthy families, kids remember times when they felt seen, when home was a soft place to land, and the silly, fun moments. They remember rituals, family trips and events, and when their parents helped them overcome challenges.
In the years following the accident, which I call the After Times, we’ve learned about grief, letting go, and grace. I’ve learned that unconditional love and forgiveness can overcome a multitude of mistakes.