Friday, January 11, 2013


This week did not go well for Charlie.  With a front coming through bringing rain and thunderstorms, his stress level was elevated.  With rain there is no recess, so vital to a kid who needs a release from the excessive energy and stress.  The lights flicker on and off, adding to his stress level.  Then he goes to Art class, another high stress experience.

The easiest way to describe the stress level of a person who has had traumatic experiences is this:  On a scale of 1-10 for stress, most of us live at a 5 or 6.  When things happen that upset us, our stress level will go up, but we have developed ways to calm ourselves and return to the 5 or 6 where we normally live.  If something happens that takes our stress level to 10, that is when we "lose it", doing or saying things that we would not ordinarily do or say.

For those who have experienced trauma, they live every day at a 8 or 9.  It takes very little to push them past the 10.

When we sent Charlie off to school Tuesday morning, we talked about the weather and the fact that he was safe at school with all his teachers looking out for him.  We knew it would be a difficult day for him, but we did not anticipate that the school would call before 11:00 asking us to come talk to Charlie because he could not calm himself down.

There is no cure for PTSD.  Survivors can only learn to understand the triggers and figure out ways to cope that work for them.  For a child who has suffered through severe neglect, abuse, abandonment, a hurricane, nearly drowning in the flood waters, seeing dead bodies, witnessing sights and sounds that even adults have trouble processing,  it may well take a lifetime for him to figure out all the triggers and how to deal with each one.

Some triggers we know and try to prepare him for by talking him through it.  When it comes to lights flickering in a thunderstorm, we hear the panic in his voice.  "What if they go off?"  "What if they don't come back on?"  "What will we do!"  Many kids are scared of thunderstorms and the flickering lights, but for Charlie is is a deep terror that is triggered inside his entire being.  He has recently been able to use the word "flashback" when he is describing how he feels - which shows he is learning to identify the trigger.  Now he faces the challenge of learning to cope with those feelings and strategies to calm himself.

Tuesday night the electricity went off for several hours.  Mercifully, it was after Charlie had fallen asleep, because it blinked on and off several times before going off for several hours.  With computers, printers, fax machines, appliances and even toys that are activated each time the electricity comes back on, the sounds associated with power surges can be a little startling.

About an hour later I heard a panicked voice calling me, "Miss Stephanie!  What is wrong, things don't look right!"  He is accustomed to the nightlight, fish tank and other lights we leave on in the house at night in case he needs to get up, and he knew things weren't right.  I was pleasantly surprised that giving him a flashlight to hold onto kept him in bed, although I knew it was a while before he got back to sleep.

While we try to shield him from news about storms and flash floods, which our area is prone to, he seems to know instinctively when these things are in the forecast.  On the way to school, there is a low area that tends to get water over the road, and he asked Randy "what if I can't get  home from school?"

Another trigger we have come to recognize is Art class.  Art requires fine motor skills (which are not well developed due to neglect) and emotions.  This emotional time on top of his already heightened stress level was just too much for him to deal with.

Our goal is to help him get to the point where he can identify the triggers and learn to deal with them.  When he is able to understand that he is going to be okay in a thunderstorm, that the lights might flicker, but they will always come back on, when he is able to find ways to relieve stress so that missing recess isn't such a problem for him, he will be on the road to coping better with something he is going to have to live with the rest of his life.

Then maybe he will be able to allow himself to work on fine motor skills, learning to enjoy art class and not be so critical of himself and his art.  The way a traumatized brain thinks is "I can't make it look the way I want it to, therefore I am stupid and now it will be hung up in the hall (with everyone's) for everyone to see and then everyone will know I am stupid, and if they know I am stupid they won't like me, and if no one likes me no one will be there for me when I need them, and if no one is there for me when I get in trouble, I might die".

When we can wrap our minds around how trauma affects the brain, then we can begin to understand how situations such as art class are literally a life and death situation.  If you were asked to do something that you were not capable of doing, and every part of your being told you that if you did not do it perfectly you would die - - where would your stress level be?  

For those who say "he just needs to get over it" - there are many victims of abuse, soldiers, psychologist, psychiatrists and doctors who would love to know a magic cure!

Until next time. . .

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