I have thought long and hard about where to begin to tell my story. My experiences with foster care and trauma did not begin when we became foster parents. I myself, spent three and half years as a foster child. I entered the system as an emergency placement at the age of fifteen.
Concerned neighbors and parents of my friends had made phone calls after I would show up at their houses after school afraid to go home, or at three in the morning to call the police because domestic violence was erupting in my home. I had no idea as I was called to the guidance counselor’s office that a caseworker was waiting for me and this would be my final day living at home. I left with the clothes on my back and what few personal belongings I had in my locker. As the oldest of six I was strongly protective of my younger siblings. I was consumed with worry over what was happening to them and what they were going to do without me.
Emergency placement lasted a month while a caseworker sought a placement for a teenage girl-apparently no easy task. It was all like living in a fog to me. I was enrolled in a new school. I had to borrow clothes from another foster child living in the foster home. I was trying to understand the rules of this house with these people who were total strangers to me. I was completely shell-shocked. I couldn’t eat, sleep, concentrate- I was just a zombie, and ball of nervous energy.
My next stop was a girls’ home where I spent the next year and half. In one month’s time I was enrolled into my third high school. Initially I thought my mom would jump in and save the day. I was hoping this would be the THING that would open her eyes and say enough is enough. I wanted, desperately, for her to stand up for herself, and to be a mom and stand up for her kids. Silly me. Apparently life went on as if I never existed. My sister tells me that she was picked up from Girls Scouts the day I left and my mom simply announced, “Micci will no longer be living with us.” I did begin receiving angry, hate-filled letters from her. In them she blamed me for ruining our family and calling me a selfish liar. For three and half years that was the mantra I heard from her repeatedly. In court hearings she would try to assassinate my character. She would openly lie in court to protect the abuser.
In those years I learned to fortify myself- meaning I built high walls to not allow anyone to hurt me like that again. Even today I find that I have a difficult time maintaining relationships with people I love that I do not see everyday. I did find God at this time also, and as a result, I really began to pursue peace for myself. All of that longing for my mom to do the right thing eventually turned to anger and I spent years trying to rid myself of all kinds of ugly feelings. Most of my life had been fear-based-just trying to get through the day without setting off a firestorm. Now, I began to slowly find my voice. Previously I had been an average student. I had no energy to put forth serious effort. I was also seriously anorexic. I believe this had been my attempt to control something in my chaotic life. My weight was at a dangerous point that had to be monitored carefully for many months. As I adjusted to my new environment I began to acclimate and embrace this new life. Once fear was no longer the dominant driving force I could focus on making school a priority.
I did have support. My former youth leaders from my church became my family. They took all the foster parenting classes and attended all my therapies. They picked me up to spend weekends and holidays at their home. However, I had no idea how to process or manage my feelings about everything that had happened to me. What I can now recognize as trauma behaviors really inflicted a lot of damage to this relationship with people I really loved and appreciated. I was very much like Jekyl and Hyde. I would surprise myself with outrageous and irrational behaviors. I made no sense to myself and I am sure no sense to anyone on the outside , looking in. I watched the girls’ I lived with struggle in the same ways. Some had families to support them and that they would eventually return to. However, the ones who didn’t pushed all the limits, running away, fighting, or engaging in dangerous behaviors and ending up in juvenile detention centers.
I did my best to climb the “level system” of the home I lived in and eventually transitioned to an independent living home where I spent another year and half. I tried to be as “normal” as possible. I got my first job, went to prom- the regular teenage stuff. I found my niche’ in art classes and eventually won some scholarships to attend some classes through the Art Institute of Chicago. I graduated, made plans for college, aged out of the system, and became emancipated.
So, there is the highlight reel of my personal experiences of trauma. I share all of this because I am now parenting four children with trauma histories. I have this insight and this lived experience that I didn’t really ask for, but it is often very helpful in my parenting perspectives. This type of parenting is challenging and exhausting and we often second guess ourselves on whether we are doing enough, or if some other approach is better than ours. I often look at my children’s behaviors and think, “If you put this much energy and creativity into working with the family and not against us, how much better could this be?” Of course, when our children are “stuck” they are only in the primal parts of their brains. They are not reasonable or rational at all.
Once, as I was driving, I spotted some orphaned raccoons getting too close to the road. I pulled over, grabbed a box, and stepped in to move these helpless babies out of danger. As I approached, these “helpless babies” morphed into Tasmanian devils. They bared they’re teeth, made the most god-awful growling, guttural noises. They ran around me, backed up a tree ready to fight, and as I attempted to pick them up and place them in the box they peed on me. Anyone else driving by that day probably got quite the entertaining show!
Have you had similar experiences in parenting kids from hard places? My kids have put on public spectacles that have looked very similar to my story of the raccoons! What I do know is that trauma leaks out in ugly ways. Our children really have limited coping skills to fall back on in stressful moments. However, there is hope. Once a child begins to have “felt safety” they can begin to let go of those primitive defenses and become teachable to better means of self-regulation. It may seem it happens at a snails pace but you can grow “good humans” with decreasing “Tasmanian devil/raccoon” moments!
For more insight I recommend going to Empoweredtoconnect.org and reading “Caught between the Amygdala and a Hard Place” by Dr Karyn Purvis,Phd and David Cross,Phd