When someone experiences a trauma, it is never long before they hear “Everything happens for a reason.” I hate that saying, and I know from experience that hearing that in the midst of a painful time is like an extra slap to the face. Everything does NOT happen for a reason. Sometimes life is just shit. Saying that, there is no doubt that trauma sets things in motion that we may one day be grateful for.
So much of my life still revolves around the day that my birth mother, Penny, walked away. Its been so long that I have now been without her for twice as long as she was with me. With no effort at all, though, I am able to return to that day. I can turn the details over and over again in my mind. With the benefit of time I can see exactly when the coping mechanisms that got me through that day wedged themselves into permanent personality traits. For better or worse, a lot of who I am today was born on that day.
As an example, after spending what felt like hours in a small office at my school reading the letter that she had left behind and waiting for someone from social services to come and tell me what would happen next I found that I couldn’t sit alone with my thoughts anymore. I realized it was the last period of the day and therefore time for my favourite class. I asked to go, and was granted permission.
The class was Peer Mediation. We were a small group who met to learn how to help mediate the myriad of conflicts that abound in junior high. It was the only class I made an effort to attend. I liked the teacher. I liked my classmates. I was alone, but I wanted to be alone with people. When I walked into the room the silence that met me let me know that they might not know the details, but that they knew my life had changed. I moved to my desk and looked around at the circle of faces staring back at me. I felt like they were all expecting me to tell them what had happened. I wiped a tear from my face, and opened my mouth. Then, I looked at my friend Robin who wore a striped pastel t-shirt and announced that she looked like an Easter egg. The laughter that met me was like a stone that had been thrown into a still body of water. The ripples of it spread through my body and allowed me to relax into the moment. I will absolutely still make a joke when things are fraught now. I like to think that my repertoire has evolved beyond Easter themed giggles, but I’ll use what I have. It makes people uncomfortable sometimes. It has caused issues with people who think that my jokes mean I’m not taking something seriously. Its not true. I joke because I need that ripple.
I also will seek out people when I am feeling lost. But, like that day in the classroom, once I broke the ice I didn’t say anything else. I let myself fade into the background. I find it comforting to be able to watch others during the times that I feel most alone. It usually feels like much too much effort to actually converse and make myself part of the scene I am watching so I prefer to be around strangers when I need to process something. There is no better place to be alone than in a room full of people.
Of course, Penny’s abandonment also has its effects on how I parent. I didn’t have the fantasy that having children would somehow turn me into Mary Poppins. Because of her, I understood that I would be carrying all of the baggage of my past along with my babies. I understood that if I wanted to break the cycle of abuse and neglect that it would take work. I mean, Mary Poppins could only manage perfection for a few weeks at a time and then she’d disappear as quickly as she came. I want to be in my children’s lives for the rest of mine. Before she left, it never occurred to me that a mother COULD abandon her children. Truly. It feels dumb now to say it but back then it is like my brain turned off every time that I thought “My mom left me.” Dads leave. Moms don’t. Ever. Eventually, I realized that Penny had decided to leave, but for years before that she decided over and over again to stay. I also learned that when she left me, she didn’t leave because of me. Time gave me the ability to see the downward spiral that had begun years before. Parenthood doesn’t come with an invincible spirit. Giving up is a very human reaction to difficult times. I can’t imagine leaving my babies but I do not have the luxury of assuming that I could never find myself in that place. I know that it happens, and I know that I have a duty to my family to make sure I never get there. I will never apologize for self care because I know that when I take time to recharge that what I am really doing is making the decision to stay.
The day Penny left was the worst day of my life. Then, the path that she sent me down led me to my life’s biggest blessing: my Family. My parents opened their home to me and my younger brothers, my boys. I was this angry, broken, shell of a person but I still love my brothers with my whole heart and by adopting us together they gave me a chance to find a bit of happiness. Then, they helped me to find a bit of trust. Eventually, they taught me to believe that not everyone will leave me. My mom provided a new model for parenting and gave me an ideal to strive for in adulthood.
I still wouldn’t go back to 7th grade Hayley, trying to come to terms with the unimaginable, and try to tell her that everything happens for a reason. I would tell her, though, that there is no shame in being forged by the fire of trauma, and that we are capable of remarkable healing.