Trigger warning: self-harm, childhood trauma, and abuse.
I sat upstairs with my three-year old daughter June after an exhaustingly long day together. We were spread out on the hallway floor like two bruised war vets, and we were both crying for very different reasons. June was desperate for me to do bedtime with her, and I was desperate for a serious mom break after being pregnant with her little brother for nine long-ass months.
As we both sat there in true “hot mess” fashion, June’s nails dug in way too hard and I struggled to remain calm about the ironclad grip she had on my leg.
I can’t blame the poor kid for her reaction. I was super effing pregnant, and she was going through a lot of mixed feelings last year about our family’s upcoming arrival. I also had to unexpectedly fly solo across the country a few days prior to say goodbye to a family member who had recently passed away. My stress levels, pregnancy hormones, and fatigue were through the roof as I returned from my trip, and I’m sure my kiddo’s neediness was her way of responding to it all.
As we sat there, June’s cries turned to all out screams. The louder she yelled, the more my nervous system reached a boiling point. I abruptly pulled her off of my leg, roughly handed her to my husband, and sprinted down a flight of stairs to our bathroom. With the lights off and the door locked, I tearfully sank down to the floor, had a gnarly panic attack, and did something I feel ashamed admitting to the world.
I began hitting and punching my head as hard as I possibly could, until a feeling of relief washed over me.
I wish I could say this was the first time I’d ever hurt myself in this way, but the truth is that I’ve been secretly engaging in self-harm for almost two decades.
In the moments before I ran away from my daughter, I wanted so badly to share with her why I was feeling broken down. I wanted her to know that my emotional reaction had very little to do with her and so much to do with a traumatic past she knows nothing about. I wanted to assure her that I’ve been tirelessly working to heal and recover from that past, but that relapses still occur when I least expect them.
But to share all of this would require a conversation that neither of us are ready to have.
How do you begin to explain to a three-year-old that during her mom’s most vulnerable moments, she becomes triggered from complex childhood trauma?
How do you tell your little girl that when her own mother was a little girl, she was physically, verbally, and sexually abused?
And how do you help your toddler understand that her mama is one of eight million people in the United States who experiences ongoing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
The truth is, I’ve been forcibly hitting my head in moments of extreme distress since I was a teenager. While I’ve been consciously working to stop hurting myself for a handful of years, the birth of my daughter reignited the urge to harm in a way I never expected. Since her first birthday, I’ve also begun experiencing crippling panic attacks and hour-long muscle twitching that leaves me feeling scared as fuck and confused. The sweeping episodes of terror seem as if they come out of nowhere, which make dealing with them that much harder.
After a particularly challenging week of mom life, I started working with a counselor who specializes in trauma and postpartum issues. I credit that decision with finally helping me come to terms with why I’ve been punishing myself for so long.
It’s been almost two years of concentrated focus on my mental health recovery, and I’m proud to say that my daily victories far outweigh my losses. Whereas before, I used to regularly self-harm and struggle in complete silence, I now reach out to trusted loved ones and get the support I need to face each relapse. I’ve also relocated temporarily to be closer to my husband’s family, am working with a therapist on how to cope with ongoing triggers, and have a crisis hotline on speed dial. This month, I’ve also set myself up with a psychiatrist to explore medication for my growing PTSD symptoms.
I’m doing the hard work of recovering from trauma, and I’m super fucking proud of myself.
But no matter how proud or relieved or comforted I may feel, I am still so humbled by an unavoidable truth I’ve discovered in the past year about the road to healing.
The thing is, you can work tirelessly to help yourself and do all the right things, and yet progress is so annoyingly nonlinear. You can take five big, juicy steps forward, and then one moment can easily knock you ten steps back. Despite my best efforts, I still grapple with the painful memories of my youth. I still feel so triggered at tough points in my week and forget to always choose the high road in dealing with them.
Although I know for sure I can commit to improving my mental wellbeing as a parent, I cannot promise myself that my self-harming days are totally over. Because I know now that they aren’t.
Accepting this reality has forced me to cultivate a surprising amount of courage and self-compassion. I grew up constantly feeling the need to control my environment and seek perfection, as a method of keeping violent discipline or harsh words at bay. Breaking down those walls and embracing my imperfections have helped me cope with the times when my trauma tells me I’m failing my family and myself.
In choosing to face my past traumas head on and allow for whatever emotions they bring up, I’m also learning how to become a more patient and forgiving parent. The authenticity I’m embracing in myself has led to a relationship where my daughter feels entirely seen and heard, no matter how challenging her feelings may be. Since I’ve chosen to be undeniably human with my child, she feels safe enough to be undeniably human with me.
And now that I’m the mom to a three-year old daughter and a 10-month old son, I will fiercely hold onto this truth any time I forget how far I’ve truly come.