Recently, I completed a difficult summer-long work assignment in California, where I served as a Teaching Counselor for middle and high school age girls. I stepped in to fulfill the role after multiple people quit due to workplace difficulties. The experience was a rollercoaster ride, where I found myself working fourteen-hour days, laughing one minute and crying the next. But, I survived the ordeal, made some lifelong friends, and bonded with an amazing group of girls.
I decided to commemorate my experience by treating myself to something nice. Since becoming a mom, my idea of “treating myself to something nice” usually consists of buying a new graphic T-shirt from Target or ordering junk food late at night from UberEats so that I don’t have to share (I know, I’m horrible). I decided to order two custom gold rings from Bijoux by Danielle Holmes, one reading Safe, and the other reading Free, representing my newly-found autonomy, liberation from abuse, and healing.
Sunday afternoon, I needed to do some housework, including taking out heavy trash and handling bleach. I did not want to risk losing or damaging my rings, so I took them off and carefully placed them on my work desk in the living room. My work desk in the living room is the one place in my apartment that my son is forbidden to touch. He cannot use the computer, sit in the chair, or touch any of the important things on my desk. This has been a rule since he turned two, when I began to place emphasis on teaching him about consent and boundaries. After sitting my rings on my work desk, I proceeded to take out the trash and tidy up our apartment. When I completed my tasks, I went to the kitchen sink to wash my hands, then walked over to the sink to grab my rings to place back onto my fingers. However, when I went to my desk, I noticed that my Free ring was still on my desk, but my Safe ring was missing, along with other things on my desk.
My chest began to tighten, my heart began to race, and my palms began to sweat. I turned my head to see my son innocently playing with his toy cars on the floor in the living room, unaware that I was upset. I quickly called him over to my desk and asked him if he had removed my items. “Oops! I’m sorry, Mommy,” he stated. I asked him to look around his play area and recover the items that he removed from my desk; he found all of the items except for my “Safe” ring. Once again, I felt my chest tighten, my heart race, and my palms get sweaty. I knew what was about to happen, so I quickly made a decision to take a few moments to myself and communicate this to my son.
“Hey Jimi, Mommy is not feeling very well, so I am going to go to the bathroom for a few minutes. I need you to go to your Quiet Corner and read a book for a few minutes. Is that okay?” “Sure,” my son replied. Quiet Corners are well-stocked spaces in my apartment that are meant for reflection and recharging. In no way are Quiet Corners punitive, so my son was happy to retreat to his Quiet Corner for a few minutes of serenity.
After ensuring that my son was in his quiet corner, I raced to the bathroom and locked the door. Before I could do anything else, I felt my knees buckle and I slid down the wall, silencing my deep, choky cries with a hand over my mouth. Throughout my panic attack, my head was full of shaming thoughts: “What is wrong with you? Get yourself in order! You’re so weak! What kind of mother are you, crying over this nonsense! Suck it up!”
After ten minutes or so, my panic attack began to subside. My chest loosened up, my heart rate began to slow down, and my palms stopped sweating. Once my head began to clear, I thought of the ‘STOP Skill” that my therapist encourages me to use, where you take a step back and assess your emotions and the cause of them. Using the “STOP Skill,” I asked myself, “Why am I having this reaction? Am I just cranky today? Is it the lost ring that is truly upsetting me?”
I concluded that my reactions were due to me being triggered and having flashbacks of being in abusive situations. Having things that I valued being taken away from me, hidden, or destroyed out of anger was a common narrative in my abusive relationship. When I noticed that my ring was missing, it took me back to a place of being vulnerable, mistreated, and unsafe.
Having calmed down, and with a better sense of what caused my meltdown, I washed my face, took a few deep breaths, and headed to my son’s quiet corner to have a conversation with him. During our conversation, I gently expressed to him that his actions upset me, and we had an in-depth conversation about boundaries. My son was very receptive to my message and offered to go on a treasure hunt to “Find me gold.” I walked away from the conversation feeling relieved and confident that my approach was the right approach for my son and myself.
No one told me that navigating motherhood as a survivor of physical and emotional abuse would be so difficult; unfortunately, there is no handbook for effectively juggling your traumas and mothering through the hard times. The most difficult thing I have ever done is to mother a child while healing from trauma and not perpetuating violence out of anger and anxiety towards my son. I strive to minimize the harm that I cause and to provide my son with the emotional and physical safety that I was hardly ever afforded throughout childhood and my adult life. Everyday as a healing mother is a learning experience, and the case of the gold ring has been my greatest one yet.