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Our household consists of two adults — a mother and step-father — and 3 children, all of whom are from my first marriage. Whenever a stepparent enters the equation, chemistry and relationships are sure to conflict, authority is compromised, and power wars commence. It’s been 7 years since my husband — a best friend from before my high school days — elected to move into my home and take on the role as stepfather. After weighing the extent of his love for me, my husband hung up his bachelorhood and stepped into the role of “father” with a 2-year-old, a 4-year-old, and a 5-year-old. The 2-year-old is now 8. The 4-year-old and only boy is now 11, and the 5-year-old who adopted the stepfather the fastest is now almost 13 years old.
We’ve made it work, but the challenges we faced were far from simple or easy. We thought we had it tough as we tried to mold our “broken” home into a working family. This May, my husband and I were hit with a new challenge when the truth of the mental health surfaced. My husband and I have been diagnosed with PTSD.
I will summarize my past and his. I was beaten, raped by a boyfriend, sexually tortured, subjected to animal abuse, and mentally imprisoned by a pedophile who publicly raped me for five years. I lived through all of this while my husband was beaten by his father, starved, tortured, imprisoned, denied medical care, sleep, food, and heat. His father also attempted to kill him more than a dozen times. In our twelfth year, we found each other and have clung desperately together ever since … save for the 10 years that we lost each other. Now, here we are playing parent. And, until recently, failing miserably.
My husband jumped to firm discipline while I was the gentle, soft one. I was left to cry alone for decades while my mother ignored my cries for help. Today, I can’t bear to hear my children cry — or any children for that matter. The formula is quite simple. Children cry. I comfort. Meanwhile, my husband would put down the law.
“Take out the trash,” my husband would say.
“But why?” my son replied.
“Because I told you to. Does it matter? Take out the trash!”
And there it was. I would jump in. “You don’t have to yell. Try talking to him.”
“I did. He didn’t listen.”
“You were forceful.”
“ONLY WHEN HE DIDN’T LISTEN.”
By then my son was already in his room, not taking out the trash … playing. That in itself was a whole other issue, but not the real issue. The real problem was the trigger the yelling had provoked in me. Instantly, I cowered. Fear drove me to attack then run. My husband would raise his voice, and I would hold my head, rock and shiver in a corner. My daughters would stand by and watch.
The next day I heard my husband give another chore to my children. I didn’t wait this time. I jumped in. Directing all the attention from my husband onto me … anything to avoid the yelling. This is parenting with fear. This is parenting with PTSD.
My husband would raise his voice, and I would hold my head, rock and shiver in a corner. My daughters would stand by and watch.
Around the fire one night, my husband asked a pointed question. “Judith proposed you may be comforting the children for the wrong reason.”
“Perhaps,” I said.
“She said you may not just be comforting the children to compensate for the comforting you didn’t get … She also proposed you may be looking to prevent their own sadness, much like you prevent sadness in you.”
I didn’t have to think about. “Oh yeah, definitely. Sadness is bad. I don’t want my kids to feel sad.”
And there it was.
Every emotion has been used against me. Love, jealousy, hurt, anger, sadness, guilt, fear. Even surprise. There isn’t a single emotion that exists, that someone hasn’t used against me at some point in my life. The lesson was simple: emotions are bad. They make you vulnerable. Shut them down. Don’t feel. Turn into stone. Become cold.
Here I was, years later, parenting 3 children … and doing everything in my power to prevent their sadness.
So what is sadness for? I wanted to know. I struggled with this part of Inside Out and fought an internal battle against the lesson.
“I wasn’t letting them feel sadness. I don’t want them to. I don’t want them to hurt,” I told my son’s therapist.
“Every parent feels this way,” she said. “But you have to let them hurt. You have to let them feel bad.”
“I know, but I don’t want to. I don’t know how … I don’t even know what sadness does.”
“Sadness allows us to feel bad. And children need to feel bad so they learn the lesson. Children need to feel bad that they hurt someone. Otherwise, they will do it again. Eventually, the child won’t care. They’ll sit there and say, ‘I don’t care what you do to me. Do whatever you want.’ And those are the children who scare me. Those are the children who have the makings of a killer, who go on to be criminals. Who end up being dangerous. Emotions make a person safe.”
I thought of my son. He often said those very words to me, ” I don’t care!” This was his go-to response when punished.
“Daniel does that.”
“Yeah … you have to let him feel. Let him feel sad for doing wrong.”
I nodded. I knew what I had to do.
This was only half the problem. Anytime there was a chance of an argument, I would jump in and stop the fight. Anything to avoid the trigger. Frustrated, I only jumped in and directed the argument on me. Anything to prevent the pain on my son. The result? I was literally preventing my son and my husband to resolve their own issues. I was preventing their relationship.
Love, jealousy, hurt, anger, sadness, guilt, fear. Even surprise. There isn’t a single emotion that exists, that someone hasn’t used against me at some point in my life.
Looking back, I saw the countless ways every week I parented with my PTSD. The fear ruled me, and directed every decision I made. I parented vicariously through my neglect. I’ve heard of parenting with guilt. This was so much worse. Parenting with fear. Parenting with compensation. Parenting with trauma.
Recognize it. Become aware. Separate the trauma and the triggers — the distorted reality caused by the PTSD — from the truth. Children can hurt. Children are safe. The war is over.
Angela B. Chrysler is a writer, logician, philosopher, and die-hard nerd who studies theology, historical linguistics, music composition, and medieval European history in New York with a dry sense of humor and an unusual sense of sarcasm. You can find more of her writing at www.angelabchrysler.com.
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