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Hold Space

I’ll never forget how quickly things spun out of control. One minute we were just sitting in the office waiting. The next, she was spinning out of control, running through the office screaming and heading straight for the parking lot. By the time I reached her, she was barely hanging on to her senses, gripping the handrail and trying to hold herself back from running through traffic. Somehow, I managed to get her into the car and waited as the cortisol which had flooded her body subsided and the breath and sense came back to her body. Even after the immediate threat was over, it took hours for her body to fully come back to a relaxed state. After that, the shear mention of the trigger would bring on a milder, but similar response.

The scene I’ve described here is what my daughter and I experienced around her 10th birthday when she was required to get some immunizations. Looking back, there were signs that this fear was getting out of control. Her very first doctor’s visit was a disaster. She was adopted and had passed all medical requirements and was immunized. The doctors cautioned us that we did not need to double immunize when we returned to the United States. They had used US immunizations and followed protocol. But the first doctor I saw had a different view. She had a sheet of paper that said all foreign adoptions needed to be reimmunized. Although I had been told how healthy my daughter was, she immediately began making assumptions of her health based on the paper she held, not by what she saw. Then she came in with needles. I was terrified. I wanted to follow the rules, but I knew they were wrong. I refused the immunizations and ran out of the office crying. After doing more research, I found a doctor who was willing to listen to my story, translate my daughter’s medical records and take blood work to determine some baseline data. But the negative experiences with shots continued. Each time she resisted more and more and we were required to use more force to restrain her. She would scream in terror, lash out at anyone close to her and at one point even broke a needle because she had tensed her muscles so tightly. Finally, when she was in fifth grade and we did some psychological testing for her dyslexia, it was uncovered that her fear of shots could be classified as a phobia. As the psychologist explained it to me, the fear she has completely overrides any logic or sense of control. Her response is purely emotional, physical and beyond her control. Since that diagnosis, she participated in a year of intense therapy at the University of Minnesota. She was able to inject herself with a needle, but when it came time to get a shot at the doctor’s office, they refused to follow any of her suggestions or protocols, restrained her and after well over an hour in the doctor’s office, we were back to a full- scale phobia reaction.

My heart sank when she came to me a few weeks ago, tears streaming down her face and in obvious distress. I couldn’t imagine what was wrong. She had gotten a notice from school that she needed a shot. Just the e-mail alone was now enough to begin the panic. But I have learned a thing or two since our early experience. My former school district and some very special students have taught me a thing or two about trauma. Trauma impacts the way we react to situations. The fear, flight response is incredibly strong. For people who have experienced trauma, these reactions are in overload. Not only are the reactions usually larger than they would be for most of the population, it can sometimes result from a seemingly low-level threat, like an e-mail. I saw this time and time again in my students. A comment or even a look might easily erupt into a fight or a student running from the room. There’s a lot to learn about trauma, and I’m no expert, but one thing I have found to work is to create space. Often our immediate response is to control the situation or behavior. Hold a child down to get a shot, discipline a student for acting out or failing to complete work. Rarely do these responses solve the situation and often result in escalating behaviors. Giving space means remaining calm, listening with empathy, allowing the child time and space to process. It is not a free ticket for explosive behavior. Later in a calm state, the child is made aware of the boundaries and works on developing plans for restitution. In a classroom this may mean cleaning up a mess, apologizing and working on friendships and sometimes even loss of privileges. For my daughter, this meant continuing to work through therapy and a plan.

Heavy with the thought of going through getting immunizations, especially with all the COVID restrictions in place, I started by giving it space. I allowed my daughter to talk about what she was afraid of without dismissing or correcting her fears. I took those concerns and talked with a psychologist friend for advice. She too gave me space and took the time to hear me and offer support. She validated my concerns and gave me the confidence to approach the doctor. My initial conversation with the receptionist did not go well. She had a protocol and rules to follow. I knew they weren’t going to work. I knew we needed more or perhaps different supports. Fortunately, when the doctor called she held space for me and my daughter. She heard our concerns and helped us match our protocol with theirs.

As we sat in the parking lot waiting to be admitted to the office, I felt my heart beat increase and panic rising in my throat. My nerves were already shot with everything going on in the world and I wasn’t sure I could be strong and calm. I wasn’t sure what I would do if she lost control. I’d been praying and praying but just couldn’t feel God’s presence. As, I sat waiting for the receptionist to check my insurance, music started playing. I had no idea where it was coming from. I wasn’t on hold. I kept hearing the words, “Here I am.” As I hung up, I realized my phones had started to play, but it wasn’t a song on my usual playlist. A sense of calm washed over me. We walked in and without restraints, my daughter got her immunizations and walked out calmly.

My heart has been very troubled the last few weeks. Much of my heart still belongs to Minnesota where I raised my kids. I am devastated by what has happened to George Floyd and the destruction that has ensued. I’m fearful that in a world where my son’s skin color is different than mine, he might not be safe. I’m horrified by the evil and those who use any opening to create fear and destruction. I’m not sure what I feel, what to do next or where I stand. But I do know trauma. Trauma leaves a path of destruction in its wake. It may not be right. But often the situations leading up to it are not right either. I’ve seen it first-hand. I’ve seen my calm, beautiful daughter turn into a monster when confronted with her biggest fear. I’ve seen my students run out of the classroom or thrash out with fists. I know there are people with stories much different than mine who have had experiences I cannot begin to understand. I do not hold the same fears. I do not understand them. I may not agree with the reaction. I may be angry and confused too. But I can also hold space. Holding space doesn’t mean I agree with everything or that the reaction hasn’t caused any damage. It just means I can give it enough space so we can get to a better place. A place where we can bring our best rather than our worst selves. We can change the protocols and rules which are not working. There is healing power in our ability to hold space and to fill that space with prayer.

To all the children I have loved and have let me hold space for you to hurt and heal, this is for you.  You are loved.  Everything is fixable.  I am praying for all of us.  Thank you, Anthony Evans for these words… Here I Am 

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