Back when I used to be interested in politics the phrase "controlling the conversation" was often on my tongue and ringing in my ears. After all, you can't let the enemy (As if our neighbors and fellow countrymen were our enemies!) control the conversation. If you let them use their terminology and their vocabulary they are in control and have an edge in the debate.
It's true. And today I'm using the concept in a much more beneficial way. Our adopted son was recently diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). This means that a close relationship with his caregivers is terrifying and he deeply struggles to have a healthy, meaningful relationship with anyone.
Whenever he and I have a moment of connection, or he enjoys a conversation with another adult, it is always followed by a severe backlash of rage. Grief, anger and fear pour out of his little body in ways that no one should ever have to experience - let alone a small child. Some days I feel like we are making great strides, and other days I am not sure if there has been any progress at all.
RAD is a disorder caused when an infant or young child does not have their needs consistently and lovingly met. They become fearful of the world, and believe they must remain in control at all times in order to survive. This isn't a rational, higher brain thought, it is a subconscious worldview. And what is love? Is it not a falling, a space where we make ourselves vulnerable to another human being, a relinquishing of ourselves for the sake of another? Love is the opposite of control. And so our children with RAD fight against it as if their life depended on it.
I have had varying levels of knowledge about attachment disorders and what his behaviors meant throughout the years. But it wasn't until just this morning that I had an epiphany about the conversation our family developed around this phenomenon. We would always say that our child has "good days" and "bad days". The bad days heavily outweigh the good ones. They can come at any time, for no reason, but they also always follow good days. One good day, on average, leads to about three bad days. And with this knowledge, even the good days stopped being good. Because we knew exactly what was coming next.
What does a good day look like? He's compliant, happy, helpful, compassionate, thoughtful. Not only that but he has better motor control and brain function; he can learn more and be more independent. There is an undoubtedly physiological piece to this. It's not just being in a better mood - he's a totally different person.
What does a bad day look like? He can't walk properly or dress himself. He loses muscle control and his threshold for frustration is precariously low. The rages come. Suddenly, the child who was saying "I love you" yesterday is now expressing in very graphic detail how he is going to kill me while attempting to destroy everything in sight.
I don't like talking about this. I have never blogged details about our child's rages and behaviors. But you know what? That's my own prejudice at work. Because I've labeled his behavior "bad" all these years, even though I know he's the victim, even though I know it's not his fault, my behavior mimics my language. I'm not in control of the conversation. I hide his struggle, not because I think it will benefit him, but because deep down I'm not comfortable with releasing him from its shame.
Today I decided to take back control of the conversation. My son doesn't have good days and bad days. My son has growing days and healing days. He has days where his mind and heart are able to learn and grow and thrive; where he can do hard things like reading lessons and walking properly; where he can do risky things like accepting a hug, meeting someone new or enjoying a fun treat. And then he has days where he just needs time and space to heal and process all of the trauma he endured in his early childhood. He needs time to rest and to be listened to. He needs lower expectations and someone who will not leave him alone in his darkest battles.
Is it really that his life has to be good or bad.... and mostly bad? Is it really that our family's life needs to revolve around good or bad? Does my vocation as a mother need to be framed this way? As we finish up a wonderful day here, where Jacob learned a lot of new words, had delicious hot chocolate on a pretty snowy day, helped clean the living room and accepted reassuring hugs in his hard moments... I caught myself preparing for the "bad" days ahead.
And I realized that I didn't want to do that anymore. I can't live like that, where every small step forward is three steps backward. It isn't backward. And it isn't bad. Instead, I'm going to prepare for a few healing days. Today was a lot of work, good and meaningful and precious work. I loved every second of it. And tomorrow will probably be a different kind of work, a time to rest and heal, a time to listen and adjust. A time to process what all of this growth and hard work means.
I can live with that. I can thrive with the understanding that after we do some growing we need some time to rest. I don't have to brace myself against the wave of grief that is coming. I can dive into it, embrace it as necessary and even good. I can live in joy, recognizing that the grief is just as important to the healing process as the love. They aren't diametrically opposed. They work together in harmony.
And this isn't just for children who have experienced trauma. This goes for all of us. We all have bad days. Or do we? Perhaps those days are just as good and just as important as any other days. Maybe we should show all of our bad days some more love and grace and try to approach them with a little less dread and contempt. Maybe we can begin to release ourselves and one another from the shame of needing space and time to rest and process the hard things in our lives.
I'm starting today.
I'm going to control the conversation... not the journey.