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I Didn’t Pack Their Bags

“I didn’t pack your bag.” I was looking at my son and these words echoed in my head. Yesterday he struggled. Yesterday I struggled. He kept reverting to a behavior that is absolutely maddening to me. A behavior that doesn’t make sense and I just cannot figure out why he keeps doing it. I also can’t get him to stop. As I stood looking at him with a face that probably reflected fatigue and frustration, it dawned on me. “I didn’t pack his bag.” My sweet and beautiful boy who sometimes has incredibly frustrating behaviors, has a bag of coping strategies that I didn’t pack. Every week, I teach others how children learn strategies to survive in early childhood. I explain that we all carry bags filled with strategies to understand and navigate the world. Children who have experienced trauma early on, have their bags packed with coping strategies. These strategies might not make sense outside the traumatic events. So we call these strategies “bad behavior”, even though they subconsciously make perfect sense to the survivor. Some of my children came with bags packed by someone else. I’d dare say the heavy bags were not so obvious when they were little. But as the years have rolled by, I often see them stumble daily under the weight of the load. It’s become more obvious as they get older and more is required. Who packed their bag? Because it wasn’t me, and yet I’m the one trying to fix the weight of the load. I’d like to unpack his bag, but I don’t know fully what I’m taking out. And that is the hardest part of trauma. How the heck do I unzip the hurt, pull it out and examine it in broad daylight, when my child doesn’t even have the words to explain what I’ve unloaded. My two youngest have bags packed with neglect and unpredictability. Through thousands of repetitions, they learned that the world was unpredictable, and adults could not be trusted to provide. Every time they cried, and no one responded, they packed “fear, you must care for yourself” Each time their body felt hungry, cold, scared, or hurt; my children packed the word “unworthy, affection is a means to an end” Every time a soiled diaper was ignored, a feeding time was skipped, or a bath was given without a smile or kind word; my children packed the strategy “this is unsafe, I must gain control” How do I demand to take and carry their bag, when they are clutching it for dear life? It literally screams survival to their brain. So, each day is spent trying to give words and emotions to the things in his bag. And there are the moments I fail. The times I get frustrated and angry. The times that the grief found in a packed bag feels pretty, damn heavy. But there are more and more moments when he lets me hold the bag. I know what a privilege this is; to be trusted with someone’s “survival”. I didn’t pack his bag, but I’ll spend my life trying to help carry the load.