What Attachment Trauma Taught Me About Racism
As I have watched my country literally burning before my eyes this past week, I have cried more times than I care to admit. The violation I have felt watching my city being kicked in the gut has been more than I can take.
We are not these people, those who inhabit my city. I’ve lived here my entire life and I know we are not looters, vandals, and rioters. It sits in the pit of my stomach and I can’t breathe, can’t process what is happening. My entire paradigm is shifting and I don’t like what I’m feeling.
I have a lot to say on this topic and as I’ve been driving across the country for a week, I have had a lot of time to pray and think through what I want to say. These words here, in this writing place, are mine. They are my experiences, my thoughts and the way I am trying to make sense of the world.
You do not have to listen to or follow anything I have to say, and some of this creating is self-serving, processing my thoughts and feelings for me to learn by. But these thoughts have been carefully constructed, not out of emotions, but out of love for my fellow white Americans, and specifically, Christians.
Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.
1 Corinthians 16:13-14
This verse is my heart here, this little corner on the web. I want to be courageous and strong, yet all in love. I pray that anyone reading this today will see this being lived out in me, especially since I have some challenging things to say.
There are a couple of disclaimers I would like to make first.
Disclaimer #1: I reject what happened to George Floyd. The police officer was wrong. Period. He should go to jail. However, I also agree with Candace Owens. She demands a higher standard for the black community, but sadly, most people will only hear her say that George Floyd is not a martyr and her other conservative viewpoints. They will stop thinking about it right there because it doesn’t match with their political agenda. They won’t hear her say she wants better for the black community. While I am not in the black community, I do have a black son. Do I want his role model to be George Floyd, who is a criminal, or Fredrick Douglas and Nelson Mandela? There are many better black role models for my son and daughter to look up to. I would never point to a white criminal and tell my white children that they are heroes, so why would I lower my standards for my black children? This is Candace Owens’ message. If you aren’ t hearing this from her, I challenge you in the same spirit that I am being challenged, to really listen to what she is saying.
Disclaimer #2: My love for this country is deep. It is embedded in my marriage and my parenting in ways I didn’t know possible. I have always loved my country, but when I had to send my husband off to fight so that I can have freedom, it takes on an entirely new meaning. I love the flag. To me, it represents freedom, liberty, the idea that I can do whatever I want, say whatever I want and not be put in jail for it. My husband almost gave his life for that flag and my children have suffered for it. I do not have the ability to have anything but love, respect, and a deep, abiding patriotism for the flag and this country. The American Experiment, even with all of its flaws, is the best this world has to offer. This is why I respect the police, but not without question. There are bad among all of us. My husband tells me stories weekly about bad soldiers. Does that mean the entire military is bad? No. I will also not throw good police, who also defend our rights daily, in the same group as bad police.
Attachment Trauma Explained
Adopting my children has been the single most defining thing I have ever done in my life. There is nothing else I have ever been asked to do that has come close to the difficulties that our adoption journey has been for me.
Not even deployments, deaths, or other hardships.
My children came to us at the ages of 5 and 8. They came broken, beaten, and scarred. They carried baggage that no child should have to carry, yet so many of them are. When I adopted my children, I walked into a world of developmental and attachment trauma, being plunged into the depths of a darkness that I didn’t know existed.
I am not exaggerating.
Please stay with me on this.
I won’t go into the entire scope of attachment trauma right now, but in a very small nutshell, when babies are neglected or abused, the damage it does to their growing brains is deep and all-encompassing. It is complex and we are just beginning to fully understand the infant and fetus brain and how it is built from conception.
One example of the complexities is when a baby is never picked up, their vestibular system is never engaged, therefore creating a domino effect of problems, lack of growth and other brain issues that cause these babies to grow into children who cannot function as we would want them to.
And that’s just if a baby is not picked up regularly.
Add in alcohol or drug exposure in utero, not being fed as infants, not being changed, no eye contact, rotating caregivers and straight-up abuse, and you have trauma upon trauma being hard-wired into that child’s brain that will take them a lifetime to overcome.
Our Adoption Journey
We invited these children to come live with us and be a part of our family. We did not understand trauma, we did not understand children’s mental health and we were ill-equipped to face what was coming our way. We were thrown into the deep end with no life jackets. Children with this type of trauma are not nice to be around.
They don’t know love.
They only care about survival.
And we can talk all day about the Why’s behind their behaviors, what trauma does to the brain, the causes and the way to parent these children, but there is another facet of this that I am going to focus on right now:
What it’s like to live with these children.
They steal, lie, destroy property, hurt you and your other children. They manipulate others so they can get their needs met, they have no problem finding your weakness and exploiting that for their own gain. They have no interest in love, unity or family.
Survival and their own safety is as far as they can go.
There is no such thing as looking out for others, putting yourself last, or giving grace to a family member. If you can be used, you will be used and then discarded once there is no more use for you. If these children are sexually reactive on top of all of this, things get much darker. This is the tip of the iceberg, only a smattering of behaviors to give you a picture.
This is the world we were thrown into with no warning, no knowledge, and no way of knowing what was to come for our family.
With No Understanding Comes Isolation
I was desperate for help, desperate for someone to sit with me in my pain and cry with me over the brokenness of my children, of our sinful world and of the situation we found ourselves in. I was faced with a mother I didn’t know was inside of me, as I was pushed and pushed to the brink of myself every single day.
I was scared of who I was becoming and I needed to say this out loud to a friend and have her tell me it was all going to be OK. That I wasn’t a terrible mother, that children with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) are just plain hard.
Sadly, I didn’t get this, except from the RAD community–other trauma mamas who meet online in Facebook groups and bear each other’s burdens because they get it. They know.
But they didn’t know me, the whole me, all of me like my real life friends and church family did. These people know my other children, minister to them, do life with us and see the whole picture of who we are. I was begging for my church family to walk this painful journey with me, but they were unable to.
People, in general, were unable to.
Even outside of my church, it was hard to find others to lean on. I remember many conversations with friends, telling them about our lives, desperate for understanding, for validation, for support and being met with,
“My kids lie, too.”
“My son pees outside, too.”
“My child stole something and I spanked them and they never did it again.”
And my favorite:
“Your kids just need more discipline, love, or ______.”
Every time these words are uttered, my husband and I are dismissed. Our feelings, our experiences, our life, our struggles are pushed aside.
I wanted to say,
No! It’s not the same! My son peeing outside is a direct effort to push me away. My daughter charming a teacher is a way to find a new mom (called parent shopping in trauma circles).
But after a while, I just stopped talking about it. It’s hard for people to wrap their minds around children who are violent or who purposefully hurt other people, children and animals. It’s too much to really be able to internalize and understand fully.
I get it. I may not have believed it, either.
But not believing it, doesn’t make it go away. I still have to live in my house with my unhealthy children, being pushed away by them with every single interaction. I still have to go to each teacher they have, with a pile of paperwork full of letters, statistics, printouts about RAD, lists of behaviors and rules they need to follow when they interact with my child.
And the rules are weird like, no hugging and don’t give them food, and don’t believe them if they tell you we abuse them. Yes, my son told this to a teacher and we ended up with CPS at our door, my husband’s military career in jeopardy and my biological children confused. It also showed my son how much power he had over us, which put us in even more danger.
My daughter also told a Sunday School teacher that I lock her in the closet for 10 hours a day. Thankfully, this teacher knew me and knew this wasn’t true and called my daughter on it. I have to be vigilant about this false reporting. It’s easier to just never let my children out of my sight, never go play at a friend’s house, never have a sleepover, than to deal with the looks, the awkward tension that happens when you start talking to your friends like this.
And when parents are pushed away and marginalized in this manner, it makes helping these children so much harder.
In fact, when my son started sexually acting out, we were shunned even more. Even if a friend can stick with you on extreme behaviors, once you add sex and children into the mix, it’s all over. When I told a friend at church about what our son did to our biological daughter, she literally put her hand up by her eyes, like a blinder, and walked away in mid-sentence. She was so shocked and appalled.
But she also couldn’t see my pain.
So I sat alone in it, a huge, black cloud of depression, all-consuming sadness and guilt that hovered over our house for months. It took the state 8 months to remove our son for the safety of our children and we were in crisis that entire time, as he continually tried to get to my daughter and his behavior spiraled out of control.
People knew, yet I never even got a casserole.
In a nutshell, we were generally unbelieved, nobody wanted to sit with me in the mess our lives had become and the system was against us when we reached out for help. But that didn’t mean we still weren’t suffering. That didn’t mean our experiences didn’t exist or that our pain wasn’t real.
And I tried to educate the masses.
I used to post endlessly on Facebook about RAD and attachment trauma. I would post our struggles, our fears. I would talk to my friends and try to get them to understand. But they couldn’t.
Instead, I was judged and pushed aside, while they got to go back to the privilege of their neurotypical families, with children adoring them, hugging them, and where bonding was flourishing.
They could ignore us because they didn’t have to face it.
Racism Found Us
My adopted children are also black. When we adopted them 7 years ago, I did not think racism existed in America. Sure, I’ve heard racial slurs from others, but just wrote them off as jerks. But living life with my black children, racism found us.
In subtle ways.
Kind of like how smoke leaves its source and hugs it’s tendrils around you in a soft, unassuming way.
The white, male friend who put his hands in my black 8 year old’s hair because he wanted to know what it felt like.
My daughter, at an all-white school, with other kindergartners surrounding her, wanting to feel her hair.
She would come home with crumbs in her hair, braids falling out, telling me she hated everyone touching her. I had to actually call her teacher to tell her to not allow it and taught my daughter to say, “My hair is not for touching.” At 6 yrs old, she was being taught to navigate her world in a different way than my white children.
More smoke, weaving its way through our lives.
My son is gifted at sports. All sports. As we were watching him one day, an extended family member said, “Of course he’s good, look at him, he’s black.”
Smokey racism clouding our judgment and our inability to see clearly the weight of our words.
My husband came home one day and told me of new Army regulations that came out telling black women what is acceptable with their hair. I understand the need for the military to tell all races how to wear their hair, however, they made every hairstyle that a black woman wears unacceptable. No cornrows, dreads, microlocs, puffs or twists. That is every single hairstyle a black woman can wear if they are wearing their hair naturally (not chemically straightened).
As a mom to a black daughter, hair is a very big issue for both of us and this racist policy was shocking to me. The Army did change it after a big uproar, but why did they pass it in the first place? I was hurt and deeply upset by this policy and my heart went out to all the black women in uniform who felt the oppression under this regulation.
White, Christian friends, I know it’s hard to understand these things. I think my generation, especially, has a very difficult time with racism. Gen Xer’s were raised in the shadow of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We were taught it, memorized it, almost worshipped it.
We were taught that “the content of their character, not the color of their skin” meant that we were supposed to be colorblind.
We were not supposed to mention race, color or culture.
We were not to see the color of anyone’s skin and were to get to know them and judge them accordingly.
And we did a great job of that.
We ignored everyone’s race and also their identity.
Now we hear about systemic racism and we can’t wrap our brains around it because it was pounded into us at every turn that if we stop seeing color then we wipe out racism. How can this exist? I don’t have all the answers. But I do know that sin is involved.
Racism Is Sin
Sin is in every person’s heart and racism is sin. If we have a relationship with Jesus, our sins are covered with His blood, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t actively sin. We still live in a world of sin and it groans with the pain of it all.
Racism is here, even if you want to turn away from it and not recognize it. Just like in my family, you could walk away from my experience, but that didn’t mean that we (and countless other families) weren’t living with the effects of childhood trauma.
The experiences I had with racism against my black children were real. I felt it deep in my soul and my children did, too.
My daughter had to stand there while an adult man put his fingers in her hair!
How did she feel?
What messages did that send to her?
Why are all the kids petting her like a dog at school and not each other?
Just because she’s black?
What marks does that put on her soul?
It is so hard for me, as a white person, to really be able to see through all the noise and realize what is happening. Just like my friends who aren’t raising RAD kids can’t see my pain, it’s difficult to understand how these little smoky tendrils wrap around your heart and grip tight. I needed a friend to sit with me, let me cry and at least attempt to understand. And I have had a few women really try to go to these deep, hard places with me. It’s refreshing for a moment to put your burdens on someone else and have them really be able to carry them.
The other day I was in a “blogging for Christian women” group and a black woman said, “I am tired of the burden of trying to get others to understand racism.” It instantly resonated with me. I felt her words in a way I have never been able to before.
Because I am also tired of trying to educate others about traumatized children.
It is wearisome.
When I see people post about being trauma-informed, or articles about how schools are trying to be trauma-informed, or giving tests on ACE’s to children, I get excited. Then I engage with them and realize they actually don’t understand what being trauma-informed means.
I am going to take this opportunity to say if you are in education, medicine or the legal field and you are recognizing the need to be trauma-informed, yet aren’t inviting RAD survivors or parents of RAD children to the table–and BELIEVING them–then you are missing the mark. You won’t be able to truly address the needs of these children and families until you listen to these families and what they actually need.
I also want this for my black children and I think this is what the black community wants–to be heard, to be believed, to be understood as best as you can.
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
We quote this verse all the time. Christians put this up and say, We do love all races, so racism doesn’t exist. And I know you do. I know you truly are trying to not see color because you think it’s what you’re supposed to do.
But what does love look like, really?
For me, love looked like the friend who heard me pour my heart out about my children and immediately worked her schedule to provide ongoing respite for me.
It looked like my son-in-law who said, “I admire what you and Doug are doing with your children. It must be so hard to live with these behaviors.”
Love looks like the pastor who sat with us in the heartbreak of our son’s sexual assault on our daughter and provided another voice of someone who had walked in our shoes to walk with us in this pain.
Or the mom who offered to take my neurotypical child every Friday to our local homeschool coop to give her a break and the chance to make friends.
In all of these instances, love was walking with us, believing us, seeing us, grieving with us, and sharing the burdens and the mess with us.
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (emphasis mine)
Why can’t we do this for our black brothers and sisters who are screaming about their experiences?
Why can’t we have that same love to sit with them and LISTEN and really try to understand?
Where is the love that walks next to them when they talk about their experiences with racism, that cries with them, holds their hands and blows the black smoke of racism away?
That, my friends, is love. Walking through all of the storms with others, getting into the mess with them and getting messy in the process. You will get messy.
A New Way to Live Gospel Love
Racism is messy, it is ugly, and yes, we all have the ability to sin in this way, just as we have the ability to sin in any other way. And we recognize that and put up boundaries to protect ourselves from sin.
We are careful on the computer so we don’t do the porn sin.
We are careful to self-care so we don’t do the yell-at-our-kids sin.
We put boundaries around our marriage so we don’t do the affair sin.
But are we even aware of the racism sin?
I challenge you to look at this in this way. It’s a paradigm shift, a whole new way of thinking, because we didn’t know we needed to even think of it. But we do and we can’t begin to support our black brothers and sisters until we are aware. We can’t hear their pain or their cries for help until we are aware. Until a few brave friends shifted their thinking and became aware of our lives, we couldn’t be supported in our pain or in our cries for help, either.
And it started with the realization.
I beg of you, my white Christian friends, to sit in this uncomfortable space. To realize what the black community is trying to tell us. Listen to them with your heart. Try to connect and not project your thoughts and be ready for the ground to shift underneath you.
This is Gospel love: dying to yourself, your preconceived notions, your political agenda, what you were taught in the past. Because Jesus died to Himself, putting all of these same things on the cross that were about you.
This is sharing the burdens with your fellow humans.
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. (emphasis mine)
We will all see Jesus through you if you try to walk on another’s path. I saw Jesus in the people trying to walk on our RAD path. Our black brothers and sisters, and me on behalf of my children, are asking you to just listen, through the noise, through the shouting from both sides.
It is time.
Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
1 John 3:18