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Listening Through the Tantrum

I was a foster child. At seven-years-old, I was removed very suddenly from my birth family and placed in the home of a perfect stranger. Although my two sisters were placed in foster care as well, only one of them was placed in the same home as me. So, at seven-years-old, I had been ripped from my mom, my brothers, and two of my sisters. But as if that wasn’t enough trauma, that was only adding to the baggage I had already collected in the seven years I spent with my birth family.

I had been severely neglected, physically abused, witnessed drug use and alcohol abuse, exposed to sexual situations at too young of an age, malnourished, and had two siblings and a niece die as infants. My mother had a revolving door of male companions and I had no idea what functionality looked like. So, when I was placed in foster care (and then a month later placed in the home which would ultimately become my adoptive home), I was already loaded to the brim with childhood trauma—and I didn’t know how to handle it… after all, who is really designed to handle that kind of trauma? No one.

But being adopted was not all cupcakes and rainbows—in fact, it was quite the opposite. I had experienced things my adoptive family had never even thought of before. No one in my adoptive family had ever been cornered and strangled. No one in my adoptive family had ever been afraid to wake up and find a dead baby in the room. No one in my adoptive family had been on the receiving end of a drug rage—but I had. And even the littlest similarity to any of those situations would trigger a rage with me—a rage created out of fear and adrenaline.

As I grew, the “freak-outs” or tantrums grew as well. Even in the midst of them, I knew I was over-reacting most of the time, but my emotional pain was so strong I could not help but react the way I did. Actually, one time I had been startled out of a dead sleep on a family vacation by my adoptive aunts who were highly intoxicated—they were having fun but just being very loud. Unfortunately for them, I had experienced too many times as a little girl being startled awake by drunk people and hurt by them. When my aunts woke me up and didn’t quiet down to give me a chance to calm down, I escalated and ended up kind of ruining the whole vacation with a melt-down.

But the worst part for me (at the time) was the fact that, instead of taking the time to understand why I had reacted the way I did, I was automatically the bad guy (not to say they were actually the bad guys) because I over-reacted. They made excuses as to why they were allowed to get drunk and be noisy and why I was essentially made to feel that I was not allowed to feel the way I felt. But my trauma had been triggered—and the sad thing was, from that day on, I never really felt safe around my extended family. I loved them to death, but I felt that their love for me was conditional based on my accepting the fact that they could trigger my trauma, but I was not allowed to react to it.

***

Recently, another kind of trauma has been triggered—not my own trauma, but rather a whole race’s trauma. The recent deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd (just to name a few) have triggered the trauma that the majority of the Black-American community have dealt with the majority of their lives. Breonna Taylor, a black woman minding her business in her own home, was shot and killed by police who had gone into her home by mistake and made the assumption that she was a threat and shot first to ask questions later. Ahmaud Arbery was jogging and two white men saw a black man, assumed he was a burglar, and shot and killed the innocent man. And George Floyd, a man who was suspected of forgery, was slowly asphyxiated, by a police officer who, despite hearing Floyd repeat multiple times that he couldn’t breathe, refused to even reposition himself to fix that problem.

As I listened to our brothers and sisters in the black community, I have heard the same story over and over—people automatically assume the worst about them. White parents will often pull their kids closer to themselves if a black person is standing near them. People automatically assume that they are on drugs or are a thief. They are taught from a young age to be excessively nice to police officers because if they even remotely have an attitude, a traffic stop can become dangerous for them very fast. What happened with Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd awoke the trauma from their very real fear that it could have just had easily been one of them. And that is no okay.

So, while some of the black community were able to put aside their trauma-induced reactions and think with a clear head and protest peacefully, there are also some, who like me, escalated—because awakening trauma can induce that kind of reaction (just ask any soldier with PTSD what fireworks can do to them). And it does not and should not negate or dismantle their argument—Instead, what it should do is remind us that we need to listen. Because our love for those in the black community should not be based on their acceptance of our indifference to their thoughts and feelings.

If we really believe that all lives matter, then we must also believe that black lives matter—and we must be willing to listen to those who are crying that black lives matter. Because they have experienced trauma and they need to us seek to understand instead of dismissing their plight.

When I would have my trauma “tantrums,” they would escalate until I either felt heard or I tired out. Often it was when I tired out—but when I got married (and yes they continued until well after I got married), and I felt heard for the first time, that was when I finally felt like healing was taking place. When my husband actually sought to understand why I reacted the way I did, sought to know my triggers, sought to know how to not trigger my trauma, I felt genuine love for the very first time.

That is what we must do for members of the black community. We need to seek to understand why they were triggered to react the way they are. We must seek to know what it is that triggers them. We must seek to know how to not be the cause of what triggers their trauma. We must listen without attempting to excuse, diminish, or dismiss their pain.

Because, whether a specific instance was race-driven or not, the traumatic trigger was still activated, and the response will be according to that trigger. That is not to excuse the excessive response, but the excessiveness of that response does not change the fact that the trigger was activated and the pain is real. Trauma affects everyone differently, but we cannot be surprised that there is mass outrage when it is a whole race that has shared in this racial trauma for their entire lives. But when a few people react in excess, we still need to take the time to listen. And if we are to properly love our neighbors, we need to love them enough to desire healing for them—and that means taking the time to shut up, listen, and learn how to help them instead of excuse ourselves from blame.


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