Thursday, June 21, 2018

When you're 4 and separated from your mom, here's what happens.

'To pretend that separated children do not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain, and trauma." - American Academy of Pediatrics, in response to the border crisis 

What's happening at the border is not political; it's humanitarian. It doesn't matter what side you're on. It's inhumane, and it's a scourge on this country -- one from which portions of our population won't heal for a long time, if ever. 

What's happening at the border is also sure as heck not about me. But as a small child, I experienced profound loss. And maybe my experiences can help others understand what happens to the psyche of a little child who is separated from a parent.

I lost my mom to a particularly brutal cancer when I was 4. She had been sick for two years, but her disappearance from my life was sudden.

Unlike the traumatized children on the border, I had the benefit of a loving support system of adults who did everything in their power to make sure I'd be OK. Also unlike the detained children, I benefited from my socioeconomic status, and from the fact that I did not have brown or black skin.

Still, given my privilege, the loss affected me in ways I wouldn't understand till much later. The effects, though, were immediate. I remember profound anxiety, which, in a little child, is manifested differently from the way it's exhibited in an older child or an adult.

I was afraid to go to bed. Some well-meaning adult -- I don't recall whom -- had said something about my mom having gone to sleep, so bedtime became a frightening time for me; would I not wake up? I remember feeling real terror as my eyelids would droop, and I'd fight hard to stay awake; I'd make myself get up and walk around my room, or simply stand and hold onto my headboard until I couldn't help but fall back into bed.

The constant checking -- later identified as a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder -- also started around that time. In what a therapist later identified as a small child's need to try to control her environment, I started a series of bedtime rituals, some of which continue to this day. My shoes had to be lined up perfectly -- facing straight ahead, each shoe an equal distance from the one next to it. I had to open and close my dresser drawers a certain number of times (always an odd number, never even). Same with my closet door -- open, closed. Open, closed. Over and over and over.  The lamp next to my bed: on, off. On, off. I don't remember what signaled to me that it was OK to stop and get into bed, but if one of the adults in my life intervened before I finished, I had to get back up after he or she had left the room and start over again. The emotional exhaustion wrought by putting oneself through those kinds of rituals can't be overestimated.

My sister, Teresa, an adult by that time, had become my mother figure after our loss, and my emotional difficulties were hardest on her. I would not let her out of my sight during waking hours. Our neighbors, having taken pity on this messed-up little girl, would send their kids over to invite me to play. Teresa would open the door and urge me to go outside, and I'd cower behind her and cry. I'd agree to go only if she agreed to go with me, so she'd stand next to the sandbox or swing set, no doubt wondering what in the world she could do to help me. (She finally found help in the form of the nuns at the St. Joseph's Academy preschool, who agreed to make a spot for me in their full program in order to give her a needed break and acclimate me to life outside my house.)

The manifestations continued. A disordered relationship with food; I had no "off" switch and lived to stuff my mouth with sweets. When Teresa would return from the store, I'd grab my favorite snacks and hoard them in my room, eating them in private in anticipation of the calmness a mouthful of Hostess cupcake would bring. I grew chubby, which didn't do great things for my self-esteem; I was also tall for my age and felt gargantuan. I developed a stutter.

Our family pediatrician advised Teresa to wait it out. Counseling for children was not common in those days; besides, I did have a few things going for me, and kindly Dr. Alberts suggested my family focus on those. I excelled in school, particularly in anything having to do with language; I devoured books and filled notebooks with stories. I also had a talent for art back in the day, and I spent happy hours in drawing, painting, and sculpting lessons at the Art Center -- all resources, again, that the children on the border don't have and can't possibly imagine.

Slowly, feeling loved by the adults in my life and bolstered by an extended support system, I began to function as a "normal" child. But the anxiety never left me, and would wax and wane through most of my life. It impacted my parenting; when my kids were teenagers, the lack of a return phone call surely meant the child was dead in a ditch. I'm not being flippant, as my kids can attest; my mind automatically heads in the direction of crisis. I still worry more than most "healthy" people. Disordered eating stuck around, too, and is something I battle daily, as is the OCD, about which I joke with those close to me. But although I manage it, it still can be exhausting.

The takeaway from all these words: Separation from my mom caused traumatic and lasting effects. Even though I was loved and supported and had every resource at my disposal, I still feel the impact, 51 years later.

What, then, will likely become of the kids on the border, many of whom might never be reunited with their parents? Some will never be OK; the rest may seem to be. But only on the outside.


  1. Impressive writing; an important tale.

  2. Perry, your opinion of my writing has been important to me for a very long time. Thank you.