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Hedgehogs: Inside the Heart of Early Childhood Trauma


Read Patty Ihm's memoir, Isn't That Enough? Musings of Motherhood and the Meaning of Life. Available now at Barnes & Noble and on Amazon.

 

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”


–Antoine de Saint-Exupery, from The Little Prince


What if we were able to see inside the heart of another, to be offered a window into what has made them who they are today? What if we could know their deepest secrets, what they have overcome, and what they long for? Would this make a difference in how we felt about them or even in how we treated them?


My children came to this earth to be messengers. I believe that my small son is here to teach us an important lesson about love, kindness, and acceptance.


I’ll never know the whole story. Too many emotions, too much misunderstanding, and too many assumptions swirled together in a physical manifestation of angst and panic. My son, in his first week of seventh grade at his new school, had been in an altercation with another student as they were lining up to leave the crowded auditorium. My child had been deemed the aggressor, though nobody really understood what happened before.


Actually, a lot had happened before. A lot had happened even before he was born; trauma and loss that will affect him for the rest of his days. His caseworker brought him to us at two days old, tucked into his carrier with a soft cotton blanket embellished with stitched hedgehogs. His eyes shone from under the brim of a knit hat that had been crafted by hospital volunteers. My heart nearly burst in wonder at the sight of this little being.


There is much that we will never know, and though it was a while ago, we remember the tremors, the high-pitched cries, the feeding studies, and the genetic tests that led to surgeries, therapies, diagnoses, and delayed milestones.


We remember when he took his first stiff steps, how he finally slept through the night at age six-and-a-half, and how he chased down balls with the help of a volunteer Little League coach that stood behind him in the outfield. We remember the safety of his elementary school, how he grew in the heart of everyone that knew him, how he was guided through playground squabbles, and how he was recognized with a “kindness award” at the end of fifth grade. We didn’t know what was to come. How could we?


When he was younger, when the uncertainties swept over him, he relied on the connections to those who knew and understood him to hold him through what was hard. With a safe place to land, our beloved boy could pull himself up. He could learn new things; he could be new things.


The transition to middle school, though, brought waves of change. Everything was big, fast, loud, and unfamiliar. One of the hundreds in a sea of hoodies and headphones, he was lost and confused. He was afraid. That fear looked to others, those that hadn’t known him, like something fierce, even intentional, and out-of-control.


In his podcast “Understanding Trauma: Learning Brain vs. Survival Brain,” Jacob Ham reflects on an individual’s ability to interpret information. When a child feels safe and connected, his brain is open to learning new things. Conversely, when a child is focused on a perceived threat, she is overcome by fear, merely trying to survive, and unable to take in new information.


Our son spent most of his sixth-grade year in a state of survival. There were good things–sparks of hope, hints of connection–but not enough to fuel him along a path to be open to learning about isosceles triangles, and conjunctions. Blindsided, he marched forward only to fall further behind in the face of new demands.


Anxiety spun out. He refused to do work.


Rules tightened. There were lost privileges and harsh consequences.


Fear escalated to anger. He walked out of class. He ran from the school. Really, though, he was running from himself, from the fear inside of him that only burned harder and bigger.


There were so many questions. What had happened? Had he been marked as a troublemaker just because of the color of his skin? How can we turn this fear into strength? And, above all, how can we get others to see his heart, and to see him with their hearts?


Seventh grade brought promise with a new school and a support plan. Still, though, the toll of the bell brought familiar anxiety and the bumping of bodies, signaling much more than the end of the lunch hour. The gates opened, the fear was triggered, and the blame was cast.


We are better now. He finished the first quarter with passing grades, support, understanding, and a resurrected joy for school reminiscent of his elementary school years. With each step backward, with each bump along the way, there comes a bit more understanding. Each time my child is met with kindness, each time the meaning behind the behavior is considered, the connections grow and the fear lessens. The cycles of anxiety soften when he knows he is loved.


Through hard experiences, we learn where work is still needed. He doesn’t need a coach behind him in the outfield anymore. Clad in catcher’s gear, he stands as a mighty little force behind the plate. He does, though, need reminders to attend his weekly band lessons and to change into his PE uniform, at least for now. With the support of his school team and those who love him, he is going to get where he is supposed to be.


He will lead the way as he learns, teaching others about much more than triangles and parts of speech. He teaches us, in the purest of ways, that what is essential is, indeed, invisible to the eye.



Patty Ihm is an author, former early intervention therapist, and teacher living in Illinois on a farmette where she is a mother to many; three biological, six adopted, and 18 children she has offered her home to as a foster parent—some for a day and some to stay forever. Fueled on coffee and the soul-cleansing therapy of the written word, Patty also tends to thirty-something chickens, a mix of hens and roosters, four bee hives, and a thriving garden. She is the self-published author of Ode to a Boy, a poetic tribute to her grown sons. Isn’t That Enough? Musings of Motherhood and the Meaning of Life is her debut memoir, revealing Patty's intricate journal entries about her experiences as a mother to those in the child welfare system. Goldie Bird, a middle-grade, coming-of-age novel, is Patty’s first fiction work with Our Galaxy Publishing. Her narrative prose is also featured in the anthology, Venus Rising: Musings & Lore from Women Writers.

Our Galaxy Publishing is a New York City-based, women-owned, and operated independent press with a nationwide team serving aspiring authors the tools to write and publish. Our seamless publishing experience focuses on action-based tools and resources to publish, exploration of all core storytelling elements, and empowering an entrepreneurial mindset. Whether seeking to self-publish a book or find a traditional publisher, work with us for book publishing, book editing, book marketing, and writing mentorship to publish a successful book.


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