How I Survived Separation
With all of the information circulating in the news and on social media about families at the border, I have been left feeling discouraged and confused. At this moment, more than 2,300 children who were separated at the border are living across the United States in various foster homes with strangers. A significant amount of these children are pre-verbal, cannot as much as communicate to others their country of origin, and for many there are no paper trails connecting them back to a parent or guardian who crossed the border with them. Knowing this information makes me feel helpless, hopeless, and overwhelmed.
As a mother of two young children myself, I have struggled to imagine what the experience of such traumatic separation would be like for my children who are very attached to their families. Imagining my one and a half year old being torn from myself or his father, without being able to communicate, without being able to be comforted at a ‘tender age’ facility, without any understanding of what would come next or why he was separated to begin with - it brings me to tears imaging that experience. Even more, throughout the many media stories of mothers sueing in order to be reunified with their children and the stories being shared by journalists who are traveling to the border towns, I find myself being emotionally triggered by my own personal story of separation that I experienced multiple times and at very young ages.
While my experiences will never compare to the experiences of children at the border and now in random locations around our country, my separation story caused me a lot of adult trauma that I’m still figuring and sorting out. I was separated from my mother when I was five or six and again when I was 9. When I was 17, I found myself a ward of the court once again and for the last time before I would finally become a legal adult. Over many years of moving in and out of stability and consistency as a child, I had to pick up a few skills and tap into some human instincts in order to assure my safety, or at least to provide myself some sense of safety, whether real or just an illusion. I would imagine that much of what I became as a result of my story is not very different than other trauma survivors, since often times humans find similar methods for surviving various traumas. Below I list some of those methods for survival that I picked up along the way in hopes that it could reach someone’s heart and help them understand just perhaps the tip of the iceberg that children at the border are facing.
I’m not a therapist, psychiatrist, or any kind of psychological or medical professional, so as you continue to read please keep in mind that what I share are only my experiences, as those are the only experiences I can accurately represent. While I do aim to help folks understand the effects trauma can have on any given human being, I in no way am intending on diagnosing children at the border or informing our readers on any one definite path for trauma survivors. We all experience and internalize trauma differently and I understand and respect that deeply.
Growing up with trauma largely induced by separation from my only safety net, my mother, caused me a lot of emotional and social damage. With so much of my circumstances being out of my control, with a world I was comfortable in and felt used to being pulled from under me, I spiraled and settled into many instinctive actions that would be meant to make myself feel somewhat safer and more protected. Sometimes it even meant making myself feel like someone who could protect the ones I loved as well. I was the oldest child in my family and my experiences with various separations caused me to shift from child to adult quickly. I found myself caring for my younger sibling and becoming a mother in some ways myself. I learned from an early age how to put aside my own needs, my desires, my childhood, to worry and care for others whether or not others wanted me to. When this happens, it really steals the joy of a child's ability to be just that, a child. While I'm sure I had many common childhood hobbies and passions, most of the time I was worried about what would come next, how I would control the future, and how I might be responsible.
Navigating separation required quick thinking, planning, advocating, and knowing how to read the faces of adults in positions of authority so that I could strategize for the desired result of any plans I would develop in order to be reunified with my mother. I spent hours trying to figure out how to manipulate my situation so that my sibling and I could once again survive the life we knew how to survive, as opposed to this new and unknown danger that we had no idea how to navigate on our own. I instinctively developed a sense of hypervigilance as a way to protect myself in unknown surroundings and situations. Reading the room and detecting important activity was second nature to me. It had to be so that I could survive what, as a child, felt unsurvivable. As a result of my need for hypervigilance, I am left trying to unlearn this as a method of surveying for safety, which causes me a lot of anxiety. I am never truly able to relax because I'm always scanning a situation, a room, or a persons perceived legitimacy which causes a lot of hardship in 'normal' social settings.
As expected, I was a child, so I wasn’t in any position to manipulation my various situations no matter how many spells I cast, times I prayed, letters to my god box I had written, nothing was within my control. To make matters worse, the adults in my life were not transparent with me about my situation and I was able to detect that. Adults told lies, adults said I would be with my mom soon, but It would be years before we would share a roof again. I developed a sense that no one can be trusted. A ‘guilty until proven innocent’ mentality where people would eventually have to ‘test’ into my life if they wanted any access to me at all. Even though I knew I could never guarantee a life without rejection, pain, separation, abandonment, keeping the walls as high as they could go made me feel like I at least had some control , something I desperately needed in order to feel safe again. While I think it’s great to have healthy boundaries for yourself and to practice being a good judge of character when it comes to who you allow into your life, the ways in which I practiced control through keeping people out, disallowed me from experiencing the joy of relationship building and close connections with others.
So many years go by and memories blend together and details are lost or forgotten while feelings make the final cut. A lot of memory building and holding happens this way. We hold onto moments in our hxstories, we attach recorded moments and faces with a memory and we associate that memory with a feeling that is important to us. Memories can be both a blessing and a curse for many of us who have lived multi-faceted lives. Unfortunately for me, and my own personal hxistory, as a result of the trauma of my separation story and things that happened to me during those years, many parts of my memory are no longer accessible to me. Severe trauma caused me to block out many memories from my childhood, memories I can never get back. It wasn’t until I met my husband, who could remember almost ever line of multiple famous Disney movie songs from his childhood, could recount in pretty good detail early childhood memories, and could even remember dreams he had while sleeping from his childhood, that I came to terms with my memory gaps. I always knew that I had memory gaps, but I hadn’t really begun to understand the extent to which I had lost memory to trauma. So much of my childhood has been swept from me, to the point where I can’t remember streets I lived on as a kid, trips I took with my brother, how old I was during any given experience. I remember my grandmother taking me to see my mother for a few hours one day, during my first separation from my mother. I don’t remember the visit, but I do remember leaving and turning around in the back seat to watch my mother become smaller and smaller until I couldn’t see her anymore. After that, I have no memories and I still couldn’t tell you at what age, when, or where my memories start back up again. Memory loss is a common challenge for folx who have experienced some kind of severe trauma in their past, and it's a very common symptom of PTSD. There are parts of our brains that are highly sensitive to stress and cannot regenerate neurons when stress is in the way. Even more, our brains do preventative work for us, blocking out traumatic memories where we may have felt threatened or unsafe, so that it can protect the basic functioning of the brain.
There is real, heavy, heart wrenching trauma associated with the separation of young children from their parents. My daughter never wants to be without me. She only wants me to put her to bed at night. She only wants me to make her breakfast in the morning. My son latches onto my legs whenever he is tired or hungry or just upset. Children are biologically and psychologically attached to their parents and their families and their lives as they know it. For many crossing the border, they are leaving dangerous countries in search of safety, security and peace in our country. To imagine what a person must sacrifice, the risk any individual is willing to take in order to leave their home country, to travel with young children across sometimes multiple countries lines, fleeing danger (created by the US), only to be met with more danger and trauma at our border.
the trauma is real, the pain - insurmountable. We must not allow children or families to experience further trauma at our borders. We must not allow children and families to not find safety and security at our borders. We have to advocate for the reunification of families and challenge 45 and his people on the fact that so many children are already ‘missing’ in our immigrant detainment system with no paper trail. How will these children be reunified? What is there fate? How will we atone for these inhumane actions?
America, we have a lot of questions to ask ourselves and even more to be accountable for.
For more information on some of the symptoms of trauma I listed in some of my personal accounts above, follow the attached links:
If you would like to donate to help families reunite with their children, follow the attached links:
For some clarifying information on the current immigration issues: