Retraining the Brain

As I was working at my laptop recently, our adopted daughter stopped by to wish me ‘good night’ before Austin tucked her in. As I turned to say my evening farewells, she wrapped her arms around me and leaned in to kiss me on the forehead. Without thinking, I recoiled, making her attempt at affection entirely awkward. What am I doing? I stared at her for a moment, startled at my own reaction, then leaned in. The resulting hug now felt forced.

What is wrong with me?

This was ridiculous. I wasn’t sure how many times this had happened in the past week, but by now it had to be at least three. Once again, I suddenly felt like an embarrassed failure of a parent. It was so hard to get legitimate, non-manipulative affection from her. She was being brave by demonstrating her love; I should be enjoying and encouraging this interaction.

Irritated at myself, I finally decided to sit and think on the situation for a bit. No, I didn’t exactly love physical touch, but if one of the other kids had done that, I highly doubt my response would have been anything of the sort. It had happened so quickly, just like the other recent spontaneous, harsh, and awkward hugs. It didn’t make sense. I was pulling away before I had time to think through what was going on.

Secondary trauma. This is a subconscious reaction.

We had a distinctly difficult autumn with our daughter. For several months she had been very verbally aggressive in her dislike of us, and in particular, me. I frequently categorized her behavior as ‘verbal abuse.’ She didn’t have the swear words in her vocabulary yet, thankfully, but she knew how to layer on the poison. She regularly confessed her hatred of me, often daily or more frequently. Over the Christmas holiday, she verbally threatened to kill me. Suffice to say, we were at a difficult place. Thinking back, I couldn’t remember the last time we had a substantial stretch of ‘easy’ behavior with her. I certainly couldn’t recall any in the past calendar year.

I began to realize that I had become accustomed to mentally deflecting her bad behavior and language, and while she was rarely physically dangerous, I regularly ducked or blocked her glasses and writing implements as she threw them at me. My body had primed itself physiologically and psychologically to guard itself from her. I was used to being the recipient of aggression in the relationship.

We recently restarted therapy, and something her therapist had mentioned in session one day had struck a chord. She was suddenly giving me lots of affection and was actually listening and communicating positively with her words. While the change was certainly welcome, it felt totally bizarre and counterintuitive. Was this another honeymoon phase? My conscious mind was mildly skeptical, but hopeful nonetheless. Meanwhile, the change from her prior behavior was so abrupt and contrary to what we had become accustomed to that my psyche was struggling to adapt. My subconscious was still guarding me from her; so much so that my reaction to her was also physical. I kept finding myself recoiling from her hugs.

When I finally realized what was going on, I concluded this was a job for the Holy Spirit. Not only did our daughter’s brain need to be retrained, so did mine. And thus our bonding journey continues. I am proactively placing myself in close physical proximity to her to assure my subconscious that all is well.

Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God. – Romans 12:1-2

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash