Hello friends. I hope that you and your loved ones are all feeling healthy not just in body, but in mind and spirit, too. It has been a hell of a time. I have found it difficult to stay grounded in such an unpredictable and volatile time. Limiting my exposure to anything that could negatively affect my mental state has helped some. In a world that feels out of control, I’m trying very hard to control what I can.
My husband and I both contracted COVID in March. We live in Los Angeles, one of the hardest hit regions of this horrible pandemic. Back then, it was impossible for anyone here to be tested unless you were gravely ill or a celebrity. I attempted to schedule doctor appointments via Telehealth four different times. After sometimes waiting up to an hour, I was declined each time. I also tried scheduling an appointment with a medical doctor, who promptly told me she was not accepting new patients. I’m sure it was because the health system was overwhelmed. My husband and I recovered by self-isolating, resting as much as possible, and taking over-the-counter meds to alleviate symptoms. Around the same time, I had been given a supervisory role in our agency’s LA office, as the department was without a program director and supervisor. At first, I focused on administrative tasks, or “cleaning things up.” However, as I grew sicker due to COVID, it became increasingly more difficult to keep up with that, let alone manage my own caseload. I was often working longer hours. I should say no one forced me to work longer hours – I felt that’s what was needed to do the work. Staff were working remotely by that time, so I could rest as needed, although I didn’t really. I kept at it until my body finally screamed, “No.” At that point, I took a couple of days off to rest completely. When I returned, I still wasn’t feeling well. I was fatigued, coughing and nearing burnout. There was little support, not that my LA co-workers were ungracious, but so much was going on, and I was rather isolated. Once I said I felt better, the train simply powered forward. I continued my role as “interim supervisor,” continuing my own caseload in both our LA and OC offices, while overseeing a small staff of four other workers. It was exhausting. To provide evidence of having COVID-19, as I don’t think some believed me, I took the SARS-CoV-2 Antibody test in June. The results suggested recent or prior infection of the virus.
What I didn’t anticipate in all of this was how the stress brought on by this new role would impact me – as an adoptee. I am an adoption social worker. I know…a highly intolerable role for most adoptees…It would take another blog post to explain how I landed here. I work with foster and adoptive families. My role is to conduct clinical interviews with potential fost/adopt parents, provide counseling, training and psychoeducation on trauma, screen applicants with our clinical team, and if the family is pre-approved, write their home study. Once a family has completed at least 30 hours of training, any requirements made by the clinical team, and a successful final home inspection, they can be approved. There is much more involved in this role, but suffice it to say, I have gained invaluable clinical experience and many clinical skills as a result.
Back to trauma…When we experience an initial trauma, our body remembers and often responds in much the same way if we encounter further trauma. Our brains and bodies store traumatic memories. This can cause us to react in uncontrollable ways as we are re-triggered and our nervous system becomes overwhelmed. It is especially important to understand this if one has experienced complex developmental trauma. Complex developmental trauma is “the experience of multiple, chronic and prolonged, developmentally adverse traumatic events, most often of an interpersonal nature…and early life onset (emphasis added).” The act of being separated from one’s birth mother and placed for adoption is, in fact, a trauma, and one of the earliest traumas that adoptees experience, amongst a host of others. When we are triggered, our body goes into what is known as “fight, flight, or freeze.” This stress response causes a chain reaction to occur in our physical body and neurochemistry. Our thinking becomes impaired, as we are no longer in our “upstairs” brain,” the area that controls cognitive processes, the ability to reason and to regulate behavior/emotions. We flip into our “downstairs” brain, the more “primitive” part of the brain, which is constantly scanning the environment to determine if we are safe. The “downstairs brain” regulates strong emotion/behavior, fight, flight and freeze or innate reactions to danger. There are a multitude of physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms caused by complex developmental trauma, leading to difficulties in attachment and relationships as well as physical and psychological health.
As I continued to work, I began experiencing increased anxiety, sleeplessness, heart palpitations, depression, agitation, and physical pain, on top of recovering from COVID. I thought it was just work stress. It became heightened when working with more challenging families. It is never easy delivering news to a family that they do not want to hear. It became increasingly troublesome, especially when applicants responded in negative or resistive ways to say, a therapy recommendation, due to things in their past or having to deny approval to a family altogether. Never a pleasant conversation, but necessary. My first responsibility is always to protect vulnerable children and minimize further trauma. In the past, I managed these conversations okay, but it has never been easy. Many of the families I work with are truly great human beings whom I enjoy working with. These are the families who are open to learning, adaptable, flexible, willing to grow and change, to do their own hard inner work to care for children with a history of trauma. It can be painstaking to help applicants understand the need to heal from their own issues first before ever placing a child with trauma in their home. In some cases, they do not, and that is when we cannot move forward. My therapist (a wonderful adoption-competent therapist in OC) pointed out to me that I was likely being re-triggered by these work experiences and the accompanying stress of supervising. Though I wasn’t experiencing the same scenarios that caused past traumas, the chronic stress triggered the same fear response in my body. I was overwhelmed, burned out and felt alone. I had just not connected all the dots.
Eventually, I began suffering from severe pain that travelled to the right side of my head. At first, I again thought it was work stress, but it worsened. I couldn’t eat, talk, sleep, due to the pain, and felt nauseous if not lying down. Pain relievers didn’t work. I was taking large quantities of Advil, Tylenol, Aleve, Valerian Root to get relief to no avail. About a week later when the pain did not subside, my husband took me to see a doctor, who referred me to a neurologist. The car ride was awful. All I wanted to do was sleep. A MRI, revealed a chronic hygroma on the right side of my brain. A what? That’s exactly what I said, too. I had developed fluid on the right side of my brain that caused my brain to shift just past midline. The cause was undetermined since I had not suffered an injury to my head. It is possibly an after effect of COVID-19, but there isn’t enough research out there yet to substantiate. My doctor prescribed a pain med, which helped me sleep and gave me some relief. Long story short, the neurologist said the hygroma should go away on its own and prescribed two months of medical leave. And here I am.
The time off from work has been a huge relief. I’m no longer experiencing the severe pain in my head, so it appears that my brain is healing. I’ve been resting and doting on things like my little doxie, Poppie, plants, and small projects around the house. I go back for another MRI at the end of the month. When I return to work, it’ll be on an on-call basis. I’ll have more control over my schedule. I’m currently studying for the LCSW exam, which I’ll take next month, although I can’t say I’m terribly motivated. I hope to do some training in equine-assisted psychotherapy after becoming licensed so that I can practice this modality one day. Things have still been difficult, as my entire family is at home, like everyone else, and we live in a pretty small house. My husband has worked from home for years, and it’s been an adjustment to be at home all the time. I’m slowly starting my yoga practice again, and here I am writing this blog post. It does feel like my world has slowed down a bit. I am lucky, as one of my co-workers, a very dear and beloved man, recently passed away from COVID.
I did not realize how fast life had become until I crashed. Until that point, I believe I was able to cope with the stresses of foster care and adoption through the support of a strong clinical team in OC and an amazing clinical supervisor, a very gifted LCSW. She understands the great challenges related to foster care/adoption, trauma, grief, loss, etc., and has been an empathetic listener. I thought that I’d done a fair amount of healing from adoption, but there was more. Adoption is a life-long developmental process. It is ever-changing. One foot forward, two steps back. When I return to work, I’m certain there will be hard days. I’m not sure how I’ll manage. It remains to be seen. One thing I do know though. Shift happens. And sometimes shifts cause good things in good time.