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There are three environments in which almost all young people exist: 1) the family environment, 2) the community environment, and 3) the school environment. It’s time that we let go of all the narratives that cast blame or point fingers and instead, build radical acceptance that each of these places has the possibility to build positive outcomes for children. Children spend more face to face time with adults at school than they do at home, when school is in session.
We have so many opportunities to become the buffers for children experiencing adversity in all three of these places. And there are a myriad of adversities in all three of these environments that children must overcome. That is life.
However, when we understand the science of resilience, we become better positioned to embrace the concept of buffering children through a safety net of supportive relationships and build our own toolkit for helping the young people in our lives build skills that promote their resilience.
Educators across the country have been intrigued and have rallied around the concept of building schools that are trauma-informed.
I also see three big missteps that people leading change are making. I want to name those things here:
Misstep 1 Self-care.
This conversation has left many educators feeling beat up and overlooked and the stress, overwhelm, isolation, and pain is exacerbated. Often what people in the trenches hear is, “This is a hard job, you will likely experience secondary trauma-stress from students and therefore in order to not burn out yourself, you need to do additional things OUTSIDE of work to mitigate your own experiences of profession-related toxic stress.” When the truth is, true professional self-care is something that is to be done INSIDE of the work day and is a collective response from the school about how to promote a workplace that values staff and mitigates overwhelm. We call it co-care.
Some Examples of workplace co-care:
Encourage and systemically build in Five-Minute Breaks, and this is not during the 5-minute passing period hall-monitoring time.
Walk-Talk-Share and Go Outside, (Not for recess duty)
Move The Body, eg, take the stairs, walk around, jog in place, vigorously do “the twist,” dance to music, etc.
Sincere Celebrations: Acknowledge work accomplishments and growth in each person. Eliminate the stigma of acknowledging our own accomplishments.
Create A “Shutdown Routine” at the end of the workday.
Administrators schedule emails to come out on Monday mornings, not on the weekends: No Email on Weekends
Build and nurture a Conflict Resolution Culture and its ongoing practices
Space is created for connection and when hard things happen, there is a process to work through it. Connection Construction and Rupture Repairs
Develop or participate in groups or events where teachers, paras, and administrators are genuinely celebrated.
Set appropriate work/life boundaries and support your fellow teachers who do the same.
Create a space where we can each share our joys and our heavy burdens without judgment or the need to fix/rescue one another.
Practice holding space and extending grace for the times a colleague is struggling professionally and/or personally.
Holding one another accountable for growth, while holding space for that to happen, knowing true and lasting growth includes some missteps and consistent support.
Collectively work on things like empathy, acceptance, and hope.
It is cruel to expect teachers to carry the allostatic load of the profession during the day while also using their downtime and family time to mitigate the effects of workplace toxic stress outside of work.
And we must create systems of co-care in the early days of building a trauma-informed school system or our people will not have mental or emotional space to make the hard shifts.
Misstep 2: Believing a safe supportive relationship is the panacea for struggling kids.
This is the message that we are shouting from the rooftops. We know from the research that relationships create both buffers and adversities. But simply having a strong relationship with a struggling student will NOT change everything. BUT, it is the doorway to the skill building that must be done to change trajectories. Without holding this as sacred, we cannot get to the skillbuilding.
Misstep 3 Discipline: We cannot discipline children who are or have had unbuffered adversity.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. If we are not holding students accountable inside of a safe and supportive community, we are failing them. BUT, this is often the black-white thinking, or the pendulum swing that happens inside a building when people begin the journey of becoming trauma-informed. There is undeniable fallout from this approach. In order to heal and grow healthy brains that are wired for fight, flight freeze, and shift them into brains that can access the understanding of cause and effect, we must always have consequences for actions, for both adults and children.
The timing and the types of consequences are vital, and we must be on the lookout for punishment within our approach. However, we know that discipline is an essential part of creating safety and growth.
The availability of at least one stable, caring, and supportive relationship between a child and the important adults in his or her life. These relationships begin in the family, but they can also include neighbors, providers of early care and education, teachers, social workers, or coaches, among many others.
Helping children build a sense of mastery over their life circumstances. Those who believe in their own capacity to overcome hardships and guide their own destiny are far more likely to adapt positively to adversity.
Children who develop strong executive function and self-regulation skills. These skills enable individuals to manage their own behavior and emotions, 38 and develop and execute adaptive strategies to cope effectively with difficult circumstances.
The supportive context of affirming faith or cultural traditions. Children who are solidly grounded within such traditions are more likely to respond effectively when challenged by a major stressor or a severely disruptive experience.
So if we boil all of this down and continue to invest in the work of resilience-building with kids and colleagues, the key takeaways are:
Relationships with struggling students matter greatly.
Kids also need real skills to overcome adversity and deal with future adversities.
Activating voice within our students is a really big deal AND giving them choice within their learning experiences creates a positive sense of self that they will need for the rest of their lives.
When we work from all three of these places, brains change and so do trajectories.
Lastly, parents, faith-based & cultural organizations, and educators are all key people in the resilience-building of our children. If it is not happening in two out of the three, the place where it is happening can still change everything. I know, because this happened to me. And the school system made it happen for my kids.
Teachers, paras, custodians, secretaries, bus drivers, food service staff, and administrators, we see you. You matter.
To Zoe’s Mom: I See You I am not even sure where to start. But, I know I need to write about this. I need to give this to the world. Perhaps to another mother who is facing the darkness and can’t see her way out. Perhaps she is watching her children caught in the cyclone that is her life. I think she is who I am writing this for. And maybe for me too. I am doing some amazing work with a community that is fast becoming dear to my heart. I look at the people who keep showing up that are trying to wrap their heads around the trauma-informed movement. People who are deeply committed to the lost, the marginalized, the addicted, the incarcerated, the foster kids, and the parents who have lost their children to the system. In the room where these gatherings take place, there is love and a desire to learn how to solve some of our most horrific societal problems. These champions are all bought into the concept that the people suffering beneath these stories are in desperate need of healing. That our communities and our systems are also in need of healing. We unpacked the truth about the ACE’s (Adverse Childhood Experiences) science today. Collectively, we deepened our learning that trauma knows no socio-economics, no race, no geography. Trauma is universal and it is not about “them.” It is about “us.” The coalition is building and we are on the brink of spilling this movement into many circles. Into many families and into our own homes. However, all of this is for another day. Another blog post. In all raw honestly, I am at my keyboard tonight because, today, I actually revisited some of my own “stuff.” Stuff I thought I had healed from. Perhaps the darkness will always be available to me. Perhaps it will always sneak up on me out of nowhere. My partner in this work sent me part two of a clip about abuse and the foster care system, called Removed: We had watched part one as a group a month ago. The question for the group was: did they see their agency or non-profit in the film? If so, what could have been done differently for the little girl Zoe and her brother who had been removed from the home? Zoe had been taken because she had been beaten by her mom’s boyfriend for intervening when he was attacking her mom. Zoe’s life spirals farther out of control as she is taken into the system. Finally, Zoe ends up with a woman who truly “gets her.” In part two, things get hard as Zoe has to lose her brother for a second time as he is adopted out. As I sat in my home this weekend and watched part two, I was mad. Not at anyone. But the character I found myself identifying with was Zoe’s mom. You watch as she gets ready for court. You see the boyfriend in the background. Zoe’s mom ends up on the stand and the courts are asking her if she even understands why she is there. Has she made any changes in her life to get her kids back? The only reply she can muster is, “I love my kids.” They respond with, “That is not the point. How have you changed? That is what we are asking.” The tale continues and the little boy is removed permanently. The mom meets with Zoe on scheduled visits. The mom is broken and weak. She is “small” and gentle but incapable of being what Zoe needs. The foster mom fights for Zoe and at the end of the documentary, Zoe becomes a teacher. Zoe, while certainly scarred from all of her childhood wounds and disfunction, turns out ok. Her story is not her mother’s. Her story is her own. After viewing part two, I was unsettled. I knew in my heart why. I felt my mind screaming, what about Zoe’s mom?! What about her?! I felt frustrated. We met as a group today and showed part two of Removed. Afterward, we were in a corner handing out books for the book study. A police officer came up to me, and with gentle eyes, said, “So, I take it you were a Zoe?” I stammered for a minute and then tears started streaming down my face, and I managed to choke out, “No, I was Zoe’s mom.” His strong and kind gaze did not change. He just nodded knowingly. I managed to choke out, “But a group of people saved me. Saved me from that.” By this time, he had his books and moved on, but I had lost it. I could not stop the flood gate of tears. Which is super unusual for me. I feel deeply and empathize quickly and often tear up. But losing it is a whole ‘nother deal. One of the women I work with came up and asked what was wrong. So in broken, rapid-fire bits, I spit it out, and she threw her arms around me and said, “No! You are not Zoe’s mom. You are wonderful and amazing and I love you so much!” I managed to collect myself after a few minutes and moved into the next meeting. But I knew I needed to write this. I knew I needed to share. You see, while my boys never saw me be abused, (that fecal hurricane was the thirteen years prior to the birth of my first son), they did live in the cyclone. My cyclone. When my oldest was seven, my middle was three and my youngest was one, I was cycling in and out of hospitals from alcoholism. I didn’t have a drinking problem, I had a stopping problem. Every time I would quit drinking, I would go into DTs, (delirium tremens). It was ugly. My life was a horrible merry-go-round that I couldn’t get off. And the brutal price for continued admission was going to cost me, my children. For 5 years before I got sober, I watched my life play out like some strange movie that I felt powerless to stop. Powerless. I adored my kids. But I couldn’t stop the ride. I had no idea how. I saw that in Zoe’s mom. I know the feeling she was experiencing on that witness stand. I relived my own powerlessness. From 2006 until 2011, I lived every day terrified that someone was going to find out just how sick I really was and rip my children away from me. In January of this year, I will celebrate my 7th year clean and sober. I will celebrate my release from slavery. I will celebrate my redemption. I will do it in a room full of people who picked me up out of the pit of despair and loved me until I could love myself. Tonight, I sit in a warm home with three healthy kids and a husband who loves me. Christmas is covered and our annual traditions are planned and will be carried out. I know what will happen tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. But I also sit tonight with the memory of what it means to be Zoe’s mom. I sit with the burn of what it would have been like if I couldn’t have found the grace offered to me by people; the grace to get better. So, I am writing for all the moms and dads out there who are still spinning out from their own trauma and perhaps dragging their kids through the cycle. On the merry-go-round and you do not know how to get off. I want you to know that I see you. I see you in the film Removed. I see you in Zoe’s mom. I see you out in front of the school picking up your kids. I see you walking to the Kwik Shop for milk. I see you. I do not judge you. I love you. I want you to know that the only way I can repay the world for giving me the life I have now is to continue to fight for you. To relentlessly create a world where all of the moms like Zoe’s and like me have an opportunity to be met with love and grace and mercy. Have an opportunity to not be thrown away but to be saved. There is a way out. And it doesn’t start with you being punished or discarded to teach you to do something different. It begins with your community realizing that you are stuck. That you are powerless and that it is likely that you will not make it without our help. Our love, our support. Not our disdain. Not our consequences. You need love and resilience that is built through safe, supportive, and understanding relationships. You are not the enemy. You are just a Zoe that grew up. I will keep you close to my heart. For me, you will not be “removed.” You will be redeemed.
Educator friends and parents! Please hear me. I’m going to tell you what’s inside the nutshell:
Trauma-informed is NOT about changing the kids. It’s about changing US.
You see I have a child that had debilitating meltdowns for YEARS. I became a trauma-informed parent and I started teaching him all the good stuff about his amygdala and cortisol and oxytocin and water and air. He was seven at the time and I had no idea if it was all clicking until one night, he runs into the room shouting and stomping his feet, “I’m dysregulated! My amygdala is pumping! There is cortisol flooding!” His face was beet red and his ears were purple.
I asked, a little alarmed, “What do you need from me?”
He threw his hand up and shouted “I don’t need anything from you!” and he sat down gasping for air and watched the clock — because I had taught him it takes 5 to 7 minutes for a kid to come out of the first phase of dysregulation.
And in that moment, it hit me: my job is to stay calm and shut up.
That was 3 years ago and today my son is meltdown-free. When he gets agitated my husband and I look at each other with a knowing look. “He needs connection,” we say.
I see all of these posts about how do I get this kid to do that or that kid to do this?
Please understand that when we remain calm and attuned to our kids with over-active stress response systems, this is the biggest way we help them.
Trauma-informed is less about the kids and more about the adults.
Behaviorism is wrapped up in getting kids to change their behaviors. Traumatology is about getting the adults to change from their reactions to responses. To change our desires to get a kid under control.
This is not about modifying behavior.
It is about healing brains through relationships…through connection…which is co-regulation.
We need you on the team. We need your colleagues on the team. Our kids deserve it. Join us in Kansas City at Bridging to Resilience in April.
If you like what you’re reading here, let’s connect! I’d love to help you and your organization help your kids and staff. emailTwitterFacebook My book
My heart is full of hope and joy as I watch the trauma-informed schools movement swell across our nation and planet. The science of ACEs is mind-bending to say the least and we are now able to open up a much deeper dialogue about human behavior and health. Ultimately this work is about healing… All. Of. Us.
A new consciousness is taking root around ending the “us vs them” construct. The idea is growing that we’re all on this journey together and that no matter where our efforts lie, we have an opportunity to be a part of this mission.
Trauma-Informed is a Love-Based Science. It is far less about pain and hurt and more about the science of hope and healing.
The other thing I have learned is that this movement is less about the kids in our schools and more about the adults. I had an amazing administrator friend, who was a year or so into her building’s journey, call me and share that where things really changed for them was when they realized this really isn’t about changing the kids; it’s about changing us.
I work in a couple of different communities with the science of ACEs and Resilience. One is in schools with teachers. I have the opportunity to go into districts and help lead staff toward buy-in to become a trauma-informed building or district. I do this by laying the groundwork of neuroscience and the way it connects to some of our biggest challenges in our schools; the exact challenges that have us beating our heads against the wall!
I have worked with multiple districts in the state of Kansas and beyond and nearly always get to a level of 75 to 80% staff buy-in to move forward with changing practices. This is no small feat as many of our schools are experiencing initiative fatigue and most of our teachers simply cannot fathom the idea of one more thing. But they recognize that the challenges our kids are showing up with require so much more help than we currently know how to give. And truth be told, this alone is causing a tremendous amount of secondary trauma in our educators. It feels overwhelming.
Punishment vs Discipline
Over the years I have noticed that a topic that needs some of the most ongoing care and attention in Trauma-Informed schools is around the understanding of discipline vs punishment.
So let’s unpack this here today.
Critical stop #1 on the Trauma-Informed Journey: Punishment
A huge challenge that must be brought out into the open is our value systems in America around punishment. It is deeply rooted in who we are. Our beliefs often say, “If you did something wrong, you chose to do it and therefore we are going to motivate you to make different choices through pain and fear or isolation.”
After all, it is all about choices…
In helping people see another way to address malfeasances, we often bump up against another barrier. This is what I call the “cause and effect brain” strategy. This strategy does work and it typically works quickly. What happens is that kids — who have access to their Cause and Effect wiring — actually do respond positively to punishment. When they mess up and they’re punished, their brain says, “Let’s never do that again!” Incidentally, this type of brain is also motivated through rewards.
So we see an entire history of classroom management systems in place today that have been designed around punishment and rewards. The reward part of this philosophy lives out in the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) movement.
Many teachers working in these punishment/rewards systems will share how they use stickers or other small artifacts to reward kids for good behavior. Most schools report an uptick in prosocial behavior initially. But quickly, the kids who need the most support for their behaviors are back to witnessing only the “good” kids getting the stickers. This reinforces to the troubled student how short they are from the “good” mark. By the time our kids hit the older grades they’ve already learned the hard way – There are rewards out there but I will never get them! It is just another painful reminder of how “bad” I really am. So the reward system can begin to be perceived as a threat to students with ACEs. Incidentally, the “good” kids are also witnessing and solidifying in their minds and developing relationships- who the “bad” kids are and exactly how bad they are.
So, when a classroom or a building rolls out this type of behavior management system, it is with a certain group of kids in mind. They are seeking solutions to help thosekids make better choices and learn how to behave. These systems seem very logical to the adults because this is how most of them were reared. And it was effective! Sadly, people begin to quickly realize these systems work brilliantly – on the kids that don’t need it!
And frustratingly, they seem to make the kids that need it the most – worse. When the program doesn’t work, do we blame the research-based program? Or the teachers for not implementing it with fidelity? Or do we blame the kids?
I have witnessed middle schools that do something called PBIS Friday. It is where one Friday a quarter, all the kids who didn’t get any office referrals or detentions get to go home after lunch. And, you guessed it! All the kids who fell into category B who did get office referrals and/or detentions, stay and work on positive behavior processes. If you hang out in these schools, you will notice by the third quarter it is mostly the same group of kids who do not get to go home early. I ask school leaders, “Are we just rewarding the kids who have the Cause and Effect brains? The brains that wired the way they were supposed to? And aren’t we really just punishing the kids who have fight/flight/freeze brains? The brains that were wired by unbuffered adversity?”
Let’s take a step back and move away from youth to adults.
America has 4.4% of the world’s population and we house 22% of the world’s prisoners. The US incarcerates at a highest level per 100,000 people in the world. You can find a deeper dive into the research here.
We also know that roughly 60% of the people released from prison this year will return within 12 months. This is called Mass Incarceration and it is failing miserably. Not only is this really expensive – it does not have enough success to call it effective!
If you’re bored, here is where you can pull out a calculator and take 2,293,000 inmates in America, multiplied by $30,000 – the rough cost to house an inmate annually. Yikes! Who pays for that? Drum roll please … oh yea, that’s you and me!
Understanding our system’s current philosophy around punishment will help us understand how we got here. The system’s philosophy lies in the choices narrative: You chose to do what you did, therefore you deserve punishment to keep you from doing wrong and we’ll offer rewards to get you on the right path. In this way, we’ll teach you to do better. This is B.F. Skinner Behaviorism 101. But what people fail to understand is we are not typically dealing with “cause and effect” brains that understand the relationship between causes and effects. We are dealing with brains in “fight/flight/freeze” and this type of approach only impedes their ability to heal and become productive, whole, contributing human beings.
Am I saying wipe out incarceration completely? Honestly, I cannot answer that in a definitive way, but I do know there is much that can be done prior to incarceration that we simply aren’t doing. More can be learned about that here in a TED talk from Adam Foss, former Boston prosecutor and criminal justice reform advocate.
Simply put, our grand experiment in punishment does not work.
I think the deeper challenge here is that many people are in a profound love affair with the narrative that says, “If I motivate you through pain I am actually helping you.”
Furthermore, in schools, many teachers truly feel, if we are gentle and form a caring relationship when you screw up, then we are only encouraging bad behavior and ultimately signing you into prison. No one wants to do that to a kid. Yet, many people are alarmed at our youth today and surmise that they simply were not given enough punishment and consequences in their homes, which is why they’re running wild.
But we now have brain science and brain scans that prove this theory wrong. This is the science of trauma-informed, this is the science of resilience. We have the ACEs study, which shows us that pain and neglect is REALLY bad for developing humans.
Refreshingly, Behaviorism is no longer the end-all, be-all to why children and adults act like we do, nor is it the singular road map to change it. Behaviorism is not to be totally abandoned, but it is to be understood as only a surface-level approach that truly lies in the thinking brain and not the survival brain.
What we now know is that kids who spend a lot of time in their survival brain require a connection through their relational brain (aka, co-regulation) to get back into their thinking brain. Once a student is in their thinking brain all sorts of amazing things can happen! Healing and learning being at the top of the list. Which also leads to behavior changes.
We have identified that punishment has been our most common modality for correcting behavior in our American institutions and, let’s face it, inside many families as well. Once we, as a school or organization, begin to buy-in to the current, up-to-date neuroscience and theory of resilience, we quickly realize we are using punishment/rewards to try to help kids succeed. We recognize it’s not working for the toughest kiddos, meaning we still aren’t getting a behavior change and this group of kids are still spending a great deal of time in the office or worse, out of school for suspensions.
So if we aren’t going to punish the kids, what the heck are we going to do?
Critical stop #2: We Can’t Give Consequences to Kids with Trauma.
This is probably the number one misconception hurting this movement in schools and nothing could be further from the truth.
Kids do need boundaries to push against. Kids do need accountability. Kids do need to repair harm. Kids do need safe, supportive adults to do so. Kids do need to understand their stress response system and the way their brain works. Kids do need to be taught strategies and a space and place to get regulated.
And as I always tell teachers, if a kid destroys a classroom or hurts someone, once that kid is calmed down and back in their thinking brain, which could take a full 24 hours, there must be a consequence.
This is perhaps the hardest part of this work, because truth be told, punitive practices are quick and take less manpower from the adults. Restorative practices take time and relationships. And those often require us to learn at least some basic skills to facilitate it effectively, which is counterintuitive to what we’ve previously been taught to do with kids in our pre-service training.
But here’s the beauty: It works. It maintains relationships. Kids are still held accountable and the adults are satisfied because repair was done.
HOWEVER, too often in this movement, I see staff and administrators who experience a transformative shift in attitude and approaches, which is a good thing. But from that moment forward, they report that they find it very difficult to discipline a student who they suspect may be experiencing a great deal of trauma. This is not a good thing.
I work with teenagers who have high ACE scores in an alternative education center. Most of them have experienced suspensions and at times expulsions for behavior. They spend a great deal of their school day locked in fight, flight or freeze. And they are often pretty angry and have no trouble letting us know it.
We are not interested in getting them to simply comply. We are interested in the big work of helping them build their relationship network of safe supportive adults. This network can co-create the ability to develop their thinking brain. We are acutely focused on sharing power with these kids and building trust. We’re giving them the microphone to tell us what they need. To help us see life from their eyes.
We want to grow these kids and not harm them. We want to watch them build hope and a future. This is really hard work as we move through the dense forest that is their well-developed defenses and essential survival systems, helping them settle into an open, sunny meadow of relationship and trust. It’s hard, but it’s important and sacred work where we tread carefully, but steadily.
Lastly, I think that many people think a trauma-informed school is where all the kids are meditating and the teachers are all Zen-like (cue the tinkling spa music) and we’re all smiles and hugs between yoga sessions. Nothing could be further from the truth. This work is hard. And at times, staff members revert into their own survival brain and in the moment, that’s it! They’ve HAD it! And they end up wanting a “pound of flesh” from their kids. But after we get regulated, we go back to our core principles of trauma-informed instruction: We know that behavior is a brain issue and not a character issue, including our own. We also know that often, the stress for our kids is coming from outside the school and they are bringing it in with them to share around. We know that school must be a safe place where every single student matters. And we know that we are called to continue our work of educating the whole child, even in the midst of adversity.
When our kids get dysregulated and say awful things to our staff, we are using restorative circles to repair harm and co-create consequences. The bottom line, the whole thing is messy. We embrace this mess because from this mess comes the beauty.
Furthermore, we also know that as the adults who have the power, we must figure out how to tailor our community to be student centric, to create meaningful and engaging coursework, and to let kids get up and move around. We must give them choice and voice in how, what, and where they learn.
As a whole, we must also recognize the way our policies and system have been wired for families that experience economic security and tend to punish everyone else though practices and procedures and even laws. And we get the chance to rethink and rebuild our policies and practices to encompass all our families.
Many people are beginning to help us see that if we want to talk about Adverse Childhood Experiences and Trauma we also better become comfortable talking about the historic trauma that our system has laid across the shoulders of our most vulnerable families. Because until we are willing to wrestle with the notion that toxic stress is so much bigger than a family system, we are failing this work. Our institutions and communities must choose love as our approach to serving the many types of families that are our community.
Everything we have put into practice so far has come from Jim Sporleder, the Father of the Trauma-informed schools movement. He is teaching us to seek the root cause; to give our kids a voice; to ask and respond versus react and tell. He has also shown us that with a trauma-informed culture in our school, we can raise math and reading scores, increase attendance, decrease office referrals and suspensions and get our kids through.
The most important lesson Jim has proved for us was that we can help explosive kids. We can build a process of love and discipline that helps them heal their brains from toxic stress, build resilience, and complete their education. Kicking them out of school is not the long-term solution. We want to keep discipline in school whenever possible.
…and the latest I’ve recently heard, Trauma-Attuned Environments.
Then there is the biggest conversation of all of them that has but one word, Resilience. I’ve recently learned that this single word has multiple viewpoints, definitions, hopes, and even triggers for a large number of people.
I am just one person and I occupy a relatively small parcel of the world, but this conversation is the entire world to me. And it connects to many others in an equally profound way.
But why are there so many spins on the word trauma? Why are there so many connotations for the word resilience?
And why does this stuff seem to now pop up everywhere? In schools, in medical communities, in social work, in churches, and in families? And if you’ve heard about the impact of trauma on people, does that mean you’re trauma-informed?
This work is causing a seismic shift in mankind. I liken it to the mental space people must have occupied when suddenly some realized that the world wasn’t flat. That we were indeed living on a sphere and not a table. That we would never find the edge and fall off, but instead were ultimately all interconnected and accessible to one another, always.
And once eyes are opened to this conversation, why does it often leave people feeling like their mind is a snow globe that is constantly being shaken up? And most important of all, now that we know what are we going to do? And once we decide what to do, how will we get there, together?
So many questions.
In 2011, I got sober.
In that same year, I found myself in a non-profit that got people out of poverty. I was one of the people who needed out.
Needless to say, 2012 was a year in my life of rapid transformation. For the first time in 37 years, I had a community of safe people, who were more interested in what I currently was and what I could become than what I used to be and what I had done. They were invested in me. They were invested in my contribution. They were offering me power. They were seeking my own personal wisdom, that I had gained from my adversity. I would tell my story, and people’s hair would blow back. Their eyes would become wide. But they didn’t run away. They stayed and asked me to tell them more.
I was with people who, when my kids were literally climbing the walls in public, gently said to me, “Your kids are great and you are a good mom.” What? Are you kidding me? I’ve done horrible things. My kids are broken and it is my fault!
One morning, I read something in a book about how years of addiction and alcoholism warped families. Panicked, I called a friend.
“Have you ever seen warped Tupperware? That shit ain’t coming back!”
I was riddled with guilt and shame, tears streaming. My friend laughed.
And with joy and discernment in her voice, she said, “Rebecca, I work for an eye doctor and we often get eyeglasses that have melted from the sun, usually left on dashboards of a car on a hot summer day. Completely and utterly warped!’ She paused and then gently asked, “And you know what?”
I stammered a feeble, “What?”
She went on, “It takes a lot of hours and it is painstaking, but with patience and care, we restore those frames to as good as new.”
Hope. She and so many others gave me so much hope. No judgment. No trying to fix me. Just a space to co-regulate with caring people as I tried to pull a life together to resemble something I wanted but had never had.
I was wanted. I was included. I was loved.
In July of 2012, the poverty project that I encountered who gave me so much hope and so many relationships that healed me, hired me. Suddenly, I was working with multiple families also wanting out of poverty. And I was organizing numerous middle-class people who had signed on to be their friends. Their support system. Their tribe. Co-learners about what it was going to take to solve poverty in our community.
Suddenly my personal mission became so much bigger than myself.
So, I began to pour through books about poverty and social classes and leadership and spirituality and healing. In this process, I had a director who took me under her wing and created a safe space for me to begin to encounter the middle class from a professional dynamic.
For the first 6 months, we went to meetings and I barely said a word. I was watching and listening. After we would leave these meetings, I would burn her ears with dozens of questions as I tried to figure out how the middle-class expectations worked. I had learned about hidden rules and certainly knew that I had slimmer chances of redemption in a working environment if I accidentally broke one of those rules.
And I didn’t want to make her — or our organization — look bad. So, I quietly soaked it all up. I might’ve thought that all of my expertly-honed survival skills suddenly didn’t apply anymore, but I was wrong. In fact, it’s those exact survival skills that made me flexible enough, enough of a problem-solver, enough of a critical and creative thinker, to allow me to figure out how to fit in. And those survival skills walked a new path; one whose bricks were laid by a new mode of living and loving inside the trusting relationships I had developed. And I became a sponge.
At some point, I swear, I began to feel something functionally changing in my brain. I became curious about this.
Like many, I was stuck under the universal learning that basically all our brains were fixed by age 5. I was under the common knowledge, that when you had done as many drugs and drank as many bottles of vodka as I had, your brain was certainly damaged and would never repair itself. I knew there were these things called brain cells and we only had so many…
But still, I felt something happening to my brain. I was developing the ability to think forward, months at a time. I was developing the language of negotiation and successfully using it in middle-class settings. I was becoming excited about meeting new people and tackling tough problems and working in groups. I was learning how to coach families in our project and their middle-class allies out of distress.
I was seeing more solutions than problems. I was changing. But how could this be? How could this be after all that had happened to me and all that I had done and done to myself?
And while I was experiencing this foundational shift, I was working with and watching other adults who had similar stories; and they were transforming too. They were problem-solving and planning. I was witnessing miracle after miracle. And as the adults got better, our kids transformed right before our eyes. They were becoming those kids we hoped, we knew they were, deep inside.
I was not sure of what was happening or how to name it yet. But I knew one thing for sure; the relationships with a safe supportive community, with the middle-class, had something to do with it.
So, I became fascinated with the brain on poverty. I read and I watched YouTube videos from experts and I scoured the Internet. I tried to read white papers, but quickly realized, I wasn’t quite that smart! However, I did discover, it was a concept others were researching and exploring.
Ultimately I found that poverty DOES wire the brain differently. We had brain scans to prove it. I quickly decided that even though a brain on poverty over-wires its survival functions, (mammalian and reptilian) and under-wires our prefrontal cortex, that didn’t mean we were ignorant, or maladaptive or “less than.” It meant we were brilliant! In fact, our brains had done a remarkable thing to adapt to the environments where the stakes were highest for survival.
Now, while all of this was happening, I began to consult within school systems, doing professional development for teachers and school staff on poverty and what kids in the classroom need to be successful. What families in poverty need from schools to feel safe and connected. As I’m encountering this toxic stress work, I’m immediately giving it to audiences.
I stood on a stage in 2015 and did my first keynote. I shared my theory about toxic stress and poverty and the brain and that somehow relationships of support can heal this.
Again, I was stunned. My ACE score is an 8. I shared the work with my families in our non-profit. All but one had significantly high ACE scores.
Completely by accident, the Internet next led me to the science of resilience.
AND BAMM! My lightning bolt.
The basis of the Core Story is that unbuffered adversity affects developing brains and causes them to over-wire for survival. Our fight/flight/freeze becomes prominent and our default mode of operation. Our stress response systems become over-activated and that causes a host of social and behavioral challenges and lifelong health consequences. This process manifests in many different ways throughout a lifespan.
BUT most importantly, the brain is not “fixed” by age five, but rather it is malleable, or plastic throughout our entire lives. Best of all, the brain WANTS to heal and CAN heal at any age. And that safe supportive relationships and environments are how we activate healing in a brain that has been wired to protect itself and this healing science is called the science of resilience.
So, basically what I was experiencing and what I was witnessing in others, I found verified in a culmination of over 25 years of community research. This suddenly answered the “why” of what Ruby Payne figured out years ago. Kids and adults in poverty respond to relationships. If they have enough safe, supportive, accessible relationships they begin to thrive.
The brain wants to heal and is seeking the relationships needed to do just that. And it turns out that behavior is not a character issue. It’s a freakin’ brain issue!
And to both heal trauma and solve poverty, we use the same resilience-building frameworks. There are solutions.
Of course, by this time, I am falling in love with schools and teachers as I am out in the field doing professional development. I am watching this sense of overwhelm and powerlessness wash across their faces and come through in their voices as they shared how unprepared they felt to help address the many challenges so many of their kids are bringing to school.
So, I soaked up everything I could find about the trauma/resilience-informed movement and began to give it to schools. To communities. To churches. To other people’s families. And to my own.
All of a sudden, I could teach people about this new research and about adversity and the brain on adversity and I could share my ACE score, and people got it. I no longer had to share the details. Just the score. It was profoundly freeing.
Moreover, I also witnessed mom after mom, sit in my office and as we went through the ACE indicator, light bulbs came on. As she realized it wasn’t what was wrong with her but what had happened to her. And every single mother and father that I shared the work with instantly began to wonder what their own children’s ACE scores were. Because all parents and caregivers fundamentally want good lives for their children. Transformatively, this was not a gotcha game. These were “there is hope and we can heal” conversations.
As I began to share and connect people to this work, I watched it start to spread like wildfire. Here in Kansas, I have been able to be a small part of growing the movement.
So back to the beginning of this post. Why so many terms around trauma?
Truth be told, I don’t have a good answer for that, except that as people encounter this work, they are creating a response to it and sharing it with others.
When I contacted Jane Stevens at ACES Connection and asked her to help me wrap my head around all these different trauma words, she said, “Rebecca, truth be told no one really has it figured out yet. We are still inventing wise action. Lead your base how you feel comfortable and ultimately in time, we will find our way together.”
So, I researched and began talking about the continuum like this:
Trauma-Aware: You just heard about the science of adversity, ACEs, trauma, resilience, etc. and you are trying to take it in.
Trauma-Sensitive: You are actively seeking more info, training, people and you are becoming sensitive to trauma around you, in your classroom, community, and in your own life.
Trauma-Responsive: You and your school, organization or community are ”all in” and actively seeking ways to implement and create a culture that is responsive to trauma and relationship rich to buffer adversity and build resilience.
You understand the widespread pervasiveness of trauma and that it is not about an at-risk population but instead seeing the entire population-at-risk.
You are recognizing that we can heal brains and that happens by creating supportive environments that buffer the adults who are important in kids lives, including you.
You understand healing is possible and for that, we are all responsible.
You know the only way we are going to get there is to shake loose of our behaviorism paradigms and omit punishment from our innermost places, our homes, our schools and classrooms and our communities.
You know that true and sustainable accountability is taught and modeled not threatened, shamed or forced.
You embrace that there’s hope and it comes through connection. And connection is the only thing that is going to save us.
Trauma-informed is the last stop on the continuum and it takes years to get there.
So the newsflash here is we are never done, really done. This is culture work and it is always ongoing. A school or organization should not claim trauma-informed until it has been living under a trauma-responsive framework that is fundamentally changing who staff are as people and as a collective.
A trauma-informed system has thrown out punitive policies and adapted remaining policy to reflect trauma-informed practices.
We see every person and child as someone who faces adversity and needs buffers to mitigate potential toxic stress from that adversity.
Lastly, and paramount is that our school or organization has experienced a leadership change and the practices and culture of trauma/resilience-responsive have remained.
How often have we seen strong leadership start and grow an amazing shift in culture…and then once that person leaves, everything the staff did under that leadership follows the leader out the door? Once we are truly a trauma-informed school or organization the culture and practices are deeply embedded in everything we do and all that we are.
This continuum takes several years to truly move through. It is bumpy and there are bruises and people get triggered and the “pound of flesh” mentality rears its ugly head…and we backslide.
But at the end of the day, the week, and the school year, deep down we know differently now, and we continue to press forward. Because in the knowing, there is simply no going back.
So, I train schools on this. I typically spend three full days over a year laying out the science. Opening myself up to create the heart shift through personal stories and obtaining the buy-in to become a trauma responsive school or district. I have lost count as to how many schools I have done this with.
I began to recognize that in order to create true trauma-informed schools there were going to have to be many refueling stations for staff along the way. Otherwise, schools would get stuck.
So, we designed two conferences. One is Bridging to Resilience that happens every spring in Kansas City with Jim Sporleder. The other is Moving the Needle which happens in the fall in Wichita, both in Kansas.
We have also designed Equipping Resilience Coaches, a summer training, where a pair of educators come from a building and go through an intensive 4-day institute designed to equip them to go back and lead their peers to the next stop on the continuum of trauma/resilience-informed. A year-long coaching package is provided for the Resilience Coaches because we all know, leading and sustaining this change is a huge endeavor.
“Anyone telling you that you will be trauma-informed after a 3-hour workshop is selling you snake oil.” – Jane Stevens Founder of ACEs Connection
This is long-view work. It takes time, energy, investment and more time.
In the beginning of this conversation, I also spoke of the fluid definition of resilience. For us, resilience is less of an outcome and more of a verb. It is the creation of safe supportive adult relationships for kids. For parents. For ourselves.
Resilience means: I see you. I hear you. I’m with you. You are not alone and you will not experience the adversity in your life alone. We are connected.
I beg of people who are encountering this work, to not make resilience the next connotation of grit. A label. A way to describe a robust person or a weak one. This work isn’t about putting kids or people in a bubble either. If you do that, you are hurting us. You are hurting the potential for people to understand they can heal and heal others.
I am thoroughly convinced that we do not have more trauma as a human race than we have ever had. But the reason this feels like a pandemic in our schools and communities is that resilience is evaporating right before our eyes.
Resilience is a social fabric of connection. It is “creatable.” So there is a great amount of possibility attached to this process. The less connection and support a person has the weaker their social fabric. This makes them more prone to experience toxic stress when life’s adversity comes. Picture our communities 20 years ago. Lions and Kiwanis clubs. Packed churches. Block Mother signs hanging in windows. Safe Space signs on doorways. Kids welcome on empty lots in the community to play ball and be kids. The village effect.
Resilience is the availability of safe, supportive, adult relationships in your life. The more you have of those, the more likely you are to experience adversity that does not swing into toxic stress.
And lastly, we now know that the people who live in disadvantaged circumstances…people who have suffered profound trauma and are personifying the side effects of toxic stress…are not lost causes!
With this living science, we can move from managing social problems to managing social solutions.
I will close with a story.
Someone who I am extremely close to and admire deeply, recently spoke at a conference. She has 10 ACEs. She shared about her healing journey and the forgiving of her mother who was also her abuser. My friend rose up through our poverty project and wrestled her way out in a community of safe, supportive loving relationships. She shared that after speaking at an event, someone came up to her and asked her if she was angry at the child welfare system for not removing her permanently from her mother when she was little.
She, replied, “No. I’m angry that no one saw my mother and helped her. Because I now know that it’s possible. If they had seen her and helped her, they could have saved us both.”
Many schools – including schools in San Francisco, CA, Spokane, WA, San Diego, CA, and Walla Walla, WA — have integrated trauma-informed practices into classrooms, playgrounds and school policies. These schools have seen 90 percent drops in suspensions after one year; after three years, the schools no longer expel students and some no longer even have the need for in-school suspensions. The grades, test scores and graduation rates increased, and the students most benefited were those with the highest ACE scores. By the end of 2017, several hundred schools across the U.S. were integrating trauma-informed and resilience-building practices based on ACEs science.
So what about our kids’ education? What is Redesign? Why are we doing it?
I heard Ginger Lewman speak last week at a huge tech conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, UCET (with 1700+ participants in attendance of the conference).
Ginger talked about the “second half of the chess board” and Pall Payasam. She used it to help us understand the concept of exponential leaps in technology. She also used it to help us wrap our minds around where we are currently on the chess board as a society.
I invite you to look at that legend here:
Social Scientist and Bringers of the Future say we are already about 6 spaces on the second half of the chess board, toward the last square. Our kids will need to understand a world of flying cars, unmanned trucks and cars, restaurants and stores that have no people working in them, and scanners that can detect disease and cancer without ever touching our bodies. That stuff is already here. It is just not brought to scale yet. But our kids and our grandkids will live in a world none of us can even really imagine.
This world will be highly technical. Innovation will continue to drive it and it is a race for the Bringers of the Future every single day.
Our kids will need to understand critical thinking, design, unintended consequences and collaboration – all on steroids. We are not just making leaps and bounds as a society, we are leaping exponentially. We are now advancing so quickly, the average person, (like me), can barely wrap our minds around this.
Almost every single aspect of our lives has been advanced by technology. Yet our schools still look and feel for the most part like they did 100 years ago. Rows and bells and compliance and standardized tests. So often our kids are being asked to learn information that they can get on google.
Some may agree with me and some may not, but in my opinion, the product of No Child Left Behind are young adults and current students whose largest driving questions were/are “Is this going to be on the test?”
Now, to Redesign. Our employers and innovators are telling us, we are turning out a workforce that is woefully unprepared. Not just in one area, but in MANY areas. There was a massive listening tour by Randy Watson and KSDE. They talked to urban and rural areas. They talked to Chambers and business leaders. They talked to parents and community leaders. They talked to students.
Next they mined data. They began to understand two things. That according to the National Student Clearinghouse AND the US Department of Labor, public education has a long leap to make to truly help every student become a healthy thriving adult and meet the needs of the current and future workforce.
The thought process is moving away from test scores as our only predictor of success and moving towards, what really matters. Creating Thriving employable/employed adults who are equipped to handle public and private life.
So this looks like Personalized Learning for EVERY student. Can you even begin to imagine what the sheer thought of this concept has done to teachers? Truly capturing learning in public education that is best for each individual student?
To me, this seems like a Moby Dick. But, Kansas is leading the world on this.
Yes, you just read that right. Kansas is leading the world.
Additional pieces are Civic Engagement, Project Based Learning and of the highest priority for schools now is Social and Emotional Intelligence.
It is no secret our country and our communities, big and small are struggling socially and emotionally.
I am a parent of three boys. I am not highly concerned about achievement for my kids. They are living a life that is higher up on the Maslow’s Pyramid and achievement will come naturally for them.
I want kids who know how to be nice, know how to show up, know how to collaborate and invent and design and create and most of all, kids who know how to care for those among them that are struggling.
My kids and their futures are so much more than a test score.
Redesign is scary. It is messy and we are going to have to give up some cherished beliefs and really look at where we are and where we are going. Change is messy. Transformation can be painful.
I am really proud of USD 418. I have been hanging around several Redesign schools this year. My hope is that in the face of adversity, USD 418 does not back down. You have accepted a brave challenge to figure out how to transform school, which will transform lives and our community.
Our teachers and administrators have been researching, and discussing and reaching out to parents and the community and researching some more. Many educators who are a part of this, have been spending incredible extra hours, thinking this massive overhaul through and trying to put it into action. I want to thank you. I see you and your sacrifice. I am grateful.
I will close with this.
If it is the right thing to do, it will be hard and there will be opposition.
Don’t back down. The future is here.
I come from the trailer park and now spend countless hours helping families move out of generational poverty and into the middle class.
There’s plenty of discussion to go around about the topic of poverty. Oddly enough, there is a great deal of talk and research, but it seems society has a difficult time truly helping people walk completely out of poverty. Which is why I believe I have encountered and now cultivate something very special. In the past 7 years I have brought myself and three sons completely out of poverty and have helped countless families do the same. Lives changed forever.
The most powerful part of the process I use are relationships. Relationships between generationally poor and generationally middle class people. These relationships turn into friendships and these friendships become transformation.
Which is what intrigues me most about the Trauma-Responsive movement. It is wired around healing and empowering and connection. Around relationships. Relationships are Resilience. When I first encountered Jane Stevens, https://acestoohigh.com/about/ , at a conference, she said something profound in her training:
“When building the trauma framework with communities, the fundamental practice is that we approach the community by saying, what do you need us to know, and what do you need from us — versus, outsiders, who have never experienced the problem, coming in with all kinds of solutions they have conjured up from observing.”
She may or may not have known that she struck a strong chord with me, as this is the cornerstone of the way I set the table in my projects for people to engage and start their journey out of poverty, out of the trailer park, out of the chaos.
You see, when I first bumped up against the poverty resolution project in my own community, I was pretty beat up. I was living in a trailer that should have been condemned, with three little boys who were struggling at the hand of my deficiency as a mother and I knew it. Poverty was my code and it drove every single aspect of my existence – good and bad. I was exhausted and everyday I experienced varying degrees of powerlessness and overwhelm.
Not to mention the shame.
I drank shame straight from the jug on a daily basis. I was failing as a mother. My love for my sons was fierce, but my ability to parent was in short supply. So, the first night I wound up at the “class to get people out of poverty,” I was both suspicious of the middle class presence and terrified of being judged. The facilitator took me and about 7 other moms into a room and the first thing she said to us was this, “We see families struggling in our county and we think poverty is the root cause of it and we want to solve it. And we need people, like you, who are living it to tell us how to do it.”
Those words Changed. My. Life.
Nobody from the middle class had ever once asked my opinion about what was going on down at 90 degrees below the poverty level.
The other most remarkable piece about that statement was this:
For the first time in my 3 decades in this small rural community, I heard someone say, “We see you now. We really see you and we are sorry and we want to know how we can help.”
Asking and Responding.
Instead of Reacting and Telling.
“What happened to you?” Instead of “Why do you do that?”
Shortly after this encounter, my life started ramping up toward what I consider a miraculous transformation from the trailer park to a powerful new life full of wonderful people and a material rich experience. Yes, I now have a home and a good vehicle and my kids do not know scarcity. Which is a wildly big deal.
However, the biggest deal, is I have a purpose. I have a community. I can contribute. And I can still be authentic and do not have to hide my past. My malady and calamity became my automatic entrance into the lives of countless new families as I speak their language and identify their own pain through my story. Though relationships and meditation, I have been healed of my past hurts. My ACE’s. https://acestoohigh.com/got-your-ace-score/
This is so powerful.
AND because of this movement, I have been brought into an incredible canvas of possibilities as we all begin to push the language of love and resilience…as we begin to seek healing for ALL brokenness…as we begin to omit punishment from our innermost places. I believe with all of my heart that with the Trauma-Responsive framework, we can win.
Relationships heal people. Love wins. Community offers hope and purpose. These cherished stones are not built in isolation. They are polished from the ebb and flow of spending time with people and seeking ways to help them find their best selves and allowing them to mirror that possibility for own lives.
I am watching friendship after friendship form between people from generational poverty and people from generational middle class. I am witnessing resilience occur through this process. I am seeing single moms become the people they were designed to be. I am observing histories of trauma suddenly become springboards for transmitting deep insight to communities about how people end up on certain life courses. It is powerful to be a small cog in the wheel of communities and generations healing in rural America.
Never in a thousand lifetimes will I be able to repay the universe for where it has brought me. Never in this life will I be content to rest. I have families to build. Communities to heal. Lives to turn from at-risk to at-promise.
With this incredible life has come boundless opportunity and friendship. I have been blessed to be part of a partnership with Jim Sporleder from the documentary Paper Tigers, https://vimeo.com/110821029 . We are hosting a conference together. The conference is designed to bring in all kinds of people for the biggest conversation of both healing trauma and solving poverty. I am keenly aware that trauma is not isolated to poverty. That it affects all of us. However, I work with countless families to help them walk out of poverty and they ALL have high ACE scores. Every. Single. One.
And I would add that poverty is its own special kind of ACE. For any of us who have hung around this movement, we know that trauma is not isolated to the ten ACE study indicators. It is so much more than that. When I train schools, I help educators understand that the two key components for trauma are powerlessness and overwhelm. I lived in poverty for 39 years of my life and I guarantee it is full of powerlessness and overwhelm.
And the beauty of this is, that to both heal trauma and solve poverty and truly transform our communities and institutions, we use the same resilience building frameworks.
Please take a moment to look at our conference. We are currently requesting proposals. We would love to meet you. The world needs your resilience building superpowers. #Lovewins
I am not even sure where to start. But, I know I need to write about this. I need to give this to the world. Perhaps to another mother who is facing the darkness and can’t see her way out. Perhaps she is watching her children caught in the cyclone that is her life. I think she is who I am writing this for. And maybe for me too.
I am doing some amazing work with a community that is fast becoming dear to my heart. I look at the people who keep showing up that are trying to wrap their heads around the trauma-informed movement. People who are deeply committed to the lost, the marginalized, the addicted, the incarcerated, the foster kids and the parents who have lost their children to the system. In the room where these gatherings take place, there is love and a desire to learn how to solve some of our most horrific societal problems. These champions are all bought in to the concept that the people suffering beneath these stories are in desperate need of healing. That our communities and our systems are also in need of healing.
We unpacked the truth about the ACE’s (Adverse Childhood Experiences) science today. Collectively, we deepened our learning that trauma knows no socio-economics, no race, no geography. Trauma is universal and it is not about “them.” It is about “us.” The coalition is building and we are on the brink of spilling this movement into many circles. Into many families and into our own homes.
However, all of this is for another day. Another blog post.
In all raw honestly, I am at my keyboard tonight because, today, I actually revisited some of my own “stuff.” Stuff I thought I had healed from. Perhaps the darkness will always be available to me. Perhaps it will always sneak up on me out of nowhere.
My partner in this work sent me part two of a clip about abuse and the foster care system, called Removed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvqRI1Wjn14 We had watched part one as a group a month ago. The question for the group was: did they see their agency or non-profit in the film? If so, what could have been done differently for the little girl Zoe and her brother who had been removed from the home?
Zoe had been taken because she had been beaten by her mom’s boyfriend for intervening when he was attacking her mom. Zoe’s life spirals farther out of control as she is taken into the system. Finally Zoe ends up with a woman who truly “gets her.” In part two, things get hard as Zoe has to lose her brother for a second time as he is adopted out.
As I sat in my home this weekend and watched part two, I was mad. Not at anyone. But the character I found myself identifying with was Zoe’s mom. You watch as she gets ready for court. You see the boyfriend in the background. Zoe’s mom ends up on the stand and the courts are asking her if she even understands why she is there. Has she made any changes in her life to get her kids back?
The only reply she can muster is, “I love my kids.”
They respond with, “That is not the point. How have you changed? That is what we are asking.”
The tale continues and the little boy is removed permanently. The mom meets with Zoe on scheduled visits. The mom is broken and weak. She is “small” and gentle, but incapable of being what Zoe needs. The foster mom fights for Zoe and in the end of the documentary, Zoe becomes a teacher. Zoe, while certainly scarred from all of her childhood wounds and disfunction, turns out ok. Her story is not her mothers. Her story is her own.
After viewing part two, I was unsettled. I knew in my heart why. I felt my mind screaming, what about Zoe’s mom?! What about her?! I felt frustrated.
We met as a group today and showed part two of Removed. Afterward, we were in a corner handing out books for the book study. A police officer came up to me, and with gentle eyes, said, “So, I take it you were a Zoe?”
I stammered for a minute and then tears started streaming down my face, and I managed to choke out, “No, I was Zoe’s mom.” His strong and kind gaze did not change. He just nodded knowingly.
I managed to choke out, “But a group of people saved me. Saved me from that.”
By this time, he had his books and moved on, but I had lost it. I could not stop the flood gate of tears. Which is super unusual for me. I feel deeply and empathize quickly and often tear up. But loosing it is a whole ‘nother deal. One of the women I work with came up and asked what was wrong. So in broken, rapid fire bits, I spit it out, and she threw her arms around me and said, “No! You are not Zoe’s mom. You are wonderful and amazing and I love you so much!” I managed to collect myself after a few minutes and moved into the next meeting.
But I knew I needed to write this. I knew I needed to share. You see, while my boys never saw me be abused, they did live in the cyclone. My cyclone. When my oldest was seven, my middle was three and my youngest was one, I was cycling in and out of hospitals from alcoholism. I didn’t have a drinking problem, I had a stopping problem. Every time I would quit drinking, I would go into DT’s, (delirium tremens). It was ugly. My life was a horrible merry-go-round that I couldn’t get off. And the brutal price for continued admission was going to cost me my children. For 5 years before I got sober, I watched my life play out like some strange movie that I felt powerless to stop. Powerless. I adored my kids. But I couldn’t stop the ride. I had no idea how.
I saw that in Zoe’s mom. I know the feeling she was experiencing on that witness stand. I relived my own powerlessness. From 2006 until 2011, I lived everyday terrified that someone was going to find out just how sick I really was and rip my children away from me. In January of this year, I will celebrate my 7th year clean and sober. I will celebrate my release from slavery. I will celebrate my redemption. I will do it in a room full of people who picked me up out of the pit of despair and loved me until I could love myself.
Tonight, I sit in a warm home with three healthy kids and a husband who loves me. Christmas is covered and our annual traditions are planned and will be carried out. I know what will happen tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that.
But I also sit tonight with the memory of what it means to be Zoe’s mom. I sit with the burn of what it would have been like if I couldn’t have found the grace offered to me by people; the grace to get better. So, I am writing for all the moms and dads out there who are still spinning out from their own trauma and perhaps dragging their kids through the cycle. On the merry-go-round and you do not know how to get off.
I want you to know that I see you. I see you in the film Removed. I see you in Zoe’s mom. I see you out in front of the school picking up your kids. I see you walking to the Kwik Shop for milk. I see you. I do not judge you. I love you.
I want you to know that the only way I can repay the world for giving me the life I have now is to continue to fight for you. To relentlessly create a world where all of the moms like Zoe’s and like me have an opportunity to be met with love and grace and mercy. Have an opportunity to not be thrown away but to be saved.
There is a way out. And it doesn’t start with you being punished or discarded to teach you to do something different.
It begins with your community realizing that you are stuck. That you are powerless and that it is likely that you will not make it without our help. Our love, our support. Not our disdain. Not our consequences. You need love and resilience that is built through safe, supportive, and understanding relationships. You are not the enemy. You are just a Zoe that grew up. I will keep you close to my heart. For me, you will not be “removed.” You will be redeemed.