Trauma-xxx: Getting Called All the Names in the Book…and More!

It’s a continuum.

I’m hearing it all…

Trauma-Aware. Trauma-Sensitive. Trauma-Responsive. Trauma-Informed. Trauma-Empowered. Trauma-Invested.

…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.

At some point, I stumbled on to a video by The Center for Developing Child on toxic stress.

I was stunned. There. It. Was.

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.

Not long after that, I found the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) research.

I found the documentary Paper Tigers.

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.”


No one gets left behind.


An excerpt from ACESTOOHIGH.COM.

Under: Who is Using the ACEs Science?

  • 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.

Looking Forward Through the Lens of Why

So what about our kids’ education? What is Redesign? Why are we doing it?

Ginger Lewman UCET 2018

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.

Healing Trauma and Solving Poverty

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, , 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.


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, . 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 

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 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: 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.