A PATH TO DESTRUCTION PART II
Hurt people hurt themselves
Given the proper treatment, people who have experienced trauma can get better.
“For every dollar we spend on the birth to the 5-year-old time period, we will save over $13 on that person as an adult. As Frederick Douglass said, ‘It is easier to build a strong child than to repair a broken man.’” This is the second piece in a two-part series on trauma, also known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and how it relates to addiction and other self-destructive behaviors.
In the last issue of The Forum, we were introduced to Susan Garcia, an adult who experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that ended up nearly destroying her life. After being abandoned by her parents and being moved around from family member to family member, she found herself a victim of sexual abuse at 14, using drugs and alcohol, and in an abusive relationship.
“I was still searching for the answer to that nagging question, ‘What is wrong with me?’” Garcia said. “I would wake up following every order and fulfilling every need. The verbal abuse was always present, but I have had plates of food thrown in my face, been thrown across a room, beaten and thrown in a ditch, and even had my head slammed into the floor.”
Garcia is clever, and she believes that her abandonment led to attention-seeking from any and every person who would give it to her. “I watched everything people did, and I learned what would get myself attention, good or bad. I think I felt like I deserved the sexual trauma I endured because I spent so much time striving for attention from men.”
The loss Garcia endured still haunts her. “I didn’t get to spend a ton of time with my siblings since I wasn’t raised with them,” she said. “But, I loved them, and I always wanted to be with them. Then the guilt and horrible thoughts about myself after my son’s death just took me to a very dark place where I began self-medicating with alcohol and drugs on a regular basis. I plowed into verbal and physically abusive relationships, bouncing in and out of jail all the way.”
“I swore I would never do all those things that had haunted my childhood to my own children,” Garcia said. “I was wrong. The fear of becoming that person, the one that abandons her family, her children and even her friends, I carried with me well into my early 30s. Then came the realization that I’d become that person. I learned to mask my fear, to seem tough, not to need anyone. But it was all a lie that I told myself.”
“Thankfully, CADA (the Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse) helped me turn my fear into hope, which eventually blossomed into faith,” Garcia said. “I am in a much better place now. I am stable. I don’t blame me anymore for the things I had no control over.”
That is the good news. Given the proper treatment, people can get better. “There are specific psychotherapies that provide a marked improvement in the person’s ability to let go of the trauma response,” said Dr. Kent Dean, director of clinical development at CADA. “Some medications can also help with symptom relief in posttraumatic stress disorder. Trauma care isn’t generally a lay activity since the process and possible complications of treatment present a potentially catastrophic outcome if poorly implemented.”
Signs of Trauma
Clay Walker is director of juvenile services for Caddo Parish. “What I observe from my vantage point is a lack of coping skills,” he said. “Frequent emotional outbursts, an inability to calm down … every argument becomes physical, and there is a fair amount of substance abuse to cover up the trauma. The pattern of problems all stem from the same inability to cope with life’s frustrations. Their emotional plates are constantly full from the past trauma such that any crisis sends them over the edge.”
“Just imagine a 9-year-old girl asleep in her bed,” Walker explained. “Her stepfather comes home drunk at 1:30 in the morning, and the door slams against the wall with a thud. He knocks over a vase as he stumbles down the hallway. He opens her bedroom door, and the bright light from the hallway shines on her face in her dark room. He sexually abuses her. This abuse happens three nights a week for four years. This is a child who lives in fight or flight. Her brain is soaking in cortisol.”
“She goes to school completely on edge seeing possible abusers in all men,” Walker said. “On any given day that the teacher is turning off the lights for a presentation and then turning them back on again to discuss the topic – every time that light comes back on in the classroom, she is transported to her bedroom with a bright light in her face. The teacher has no idea, but the child is preparing to fight off a sexual attacker.”
“If that is this child’s experience, what do you imagine her conduct grade is in that class?” Walker asked. “When a male school resource officer or assistant principal of discipline comes to confront her, walking toward her assertively, pointing his finger at her as he stares at her … how does she respond to that person? How many arrests does she have for disturbing the peace, fighting or simple battery? How many adults that she encountered saw an angry, disrespectful child? How many saw an injured, fearful and defensive child?”
A Community Dedicated to Addressing ACEs
As you can see, people are working on this problem from several different lanes. What is needed is extensive universal trauma education of counselors, educators, health-care providers, social workers and the legal system – anyone who works with children, really. “Trauma is widespread and under-recognized, even by many therapists,” Dean said. “It is also highly responsive to proper treatment by qualified mental health professionals.”
Dean also stressed the role of community awareness to break the stigma associated with substance-use disorders. “Community initiatives toward awareness of the existence and role of trauma are important, as is making resources available for those with posttraumatic stress disorder.”
White agreed, saying, “It’s also about resources. The earlier we address concerns, the better the treatment outcome. Once parents realize the impact of trauma, we must immediately show them how to move forward. After all, we are all human, and everyone makes mistakes. The important point is not to blame but to work to strengthen protective factors to ensure optimal success. And by focusing on prevention, we will hopefully eliminate the amount of funding we currently spend on intervention.”
Walker added, “We need a community trained to identify (ACEs) and respond in an appropriate way. The trauma has to be stopped, and the child has to have a chance to heal and be allowed to make mistakes along the way. There should be trauma and de-escalation training for all relevant fields of work.”
“But that is reactive,” Walker added.
“We also need a lot more done on a policy level to prevent the trauma. We need pre-K for all children. Ninety percent of the brain is developed by 5 years old. We need to treat children based on that knowledge. We need to apply our resources based on that knowledge. And if you study the Heckman equation, you’ll find that for every dollar we spend on the birth to the 5-year-old time period, we will save over $13 on that person as an adult.”
The Cost of Ignoring ACEs
Walker painted a bleak picture of a future where ACEs and trauma have not been addressed. “The cycle of poverty and trauma will continue to swirl through our community, pulling in the poor and the young,” he said. “This has to be addressed collectively on a scale to match the problem. What we are beginning to see, now that we are studying trauma, is that nearly all of the parents accused of the abuse or neglect have a background of their own abuse or neglect. We have to address what they did or failed to do as a parent, but you can only really address that by discovering and dealing with their own trauma as a child.”
Dean summed it up by saying simply, “Unresolved trauma begets more trauma. Hurt people hurt people.”
You can learn more about trauma and how it impacts our community at CADA’s “Let’s Talk about Trauma,” an upcoming free event at Robinson Film Center on Sept. 20. Registration begins at 5:30 p.m., and refreshments will be served. There will be a panel discussion with our experts, followed by a Q&A from the audience. For more information, visit www.cadanwla.org or call Susan Reeks at (318) 222-8511.
– Susan Reeks