Yesterday, I went to my district’s institute day and I had both the sadness and the privilege of attending a session on how to help kids who are dealing with chronic trauma in their personal lives – primarily kids who have faced repeated sexual and physical abuse at the hands of a family member or caretaker.
The woman who spoke was this amazingly empowered and powerful child psychologist who, on a daily basis, sees kids who’ve been to hell and back, don’t trust anyone, and have absolutely no adult supports in their lives. They come to school with nobody who cares about them and then somehow, on top of the fact that their oppositionally defiant and have to flight or fight every single day of their lives with every single social interaction that comes their way, then suddenly they have to learn concepts and study and write quizzes and assignments and interact with people they don’t know who are outside their social circle. It’s something I think of from time to time, but then again, in the onslaught of everything else that teachers – especially new ones – have to think about day to day, I don’t as much as I want to.
What hurt me the most though about this presentation, was the idea of a cycle of negative thoughts.
Psychologists and experts are of the belief that when kids have experienced this kind of trauma, they talk themselves down. They tell themselves that they’re bad and no good and that they deserved what they got. They’re ashamed of themselves and where they came from and the kinds of terrible and unbeknownst “adult” behaviours they’ve engaged in with people who are supposed to love them and who they trust in their own ways. And this negative self talk permeates into so many other areas of their lives. Suddenly, everything becomes “I can’t do it”, “I’m worthless”, “I don’t deserve love”, “I’m not attractive”, “I’m not smart”. And that becomes that child’s story. And on top of that, they have guttural emotional reactions to badness in their other relationships; they either disassociate completely, or they become overly and overtly touchy, volatile, or inappropriately sexual. Their organizational and fine motor skills, their ability to grasp concepts, falls secondly to sleeping with one eye open, watching their backs, and mistrusting and tossing everything good about themselves and the world into the trash.
I often don’t correlate my own misgivings, mistakes and deficiencies with this kind of psychological turmoil. I see them as truths. Hard-lined truths about the way I am and the story that’s been written for me, and the people in my life. I consider myself “lucky” a lot of the time – that I somehow got away with successes and obtaining close relationships because of the fact that I am a miserable, ugly, worthless, unintelligent and overall unable person. These are things I believe about myself to the core of my being and I don’t think of them as results of my own chronic hells that I’ve faced, the bullying I endured even after being fortunate enough to have been air-lifted out of this private 9-year old hell day after day. I often think of myself as someone who can carry that weight on her own and even when she can’t, deserves to carry that burden, and feel deficient and feel ugly and feel stupid and feel like a bad person, if only because that’s just how it is.
I hear about these things – what happens to the brain during and after a traumatic event, the aftermath of trauma, the state of arousal where kids are hyper-aware, can’t calm down, are essentially looking over their shoulder for anyone who would hurt them again… I think of these things and it makes me so sad. Not just for me, but for anyone else who’s been in my shoes and had to put countless measures in place for themselves because they can do nothing and have no help, so they are forced to constantly protect themselves from potential harms and triggers and pains and abusers… against all the rapists and harmers and bad people in the world. Against the person they sent to the grave as an innocent and free man who is fondly remembered by all who knew him in their tiny little town.
I’m sad. I mourn the loss of all those childhoods. They serve as a reminder for me that for an educator, there is so much more at stake and involved than whether a kid can pass an exam, or whether a kid can read. I don’t want to fail anyone. I hope I can at some point reach the kind of experience where I no longer feel like I am.