I spent most of the past week in New York City traveling to various boroughs with several passionate and fun colleagues. We provided trainings on trauma-informed care, and suggestions on how to reduce restraint and seclusion, to various agencies. Most of our time was spent in residential children’s facilities. The beliefs and attitudes we encountered varied greatly from agency to agency and person to person. I came home deeply touched by some of the people I met and sad and worried about others.
My portion of the trainings was to lecture on the concept that what the mental health system labels as symptoms are actually adaptations to childhood traumatic experiences. My charge was to teach the clinicians that what they were trained to see as illnesses and symptoms have trauma as the basic reason for their existence. My point was that, rather than being smitten by illness, people adapt to what has happened to them. As self-injury is a great concern to most providers, and one of the behaviors that ends up with people being locked away and tied down, SIV was a primary focus of my training. I did not have much time for my sessions, so I thought long and hard about how to prioritize what I wanted people to learn.
When I heard one of the facility directors begin his introduction of our training by first addressing his employees as those who do “such heroic work with very severely disturbed children…” I knew the most important message I wanted to give. A change of perspective was my greatest gift to offer.
So everywhere we traveled I decided to emphasize that perhaps instead of working with severe pathology, the staff was spending their time with powerful, courageous survivors. And while their work has enormous challenges, it is also a privilege to be part of creating a healing environment for courageous children coping as best as they can with the horrors of their histories. While the people who worked with the kids acknowledged that all of their histories had stories of horrible loss, abuse, and/or cruelty, they hadn’t recognized how strong the children are. The perceived them to be ill or broken, especially those who lived with SIV.
So what I asked them to offer the children was a sense of dignity. Not only respect for what they have survived and are coping with, but a climate of dignity, of pride. Including for the children who are still bleeding or burned or bruised, for they are the strong survivors by their very existence.
We have our scars, how do we see them? Are we ashamed? What do they represent to us? I thought of the incredible prose, poetry, and artwork I published in The Cutting Edge. There were several poems that came in over the years that had the same title, “Battle Scars.” They gave me a perspective I still cherish about my own scars, that they are the reminders left from wounds received in a battle hard fought. A battle that was a fight for survival, coping with what felt unbearable, while finding the courage to dare to learn to live. What a dignified struggle, to not be dead yet in spite of tremendous adversity. There is no shame in coping. The important thing is to recognize what the battle is and how strong we really are.
So, those are my recent adventures and thought. What I’d like to know is what you would teach about SIV if we could have traveled to those places together?