SIV: Dignity, anyone?

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?

3 Responses to “SIV: Dignity, anyone?”

  1. Tracy Says:

    Ah! What a challenge, and what a gift for those kids and the helpers to have you! Yes, they admit the horror stories of what these kids have gone through but seem to have the “get over it” approach. I’m so glad you offered another perspective! I would have said I was one of those kids and I was given up on by the time I was 16 by the system because I had been there for years already and was still engaging in self abuse…how tragic…and how fortunate that I didn’t buy into that, that my life was destined to be lived out in a state mental hospital! I was a major problem because of my cutting, but they offered me no outlets and no hope. Thank goodness for real help in the world, had to get out of the system for that…and I’m not ashamed of my scars. I’m sad that I thought I had to cut myself to feel better, that I learned that it’s okay for me to be abused. I feel differently now.

  2. Ruta Mazelis Says:

    Thanks so much for your words Tracy. Sometimes I wonder if surviving “treatment” is nearly as hard as surviving the trauma, especially abuse, that preceded the treatments so many of us get re-wounded by. I don’t know about you, but I am still often incredulous about living the life I have now. Sure there are struggles and challenges, but living is so different from surviving, and all the small joys and freedoms are not small at all.

    SO very glad that you made it out…

  3. Natasha Walter-Fisk, LPC Says:

    Thank you for helping professionals understand more about resilience and how cutting is an attempt to adapt and develop coping skills. We professionals worry about vicarious traumatization, but we need to be reminded that we can also experience vicarious resilience. The more you focus on something, the better you are able to perceive it. Thus, in our work with clients / patients we need to focus on resilience and surviving and instilling the hope that beyond surviving there is thriving. To those of you who have fought the battle and live without cutting now, I would very much like to hear what worked for you and how you got to where you are.
    Natasha Walter-Fisk, LPC
    Let’s Deal With It, Professional Counseling, Coaching, Classes

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