What I learned about the importance of ‘tend and befriend’ while surrounded by a SWAT team

aswat2The pretty South African woman sitting next to me said our flight from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth was taking longer than expected, although I hadn’t noticed. I arrived in South Africa only a few hours before. Jet lagged, I was wrestling with the cellophane wrapper guarding the plastic cutlery that came with my in-flight meal.

She told me she was flying to “PE” (what the locals call Port Elizabeth) to attend a luncheon with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who had flown there earlier that day. As she smoothed her cocktail dress and pushed a loose hair behind her ear, she asked if she could squeeze pass me for a quick exit once the plane touched down.

Having learned Clinton was in town, I wasn’t surprised when we landed and could see emergency vehicles, their lights flashing, parked near the terminal. Cynically, I thought of the money and resources spent in the spirit of good deeds, something I too was guilty of as I flew from the U.S. to South Africa for a conference on violence in the Congo. As if there wasn’t plenty of violence in America I could be addressing.

Of late, I had come to expect violence as commonplace. The last two years as a trauma-focused psychotherapist largely involved supporting people as they worked to create lives without violence or its lingering effects. That’s what being “trauma-informed” often means: being violence informed. It wasn’t easy work. I was suffering a bad case of vicarious traumatization from supporting too many people who had been senselessly hurt and were still hurting, often decades after being victimized. Some

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The trauma of domestic violence: reality v. the classroom

dv1“I need to use a phone.”

I had just arrived home yesterday and was surprised to find my neighbor — I’ll call her Sarah (not her real name) — standing in my drive. Then I realized it was her car that was parked on the other side of the street. She must have been waiting for me.

“Has something happened?” I asked, but not really needing to, given the pallor of her face and the way she staggered as we walked towards my house.

“I’ve been beaten up and I just need to call the police.” That’s when I noticed the hand she held to her temple was hiding a very nasty lump. “I don’t want to stay,” she added quickly.

At work, I am known as the trauma geek – in fact, just yesterday afternoon I was teaching trauma-informed care to our current class of parent educators who are getting their certification in nonviolent parenting. One of the participants is a domestic violence survivor and gave a description of how trauma affected her ability to think and remember after escaping into a shelter.

“It was like there was rain in my ears for a week. You could speak to me and I would see your mouth moving, but I couldn’t understand what you were saying.” She was far more eloquent than my slides on the neurological effects of trauma. And now here was Sarah sitting on my sofa probably in the same state.

A glass of water! I remembered the grounding techniques to soothe the alarm center (amygdala) of the brain. I filled a glass and then sat down and stroked her hand.

“Would you be willing to tell me who has done this to you?”

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A tale of two orphans — Casey and “Joseph” — results in very different paths

Flickr.com/Javier Kohen

Flickr.com/Javier Kohen

Our first image of Casey in April 1991 came through another American couple who were in the process of adopting a two-year old boy named Joseph (not his real name). He lived in the same orphanage as Casey did in Mrągowo, Poland. They snapped a couple of pictures of her while they received Joseph, pictures that we’ll cherish forever. We kept in touch over the years, sending Christmas cards and photos of our children as they grew from infancy to toddlerhood to middle school and high school.

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The early, heartbreaking rages of a baby with attachment disorder

From the very beginning to the very end of our lives together, Casey suffered from violent and debilitating rages and temper tantrums. The slightest thing would seem to set her off. She wouldn’t accept our attempts at comfort, so she was left alone to thrash around in her room until she fell asleep, waking up the next morning a new person, as if she’d exorcised an evil spirit inside her.

The “experts” told us she’d grow out of it; we just had to be tougher with her. How clueless they – and we – were.

Imagine if you’d been abandoned by your mother, for whatever reason. What if she had other children? You could be living in Shangri-La (as Casey did in Northern California) as opposed to rural Poland. It’s not surprising that your thoughts would turn to, “Why did you keep them and not me?” That would be enough to enrage me. And who would you take it out on? Your adoptive parents.

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Preemies have difficult start on life; attachment issues make situation much worse

Last week I wrote about twinless twins. Casey was a twinless twin, but she never knew it. Her sister was stillborn and we never told her out of fear it would freak her out. But that wasn’t her only challenge when she came into this world on May 3, 1990. She wasn’t ready. Her mother went into labor six weeks early – week thirty. Casey’s birth weight was only three pounds.

Casey probably went straight from the delivery room to an incubator, where she likely spent much of the next two months before she was sent to the orphanage in Mragowo. Who even knows if her mother ever held her?

When my wife and I learned about Casey’s premature birth, we tried to learn everything we could, a task made difficult by the fact that this was 1991; we couldn’t just Google “preemie.” We were years away from a home computer. So we consulted an old high school friend who was a neonatal intensive care nurse.

The long-term effects of a premature birth were terrifying: learning disabilities, vision and hearing problems, digestive and respiratory problems and

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In Alaska, trying to create a “new” normal in a place where childhood trauma is too normal

[Editor’s note: This very moving essay by Chantelle Pence, a family advocate for the Copper River Basin Child Advocacy Center and a consultant  at Copper River Consulting in Gakona, Alaska, originally appeared on the Anchorage Daily News web site.]

It was autumn. The time of harvest. I walked with my dad to the ridge to target practice with a .270 rifle. I got the target in my sights and pulled the trigger. I don’t know if I hit my mark, because as soon as the gun sounded, an unexpected feeling was triggered in me. My dad called my name as I took off stumbling and running back to the house. I was embarrassed. I was confused. I was heartbroken. I heard my own thoughts in my mind. “He didn’t have time to change his mind. … He didn’t have time to change his mind …”

The sound of the gunshot and the speed of the bullet brought up feelings that I didn’t even know I had. My young friend had shot himself just days before my birthday, earlier that year. I remember waking up to the news. I remember the next day. My mom hugged me and cried while I stood numb. I told myself that if I didn’t think about it, maybe it wouldn’t be true. I didn’t cry until the funeral, and then in the fall when I fired the gun.

Nearly two decades later, I found my own son with a gun, contemplating thoughts of suicide. I banged on the window of the cabin until he let me in. I took the gun but he wouldn’t let me take him. It was too late for that. He had been hurt too badly. The time to take him in my arms and love him well had passed. He was a young man who thought he had nothing to live for. When he was 10 he told me that he felt like he was in a brick room and he couldn’t see a way out. That was the first time he made reference to suicide. I didn’t know how to help him out of the space I had helped put him in. If I knew then what I know now …

I now know that what was once considered normal, for the time and place I was raised (and reared my own children in), was creating adverse childhood experiences (ACE). Studies have shown that adverse

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The painful side of compassion emerges when we can’t help a student

[Editor’s note: In April, I posted a story about how Lincoln High School reduced its suspensions 85% by using a new method of school discipline. So many people were intrigued by how Lincoln High works that we thought you might be interested in these essays by Lincoln’s staff and students.]  

By Jim Sporleder
Principal, Lincoln High School

When you’re working with students that have high ACE scores, not every story is successful. You’re going to experience pain, just as you’re going to experience joy.

Stacy (not her real name) came to Lincoln High when she was a freshman. Because of a learning disability and her mental health, she was identified as a special education student. Somehow she missed acquiring that designation when she was in elementary and middle school. It’s unfortunate, because she had very special needs.

Stacy is a cutter. When she is upset, she cuts her wrists and arms. She’s been doing this for a long time: both arms have dozens of scars. Her parents swing between horrific verbal abuse and emotional neglect. They ignore her cutting or criticize her for trying to get attention.

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