Roundup: Cherokee grapple with 7 generations of trauma; a year in life of foster mom; recovery possible from (some) adverse childhood experiences

Patricia Grant (photo by Caitlin Byrd, Mountain Express)

When working with substance abuse and mental health issues in Cherokee people, social worker Patricia Grant said yesterday during a presentation at the University of North Carolina in Asheville, she knows that she’s dealing not only with that individual’s trauma, but with historical trauma that’s

been passed down through generations, according to this report by Caitlin Byrd in the Mountain Express.

The Cherokee once occupied 40,000 square miles in the southern U.S. After Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 (by one vote), they were forced to relocate, and traveled along the infamous Trail of Tears in 1838 to live in what is now Oklahoma. This

was followed by decades of assimilation — children taken from their parents and to live in boarding schools that forced European culture on them.

When these historical events happened, Grant says that a psychic wounding occurred and, though unintentional, was passed down to at least seven generations. It is something that she sees sometimes when helping people work through substance abuse at Analensigi.

“We know that substances are used to numb our emotions, and when we talk about when we started, our first use, oftentimes it is because of family members have used it, or we’ve grown up around it, or we’ve been exposed to it through friends,” she explains. “When someone has experienced trauma, using substances is a way to numb, or to forget, or deal with that pain. But at some point we cross the invisible line and it becomes a way of life. We know that nothing good comes out of using chemicals and that’s what we’re trying to impress upon individuals that seek treatment.”

Grant is program director for Analensigi, a mental health and substance abuse program. Her words have meaning for generations of families in any culture, especially when trauma and dealing with trauma become a way of life.

HERE’S A POIGNANT and gripping story about a year in the life of a foster mother, Terri Nelson. It was written by that woman’s son, Jonathan Nelson, on Bakersfield.com. He vividly demonstrates how good policies — keeping children with their families — can be good in name only, and how turning a blind eye to realities of a system result in children being sentenced to live agonizing lives.

Jonathan Nelson, who changed the name of everyone in the story except his mother, writes that there are all types of foster parents:

Foster parents are an unusual set of people. Their motivations are many — liberal generosity, religion, the need for a meager extra paycheck. It is not an easy job. They witness tragedy, get little thanks, and endure stereotyping due to the wrongs of a few. Moreover, they make an emotional investment in a child who will never remember. Now, there are certainly bad apples. Crimes such as sexual and emotional abuse have been committed by the very ones whose mission is to provide respite. Yet for every bad foster parent, there are those like Nelson — undaunted in their desire to do good. As she arrives home, family members coo over little Jedidiah; the father takes one look at his feet and prophesies a basketball great in the making. For now at least, this little baby will have the fortune to experience what might be the only moments of normalcy in his life.

Later, he touches briefly on how a system functions at break-neck speed, with little time to focus on the needs of the child:

It is obvious that Teisha is in no condition to handle the responsibility of raising her child. It is not even clear if she really wants him. The social worker knows all this. Yet an overwhelmed and underfunded system leaves little time for introspection. Instead, the policy in most cases is reunification, the mantra being “send the child home.” It is largely about economics — both of cost and of scale. There are not enough foster parents to go around. There are even fewer adoptive parents who are willing to accept long-term responsibility. Yet the system financially cannot be the warden of a thousand desperate children. Sending the child back home is the only feasible option.

It’s well worth reading. Warning: It’s likely to make you cry.

ADVERSE CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES can be put to rest, says James Krehbiel in this post on Mental-health-matters.com. The Scottsdale, AZ, therapist put together a composite case history of a young man he calls Alex who, when he was six years old, lost his father to a heart attack. His mother withdrew, he and his siblings weren’t allowed to grieve. Fifteen years later, when his girlfriend ended their relationship, the young man could barely cope.

Krehbiel walks through the steps he took with the young man. One of the most important was to help him see that those experiences are not his fault.

In my practice, when I tell a patient that their traumatic childhood experience was not their fault, it is powerful. When I tell them they had no control over what happened to them as a child, the healing begins:

  1. It never was Alex’s fault that his father died of a heart attack
  2. It never was his fault that he was shielded from the details of the death
  3. It never was his fault that his mother insulated herself in response to her loss
  4. It never was his fault for not having the guidance and support of a father during childhood
  5. It never was his fault for having a mother who need to be nurtured
  6. It never was his fault for the emptiness, depression and anxiety he experienced within his home
  7. It never was his fault that he was unable to take the risk to share his feelings

With the relief that it never was about them, comes the reality and responsibility for adult victims to process the past, picking up the pieces toward a more meaningful, productive life. This is the hopeful message we must provide in helping individuals release their troubled past, finding more adaptive ways of living in the present.

“Adaptive” is the key word there, which is why the headline says “recovery is possible from (some) adverse childhood experiences”. I think the most toxic of experiences leave a deep scar to which people can adjust, but it is an adjustment, not healing “as good as new”. We are shaped by our experiences. For those who have experienced adverse childhood experiences, it’s difficult to envision a life in which there are none.

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