The truth about trauma and the impact of terror, and how I learned resilience

Mom, Ann, Dad, Leisa, 1972 ______________________

Mom, Ann, Dad, Leisa, 1972

I was about seven years old when my mom first told me about the abuse she had suffered at the hand of her mom, my grandmother. I remember this vividly because I had just poured a can of grape soda over my three-year-old brother’s head in a “do you dare me, yes I dare you” game I was playing with my five-year-old sister. My brother, of course, started screaming as if he was being murdered, and my gorgeous, stay-at-home mom bolted out the front door of our early 1900s home as if she was going to kill someone.

The look on her face was enough to scare all of us. Even my brother, who seconds earlier was wailing at the top of his lungs, turned his hysterics into mini whimpers. My mom, however, was just getting started.

“Who did this?” she yelled.

My brother pointed at me, my sister pointed at me… and I pointed at my sister.

My mom said, “All of you had better make up your minds about this because the one thing I hate more than anything is being lied to.”

And so, knowing that I was in way over my head, I said to my younger brother, “You were looking the other way, you heard Ann, she was daring me to do it, and when I wouldn’t she did it.” My brother turned his arm and pointed at my sister.

My sister shrieked, “Why are you lying? Why are you blaming me? You always blame me.”

By now, several of our neighbors had stepped onto to their front steps to watch.  The old lady at the house to the right was just shaking her head in disgust. It was the summer of 1976. Most of the fathers in the neighborhood worked in blue-collar jobs. Most of the neighborhood moms were home with their kids, at least in the summers. The city streets had sidewalks, and the houses were separated by narrow driveways. My mom used to tell us not to air our dirty laundry for the neighbors to see, and this was exactly what we were doing.

My mom yelled at all of us to get inside. She sent my sister and I to our room and dragged my crying brother into the kitchen so that she could wash the grape soda out of his hair and clothes. The whole time she was in the kitchen, I could hear her yelling, “Why would anyone do this? I work my ass off around here, and this is the thanks I get?”

By seven years old I was well aware of what was to come. My mom was on a rampage. She would inevitably call my dad, who worked down the street.  My dad would come home and take off his belt and use it to beat our bare butts until we could not sit down. My mom would cry and threaten to leave us or kill herself. And then my mom and dad would start fighting. The fight would turn violent, my mom would start throwing dishes, my dad would hit her, shake her, yell at her, and then she would leave in the car, her last words to us something like, “I hate you all, you’ve destroyed my life. I never wanted children. I’m never coming back. I wish I were dead.” And then she’d leave. Sometimes she’d come back in the middle of the night and we’d wake up in the morning and it was as if nothing had happened. Sometimes she’d be gone for a few days. Either way we would never talk about it.

I always knew I was to blame. Between my younger siblings crying and my dad yelling, I was the one who was supposed to fix these things. I was the oldest. My dad would remind me all the time that I needed to take care of my mom. My sister and brother needed to be protected; they were so little, I knew that one of these days they would be dead if I didn’t take care of my mom and them.

My mom was still downstairs, she wasn’t yelling as she had been, but she was crying. I went downstairs to the kitchen, and owned up to my role in the soda incident. I told her I was sorry. I told her we were just playing and I had made a mistake. I begged her to stop crying and told her how much I loved her. My mom hugged me and then just as quickly as she had embraced me, she pushed me away, slapped me across the face and told me that she hated me. This cycle had already been a part of my life for so long that I no longer cried when she hit me. I just kept telling her that I was sorry, and that everything was going to be okay; that we all loved her and that I would help her.

I picked up my brother, his hair still damp and his shirt missing, and told him everything was going to be fine. He was used to the drama too. It was past his nap time, and the events of the last hour had taken their toll. I carried him upstairs and tucked him into bed. I checked on my sister; she had fallen asleep. The bedroom smelled like urine, and I knew she had wet the bed again. I grabbed some towels and clean pants and woke my sister up enough to get her into some dry clothes. She looked as if she was going to start crying again, and I told her to be quiet. I wouldn’t tell mom she had wet the bed. We both knew what would happen if mom found out.

My sister had been wetting her bed ever since she had been potty trained. Sometimes she would wet her pants even when she was awake, but most of the time it happened when she was sleeping. My parents would get so angry with her. Based on their reactions, and the way they yelled at her, I believed my parents when they said that she was doing it on purpose. Sometimes in the middle of the day, my mom would find my sister hiding behind the television set that sat on the floor in the living room. She had wet her pants again and was hiding because she did not want anyone to find out. One night when my sister was two years old, but almost three, I was awakened by my sister’s screaming. We shared a room. My sister had a big mattress on the floor against one wall, and my twin bed was across from hers, on the opposite wall. Both of my parents were in our room and my mom was hitting my sister and yelling at her because she had wet the bed again while she was asleep.

My dad was yelling too, both at my mom and at my sister. I could hear the fear and the pain in my sister’s screams. My mom started yelling at my dad to “get her out of here before I kill her.” My dad scooped up my sister and carried her downstairs. I got out of bed to and followed them; I wasn’t going to let my mom kill my sister. My mom came behind us, still yelling that she was going to kill her. Once we were on the main floor of the house, my mom yelled at me to go upstairs and get my sister’s blanket. I did as I was told and ran back to our room to fetch my sister’s favorite blue blanket that she carried around with her wherever she went. When I got back downstairs my mom, dad and sister were not there, but I could hear my sister crying. I followed the cries into the basement, and found my parents putting my sister into an old wood toy box that in my current frame of mind, looked like a child size coffin. My sister was beyond hysterical. My mom was telling her to shut up, and that she wasn’t going to have any more peeing in the bed.

My mom saw that I was behind them, and she yanked the blanket out of my hand and put it in the box with my sister and then she closed the lid and latched it shut. I started crying and begging for them to let Ann out. My dad turned around and hit me and told me to get my ass into bed before they locked me in the basement too. I was terrified of the basement. It was dark, cold, damp, and there were spiders, centipedes, and sometimes even bats and mice. I wanted to help my sister, but I was terrified that they might lock me in the basement, too.

Later that night, after I knew that my parents were asleep, I went back to the basement, unhooked the lid to the toy box, picked up my sister, and carried her to our room. I put her into bed with me and put stuffed animals around her so that if my mom or dad came into our room when I was asleep they wouldn’t see my sister. I also knew that my mom and dad would probably sleep late after the craziness that had happened that night, so I was hoping that I would wake up first and my parents would never find out that I had rescued my sister in the middle of the night.

Ever since then, my sister was terrified every time she realized she had wet the bed. Sometimes she would wake up in the middle of night with wet clothes; she would change her pajamas, hide the wet ones under her mattress, and then go back to bed. I usually noticed the lump under her mattress and would take the smelly clothes into the bathroom and wash them out and then put them in the closet to dry before putting them in the hamper. I cleaned up the bed the best I could. I didn’t dare change the bedding or my mom would freak out about the laundry. I took some baby shampoo from the bathroom and dumped some on the bed and sheets, scrubbed it down with a wet washcloth and the put a towel over it. We’d get in trouble for leaving a wet towel on the bed, but not as much as we would if my sister wet the bed.

My sister fell back to sleep, and I went back downstairs to start cleaning up the kitchen. My mom was on her hands and knees trying to get something red off the crease in the floor, where the kitchen cabinet met the old, worn-out linoleum. She was using an old toothbrush and she was crying. It took me less than a minute to realize that the red she was scrubbing off the floor was her own blood, which was running down her hand as she scrubbed.

“Mom, let me do that,” I said, taking the toothbrush out of her hand. I was kneeling next to her, trying to assess the damage she had done this time. Her wrist looked bad, but she had lived through worse. I grabbed a towel that was hanging on the handle of the oven.

“Mom,” I said as calmly as I could, “I think you must have cut yourself while you were cleaning. Let me help you.”

My mom let me wrap the towel around her wrist.  I told her to put her hand above her head so that the bleeding would stop. She lifted her arm and I pushed a kitchen chair over to her so that she could place her elbow on it as she sat on the floor. I went to the freezer and grabbed some ice and put the cubes in a towel. I held it on her wrist, and told her it was going to be okay.

Grandma, Mom, her brother, Grandpa

Grandma, Mom, her brother, Grandpa

My mom told me quietly that she didn’t cut her wrist while cleaning. I told her I knew that, but it was going to be okay. She was crying again, and told me how sorry she was for hitting me. She didn’t mean to do that. She told me she loved me, and she knew she was a terrible mother. And then she said, “I just never thought I’d be so much like your grandmother. I wanted to be a good mom.” I told her she was a good mom. I told her that it was going to be okay because grandma was a good grandma. And that’s when she said, “I’m glad she’s a good grandma, but she was a terrible mom. When I was about your age,” she told me, “David (her older brother) and me got into a fight. Your grandpa was out of town for work and your grandmother pulled me by my hair and dragged me down to the basement, pushed me into the closet, and locked the door. She left me there for two days. When your grandpa came home, I heard him asking for me, and I started yelling for him. He came downstairs with my mom, and opened up the closet door. I was crying so hard I couldn’t talk. And then your grandmother said, “Marilynne, what are you doing in the closet? I’ve been worried sick about you.” And then she took me upstairs, put me the tub, and said, “If you tell your father anything, I’ll kill you, just like I did Linda.”

Linda was my grandmother’s first child. No one ever talked about what happened to her. I just knew that she died when she was very young, before my uncle David or my mom had been born. My grandmother would talk about her sometimes. She told me I was just like Linda, so smart, and beautiful. Sometimes she would call me Linda. My grandfather always stopped her.

“Margaret,” he’d say, “you stop that right now. Leisa is perfect as Leisa, and not because she is like our dead daughter.” I used to think that grandpa was being mean to my grandma when he talked like that, but when I got older I realized that my grandfather was just trying to keep my grandmother’s mind from drifting into hell.

As my mom talked, I resumed the cleaning. I told my mom I was sorry that grandma was so mean to her. Secretly I was terrified.  My grandmother always seemed a bit crazy, but if my grandmother had killed Linda, then what else had she done? What else might she do? What if my mom was like my grandmother? What if she really did kill us? There were so many times I thought she might, so many times she said she was going to. How was I ever going to keep us all alive? Mom said she was feeling tired and needed to rest. I let her know that both Ann and Craig were asleep and I would finish the kitchen. Mom went to bed.

My ACE score is a 9. I know that many people with a score as high as mine will struggle with health issues, chemical dependency, and/or may have a shortened life span. It took me many, many years of counseling, which occurred long before I even knew about impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), to address my belief systems about myself. My physical health issues are in alignment with the results of the CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study, which shows a link between childhood trauma and the adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence.

Leisa at graduation celebration, 1987

Leisa at graduation celebration, 1987

My first trip to see a therapist did not go well. When I was 14, the summer before going to high school, I was gang-raped by a “friend” and three of his friends – all of them were two or three years older than I was. I had snuck out of the house to hang with them while my mom was at work. My mom was working second shift at the time, and wasn’t going to be home that night until after 3 am, because she was working overtime. I was too afraid to tell my mom what had happened, because I never knew how she would react. There were moments when my mom was fiercely protective of me. But more often than not, she was emotionally and physically abusive. The next morning, my mom grounded me “for the rest of my life,” because my sister had told her that I had snuck out of the house. A few  days  later, I tried to kill myself.

A friend who knew I had taken a bottle of pills called my mom, and my mom took me to the emergency room. When the nurse and doctor talked to my mom right outside of the hanging curtain that separated my hospital bed from the one next to me, I heard my mom explain to them that I was a rebellious daughter who had snuck out of the house, and because I was angry with her, I had decided to overdose. The doctor and nurse who were checking on me as I drank liquid charcoal to absorb the pills in my stomach never once asked me what had happened. And when I was still there several hours later as the shifts changed for the nurses, I heard my nurse tell the incoming nurse, that I was a “partier who had her party taken away.”

This event, while not the first time I had tried to kill myself, was the first time I had ended up in the emergency room, and resulted in a referral to a psychiatrist. Initially, I was encouraged by what I knew about psychiatrists and counseling in general. I was looking forward to the possibility of getting help with my mom, if not for my mom directly, at least for the benefit of my sister and brother. When I went to my first counseling appointment, my mom came with me. After a brief introduction and after covering some background information (very limited information, because I did not want to talk about the real issues in front of my mom), the therapist asked me how I felt when I snuck out of my house.

I don’t know how I would have replied at age 14 to that question, with my mom present, but it was irrelevant, because before I could reply, my mom said, “She felt the cold wind against her damn face, what do you think she felt?” And then my mom stood up, and said, “This is stupid, Leisa. We’re leaving.” And that was the last time I went to see a therapist until I was married and had my first child, 10 years later.

Grandpa, Ann, Craig, Grandma, Leisa, 1976 or 1977

Grandpa, Ann, Craig, Grandma, Leisa, 1976 or 1977

It had never really occurred to me to tell anyone what was going on at my house. Whenever something crazy happened, I did what I could to fix whatever had happened, cleaned up the mess, consoled my siblings, bandaged my mom, and often placed myself into the direct line of anger to prevent my mom from killing or hurting my younger siblings. There were several times when the police were called to my house, often by a neighbor, but the police would talk to my mom, she would tell them how awful we were, they would feel bad for her because she was now raising three children on her own, and they would leave.

My parents had separated when I was about 12 years old. They seemed to get back together, and then split up again many times.  One day after getting off the school bus and seeing my dad’s car in our driveway, I thought they had once again reconciled. But as I got closer to the house, I could hear the two of them yelling at each other. My stomach turned and I started to feel dizzy, but I knew I had to go into the house. My sister and brother were still in elementary school, so they wouldn’t be home for another hour and a half.

My parents did not hear me come in, so when I walked into the kitchen, my dad did not know that I saw him punch my mom in the face. My mom ran towards the direction of the dining room and I plowed into my dad to stop him from chasing my mom. But he was 6’2” and 180 pounds, whereas I was about 5’5” and weighed about 100 pounds. Although my dad was momentarily startled, he pushed me out of the way and ran after my mom. I ran after him, but he already had my mom trapped between the dining room table and the china cabinet. Before I could do anything to stop him, he grabbed the side of the china cabinet and pulled it forward, so that all the dishes started falling out and then the cabinet fell onto my mom and knocked her to the floor.  I grabbed for the phone on the kitchen wall and called 911, as my dad dragged my mom out from under the cabinet. By the time I was talking to a dispatcher, my dad was kicking my mom in the stomach and she was throwing up on the dining room carpet.  Once my dad realized I was on the phone with the police, he pressed the receiver button down on the wall unit of the phone and punched me in the chest, knocking me on to the floor.

This wasn’t the only time that my dad had knocked me down, or hit me. It wasn’t even the most violent I had ever seen him.  Another time when my parents were separated, my dad found out that my mom was out on date. I don’t know for certain, but I think my brother may have called him to tell him that we were home alone. So my dad came over and, after sending us all to bed, he waited for my mom to come home. We were living in Lakeville, MN, at that time, and my room was on the lower level of the house behind the garage.

I heard my mom’s car pull into the driveway and I was expecting her to park in the garage. I got out of bed so that I could meet her at the garage door, but instead she came in the front door. In hindsight, I should have realized that my dad’s car was blocking the driveway and my mom wasn’t able to pull into the garage. As I was waiting by the garage door, my dad had moved from the living room to the front entry and was hiding behind the door when my mom walked in. I heard her scream when he struck her from behind as she was walking up the five stairs to the living room. I ran up the other set of stairs and pushed my way between my parents. It was then that I realized he had a knife with him. My mom was begging him not to hurt me, to put the knife away.

My dad yelled back at her that he wasn’t going to hurt me but he was going to kill her. I was yelling and crying at the same time, telling him to “just leave, don’t kill my mom.” My mom was trying to pull on my dad’s arm that was holding the knife. As he twisted to get away, he lunged at me, and pushed me down the stairs. Once he realized that I was on the floor at the bottom of the stairs, and as my mom ran to call 911, my dad jumped over me and ran out the front door.

In hindsight I realize that the guilt and shame from years of abuse had programmed me to believe that I was the problem, and therefore I must also be the solution. It was never an option to tell anyone what was going on at my house, because that would have meant revealing to the rest of the world that I was a failure. I had been excited about the prospect of seeing a therapist, because I had imagined that this person would give me advice and maybe help my mom with her depression. My only knowledge of counseling was what I had seen on television. After my mom’s reaction to counseling, I realized that my perception of the role a therapist might play in my life was inaccurate. In fact, I left that appointment with the impression that a therapist could not be trusted. And so, my only option was to continue to try to save everyone. And when these events happened, they were just more proof that I was a failure.

Mom and Teeka, 1990

Mom and Teeka, 1990

During my years in high school, my mom attempted suicide at least another 30 times. Because I was older than my siblings, and rode a different bus to and from school, I was usually the one who found my mom. Sometimes I would find her in her bathroom with her wrists slit. Other times she would be unconscious, having taken an excessive amount of pills. Sometimes there would be a note; it might be apologetic, or hateful, or angry, or a declaration of her love for my siblings and me. Sometimes there was nothing, as if she was completely oblivious to the impact her suicide would have on her children. And maybe that was true.  Clinical depression and trauma change how your brain works. I had no idea what was really going on for mom during these events.

One night, after a fight with her “boyfriend of the day,” mom left the house, climbed into her car, and told us she was never coming back. She drove her car down the road, and crashed it into a tree about a quarter of a mile from our house. Right after it happened, she was crying that she was still alive. She had desperately wanted to die. Later when she would talk about the “car accident” she would explain that an animal ran in front of her, she had swerved to avoid it, and lost control of the car. It was a form of emotional abuse that my siblings and I endured for years. But it was also a reflection of my mom’s mental health, something we did not truly understand until we were much older.

The trauma and terror was ongoing, at different degrees every single day. In the few glimpses of peace or happiness that I witnessed, it was simply a time frame in which I spent anticipating the next disaster. After my parents separated and divorced, we lived in poverty.  It was a poverty that was unique, because we lived in a nice house that we had built in Lakeville when we moved out of Minneapolis. In some way, that prevented others from knowing the extent to which we had nothing.

My mom, who had basically worked at home her entire adult life, took a job working second shift in a food-packing company. In those days, she was at work before I came home from school. And, if I came home and her car was there, I was guaranteed to find her after her most recent suicide attempt. She took this job in the mid 1980’s; her position paid just slightly over minimum wage and there were no benefits. Every couple of months, I would come home from school and find the electricity had been shut off.

Craig, Ann, Grandpa, Leisa, 1976

Craig, Ann, Grandpa, Leisa, 1976

Our entire house was electric at the time. Even the well (water) had an electric pump, so if the electricity was off, we were without heat, water, lights, and the ability to cook. If this happened in the winter months, we would unload the refrigerator and freezer and move food items onto the deck. If it were summer, depending on the temperature outside, we might leave the food in the fridge and freezer, and hope the power would come back on soon, or we might move the food to the basement, and put it in coolers.  The phone was another luxury item. We rarely had a working phone in the house during this phase of poverty. Or if we did, it was because my grandfather had paid the bill so that we could call him if there was an emergency.

I recall going to the “commodities truck” periodically with my mom. My mom’s income was not sufficient to pay for the house bill, electric, phone and gas for her car. So we were always hungry. Once a month, a large semi — a mobile food pantry of sorts —  would park in a mall parking lot. We would wait in line, my mom would have to prove her identity and have a second source verifying her address, usually an electric bill or phone bill. This got harder over time, because over those years, my grandfather had switched the phone into his name. And my mom, in order to get the electricity turned back on, had switched the electric bill into my name.

But if we were able to go the truck, we would get a few bags of groceries: powdered milk (which we all hated), a block of something that resembled Velveeta cheese, peanut butter, and, depending on the month, a variety of canned food or dried goods.  My mom was pretty good at putting on an emotionally strong front when we were in these situations. I think sometimes she felt guilty about being stressed or angry given our circumstances, because there were other women and children in these lines with us, and some of their situations were so much worse than ours — a family living out of their car, a mom and her three kids who were staying in one bedroom together with an acquaintance, but where their ability to stay there required the single mother to “entertain” the acquaintance. I have softened the words that were shared, because at the time these words were said, I was not completely sure what she meant. It was years later, when I was in college, that my mom and I talked about some of the women we had met at the commodities truck.

I took my first psychology course in the Fall of 1987 at Winona State University; it was my first real step into life outside of the chaos I knew as my home. One of the books for the course, a paperback entitled something like abnormal psychology, gave me insight into what might have been going on with my mom. In that same term, I also took a sociology class. It was during this phase of my life when I started to be able to put words to my experiences, and when I first began to understand the dynamics in my family.

I ended up dropping out of college to get married. I was still so unprepared for a relationship. I wanted desperately to be loved, but I did not believe I was worthy of anything like that. I shared bits of my life with future husband, but left out the most critical piece, the part where I admitted that I was guilty and that once he got to know me, he would likely kill me, himself, or leave me, which was, in my messed up brain, the worst possible outcome.

My marriage was destined to fail. I was 18 years old when I started dating my future husband. I had been raped at 14, abducted at eight years old, molested at five years old, (stories for another time), abused physically and emotionally since as far back as I could remember. I had no idea how to talk through disagreements, or create a healthy relationship. I didn’t even know what a healthy relationship looked like.

My soon-to-be husband was also ill prepared for our future, or a healthy relationship.  He had grown up with significant dysfunction: a hyper-controlling mother, a father who expressed  himself by kicking things, throwing things, yelling, and then leaving. Alec hid his pain with marijuana and alcohol. I hid mine by blaming Alec. If we were driving in the car, and he said something or did something that frightened me, such as driving too fast or swerving to hit a soda can on the road, I would “freak out.” This meant that I would yell, scream, emotionally shut down, and then demand that he pull the car over. I would get out, sobbing. There was no way that Alec could win in these situations. If he waited for me to get back into the car, I would yell at him to go away, and if he left, I would be furious at him for leaving me.

At 21 years old, we married, despite most of the adults in our lives telling us to wait. But the adults giving the advice were the same adults who had helped create our dysfunctional brains, and we knew that. We were determined to do things differently, although we had no idea how to do that. When I was 23, I became pregnant with our first child. I was excited and terrified at the same time. I knew I would be a better mother than my mother had been, but again, I had no experience.

Right after Cody was born, I started having nightmares, flashbacks of my childhood. I wasn’t able to sleep, I was severally depressed, and there were days, a lot of days, when I wished I were dead. I was very hesitant to try counseling again, because I did not want to rehash the past. I just wanted a life that was normal.  I ended up going to counseling anyway because I hoped that maybe a therapist could tell me how to be normal, and because I knew something had to change or I would end up just like my mom.

I did end up rehashing much of my childhood, and while I never would have believed it when I started, there was value in that.  It was this first counselor, Pat Richardson, who told me how wrong it was for my parents to put my sister in the toy box in the basement. I had told her the story only because it was one of the nightmares that I kept having. Only in my nightmares, it was me rescuing my own baby, Cody, from the toy box. This was also the first time I talked about being held down in my yard and sexually assaulted by four boys.

Pat looked at me and said, “Leisa, you were raped. You are not to blame for that. They hurt you and that is not okay. Nobody deserves that.”

Delving into my family’s secrets was the first breakthrough I had with my parents, and with myself. Pat suggested that I invite my parents to a counseling session with me. I was quite sure they would say no. She suggested that I tell them that I needed this in order to be a better mother to my child. Much to my surprise, they both agreed. My parents hated each other. And other than my wedding, had not seen nor talked to each other in about 10 years.

When we all gathered in Pat’s office, Pat gently asked a few questions about our family. It was nothing too personal, just who is related to whom, and how was your relationship with those family members. My parents relaxed a little bit, and even made some jokes about how they tried to kill each other various times over those years. Pat then asked me to share with my parents some of the struggles I was having in my new role of “mom.” Knowing what I do now about trauma, I wish I had handled this differently, but regardless, it moved us to a new place.

I told my parents about the nightmares I was having, specifically the one about Ann in the toy box. I was terrified telling the story. I had run through every possible scenario that might come of this: my mom and/or dad storming out of the office; either or both of them denying that this had ever happened; either or both of them blaming me for this; and probably the worst scenario, was that because I had told a family secret to someone else, and then asked them to admit to a family secret, that there was a possibility that I would, from this day forward, never have any type of relationship with either my mom or my dad.

I think what surprised me the most was that neither of them denied that this had happened. In fact, their first reaction was to place the blame on each other. After allowing them to argue for a few minutes, Pat took control again. Her first words were, well, I think first you should apologize to Leisa that she had to witness this type of behavior from the two people who were supposed to care for, protect, and love her as a child. My mom started to cry and told me how sorry she was. My dad told me that he loved me, and while he never actually apologized, he came as close to apologizing as he knew how to. He told me that he wished he hadn’t done that, but that he had been doing the best he could to keep everyone safe, even though it is hard to see it from that perspective when looking back at it 20 years later. I can’t even remember what else we talked about in Pat’s office that day. What kept cycling through my thoughts was that my parents seemed to actually regret having done what they did, and that they did not seem to blame me for what had happened.

Trauma-informed practices and building resilience is the key to healing

I wish I could say that this one event had transformed my life, but it did not. If there was any change at all that occurred, it was the first time when just a small piece of the shame I felt for having been a part of such a crazy family started to shift its weight and allow my brain to start processing other events from a new perspective. But that did not happen overnight; it took many, many more years to undo the patterns my brain had built.

I saw other therapists over the next few years, trying to find the person who could help me put my past behind me, without having to talk about it. My life with Alec was in a cycle of dysfunction that I wanted to correct. But because I did not want to deal with my own belief system — the one that was built on top of a foundation of toxic stress, trauma, terror, blame, and shame — I simply did not have the tools to change its direction. There were several times in our marriage when I simply “quit.” I was there physically, but that was about it. I’d be tempted to say that Alec was in a similar place with our relationship, but since we were both in very rough places, I never asked him how he was doing. We put on a great show for our friends and our families, but we fought ferociously most of the time. We were struggling financially and he was dealing with pressure from society to “be a man” and take care of his family. He had attempted to commit suicide a few times. I was struggling with anxiety and depression, and just generally feeling like a failure.

The rest of this story played out over a few years. Alec and I did end up getting divorced. If there was any one thing that we did right with our marriage, it was that we wanted our children to have better lives than we had; and we did not want our divorce to destroy their childhoods. We both went back to counseling and, after Alec started dating someone he was serious about, we started to all go to counseling together. We all went to Nancy Gregerson, a therapist in Northfield who was well known for helping people reshape their thinking and reprocess past events with an adult brain, instead of a child’s brain. My past was so traumatic that each and every fight we’d had resulted in me going into “fight, flight or freeze” mode. I had become so accustomed to creating escape plans, I am not sure I would have recognized other possibilities even if they were right in front of me.

Nancy helped all of us in different ways. Most specifically, she helped me undo the foundation of my beliefs, one crazy incident at a time. I remember her telling me, “You don’t have to hide from that anymore. It’s not a brick, but rather you have let the air in, and what used to be a brick is becoming sand, and over time, you can watch it blow away with the wind.” And probably, most importantly, she helped all of us move away from the guilt and shame that had kept us from dealing with what plagued us. I don’t know if Nancy was just an amazing therapist by chance, or training, or if she was carefully and diligently applying knowledge of ACEs and using trauma-informed practices. All I know is that it worked.

It was also through working with Nancy that I was able to start seeing how other people in my life had made an impact and had helped me build resilience even though the everyday chaos had been the stronger influence as a child. She didn’t call it resilience, but rather she talked about others in my life who may have seen me as a child worthy of care and love.

There was a neighbor in Minneapolis who always seemed to step in when my mom was missing. There was another neighbor in Lakeville, Diane Balcom, who used to invite me over to her house for tea. Once, she and her husband, Bud, took me to see a play at the Children’s Theater. Diane was constantly asking me what was going on at home, and after hearing just brief tidbits, she would share that she had heard my mom yelling a few nights ago, or that she had seen the police over at my house. She would tell me that I was strong, courageous, smart… and she would tell me that she had grown up with crazy parents, too. And that at some point, even if I did not believe it yet, I would be in control of my own life, and I could take all of this “crazy” and choose to learn from it, and choose which portions of it I could toss out of my life. She also told me that my mom needed help, but that I was not the one who needed to help her. She told me that mom was going to have to figure out how to get the help that she needed, when she was ready to get it. But that even now, even as messed up as things might seem, my mom did love me. And someday, I would know that, too.

There were also two teachers who played significant roles in my life. Back when I lived in Minneapolis, Ms. Gullan at Erikkson Elementary always had me read to the class. She had a split-grade classroom, so I was one of the older students, a third-grade student, and many of the other students were in second grade. She used to tell me that I was role model for the younger students and that she appreciated that I took such good care of them. I actually assumed that some of them were probably living with crazy parents just like I was, so I wanted to help them know that school was a place where we were all safe.

And then in Lakeville, I had a high school teacher, Ken Williams, who taught social studies. After taking his class, and often sleeping through most of it, he asked me if during my study hour, if I would be his teacher’s assistant. I said yes, because I hated study hall. And so, every day, I helped grade papers, and clean up chalk boards, make copies, or do whatever else needed to be done that day. And there was more than one occasion when I was particularly tired, or where it looked like I had spent the entire night before crying my eyes out, when he would ask if there was anything I wanted to talk about. I typically said no. But he would eventually ask enough questions that he knew if I was dealing with issues at home, or issues with my friends, or my boyfriend, and he would tell me, “Leisa, it is really terrible when you can’t count on your family (or friends, or boyfriend) to treat you with the respect you deserve.  But always remember, how they treat you is a reflection of who they are; it’s not a reflection of who you are.”

When Alec and I were married, it was his mother who taught me how to be a parent. She didn’t do it perfectly either, according to Alec, but with each child she had, she knew more and more about keeping violence out of the lives of her children. Alec had two younger brothers. At the time Alec and I were married, his younger brothers were four and six years old. I watched Harriet raise her two youngest sons on her own. She and Alec’s father had divorced in 1990, the same year that Alec and I had married.

Harriet was very connected with a group of women who were part of the La Leche League, a breast-feeding support group where women helped each other through the challenges of parenting. And even though she was no longer breastfeeding her children, that group remained close. They refused to spank their children, but instead, would help the child calm down, identify the reason why the child was upset, and, depending on the age of the child, talk to him or her about what was going on. Often the child would end up in his or her room for a time out, and then there would be more follow up after that. Alec used to tell me that he would have preferred the “ass whooping” from his father, than the “talking to you until you wanted to die approach” that his mother used. But this was the only other example of parenting that I had ever seen. And compared to the one I had grown up with, I preferred Harriet’s approach.

Most of these moments are what I now refer to as my “resilience builders.” They were just momentary and sporadic blips in my life. At the time, I did not even realize that I held onto those nuggets or that they made a difference at all. But they did. They were quite possibly the key to undoing all of the negative messages I had ever received, because they created a space in my brain, a pathway, for something else, something that helped me fight the impact of the toxic stress I had endured.

Mom and me, 1987

Mom and me, 1987

Years later, my mom and I ended up building an incredibly healthy relationship. She had started going to counseling and was taking medications to stabilize her mood. She never told me exactly why she was taking medication, but I looked up the names of her medications, which she had left in the kitchen one day. She was prescribed lithium at one point, so I assumed that they were treating her for bipolar disorder. Years later I found prescriptions for both anxiety and depression. Regardless of her diagnosis, between counseling and medication, she seemed to be turning her life around.

She once took me to see the movie, “Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood,” and afterwards she said, “I am so sorry for choosing that movie, it must have brought you back to your childhood. I am so sorry for what I put you through when you were growing up. If there was a way to undo all of that pain, I would.”

My mom was never able to repair the relationship she had with her mother, but at some point, my mom distanced herself from her enough so that she did not have to be re-traumatized on a regular basis.

When my mom passed away at age 60 from ovarian cancer, one of the last things she said to me was, “Leisa, if you were able to forgive me for all of the damage that I did to you, I hope you can find a way to forgive your dad at some point too.”

I have forgiven him. We might never have a good relationship, because he can’t seem to see anything from my point of view. But that’s probably because he simply hasn’t come to terms with the reasons he is (or was) so messed up in the first place. He’ll be 75 in May, and I don’t think I will ever know his story. The best I can say is that I did not perpetuate his, and my mom’s issues.

My ex and I are friends. We don’t hang out together, but we celebrate the events in our children’s lives together, whether it’s Christmas, birthdays, or graduations. Our children will undoubtedly need more counseling in the years to come, but I think we have built a platform for them that will give them better odds for success. Cody is 23 now and Matthew is 18. Both of them are amazing young men. When Alec and Jessica were married a few years ago, we were all there together at the ceremony, and I could not have been happier for Alec and Jessica. Should I ever decide to head down the marriage path again, I have no doubt that they will be at my wedding, too.

I am a true believer that ACEs can be overcome. I know first-hand that it is possible to break the cycle of generational trauma. I am still working on resolving the health issues that come from a childhood of toxic stress, some of which may never be reversed. My life, only of which a small portion is shared here, occurred before we knew about ACEs, before we were talking about toxic stress and resilience. In short, I think I survived by accident. It’s good to know that positive results can occur without intention, but I hate to think about the number of people who lived as I did who are still struggling with what they endured as a child.

I think about how my life might have been different if the schools I had attended had taught me about adverse childhood experiences. I wonder what might have come from my trip to the emergency room if a doctor or nurse had asked me what was wrong. I would like to believe that the police who came to my house so many times took note of the number of calls they received from me about the violence in my home. What might have happened if one of them had pulled me aside to ask what was going on, or to ask me if I needed someone to meet with me about how frightened I was? What if my neighbors had felt as if they had the knowledge and power to offer help to my mom, or to us, the children living in crisis every day?

Trauma-informed communities — where everyone understands how to recognize warning signs, or better yet, where people respond with information-seeking questions in all cases, even if the warning signs are not there — would be the epitome of a healthy community. That is where I want to see this information go, where I want to see this movement go.

I believe that we can create opportunities for others to address their ACEs much earlier in their lives, and perhaps, in doing so, it is possible to reverse the damage that is done to our brains and bodies from the overload of cortisol and adrenaline. We all have the ability to be part of building resilience for a child and to use trauma-informed practices. There’s no magic number of resilience nuggets a child needs, and we will never know which ones stick, and which ones do not.

But even those that are forgotten have created space for some other possibility in a child’s future. In my opinion, the ACEs and TIC movement is not a question of if we use this knowledge and these tools, but rather it is a question of how quickly we can transform communities so that everyone is using trauma-informed care and building resilience. It’s a solution we simply cannot ignore.


Leisa Irwin is executive director of Paladin Career & Technical High School in Blaine, MN.

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