The myth of survivor solidarity: Why it’s so hard for us to all just get along

As a Weinstein survivor, I’ve noticed that journalists love to explore the presumed solidarity among “sister survivors” – in our case, the over 100 women who came forward about Weinstein’s sexual predation. But what journalists don’t write about are the challenges in preventing any group of trauma survivors from imploding. Only when we survivors understand the impact of trauma can we overcome the underlying forces that threaten to pull us apart and stand together against injustice and abuse.
 
Journalists often look for a “feel good” element to a story, particularly when reporting on distressing subjects. It makes sense. Why not try for a little positivity when there is enough bad news nowadays to sink us into overwhelming despair? As a Weinstein survivor, I’ve noticed that one positive spin journalists love to explore is a presumed solidarity among “sister survivors” – in our case, over 100 women who came forward publicly to recount our personal experience of Weinstein’s long reign of sexual predation.

Trauma, anger
Trauma, anger. Photo @Melanie Wasser for Unsplash.

Solidarity among survivors is a value I happily embraced, the idea of us coming together to support each other as more and more victims of high-profile abusers courageously stepped forward to join the ranks of those who cried, “Me too!” For my part, I have spent the last four years talking with survivors and connecting individuals to create a network of mutual support. It felt like an act of sedition in the face of powerful men and an at-times indifferent establishment. Still, I should have known that this camaraderie would develop stress points and, in some cases, fall apart. Interpersonal trauma in particular often results in a distrust of other people and a host of other protective responses that work against cohesiveness. In the refreshingly honest words of one interviewee in an article about community trauma: “…traumatized people interacting with other traumatized people – a community can really run the risk of imploding” (1).

To get to the root of what may seem like self-destructive behavior on the part of survivors, we have to understand the impact of trauma on the body. The physical adaptations that happen in response to trauma and that are designed to protect us from further danger may later prove counterproductive when we are no longer under threat. In particular, they can scupper our best attempts to connect with other people, which in turn deprives us of oxytocin (the “love hormone”) and its calming effect on the sympathetic nervous system, the mediator of the fight-or-flight response. A more in-depth explanation can be found in “Trauma Responses”, a new online course I have developed for Echo, the nonprofit I run.

Here are a few of the most important psychological and physical responses to trauma that help to explain why survivor solidarity is something we aspire to but find so hard to achieve.

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The Intolerable Cure

As a survivor of interpersonal trauma, commitment and intimacy have never been easy, which is why I never did remarry after my first marriage fell apart. That is until last October, when my boyfriend who had been living at a comfortable distance (measured in thousands of miles) suggested I pack up my apartment and ride out the pandemic with him in Hawaii. Thus began an adventure that had me breathing into paper bags and him warranting a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I get bent out of shape easily. On days when I haven’t had enough sleep, I’m particularly vulnerable to being disgruntled and snappy, finding everything about my partner annoying, right down to his very existence. I usually seek refuge in elaborate plans of escape. (No doubt on those days my husband is similarly engaged.) I dream of a light-bathed studio giving onto a beach or a small cabin perched by a lake and surrounded by pines. The scene changes, the head count doesn’t. I am on my own.

For many trauma survivors, “avoidance”—a symptom of post-traumatic stress and driver of my escape fantasies—is the only way to make our lives feel manageable.

The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes avoidance as “efforts to avoid distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings” and “external reminders (people, places, conversations, activities, objects, situations)” associated with traumatic events. But what if the source and reminder of the trauma is other people? And what does that mean for our relationships?

The essential dilemma for survivors of interpersonal trauma is that, as Judith Herman has written, “recovery can take place only within the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation.” It makes sense that for those of us who have suffered abusive relationships, safe, stable relationships would be the cure, in the same way someone who has been poisoned might flush out toxins with pure water. However, as survivors of interpersonal trauma, getting close to people also feels inherently unsafe. In many cases, our trauma stems from the fact that the people who were supposed to love and protect us instead hurt us. We learned—sometimes at a young age—to distrust and fear the very thing we need as humans to survive. In The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, Bruce Perry writes:

“Being harmed by the people who are supposed to love you, being abandoned by them, being robbed of the one-on-one relationships that allow you to feel safe and valued and to become humane—these are profoundly destructive experiences. Because humans are inescapably social beings, the worst catastrophes that can befall us inevitably involve relational loss.”

Even more worrying, the inability to tolerate close relationships not only impedes trauma recovery but may even shorten our lifespan. A 2015 Brigham Young study reported that isolation is as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day in terms of the impact on our mental and physical health—and ultimately our longevity. The daily pain of social isolation is very real; it actually registers in the same region of the brain as physical pain. For some trauma survivors, isolation can be “iatrogenic”—meaning, the remedy is worse than the disease.

Some people get around the need for emotional connection with other humans by befriending other large mammals: dogs or horses are regularly used in trauma therapy. For those of us who dare to dip a toe into the potentially tumultuous waters of relationships with other humans, the experience is probably best approached as a kind of exposure therapy, where you face the thing you most dread in small increments until your brain is rewired and you no longer sense a threat. The problem is that marriage—to go back to my own situation—does not work like that. You can’t be married for say, one day a week, until you build up a tolerance. And, quite apart from your own ability to tolerate this unaccustomed state of being close to another person, unless your partner understands trauma well—and, like my husband (thus far), has enduring patience—there is a serious risk that the relationship will end up imploding.

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Iowa ACEs360: Catalyzing a Movement

Iowa ACEs Policy Coalition joins Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds as she signs a “Resilient Iowa” proclamation in 2018. Photo courtesy of Lisa Cushatt.

For years, advocates for a statewide children’s mental health system would stand before Iowa legislators and speak passionately about their own particular concerns.

Psychiatrists pointed to a need for more inpatient beds for youth with severe mental illness. Pediatricians said the answer was better screening to identify mental health issues in children from birth to age five. Educators wanted more school-based mental health services, and advocates from grassroots groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) asked for increased crisis services.

“We were all saying, ‘Throw money at this issue,’” says Chaney Yeast, co-chair of the policy coalition of Central Iowa ACEs 360, a multi-sector network formed in 2012. “That confused legislators; they felt it was this black hole, and they didn’t act.”

This year—thanks in part to connections forged by Iowa ACEs 360—advocates for a comprehensive child behavioral health system told a single story: Children whose mental health needs are met will be more likely to graduate, be employed and become productive members of the community. Current mental health services for children are fragmented and inconsistent. We know what it would take to fix that.

Group after group that testified before Iowa legislative committee members—officials from the sheriff’s department, mental health providers, community advocates, child welfare workers—drummed home talking points that the ACEs policy coalition had developed with a public policy messaging and research firm.

“That common messaging hit home. We were all on the same page,” says Yeast. The bill—which requires Iowa counties to implement a coordinated array of preventive, diagnostic and treatment services for children, and calls for parents of children with mental health issues to have a voice in designing those services—passed the legislature in April and was signed by the state’s governor in May.

“That was a huge win in terms of collaboration,” says Yeast. It was also a clear example of the power that cross-sector networks can wield when members move beyond their own silos to support a shared goal. Such work is not easy—“It takes a lot of time and effort to continually nurture those relationships and connections,” says Yeast—but it is essential to making long-term, systemic change.

That’s been the ambition of Iowa ACEs 360 since its start, when a small group of stakeholders—in public health, mental health, family support and community advocacy—gathered, with the support of the Mid-Iowa Health Foundation (MIHF), to discuss the original CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study and how their work needed to change in response.

That group decided on two priorities: collect Iowa ACE data and spread awareness of the ACE Study, so others could be galvanized by its findings on the lifelong, corrosive effects of early childhood adversity.

After Rob Anda, the co-investigator of the 1998 ACE Study, did a presentation about the ACE Study to a small group of key stakeholders, an early step was to include the ACE module in Iowa’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS). Following an invitation-only summit in 2011 that featured a follow-up with Anda, he and Laura Porter, a nationally known expert on ACEs and population health, spoke to 800 people at the 2012 Iowa ACE Summit.

Suzanne Mineck, president of MIHF and one of the original committee members who launched ACEs 360, says “water cooler conversations” in the weeks following Anda’s visits that gave the work momentum. “We all had the privilege of learning about compelling research, but it was the lingering impact, both on those in decision-making places and those on the front lines, that was as much of an ‘aha.’”

As the coalition grew, hosting quarterly learning circles, developing work groups and, in 2014, acquiring a part-time program manager, it became a place where people from various sectors—juvenile justice, child welfare, health care and education—could learn together.

“It created a culture where there wasn’t a singular response…a culture of transparency, humility, honoring and supporting risk-taking,” says Mineck. “Many felt they were learning things for the first time together.”

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Florida State launches professional certification in trauma and resilience

(Getty Images)

Florida State University has launched a new online curriculum for a professional certification in trauma and resilience.

The curriculum was developed by the Clearinghouse on Trauma and Resilience within the Institute for Family Violence Studies at the FSU College of Social Work in conjunction with the FSU Center for Academic and Professional Development.

“This training addresses a gap in the knowledge base of human services professionals,” said Clearinghouse Director Karen Oehme. “Many professionals do not receive training on the impact of how to provide services to someone who is experiencing the harmful effects of trauma.”

The course enables professionals to develop the knowledge and skills they need to understand the impact of adult and childhood trauma, along with the keys to resilience. Participants will learn crucial information to improve service delivery to clients, students, human services recipients, patients and other members of the public.

The self-paced curriculum includes 20 hours of course content and 10 chapters of research-based readings, case scenarios, multimedia materials, assignments and quizzes.

The multidisciplinary course has been approved for continuing education credits for a diverse range of professionals including licensed counselors, social workers, nurses, dentists and lawyers. Participants outside of Florida can submit their certification to their own licensing board to determine credit awarded.

“The course is designed for professionals in a wide variety of fields because individuals in all different environments have exposure to trauma,” Oehme said. “We wanted to provide an economical, evidence-based resource to the public for those who want to enhance their professional knowledge, skills and career potential.”

The curriculum is based on developing an understanding of adverse childhood experiences and the associated long-term negative effects. The training offers a powerful new perspective on trauma-informed approaches to effective service delivery.

“Florida State University recognizes that professionals from all backgrounds have the ability to help individuals build resilience,” said Jim Clark, dean of the College of Social Work. “But first they have to learn about why resilience is so crucial in treating the negative impacts of trauma.” Clark said that FSU realized the need for such a course as it was developing the Student Resilience Proect.

“Our community partners have told us time and time again that they need research-informed resources,” Clark said. “It was a natural next step for the Clearinghouse on Trauma and Resilience to develop such a course.”

Faculty from across Florida State’s campus participated in the review of the new course.

Mimi Graham at the Center for Prevention & Early Intervention Policy, a leader in trauma-informed education, served as a reviewer, along with 10 other faculty members.

“FSU is a leader in trauma and resilience education for the public,” Graham said. “This course ensures that crucial information is available to our community leaders, so they can make trauma-informed decisions.”

Joedrecka Brown Speights at the College of Medicine said, “It’s important for human services professionals to keep up with the new research on brain development so they remember there is always hope for healing after trauma.”

Chapters in the certification cover the mental and physical effects of trauma, cultural considerations in trauma research, skills for addressing trauma and an interdisciplinary approach to building resilience.

Professionals are required to review all of the course material and pass the chapter quizzes and final exam. When professionals complete the training, they will receive their professional certification from the Center for Academic and Professional Development.

Discounts for the 20-hour course are offered for FSU alumni and veterans. For questions about fees and enrollment, contact the FSU Center for Academic & Professional Development at resilience@capd.fsu.edu or (850) 644-7545.

The myth of motive in mass shootings

AElPaso

Photo: Vernon Bryant, Dallas Morning News

Almost the first thing you hear out of the mouths of police after a mass shooting is: “We’re looking for a motive.”

In Gilroy, CA, the FBI is investigating the shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival as domestic terrorism. In El Paso, TX, police are describing the shooting as a possible hate crime and act of domestic terrorism, and focusing on the manifesto written by the shooter. Police in Dayton, OH, are still looking for a motive for why 24-year-old Connor Betts murdered nine people in 30 seconds.

But if we want to prevent shootings, asking about motive will just get you a useless answer to the wrong question. Police might feel as if they have an explanation for why 19-year-old Santino William Legan murdered three people, and why 21-year-old Patrick Crusius murdered 22 people. But motives don’t explain the roots of why those three young men, or any other mass shooters or bombers, foreign or domestic, start their journey as innocent babies and end up on a road to killing people. And in those roots, are our solutions.

If you use the lens of the science of adverse childhood experiences, the answer reveals itself, and usually pretty quickly.

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Radical Inquiry: Research Practices for Healing and Liberation

Radical Inquiry

RYSE Center in Richmond, CA, was born of out of young people of color (YPOC) organizing to shift the conditions of violence, distress, and dehumanization in which they suffer, survive, succeed, dream, and die.  We center the lived experiences of YPOC, we lead with love and sacred rage to cultivate healing and build movement, and we take risks as an essential part of transformation and justice, of liberation. We do this in a physical space that feels safe, welcoming, and affirming; that is vibrant with aesthetics created by and for YPOC, and in which members feel ownership, agency, and responsibility.  We do this through cultivating a staff team and organizational culture that is reflective of and responsive to our members, and which engages in ongoing learning, healing, and movement-building.

A third of our current staff started at RYSE as members, half of our staff are under the age 27, and over 90% are people of color. RYSE runs programs across areas of community health; education and justice; youth organizing and leadership; and media, arts, and culture. All programs serve as platforms to cultivate connection, healing, love, and resistance.

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I Was a Witness to Serial Silence

I felt the foot as it thrust between my legs and rammed over and over and over again into my crotch. I was lying on my back in the dirt. Strands of my long hair pulled from their roots under the weight of my body as my torso was forced forward. My head was tethered. My neck bent back nearly to its limit.

I felt the shoe. No one had touched me there before.

Shoes.

There wasn’t just one. They took turns. Chuck Taylors, Hush Puppies, Wallabies. The Waffle Stompers were the worst. They hurt.

It all hurt. Did no one hear me screaming? Was that even possible? There was a parade of people walking by. There were people all around.

I cried for help. My voice was my only defense as they held my arms and penetrated my dignity. Their grubby hands were on my breasts. They squeezed, and grabbed, and pinched, and wrung the newly mounded flesh.

They tore the pink bow off the center of my first bra. A metaphoric deflowering.

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Early childhood educators learn new ways to spot trauma triggers, build resiliency in preschoolers

Julie Kurtz, co-director, trauma-informed practices in early childhood education, WestEd Center for Child & Family Studies/photo by Laurie Udesky

A hug may be comforting to many children, but for a child who has experienced trauma, it may not feel safe.

That’s an example used by Julie Kurtz, co-director of trauma-informed practices in early childhood education at the WestEd Center for Child & Family Studies (CCFS), as she begins a trauma training session. Her audience, preschool teachers and staff of the San Francisco, CA-based Wu Yee Children’s Services at San Francisco’s Women’s Building, listen attentively.

Kurtz leads them into a description of how a child’s young brain functions, how young children – regardless of whether they have experienced trauma or not — live in their reptile brain.

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Tonier Cain Deserves an Evidence-Based Apology

Tonier Cain. Photo: Yi-Chin Lee/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Editor’s note: Over 15 years, Tonier Cain was arrested 83 times, and convicted 66 times. She was addicted to crack. She was a prostitute. She had four children and lost them to child protective services. Remarkably, she didn’t give up hope, and one day, she found someone in the system who knew about trauma and who didn’t give up on her. Cain now advocates for trauma-informed care in prisons and mental health facilities. She gives speeches around the country and the world. Cissy White was fortunate to attend a conference in North Carolina where Cain gave a presentation. This is Cissy’s reaction.
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When Tonier Cain gave a keynote presentation at the Benchmarks’ Partnering for Excellence conference in North Carolina, it took me months to recover from her speech.
Seriously. It was hard to stand after she spoke. When I did, I went right to a yoga mat in the self-care calm room for a while. I took off my high heels and curled up in a ball for a bit.
I’m still digesting her words. It’s not that the content was intense and heavy, though it was. It wasn’t that she talked about a ton of traumatic experiences she had survived – though she did.

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Fight burnout and compassion fatigue with lots of self-care ideas

By Larissa Krause 

For years I have sought out with fierce determination conversations, books and articles such as this. Articles with titles like “5 Steps To Wellness,” “7 Must-Have self-care Tips” or “10 Ways for a Healthier You.”

From peer-reviewed articles to O Magazine, I sift through pages with critical eyes looking for that aha moment where I find something new to share with teachers, administrators, students and other caring professionals. I usually ignore the introductions and skip ahead to the bullet points and bold print, only to find the same strategies time and again, like mindful breathing, healthy boundaries, diet and exercise, aromatherapy, etc.

It is this moment when I immediately feel let down … again. How can something as simple as taking care of ourselves turn into something so challenging? Why don’t these things feel satisfying? What is getting in the way?

Seven years ago, I started out on a mission to break down self-care, give it some rules, some structure and some checkboxes. I saturated myself with data and conversations with anyone who had gained ground in this area. I wanted to synthesize in a bento-box format the dos and don’ts of self-care.

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