Milestone

In 2011 I began on a journey of deep, critical psychotherapy. Working to heal and resolve the huge burden of complex trauma and unhealthy coping mechanisms I had developed to be able to cope until that point. When I began on this journey I was still deep in a cycle of chaos that involved drug and alcohol use, stubbornness and an absolute terror of being with myself and holding my emotions in the moment. I felt fractured, my psyche and personality in fragmented pieces that never enabled me to feel whole beyond a brief moment in time. Mindfulness, healthy behaviour and hope spilled through my clenched fists at a rapid rate, I could never hold these moments beyond my initial contact with them. I could glance into the mirror for a split second but I could never hold my own gaze.

For seven years I have worked with my therapist to build a foundation in my life, a building block of stability, healthy decision making and critical reflection on my misguided thought patterns and perceptions, something I never had the chance to develop up to that point. We both showed up every session to work diligently on the muck my subconscious had brought to the surface that week, ever so slowly refining and filtering through the debris left over from the aftermath of the initial traumas during the first decade of my life. The goals were simple, yet far from an easy undertaking.

It was only in the past two or so years that I felt a tangible sense of this foundation being built. I began to understand I would always spiral, but it seemed like the lowest I ever went, wasn’t a place of complete external destruction like I had succumbed to in the preceding years, it was definitely still painful and involved some level of internal destruction, but it was no longer manifesting into external destructive behaviours that used to level my life into rubble. The peaks and troughs were becoming much more healthy in their oscillations. A dear friend of mine has always told me ‘life isn’t about the absence of problems but the way in which you manage them’, slowly I was becoming able to actively manage the ups and downs of life.

In the past few months, this idea of building a foundation in my life has progressed into something I never imagined to be possible. It’s difficult to describe the solidity, the true tactile sense of feeling whole that has recently developed. I hold my palm in the centre of my chest and actually feel myself existing. I really hate to use a Star Trek metaphor but it reminds me of when the characters are phased onto the ship, during my whole life up until this point my existence has felt fleeting and vaporous, at risk of being extinguished at any moment, but now I am struck with this sense of being a concrete form, substantial and consolidated, finally phased onto the proverbial ship.

I don’t believe the work will ever truly be done, there is a path of refinement that leads ever onwards but this moment in time feels like the most physically tangible and concrete threshold of progress I’ve experienced.

0 To 100 In Ten Seconds

There’s often a saying that kids in care go from 0 to 100 in a split second, sometimes for what seems like no reason at all. One minute they’re seemingly fine, sitting on the couch and watching TV, then suddenly, the couch is tipped over, everything in sight is being thrown around and then the kid is creating an abstract expressionistic art piece on the kitchen floor, using every single condiment and cleaning product.

Something to understand is that kids who have experienced lots of trauma have nervous systems that are in over-drive all the time, even when they’re sleeping. This means that instead of being at 0 like those of us who can regulate or calm ourselves down, so we can stay at our baseline of 0, or close to it. These kids are often functioning with a baseline that is more likely to be around 80.

This means that smaller triggers have much larger emotional impacts, take for example a comparison between a kid who isn’t traumatised and one who is. Kid A who we will call ‘Jessie’ with no trauma history, is watching the Hulk on the loungeroom TV but it’s 11pm on a school night, his Mum tells him it’s time to switch off and head to bed. Jessie is at a 0 baseline, he hears his mum and feels a bit fed up as he is right in the middle of watching his show. Jessie’s numbers might kick up a notch to 5 or 10 and so he grumbles a bit but that’s the extent of it, Jessie pretty much heads right to bed after back-chatting his mum under his breath.

Kid B who we will call ‘Josh’ is consistently at a baseline of 80, he had a shitty day because got a call from his mum who was in an emotional crisis of her own and it sounded like she had been drinking, meaning that she had broken the sobriety she had been working so hard on to get Josh back home and living with her again. Josh had been heightened from his baseline of 80 up to 90 all day after the phone call with his mum, he had just calmed down to a point where he could sit down on the couch and watch his movie, without feeling that constant, almost painful rush of adrenaline, which made it impossible to sit down and concentrate for more than a few minutes.

It was 11pm, the resi unit rules stated that the TV had to be switched off at 10pm on a weeknight but the worker who was on shift that night had turned a blind eye to the extra hour because she knew Josh was in the middle of his movie and didn’t have anything on in the following morning. At 11pm the worker made her way into the loungeroom to check in with Josh how long the movie had left to finish because it was 11pm. Josh didn’t hear that the worker was just checking in as to how long the movie had to go, he was already at 90, all he could hear was the worker imply that he had to go to bed, immediately breaking the concentration on the TV that had been able to get his mind off his day for a little while.

Josh lost it, all his cylinders started firing and he was immediately at 100, he felt like he had nothing left to lose. His mum had given up trying to get him back, so he was stuck in that shit hole resi-unit for good now. Josh throws the entire couch at the wall and then starts punching at the wall until he has made a hole through both sides of it and he can feel the cool night air pour in which calms him slightly. The worker must comply with workplace policy and call the police, leading to Josh being charged with property damage and beginning a link into the juvenile justice system.

Josh didn’t go from 0 to 100, he already had a baseline of 80 and had been pushed up to 90 due to the phone call from his mum earlier that day. From the workers point of view, he had been a little more restless and irritable that day but that was somewhat usual for him. It would have taken someone who really understood the effects of trauma to spot the warning signs that Josh was escalating, because Josh didn’t show much emotion usually, he had been taught to keep it all in.

Each kid in care has a different baseline with different things that will trigger them. Some kids will be triggered into anger, some into dissociative almost catatonic like states, some use substances, some run away and some will cycle through a few of these responses. Each kid is different and needs to be approached differently. It is so important that youth workers start to inform themselves about the effects of trauma, that way, when kids do become triggered, the workers may have a really valuable chance to work with the kid to help them understand what they are feeling in that moment, and how they can manage those feelings.