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.

Behaviours From The Inside: Part One – Dissociation

I am sitting in the lounge-room at Hurstbridge Farm, wrapped in a faux mink blanket and staring at the flickering light cast from the fireplace. I can’t remember how I got here, in fact I can’t remember much at all about what led to this moment, all I know is that my body is in pain from being frozen in the same position for a long time and though I’m wrapped in the blanket I’m still shivering but I can’t seem to feel the cold.
I feel like I have partially come out of a day dream, I am stuck in two worlds and my foggy brain can’t figure out how to move forward. I am unsure how to move my limbs, they have been frozen still for so long and I just can’t seem to get the message from my brain to my hands, asking them to move.
I am distant from the situation, watching a small part of myself wrestle with being unable to move or think, I am safe in this detached place of my mind, nothing can harm me here. I am a million miles away from myself, almost as if I am seeing someone else’s body through the movie theatre screen behind their eyes.

The world around me is made of cotton balls, everything is dulled and soft. I have been staring into the fake flames of the fireplace for so long that the room in my peripheral vision is becoming distorted and misshapen. The walls around me swaying as though they are made of the same stuff as fire, contorting and collapsing on themselves around my tunnel vision of the flames.
Even if I wanted to act on the impulse to turn my eyes towards the disfigured walls to check what was really happening, I just can’t seem to move them, they are stuck as they are and no amount of trying to flood them with messages to just move will work to avert them.

I am in a safe place, there are staff around me who flitter about like moths leaving gifts of water and sometimes resting their hand on my shoulder; this is helpful because I can feel it, it gives my awareness an anchor point to attach to. I come back to my body in the small area of this safe touch but can’t seem to come back more than in that minuscule way.

Though the touch is grounding and helps me return in some small way, it is also excruciatingly frightening at the same time. I am very vulnerable in this moment, I couldn’t make my body move even if I wanted to.
I need to know the person is safe, to have a trusting relationship developed with them, if someone who I didn’t trust tried to rouse me with touch, this waking dream would turn into a nightmare. Being frozen still and flooded with boiling hot fear and an urge to run, to get to safety is like being torn apart from the inside.

I spent a lot of time being dissociated over the course of my childhood and teenage years, a left over coping mechanism from experiencing trauma at a time I couldn’t act to protect myself with a fight or flight response, so I withdrew into and away from myself for protection.

I eventually learned to spot myself feeling dissociated and distant, I have a small river stone I used to hold in the palm of my hand until I could come back to myself again. I remember a time years ago when I held onto that stone for an entire day before I was able to feel present enough to let it go.
I was given this beautiful river stone on a day I had called a dear friend and mentor of mine Stephan because I was in a heightened state and had ended up in a tricky situation, Stephan invited me to come see him, probably sensing that I was heightened and needed help to become grounded again. Of all the people I’ve met over the years who know how to put their knowledge of trauma theory into practice, Stephan does it with such grace.

Stephan took me to a nearby river and we went swimming in the cool water. Surrounded by trees, polished stones and a trusted adult I felt safe enough to come back to being grounded again, (though this was from a heightened state versus being in a dissociated state) the rhythmic motion of the small lapping waves and swimming freestyle in a repetitive motion probably aided this grounding process.
After a quick rock throwing competition to see who could hit the fork of a submerged tree first, winner gets a Kit-Kat, Stephan hands me my stone, a gift from the river.
A dark blue-grey and slightly oval shaped stone that fits perfectly in the palm of my hand, something I still keep to this day.

The river stone has positive memories attached to it, a memory of being safe and happy. Holding it was like an anchor point to the safety and connection in that time, even if I wasn’t consciously able to remember it when I was needing to hold the stone. This connection to a safer time helped me to feel safe enough to return to the present.