My name is Kristin J, I am 24, and I am a survivor of childhood trauma.
I have never typed the above words, and very few people in my life are aware of this part of my life. I did not start Tic Tock to write about it. In fact, I never intended to publicly share this piece of myself. At the current moment in American history, however, we are actively watching thousands of children (and their families) being traumatized by a new government policy, which aims to use them as bargaining chips for political gain. I do not know if speaking my story into the world can do anything, but my soul is breaking every moment with thoughts of these children. I have called my Senators; I have donated to a cause to help reunite them with their parents; I have spent time spreading factual information on social media. But I haven’t played this card in my handful of untold life stories, and it might well be one of the most important pieces of education I can give.
As a child and adolescent, I experienced years of trauma. Without going into too much detail (because that’s not what this is about), I was physically hurt, made to play humiliation “games,” mocked for my tics, continually yelled at for being “the cause” of my brother’s autism, forced to do unsafe tasks by way of threats, and was told that I would never be able to get out or be valuable to anyone. This was all done by or with the encouragement of adults.
I focused hard on school, trying to run away from feelings of depression and shame. In undergrad this became harder, likely due to more free-time and less routine. I became suicidal, which led to a stay in a mental health facility (this is where my previous post, My Medication Story, starts). After this stay, things became worse. I functioned more or less as an alcoholic and love addict, because I wanted to feel something other than the negative feelings the memories brought on. Very soon after–i.e. my early 20s–I was clinically diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Why did this happen?
When a person experiences trauma, the brain has two defense mechanisms to deal with the memories. One is build a metaphorical fortress around those memories so they cannot be accessed easily. The other is replay these memories on loop, remembering minute and exact details about the experience. Should the individual be in a similar situation again, the brain “knows” how to react better than it had the first time. These second type of memories can cycle for years, and although “trigger” has become a buzzword–usually to poke fun of others–these memories can legitimately be triggered back into recollection by words, smells, places, voices, people, etc. People living with trauma have different reactions to these cycles, ranging from rage, addiction, depression, and so on.
How do people deal with trauma in hopes of getting better?
There is no guide book. There is no straight-forward medical step-by-step of how to heal your brain. Many people use psychotherapy, though it has been argued that this traditional type of therapy may re-traumatize patients. There are pharmacological interventions, though these prescriptions usually treat anxiety or depression; the symptoms, not the cause. There is the newer treatment of EMDR (eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing), though this treatment can be expensive and may not be covered by insurance. And then there are those, like undergrad-me, who self-medicate. I don’t feel I need to point out the negatives of that one.
Currently, I am undergoing EMDR therapy. Although it has been quite beneficial, an additional negative is that those fortresses that are associated with the brain’s defense mechanisms tend to come down. The memories that were presumed to be forgotten by the patient may in fact come back. The important note here is that the patient can hopefully effectively deal with both types of memories, with the assistance of their clinician. [Interestingly, I have always noticed that I have vivid memories of childhood school life, but a lot of my other memories seemed to just be gone. I attributed this to a poor memory, being more interested in school, etc. However when I started down the path of EMDR, those missing memories starting coming back. To be sure these were not false or self-invented memories, I asked trusted adults, such as my parents, about a few of them, and they told me they too remembered these events.]
Even though I am finally getting treatment that is working for me, it is many years after the fact. And an important caveat is that not all treatments work well for all affected people. In searching for a viable treatment, I could have very easily ruined my life or potentially died during my undergraduate years due to carrying the burden of childhood trauma.
How does this play into what is going on in America right now?
I have had these children and their parents in my mind since the news broke into the mainstream that families were being separated and their asylum-status was no longer being recognized. These people, these human beings, these fellow Kind, will have lasting trauma from this experience. It is not a question of which individuals will need mental services, but which will actually find or be given resources to obtain them. There are still so many unknowns–how many children will there end up being? Will they be returned to their families? What we do know is that a majority of these humans are asylum-seekers from Central America, where horrific things are happening right now. There is no doubt that several of them are already suffering from a degree of trauma. [Aside, seeking asylum in the US was not a crime until Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently changed the immigration policy to that of “zero-tolerance.” Therefore, crossing the border is now an offense which can be prosecuted. Since children cannot be held in jails, they are separated from their families while their parents await trail. It should be again noted, these parents left a horrible life (and potentially life-or-death-situation) in Central America for the US with the understanding that crossing our border would be legal due to their asylum-seeking status]. Now we, as a nation, are watching that trauma be compounded upon, day after day after day. These children are in cages or tents, with foil blankets and no answers. The border guards have largely been instructed not to comfort them, leading to a cacophony of crying children who need love, affection, diaper changes, and above all–their families.
This level of mistreatment surpasses mine. I was made to feel hatred towards myself as a human. But these children and their families are being dehumanized altogether. As a privileged American citizen with good healthcare, I have had access to the best treatments for my past trauma. Yet I am 24, and I am still in the weeds of recovery. I did not start Tic Tock to talk trauma or politics, but I have to ask, if we as the public do not take a stand against this practice, how will these children fare in their mental health at 24? And how will we be remembered if we are apathetic to their plight?
National Institute of Mental Health (+ my own experiences)
Ways to help families at the border: