Trauma by many other names

A man in his 50’s whom I worked with for some time has, I suspect, broken the record for the number of well intended diagnoses he received before the clarity of his trauma response became clear.

His life before the age of 5 was not easy. His parents were violent with each other and sometimes with him. He learned to duck for cover and keep pretty quiet. He flew under the radar until he hit school where at first he was withdrawn, afraid and overwhelmed. He daydreamed a lot. It didn’t take long before his peers began to poke this slightly odd and awkward fellow, and he retaliated in the way he had learned how, with the force of self preservation and primal fear. Then he was punished and made to feel bad about himself, while his attacker was soothed and protected. He could make no sense of this but soon learned that adults were as dangerous as his taunting peers. He learned that there was something wrong with him and he was to blame. He didn’t notice that teachers cared, but didn’t know what to do. He didn’t notice their exasperation or desperation, he just felt the hurts and the danger.

He didn’t learn. School was a daily battle ground, not a place for exploration. Finally he was taken aside and tested and diagnosed with a Receptive Learning Disorder. The years went by. Then came the ADHD diagnosis, and the medication. The years went by, and someone called him Oppositional and spoke of Conduct Disorder. He dropped out of high school, developed Substance Abuse Disorder, learned some more interesting survival skills and scored a Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis.

Then he met a woman and things settled. Love can do that! He went to TAFE and got a job. Life was stable for some years until his second child was born. Things got busier. There were financial stressors, sleep disturbance and he was torn between loving his family and feeling overwhelmed. He refused to fight with his wife, determined not to expose his boys to the violence that surrounded his early life, and so he withdrew. Deeply and profoundly. His wife was worried and dragged him to get help. A diagnosis of Major Depression and some medication was the result. Long and protracted, but slowly it lifted as his boys grew and became skillful footballers and he joined their play with a newfound passion. He threw himself into being a “football dad” and found energy to apply for a more interesting job. He discovered passion for his work, an abundance of energy, he needed less sleep and started behaving erratically. He was hospitalized and scored a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder. Finally, when his marriage was threatened he sought help for himself. Describing the dissociated, disconnected survival skills that had become his winning formula, in all their variations, triggered by heightened emotions, he was finally able to begin healing the hurt and learning new ways.

Trauma responses in veterans returning from war zones are now well understood by professionals, and becoming more so in our community. This understanding has helped to extrapolate what works in healing these people, to other trauma inducing events, such as natural disasters, motor vehicle accidents, and other life threatening events. We are well aware that exposure to domestic violence can produce trauma responses, but small children still provide the biggest challenge to identifying and treating trauma.

What if we just assume that all kindergarten children who are disconnected, afraid, have bizarre tantrums, or can’t seem to engage in learning or social activities are displaying symptoms of trauma. I think this lens would bring automatic compassion from teachers and carers, rather than judgement and punishment. Compassion, hey! What a difference that could make. What if we as adults knew what  to do to provide a safe space where healing and reconnection could happen, and further traumatising situations were prevented. Rewind 50 years and 7 diagnoses and wonder what might have been different if this man was helped when he was 5.

The Australian Childhood Foundation has some great resources for creating trauma informed schools. Take a look here It is influenced by the work of Bruce Perry, (currently my favorite child Psychiatrist) among others. Bruce Perry’s work combines a gentle human approach to healing trauma, with an awareness of the need to provide a context where learnings that were missed during the trauma response, can be learned anew through play and interactions that are aligned to the developmental age where the learning would normally have otherwise occurred. His beautiful book The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog: and other stories from a child Psychiatrists notebook, is well worth the read.




Do you work well with troubled youth? Well perhaps you too are a mutant

Stories often emerge in our culture as metaphors for a social phenomenon, and the X-men is a great example. We have all heard of, or known families, where something emerges in adolescence that turns a previously manageable young person into a force to be reckoned with, and to mainstream education and community systems they become unmanageable. Their parents, family and teachers find the change alarming and are unable to understand how it happened or what it is. Every intervention, while well intended, seems to make things worse

In the X-men story, youths such as these that had been marginalized, bullied by peers or punished by adults without an attempt to understand them became resentful. If the adults managed to connect with them, that resentment shifted to understanding and their energy went into a useful cause. One boy, Pyro, who’s resentment was simmering over, attacked a boy who was teasing him. The head of school settled the incident but told him dismissively ” Next time you feel like showing off, don’t!” and left. The break in their relationship left the space for him to be seduced by the dark side of mutants. The mutants who’s resentment had found relief in revenge.

As Gandhi said: An eye for an eye just turns the whole world blind. Cohesive communities find a way to include marginalized minorities and help them heal the hurts that would otherwise fuel division. In patriarchal societies, breaking the rules results in blame and punishment, in a mood of negation. For an emerging x- man, digression can happen just through self expression, with gifts that are not yet understood or controlled. The punishment, then, feels unjust and fuels resentment. In matristic cultures, however, people who have digressed are included in a ritual that allows restoration of the digression, learning, and re-connection with the community, in a loving and understanding mood. The X-men knew about this.

The spectacular thing about the X-men story, is that there are adults who understand, and know what to do. In the story, these adults are called mutants by the larger community, but they wear the badge with honour. They understand the emerging abilities in the young person and view them as gifts. They do not claim a superior understanding of these abilities, because each mutants gifts are unique, but they know that the youngster can learn to explore them, learn to use them and embrace them as part of their individual uniqueness.

In the story, Charles Xavier, a talented and experienced mutant, created a school for these gifted youths, where they could learn from adults who understood them. They weren’t segregated into age groups. They learned from each other. They learned what was relevant to their unique gift. They did not learn irrelevant things.

Imagine that such a school for troubled youth was available in our community. There would be no curriculum. Learning would happen in relationship with an adult who trusted their own abilities and was not afraid of the young person’s emerging skills. Irrelevant things would no doubt be accidentally learned, (such as literacy and numeracy), but the emphasis would be on expanding the abilities of the individual youth in a way that felt relevant to them.

The importance of experiencing the world through their senses, not just their cognition, would be rightfully returned to them, as well as an understanding of why mainstream schooling did not work for them as it emphasised thinking, and not feeling, being or even doing. X-men know that over- thinking gets in the way of their powers.

Parents see their child transformed into a confident, self trusting person, experiencing success in their personal learning in areas of interest to them. They would come to understand that they needed the same length of time that kids have in mainstream schools to feel calm, happy and engaged with their peers, in order to succeed, so it would be understood that the sum of time they spent in distress before they found the school would be added to their school time. This might mean that an 18 year old with 6 troubled years might remain in the school until they were 24 before they were asked to be productive in the world (or to train as x-men).

Instead of the disconnecting experience of pathway planning that takes these young people out of their present and into some imagined future, mutant teachers understand the importance of helping these youths to stay grounded in the present, where they are connected to their senses through which they learn. As their skills grow they lay down a path into the future that is right for them. This future could not have been known in advance.

If you can imagine that, you may well be a mutant.