I just sat through eight hours of training about how to work with survivors of childhood trauma. I knew it would be interesting and relevant but I never knew the vast majority of the room would be in tears within the first fifteen minutes, myself included. The opening video presentation was a therapist trying to get a nine-year-old girl to verbalize the sexual abuse she had suffered at the hands of her father. The therapist, to help prosecute the father, had to get the girl to talk about the hundreds of times her father stuck his “pee pee” inside her and what else he had stuck inside her since the age of four. We then went to on learn how such survivors cope or don’t. She coped because she had the support of amazing adoptive parents but even at age fourteen, would break down when she got in trouble, fearing she would be sent back to her old life. Others don’t cope and end up addicted to drugs and alcohol and attracted to insanely unsafe situations for a variety of psychological and environmental reasons, and of course often perpetuate the cycle of abuse themselves, in some form or another.
A few people have asked me how I got into working with homeless youth. My usual answer is I came to
and was shocked at how such a wealthy nation, a universally understood place of freedom and opportunity, could have so many people living on the streets. There’s some truth in this, of course but I finally understood the other day that this was not my only motive. America
While in meditation the other night, an image came to my head. It was my fist connecting with my friend’s jaw, him falling to the ground, his cracked tooth and me walking away not giving a shit. Now, my childhood was pretty cushy. I haven’t suffered any major abuse but I suppose I could argue there were some key things lacking and a couple of events that turned me into a very confused and angry teenager. I only think I have untied the knots in my brain, very recently at the ripe old age of thirty-five. But still, I think about the venom that I spat out, racist and homophobic remarks I made, punches I threw and punches I took, treating friends and family like shit and I now understand that what I have been doing over the last decade is processing much of this. I never believed in the necessity of therapy but I now understand that these things don’t just disappear. I think about my dead brother all that he went through leading up to his death and what he might have endured. I wonder why I’m still alive and why he is dead and the events that determined this outcome.
We are all treated terribly from time to time. The aggressive driver who cuts you off, the teacher who treated you badly, the boss that doesn’t respect you, the kid who was rude to you, the friend who never follows through, the mother that beat you, the priest that raped you and it is doubtful that in the heat of an altercation, you are going to have the composure to slow your mind down enough to consider why you were treated so badly.
There is more and more compelling evidence for nurture over nature. Most people on death row had seriously traumatic childhoods, most alcoholics and drug addicts, are survivors of abuse. I personally don’t think people are ‘pre-destined’ to be ‘bad people.’ Many biologists and anthropologists actually suggest human nature is tended towards cooperation and harmony not competition and conflict.
I believe in free will but I also believe the events that make us the people we are, the events that create the culture we are born into, are going to limit the range of that freedom and the number of choices we are presented with. You only have to look at brain scans of a ‘healthy’ young person and a person who endured a traumatic childhood to understand how concrete the effects of nurture can be on development.
I’m certainly not saying any wrong done to you is justified, forgivable or tolerable or that your perpetrator had no choice but to abuse you and shouldn’t be ‘punished’ but I suppose if we can begin to collectively understand why we treat each other so badly, we can broaden our choices of how we are going to respond and cope when someone does hurts us and perhaps, inconsequence, the cycle can slow itself down. In an economic system that pits us against each other, and in a culture of the individual, this is a daunting task but next time you walk around a busy area, look at everyone you pass and remind yourself they were a baby once like you, they will die one day like you, and think about all the events that could have brought them to cross your path and what they might be going through.
Some people tell me that homeless young people just need to snap out of it, get a job, stop taking drugs and mooching off social services. Then I might begin to tell them why even in the best of economic times that is not so simple and they might retort, that they did it themselves. That they were beaten, abused, addicted, lost, raped, alone, depressed, suicidal, unsupported, neglected, unloved but they survived and succeeded in life. And good for them, but not everyone can because we are all individuals. We’ve all banged our heads against a wall wondering why someone made the seemingly ridiculous, dangerous, self-destructive choices they made, but we need to follow it up with the context of that choice and what they are choosing it over.
I wrote this for two reasons. One because the instructor told us we would need to ‘take care of ourselves’ after this training and two because she told us that if we come away with anything it should be to try and help others understand why survivors of trauma, might behave the way they do.