Saturday, August 23, 2014

Vicarious trauma/transformation

"Vicarious traumatization (VT) is a transformation in the self of a trauma worker or helper that results from empathic engagement with traumatized clients and their reports of traumatic experiences. Its hallmark is disrupted spirituality, or a disruption in the trauma workers' perceived meaning and hope. " Wikipedia

He haunts my dreams, my waking moments, as well as those of my staff. We all have been deeply affected by one young man. We have consults on the case almost daily. We discuss and try to figure out how to change a cultural belief that is causing harm to an entire family. We are trying to save someone who doesn't realize they are abused. Someone who believes they are "bad and deserve it". 

No one deserves to be doused with cold water at 5 am and then beaten with an electric cord so badly that permanent physical scars cover their arms and legs and torso. Those are the scars we see. What about the invisible ones?

Initially we got the case because the 15 year old smokes marijuana, breaks curfew, won't stay home, and is perhaps, running with a gang. The first time I met him, he walked over and shook my hand. Said "yes maam, no maam" and looked me in the eye. I knew there was a good kid in there and I wondered what had happened that he sought out safety and security in a gang. It didn't make sense at first glance; 2 parents, both employed and educated. A nice home with all the trappings of a solid middle class family. His own room. Enrollment at one of the elite schools. Something didn't add up on the surface.

I wondered what had happened to him. 

The next encounter was at the office of the Cabinet: six social workers and a Juvenile Restorative Justice representative, his parents, his brothers and him.

At first the adults talked around and over him. The parents detailing the lies, the theft, the drug use. Finally we asked him to tell us his story. He did. He told of being beaten, being drenched with ice cold water. Of being backed into a corner while his stepfather wailed on him until he was bloody, his skin split and a goose egg lump on his forehead. Then, the stepfather confirmed this was true. Six social workers were shocked into silence. The stepfather went on to state "This isn't abuse, it is discipline. I was raised that way and I am fine. I love my mother." Again, shocked silence. It takes a lot to shock social workers as seasoned as those in that room, but they succeeded.

Now, I understood why on a hot day, this young man wore a long sleeve sweat shirt. Why he distrusted adults. Why he didn't want to go home, used drugs and stole to buy more drugs. I knew why he seemed so detached. I knew and I felt the pain. I ached for him. I kept the professional mask on. My tears would come later. I listened and looked him in the eye as he recounted the incidents. He locked onto me as I sat directly across from him, his eyes boring into mine defiantly, as if to say "believe me, hear me, see me." 
And I did. 

It is not the first time I went into a dark place with someone. My job and my life, has allowed me access into the inner sanctum of many tortured souls. I have seen and felt the pain of others, both human and animal. I have done the hard things no one else wanted to do. I have seen death face to face, up close and personal. I have held angry crying people, children and adults, letting their grief, anger and pain soak into me as surely as their tears soaked into my shirt. I have seen the effects of cruelty both tangible and intangible and wondered how any human could be so inhumane. 

I have doubted the very God that made me. I have doubted that love and peace can be had. I have doubted myself with each encounter, doubted my ability to help another person heal. I have doubted my training and education. I have doubted my own ability to heal the darkness within my own soul. 

But I cannot let doubt stop me. I cannot let the pain stop me from my calling. It is more than a duty to do what I do. It is an honor and a privilege to serve others. To be allowed into these dark places. It is a sacred trust. I have broken that trust at times, due to my own fear and weakness. I have turned away because the personal cost was so high. I have found myself in my own darkness at times with no light to guide me out of the abyss. 

Yet I seek to transform this vicarious pain into strength, for the greater good. I understand why saints go mad at times. No one can live always in the dark nor the light. Somehow there must be a middle ground, a sanctuary, a respite. 

"Beyond vicarious traumatization lies vicarious transformation (VTF). This is the process of transforming one's vicarious trauma, leading to spiritual growth. Vicarious transformation is a process of active engagement with the negative changes that come about through trauma work. It can be recognized by a deepened sense of connection with all living beings, a broader sense of moral inclusion, a greater appreciation of the gifts in one's life, and a greater sense of meaning and hope. Like VT, VTF is a process, not an endpoint or outcome. If the clients’ extraordinary pain can be embraced instead of fended off, humanity is expanded. In this receptive mode, caring can be deepened. The clients feel that they are allowed to exert their influence, and this reciprocal process conveys respect. People can learn from trauma survivor clients that people can endure horrible things and carry on. This knowledge is a gift that can be passed along to others."

I take hope in the power of transformation. I reach out, I make connections with friends, animals, nature to heal myself. I respect the pain. I embrace it, knowing that the channels it digs so deeply in my heart will at some point be channels of love and healing. I try to increase my knowledge and understanding. I seek out the shared consciousness of spiritual leaders through their words and teachings.  I try to touch God, in spirit and in the form of others. I see God in the eyes of a scared, beaten 15 year old. I am humbled by the very nature of life. I am honored to be in the darkness with others. I am realizing what my life is, what it is meant to be, is about.

I am transforming. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014


I wish there were a way to teach common sense. And empathy...

It has been a trying week. Heartbreaking in several ways.

On the global front, the death of Robin Williams has deeply affected this country. He was a clown extraordinaire, making us laugh until we cried and when in a serious role, he twanged our heartstrings. He conveyed empathy, humanness and humaneness through his various character renderings.

But like many who struggle with darkness,  he couldn't find the light and in that darkest hour he sought escape from the pain and the demons with whom he had battled for years.  Many question "why?" "how could he do that?", not understanding the siren call of peace, the freedom from an internal, isolating pain that unless one has experienced it, one cannot understand.

Now his family seeks privacy while the world wants a piece of him. Not understanding there was a private person who lived and breathed and loved his own children, wife and friends. We devour our idols and demand more from them even in death...

On a more personal front there were two moments when I wished I could change the world.

One evening one of  my staff, my immediate directors and I met with a family at DCBS (Department of Community Based Services) to discuss the fate of a 15 year old black male. He and his family sat on one side of the huge conference table and we sat on the other. My staffer sat next to the kiddo to provide support.

I listened as the parents expressed their frustrations about their son. He lies. He steals. He breaks curfew. He smokes weed. He needs to be sent away. He is beyond control. He is a criminal. They have tried every type of punishment, even taking away Christmas 3 years in a row...

I sat there and began to wonder, "What has happened to him?" .  He and I locked eyes several times. He sat there, defiant, rigid. I kept remembering the first time I met him, when he entered the room and shook my hand, a polite respectful young man.

At some point, my director, stopped the parents talking and asked the young man what he wanted. In a room full of adults "dissing" him, we showed him respect and common courtesy.

He told his story. Looking at me, he spoke about his stepfather whipping him with an electric cord, until he bled and was left with scars. He told about this adult dumping ice water on him in bed and then beating him. He told about being backed into a corner and hit repeatedly, his curling into a ball to protect himself and being left with a gash on his forehead.

When asked the stepfather admitted he did this, but was not an "abusive parent". He stated this was how he was raised and he sees it as discipline, not abuse. Plus, he stated he never whips "his" sons, because they aren't like their half brother.

Sitting in a room of social workers and with no remorse, the stepfather admitted this. And the mother stated she hadn't realized that this had been going on for ten years...

I realized that THIS is what happened to the kiddo.

How, I wondered, HOW could the mother not realize what was happening? Where did she think the gashes and welts came from? Could she not sense the anger between the two? But she appeared done. Tired of this kid and just wanting him gone. This articulate, smart, kid was falling through the cracks. And my heart broke for him. At that moment I wished I could be his therapist, to help him heal, to explore the trauma he had survived but which had left him with both visible and invisible scars.

The staff and I are going to work to keep this kid out of jail, out of trouble and find a way to help him heal.

Later this week, I sat on the floor with a client. She has 5 children and has a progressive, degenerative disease that has rendered her practically immobile. We are trying to get her a wheelchair, home health services, an aide so that her children don't miss school to stay home to help mom.

The staff member on this case is young and green. She has led a sheltered life with her parents helping her with rent, buying a car and clothes. She came to me last week for help to write a check. She planned today's session around using "Value Cards", a tool that elicits conversation about one's values, goals and aspirations. She sat on the couch with her computer and asked the client questions while ignoring the fact that the client was sitting on the floor wrapped in a blanket where she most likely had been since the kids left for school that morning. She seemed oblivious to the odor emanating from the woman. As she sat there asking questions such as "How important is job training?" I marveled at the fact she seemed to not realize that this woman would never hold another job due to her progressive and terminal illness. Yet she plowed on asking questions which had no value to this particular client. The client was gracious and would say, "That doesn't pertain to me".
I think she realized she was training the young staffer.

As a supervisor, I was there to observe. But I am not a supervisor who can sit and watch. The week before when I was present, the client mentioned she wore adult diapers. I interrupted the session to inquire if she needed any supplies and what kind of diapers she wore. She gave me the brand and size. I left to get them. I called back to my staffer to see if the teenager needed pads or tampons. The mother reported no but could I get them some tissues? I picked those up as well as cleaning wipes and some roach control. As I walked through the store I wondered how to teach my staffer to put herself into the place of the client; to feel what it was like to sit in one's own waste with no diaper to change into, no ability to walk to a bathroom. To sit immobile and watch while roaches crawled across your blanket. To have to wait for your children to come home from middle and elementary school before you could eat or drink.  And I wondered if I had ever been that young and oblivious. I would like to think that I wasn't, but I cannot remember. I do remember, even at a young age, wanting to "save the world"; wanting to help others but at times being afraid to do so. I remember with shame, not standing up for a mentally retarded girl who was being teased by a boy. I remember the anger I felt and how I realized that although cute, he was cruel and I found him unattractive after that. But mostly I remembered feeling sad and ashamed that I didn't step in.

When I got back, the staffer had moved to the floor to sit near the client. I took that as a good sign. A sign that she could follow my lead and leave the relative safety of the couch.

I don't know how to teach empathy or common sense. I don't know how to teach parents that an electric cord is not discipline but abuse. I don't know how to get someone who is young and green to open their eyes and SEE. But I will try, to the best of my abilities I will try to save the world. One person at a time. God grant me the strength to never give up.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Horse Play

What? I wasn't doing nuthin!!!

As I walk from stall to stall greeting the horses I can tell it is going to be an interesting afternoon.
Lightning, especially,  is in high spirits on this rainy drizzly day. He greets me with a loud nickering, demanding immediate attention. I enter his stall and give him a few scratches behind his ears. He swings his huge head up and down in pleasure. As I stand beside him and give him a few pats, he turns his head to me and starts to sniff me. He blows his warm hay scented breath into my face and tries to sneak in a nibble to my sleeve. I gently push him back and exit his stall.

I get his tack ready, prepare the grooming bay and then go back for him. He starts nickering when he sees the lead rope and automatically backs up so I can open the stall door and enter.
I clip on his lead and lead him to the grooming bay. I attach the cross ties and square him up on the rubber mats. I duck under the cross ties to get his curry comb and he steps forward off the mat.

"No, Lighting, back up".

I lean my shoulder into his chest and move him back. He immediately pivots his hindquarters off center. I walk to his rear and gently but forcefully square him up again. "Now STAY" I say, hoping dog commands work on horses.

I go back to get the curry comb. I begin to brush him when I notice he has the cross tie rope in his mouth chewing it like a piece of gum. "Lighting, NO" I take the rope out of his mouth. He looks at me, I look at him and he deliberately puts his front left hoof off the mat. "Lightning... don't you do it!" I say knowing he is up to something. He puts his hoof back on the mat. I duck under the cross ties to curry the other side. I start to brush and get to his hindquarters when I feel a shift. I look and realize he has eased forward and has both front hooves off the mat. As I walk forward he steps forward another step, but stares straight ahead as if to say, "What? I'm not doing nuthin!"

I ease him back 2 steps onto the mat. I swear he is giggling at this point. As I bend to pick his hooves, he nibbles at the cross ties again. I decide to let it go for the moment. As I get to his rear hooves, I run my hand down his leg, his signal to roll his hoof forward so I can clean his frog. As an older draft horse, he has been taught this technique to save wear and tear on his hips. His hoof remains motionless. I turn to look at him, he is looking at me, chewing his rope.

"Lightning, behave!" I say sternly. I run my hand down his leg again. This time he lifts his leg and draws it up as if to kick, but instead just wiggles it around not letting me grasp it. I look at him, he looks at me, chews his rope, puts his hoof down. I walk up and take the rope out of his mouth. I go back and run my hand down his leg, he rolls his hoof and I pick out the muck. I get all four hooves done at long last.

I prepare to tack him. He has one hoof off the mat. I say his name sternly, he puts the hoof back. I put the quilt on him, then the saddle pad. Today Lightning is outfitted in a surcingle. I put in on and notice it doesn't quite fit but I tighten the girth. Something is off. He swings his head. He stares at me. I swear he is scowling. I realize I have put a too small pony girth on him so I take it off. While I am getting the correct tack, he has walked forward as far as the cross ties will allow. Again we dance through the routine of backing up onto the mat. I finally get everything on and checked. The leader comes to get him and I assist with undoing the cross ties.

I whisper in his ear, "Be GOOD." As he walks by me he flicks me, hard, with his long tail as if to say, "What EVER" and I realize I have just worked with a horse channeling a  human teenager.

All in all a good game of HORSE...

What EVER!