Close your eyes for a second.
Imagine being seven-years-old. You just got off the bus. You run into your home, warm and comforting from the fresh fallen snow. You smell the food your mom is cooking in the kitchen. It’s your favorite meal. Your mom rounds the corner and hugs you, asks how your day at school was. You sit on the couch, watching your favorite show as your dad walks in the door after a long day at work and gives you a kiss on the forehead. Your mom calls from the kitchen to tell you dinner is ready. You all sit around the table eating, talking about your day. You help your mom clean up the kitchen then the three of you play a board game while a Disney movie is playing on your big screen TV in the background. You win the game. Your mom draws you a nice bubble bath then reads you a bedtime story before you go to sleep. Your mom and dad give you goodnight kisses and tuck you in tight in your own room in your own bed. You fall asleep and dream of the puppy you’re going to get for your upcoming birthday. You wake up in the morning to your mom bringing you breakfast in bed and waking you up for school. She brushes your hair and packs your lunch then waves from the front porch as she watches you get on the bus for another day. You repeat this every day. You’re happy. You’re safe. Your life is good. You’re only seven-years-old. You have no fears. You go to school and play with your friends. You have basketball practice on Fridays and sleepovers on the weekends. You’re loved and you know it.
Sounds good, right? The type of life we think all seven-year-old kids should be living. Coming home from school with a smile. Going to bed in a warm home. Being loved and kept safe.
Now imagine, you’re seven-years-old. You’re hiding in the bathroom at school and miss the bus home on purpose. You don’t want to go home. Your home is a rundown apartment with multiple people living there, with only one room. The only time you get to eat is at school when you get a free lunch because your family can’t afford it. You have two outfits that were your older sisters and they’re dirty but there’s no washing machine, so what are you going to do? You sleep on the floor in the living room each night, usually without a blanket. You hide in the corner most of the days to stay out of the way of people coming and going. They’re constantly giving your dad money and you watch him give them small bags of white powder. You lay awake at night until your mom comes home, usually around three in the morning wearing nothing more than lace. She stumbles into the house and lights up something that doesn’t smell like a cigarette. She doesn’t tell you goodnight or kiss you. She doesn’t even notice that you don’t have a blanket or pillow. She doesn’t care that your clothes need washed. But she’s home now, so you feel a little more at ease. You close your eyes only to hear the sound of yelling coming from the bedroom, then slams, punches, crying. Shortly after, you watch your mom walk out of the bedroom with blood on her nose. But she’s alive so you feel at ease again, enough to close your eyes. You wake up on your own, get yourself ready for school, walk to the bus stop alone. Repeat this process daily. Your dad’s “business” is “picking up” and there are always new people in and out of your house that you don’t know. You continue to hide in your corner. The next thing you know, you’re being drug from your corner by two men who are way bigger than you. They smell weird. You see a gun in one of their hands. Everything turns into a blur as they inject your arm with a needle. You’re scared. You’re not at the doctors. Why are they putting a needle in your arm? You don’t remember anything else. You wake up in your corner, naked. This becomes your new routine. You get use to the prick of the needle in your arm. A teacher notices the bruises and track marks after about two weeks of this continuous nightmare and the police finally show up and remove you from the home. You’re seven-years-old.
After investigation, it was reported that it was her dad, her brother and two of her dads friends, taking advantage of her; rotating between the four of them every night for two weeks, for drug money.
She was in and out of foster homes after that until she was fourteen and placed in residential because she wouldn’t stop running away. She didn’t trust anyone. Obviously. When you’re raped multiple times by multiple people, two of whom are supposed to be your family members, your safe place, you learn quickly that the world isn’t safe. No one can be trusted. Everyone is scary. You must run. So that is what she did.
She was a wild child. She was always so outgoing and funny, hiding her pain behind her humor. She pretended nothing bothered her. She was “too tough to be sad.” Around her peers on the unit, she was able to maintain that persona. The funny girl who was tough. No one would mess with her. But I had seen her cry. I had seen her have meltdowns. She would tell me that she hated everyone including herself. She would ask me why no one loved her. Why she didn’t have a safe home to go to. I didn’t have a good answer for that. Sometimes people just need to have their feelings justified, so I told her that she was right. That people suck and you can’t trust them. That she had every right to hate the world and everyone in it. She laughed when I agreed with her.
“You’re supposed to tell me that it’ll be okay. That’s your job,” she said rolling her eyes and laughing. We both knew that wasn’t what she needed to hear.
“Something will give. I don’t know when or what, but it will,” I told her as she turned her head and tried to hide the tears. What are you supposed to say to someone who has had their entire childhood stripped away by people who were supposed to be her protectors?
You can’t fix that.
Trauma is one of the most influential factors in regard to brain development. The neuronal firing that takes place during a traumatic event literally can rewire your entire brain, especially when you are a child and your brain is still trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Not only does her tiny brain now have a near inability to develop beyond this trauma, but now she will perceive everyone and everything as a threat.
Rewiring the brain after a traumatic event is hard. It can happen, but it takes years of therapy and the ability to work through the trauma in and of itself can often be impossible. Who wants to relive something like that over and over and over again? To bring up such emotions multiple times to try and normalize it somehow. No one wants to do that.
The truth is, the majority of us at one point or another have experienced some sort of trauma. There’s no real scale to say, hey, my trauma was worse than yours or that it wasn’t really that bad. It’s all about how your brain takes it in.
PTSD is not just a memory. It’s a feeling. A true sensation that your trauma is happening again. Your body literally feels exactly what you were feeling in that moment.
Taking care of trauma patients is my absolute passion. I’ve always been so interested in finding ways to help these people cope with their abuse. I’ve researched and read so many articles about PTSD and its development in the hopes to continue to find ways to give these children the best possible lives. I never truly understood PTSD until I experienced it myself.
When I was 19 years old, my now husband and I moved into an apartment. We had only been there for a little over a month when the incident occurred.
When we first moved in, I was so excited. I finally felt like an adult! But I quickly realized that I really just wanted to stay a kid forever. The real world was too scary. I wasn’t ready for this.
It was Valentine’s day. I’ll never forget it. I can still see the flowers sitting on the table that my husband had gotten me. I had decorated the table with candy and hearts. It was the first time we were able to celebrate Valentines day alone and I was so excited! That quickly changed when I was awaken by a loud thud coming from the apartment above ours. I didn’t think much of it at first and rolled back over in bed, trying to go back to sleep.
But there it was again.
It was getting louder.
And then yelling. A lot of yelling.
My husband and I both sat up in bed, trying to process what exactly we were hearing. My heart was racing and I was drenched in sweat. I can still hear the sound of her voice screaming followed by a loud crash; and then silence.
I thought I had processed the event until we went on vacation three months later. We were staying in a hotel on our way to a beach house. We were all having a great time and I was looking forward to sticking my toes in the sand and getting tan lines.
I fell asleep with no problem, but was quickly wide awake when I heard people walking in the room above ours. My heart was racing. I was drenched in sweat. I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
I had no idea what was happening. These people are just getting in for the night. They’re on vacation too. They’re probably great people. Why do I feel so scared?
I never told anyone about that night. I brushed it off as a one-time thing.
As the years went on, I had come to have the same experiences every time we went on vacation and stayed in a hotel where people were above us. It was then that I realized this was more than just a thing. I had developed PTSD just from hearing the fighting. I hadn’t even seen it. I wasn’t involved. I had heard it. That’s it; and it affected me that much to where I was eventually hating going on vacations. I would stay awake all night, tossing and turning. I would act like it was fine and drink caffeine to brush off the extreme fatigue. No one knew what I was feeling.
When I finally talked to my husband about it, he was in shock. He had no idea that I was still feeling this way. I eventually talked to my doctor and with a clinician that I was working with at the time. I’ve since been able to process the situation and better understand my reactions.
My point here is, all I did was hear it. I wasn’t a part of it, physically. I wasn’t watching it happen. I heard it; and it had that much of an impact on my life.
Imagine if it was happening to you.
That is all I think of when I take care of my trauma patients. I can’t fathom their sadness or fears or anger. This poor girl, she had experienced some of the worst trauma I had ever heard. Yet, here she was in residential walking around with a smile on her face, pretending she was okay. If you have unprocessed trauma, I understand firsthand, that you’re not okay.
Needless to say, due to her awful trauma, she was afraid of men, but covered it up with humor or an attitude. She had so much to work through and it would take years to do so. I knew that kind of trauma couldn’t be fixed in the amount of time she would be in residential, so I spent my time with her doing my best to help her feel safe. I constantly reminded her that she could tell me anything, that I was on her side. Over the months I worked with her, she was able to tell me so much about her past and with each story she spoke, a little piece of my heart broke. The abuse this child had obtained was disgusting and heart wrenching and if I ever see those people who did this to her…
When she discharged from residential, I was happy because I knew the foster family she was going to. It was one that we had utilized multiple times and many of the kids enjoyed being there. They felt safe and taken care of. My hope for her today is that she is safe. I hope that when she is having a bad day that she remembers me, telling her that life is a bitch and laughing about it together. I hope she remembers to keep her head up high and to love herself.
I hope she remembers that she is not what happened to her.