[Ed. note: Cissy White posted this in the Parenting with ACEs group, and it's cross-posted here as a an example of a story about the experiences that many of us with ACEs have! Thanks for posting this, Cissy!]
I gave a keynote address to over 100 people. I’m not bragging. It was an epic failure. And an epic personal triumph.
I tackled social anxiety, figured out flights, luggage and directions. I went in elevators and walked halls alone, without pepper spray. I searched in closets and under beds for monsters and then was able to fall asleep, and stay asleep, without drinking. Twice.
Huge. Enormous. Monumental.
There were years I wasn’t comfortable driving myself around the city at night, like at 6 p.m., or driving or going on the T, or using a map. Or trusting a cab driver – or myself – not to get lost.
There were times I tried to get out of vacations because that was just too much unstructured time with other people and nothing about that sounded fun -or worth spending money for. Working seemed better. Easier. More pleasant.
Going away was so anxiety provoking I wasn’t sure how it was even possible for others never mind desirable. My ex husband got a free trip to Hawaii from work and I tried to figure out ways to get out of it… There was so much fear that rainbows, lei’s and free travel even seemed overwhelming.
The years when I had to hide The Courage to Heal a recovery book for survivors in crisis so I could get through a work day. I’d go out to the car at lunch to read or cry or deep breathe and remind myself that healing was a real thing even if it seemed a lot like losing my shit or mind.
Run of the mill "adulting" was a job far harder than actual work or school.
So, to GO TO a conference – at all – and to travel alone – and out of state are each amazing but to do them together… and to speak about parenting and trauma. I feel almost amazing.
I stretched myself so far I need bigger pants.
My friends gave me HOURS of time helping me prepare. My ex husband stayed at my house to care for our daughter while my boyfriend helped care for our dog.
Speaking and socializing is HEAVY interpersonal lifting equivalent to Outward Bound or finishing a marathon.
I’m not even sure why I said yes because I was out of my depth.
I blame Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk for me even agreeing to do this thing. She’s big on showing up, that fake it to you make it – kind of stuff. Not, the deceptive bullshitting bravado but the doing stuff before you are totally 100% feeling ready as a way of becoming ready because some of us will never FEEL ready.
It’s totally her fault. I thought some magic would happen and make me ready like she implied.
It didn't. Not exactly. And it wasn’t all great or easy. In the absolute middle of a one-hour keynote about parenting after trauma, I froze.
Went blank. It felt like five hours of silence.
I was alone. No one could help me out, spot me the next line.
150 people watched me go blank.
It was not a graceful moment of silence or maybe she’s being quiet to emphasize a point. Nope. It was just the out of body experience I'd feared.
I totally lost my train of thought, nerve and the knowledge that any part of me resides in the moving parts of my body, face or mouth.
I got scared.
I fell of the balance beam in the middle of the routine while it was being judged. And televised. I let the team down. That’s how it felt.
I could feel myself unraveling while unraveling but was not able to catch myself before it went bad.
It was a crash landing.
In the middle.
I couldn’t excuse myself.
I WISH I WAS KIDDING. I might as well have burped and farted and tripped to make it more awkward.
I tried clicking my heels together and dissociating my way all the back to Massachusetts but that didn’t work either.
I told everyone to take two minutes to stretch, breathe or get water.
It was not a planned break or a natural stopping point. The conference organizer walked over to me and asked if I was o.k.
I felt like saying, “Do I seem o.k?” or asking if she was second guessing her decision to have a traumatically stressed speaker who would both show and tell what it’s like to have PTSD in public.
Instead, I asked her for a hug like a child reaching for an “uppie” and reassured her I would be fine in a minute. I so hoped I wasn’t lying and could deliver on that.
I got overwhelmed.
People were looking and listening and making eye contact and nodding as I was talking.
And I had told secrets and shown pictures and spoke from the heart about abuse and parenting and feelings. In public!
It wasn't that I was triggered from what I was sharing it was that people were listening and making eye contact and it was in the middle of the day.
Not a clinical setting.
It was as brave as I’ve ever been and mid-stride I thought, “This was a mistake.” Unsay. Undo. Unsend.
But here’s the thing, after a two minute break I found my place, regained my center, returned to my notes and focused.
My body held me up and I stayed pretty close to present.
I admitted I was nervous. I even said how this talking about trauma and ACEs is radical, urgent and important – but also uncomfortable. We don’t have a lot of practice doing the talking or the listening when it comes to trauma and treating it like a health threat or a parenting issue rather than as just personal issues to "process" in private.
I used first-person stories and didn’t hide behind stats or data and it was scary to do that.
But one woman said she learned more in an hour than she had in five years. It's not that I shared anything new, in terms of facts or science, but she "got" things about the parents she worked with because I said that attachment and intimacy were so hard, threatening and smothering even when I came to parenting afraid and frozen and more clear on what not to do rather than what to do.
I get that vulnerability and authenticity make humans human but that doesn’t mean it’s not terrifying sometimes. But it's necessary.
Look, it’s been three decades since I was a child and I’m still working hard, every day, to stay present in my body and mind and company all at the same time. Because I’m a champ at the opposite which is what got me through the first two decades of life.
- Checking out.
- Tuning out.
- Numbing out.
- Zoning out.
Writing is much easier and feels safer. I do it from home, alone and with my dog Ella at my feet. If people read what I write I usually never know. It’s hard to pretend people you can see aren’t there when they are inches away.
Scary. Scary. Scary.
But I did it. I did it. I mostly did it for 58 minutes which is almost an hour. And I will write more about the brilliant people I met and the conference organizers and the innovative program in North Carolina.
But I have to process the personal part first.
In the process I learned more about the what the function of this group might be. I saw how professionals and parents collaborating more to create more ways for trauma-informed parenting and break-the-cycle parenting need to happen across generations and in places that meld private and public spheres.
Was it what I hoped, prayed and visualized? Not exactly but it was o.k.I finished the talk after my choke freeze and regained most of my focus and clarity. People were kind, supportive and encouraging.
And though it was hard, I’d do it again. Because:
- trauma and traumatic stress steal joy, happiness, health and sometimes the ability to function which impacts parents and children.
- people are drowning in shame and silence and not knowing that there are even lifeguards or rescue boats.
- people feel desperate and alone and invisible.
- healing can be grueling even when one is trying super hard and not all make it.
- generations need healing and violence prevention methods can polarize families and communities.
- there is room for improvement in prevention methods and recovery options by a-zillion-lot (i.e. how about a talk therapy recall for all of those hurt instead of helped by talking about trauma?)
- abuse and neglect are not a thing that happened once a long time ago to some adults….they are happening now – to children still in danger – and for the adults still living with symptoms and aftermath as a way of being not a Groundhog Day moment that gets relived.
The most exciting part of this for me, beyond doing something that scared me, is trusting how many people care and are working to improve the lives, health and well being of children and families wtih high ACEs.
People seem less afraid to talk and ask about how traumatic stress feels as a chronic condition and how it impacts parenting.
So I am going to figure out how to get through moments of fear and blanking out and being scared so I suck less hard or can recover more quickly. I'm going to make sure my skills and clothes are professional too.
I know what we say, live and know as trauma survivors and those with ACEs matters and is needed and important. It's not that we need to tell our stories for our healing, though sometimes that is true.
It's that if those who want to work with for and on our behalf don't understand what we experience, think and feel and the actual challenges we face as parents their efforts will be wasted or even harmful.
That's why I say it's not trauma informed if it's not informed by trauma survivors. Often, when people say those with high ACEs aren't responding to a message or a program, I always want to know if others with high ACEs are developing or delivering because that makes a difference.
To get it together we need people who get it and are in it too.
Our voices and experiences are required.
I'm grateful that the kind of scared, nervous and stressed I am, as an adult, is nothing like the kind of scared or stressed I was as a kid.
Forgetting my words is not the same as having no voice and being silenced.
Taking a few moments is not the same as having years stolen.
Being heard and invited to speak about experiences at first not believed when spoken about… it’s world changing.
She didn’t get to craft the major themes of her story.
I’m an adult. I need to remind myself of this often.
While I may always prefer to hide behind glasses, bangs and paper and be a socially awkward introvert I can share openly and honestly as writer, mother, advocate and trauma survivor because I am all those things every damn day.
And even with my privileges (white, financially stable, health insurance, car and housing), the struggles and symptoms are real. That's only more so if poor, homeless, without resources or support and while still unsafe as an adult because of personal or community or systemic violence or discrimination.
Most years of my adult life I was fighting and in survival mode. I didn’t believe I’d EVER feel safe in my skin. Others haven’t made it. Some are hanging on by a thread.
Our voices are needed and should be central.
Personally, I feel safe in myself and the world today. Almost always. Usually, I am at peace with who I am even if not in a self-love happy pace. It’s astounding and miraculous.
Sometimes I’m even o.k. with being a human around other humans. Even strangers.
So, in the big picture:
Even though I fell off the beam. Even though I didn’t stick the landing. I knew the ground was beneath me and I'd eventually return to it and feel it again.
And it was.
Note: I made so many wonderful connections, had so many aha moments about trauma informed care, was inspired by the conference organizers and programs I learned about. I met people I will remain in touch with personally and professionally and will share more on that, including some quotes from people at the conference.