COVID, ACES and Radical Self-Care
Dr. LateshIa Woodley, LPC, NCC & Alexis Kelly, MPA
Thursday, March 13, 2020, I woke up thinking I love my life, I have the best job in the world, I get to wake up every day and strive to make a difference in the lives of students and families. Little did I know that a few hours later my life, the lives of my family, and the lives of the families that I serve would forever be changed due to the COVID pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, I was leading the wonderful work of implementing trauma informed strategies across a school district. The momentum was high as I traveled across the district presenting “the why” behind our strategic plan on the implementation of trauma informed strategies citing the research on Adverse Childhood Experiences and the effects that trauma has on the bodies and brains of children. Like in all my presentation, I often share my lived experience and my ACES Score of (7) to reveal my invisible scars in hopes to motivate educators to look below the surface when working with students understanding that behavior is a symptom and not the disease.
On Friday, March 14th the school district closed a day early and we began what I call the spring break that never ended. In the five months that followed, I experienced a level of toxic stress that I had not experienced since childhood and early adulthood. In my professional life I was leading a team and working around the clock to design and implement strategies to meet the social, emotional, and academic needs of 14,500 students in the midst of a pandemic. In my personal life I was dealing with multiple family members becoming ill will COVID and passing away (some from Covid). I found myself dealing with compounding grief due to month after month of family members dying. This was coupled with my hypersensitive response to caring for the continuous flood of family members that became ill during this time and helping to support family members that were financially impacted by the pandemic. I gave burning the candle at both ends a whole new meaning. Imagine spending weeks living in the ICU along side a family member fighting for their life and facilitating virtual meetings, workshops and even interviews for television and radio from the hospital.
ACES- Adverse Childhood Experiences
In the midst of this pandemic my daughter Alexis Kelly was engaged in research on Adverse Childhood Experiences and COVID while completing her Masters’ Degree in Public Health Administration. Ms. Alexis’s research focused on the fact that children that were experiencing ACES prior to the COVID pandemic may be in situations that made them in dire need for social and emotional support. Additionally, she provided resources for coping with toxic stress. Although I pride myself on being my daughters first teacher in this case her work provided a catalyst for change within our family and in my personal and professional practice.
In August, all my days and nights in hospital came to a tragic end with another death of a family member. My mother’s oldest sister passed away at age 60. This was traumatic for my family on many levels but most of all it brought with it the realizations that my mother who had 6 siblings three sisters and three brothers had lost all her sisters. The research on Adverse Childhood Experiences sites the following:
- Females and several racial/ethnic minority groups were at greater risk for experiencing 4 or more ACEs.
- Exposure to ACEs is associated with increased risk for health problems across the lifespan
- People with six or more ACEs died nearly 20 years earlier on average than those without ACEs.
As we prepared to lay my aunt to rest, the children and the grandchildren of my mom’s three sisters came together in what I describe as a healing circle and shared hidden secrets of traumatic experiences. As each one of my aunts’ children or grandchildren spoke their truth, a Neon light in my mind was screaming “Epi-Genetics”! I thought to myself ACEs is killing my family. As we spoke their names the research findings illuminated: Aunt Rena dead at age 42, Aunt Shirley dead at age 49 and now Aunt Vicki dead at age 60. This prompted Alexis and I to begin to explore the multigenerational effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences within our family structures and seek solutions to stop the hemorrhage of family members dying or being affected by ACEs.
Grandmother (Linda) ACE score of 6
Mother (Lateshia) ACE Score of 7
Daughter (Alexis) ACE Score of 1
We ventured to learn the stories behind the numbers and get a clear understanding that secrets breed disease. We ventured to break the silencing on pain and toxic stress that is being passed on from generation to generation in hopes to change the trajectory not only in our family but other families. As a counseling psychologist, I am very familiar with the importance of self-care, understanding secondary trauma and compassion fatigue but the concepts of survivor’s guilt, imposter syndrome, and sibling rivalry disorder were new terms that was brought to the surface during this process. The researcher in me was ready to dive in and dissect the qualitative data however the daughter, niece, cousin, mother, and grandmother in me needed to grieve and process my own pain. I began to think back on Ms. Alexis’s research and realized that I needed to implement the L.Y.F.E. principals into my daily practice giving birth to my radical self-care journey.
Radical Self- Care
LYFE (Love Youth Fitness Evolution) is a framework for helping individuals cope with ACES and toxic stress not only during this pandemic but on a daily basis.
It is easy to self- isolate or distance ourselves when facing life challenges. Instead, our focus should be to lean into the ones that we love. Love causes our body to release feel-good hormones and neuro-chemicals that trigger specific, positive reactions. So, take a second to double down on distractions and nurture, encourage, uplift, and spend quality time with your family and friends. Schedule weekly check-ins or zoom meetings.
As adults we sometimes get so caught up in our own feelings and emotions that we forget that our children are hurting when we are hurting. Focus on the social and emotional wellbeing of the little people in the family as well. The earlier you start to implement youth wellness, the greater your outcomes will be on the social determinates of health. Children of all ages beginning at birth can benefit from mindfulness, exercise, eating a proper diet, and seeking professional help to process emotions.
The feeling of being overwhelmed can lead to negative coping strategies. While the list of negative coping strategies can go on and on, most like turning to comfort foods, sugar binges, alcohol and drug use. Implementing regular exercise and physical activity not only promote strong muscles and bones but helps cope with daily stressors and improves overall health. So, stay active. Try workout apps, walking on a trail, or even dancing video games.
Last but not least, please don’t be afraid to seek help from a mental health professional if needed. It is important to be intentional about paying attention to changes in mood that persist for prolonged periods of time. Implement evolutionary psychology concepts which are ways to help manage your emotions thoughts and responses. Some great examples of this is gratitude journaling, mediating, yoga, and being present in the moment.
Some lessons that we learned from choosing to implement LYFE as a part of our radical self-care journey include:
- The importance of accountability partners. We developed a check-in process to send photos to friends in a group text after completing daily workouts.
- Scheduling time for family check-in. We can often get busy and this can be pushed aside as not being a priority. We set aside Sundays for family check in day. It worked great especially with us being in different states.
- There is a stigma of Mental Health in the black community. There is also a conflict between the Black Church and Seeking Therapy. It was revealed that several of my family members had experienced sexual and physical abuse but had not sought out professional help to heal from the experiences citing that they were praying and expecting their healing to come from God. (Dr. Woodley) Being a survivor of sexual abuse and believer in the power of prayer, I shared openly that we should pray about it and call our therapist. I was very transparent that even as a counselor myself I was seeking professional help.
- Self- Care is not selfish. We as black women often find ourselves playing the role of the strong black women taking care of everyone else but not taking care of ourselves. This is killing us. Taking time to take care ourselves will help us to become better mothers, wives, daughters, sisters and friends.
We invite you to join this self-care journey with us and change the trajectory of your family.
Dr. Lateshia Woodley is the Executive Director of Student Support Services for the Kansas City Public Schools. Her educational background includes a specialist degree in educational leadership and a doctorate degree in Counseling Psychology. Since 2008, she has worked as a turnaround leader helping to bring about positive changes in some of the lowest performing schools in Georgia and now Missouri. Her research interests include comprehensive school improvement, alternative education, dropout prevention, trauma and social and emotional learning. She is the author of three books: Transforming Alternative Education, Why Did I Choose to Get Pregnant and Issues of the Heart. TEDX Featured Presenter https://youtu.be/fmU6-4DKXGM. http://www.drlateshiawoodley.com/
Alexis Kelly is a COVID Case Investigator at the Georgia Department of Public Health. Her educational background includes a Bachelors in Health Science from Howard University and a Masters in Public Health Administration from Troy University. Ms. Kelly is an advocate for health equity and community resiliency. Her research interests include public policy, health disparities, youth development and trauma and adverse childhood experiences.