Recently, our school had an unbelievably eye-opening professional development session about how to support students who suffer challenges with their mental health. Our speaker was from Tanager Place, and though it was two hours without bathroom breaks, I was riveted.

The speaker elaborated at length about brain development, and certain factors that can influence kids’ ability to be resilient and cope in certain situations.  These include adverse childhood experiences, trauma, economic factors, system-based and generational factors, cultural factors, and environmental factors. She gave us some amazing resources for how to help students feel safe and welcome in our classrooms, and how to diffuse tense situations. It was all EXACTLY what I needed to hear for my new position next year as Secondary IDS, which also includes working with students who are at-risk. It was SO MUCH GOOD INFORMATION!

This was me watching this presentation:

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Yet, this was also me watching the presentation. Because I realized how much of what the presenter was saying applied to me as an adult. 

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Specifically, the speaker’s discussion of trauma struck a chord in me that I didn’t know was strikeable. It hit me very suddenly, like smacking your face into a pole (which I have done) that I have been traumatized, and my trauma has given me a pair of “glasses” through which I view the world, other people, and myself. 

I came to this realization when the presenter showed us this list of negative vs. positive core beliefs that can result from various traumatic experiences. I realized that most of the negative column listed the voices in my head that are constantly telling me negative things. It was so unnerving to see them all written out, like someone was closed-captioning my head.

I was struck dumb and numb looking at the list. And then a sentence rang throughout the echo chamber between my ears. I did not come by this naturally. I am like this because of things that have happened to me and how I coped or didn’t cope at the time.

First off, I did NOT have a bad childhood! I know my mom is probably reading this, and in no way did my parents not provide a good childhood for me. That is NOT what I’m saying.

What I am saying is that I have had traumatic experiences that I didn’t think of as traumatic until I became more informed about trauma itself. The speaker described the difference between big-T Trauma and little-t trauma. Trauma is usually something that could get you removed from the home when you were a child, such as abuse, parents using drugs, etc. But trauma of the little-t variety can be just as destructive. This includes things like divorce, bullying, a death in the family, etc.

The most important thing that I came to understand throughout the presentation is that trauma has no scorecard. Two separate people can have the same traumatic experience. One walks away unscathed and able to deal while the other gets PTSD.

I have been ignoring my traumatic experiences for years and refusing to see how they shaped my self-image and view of the world because I thought I didn’t deserve to acknowledge the link. I grew up in a safe place, in a two-parent home, a white, middle-class person with a stable income. So what the hell did I have to complain about? What could have traumatized me enough to, over time, erode my self-esteem and warp my world view?

I need to acknowledge these traumas and realize that they have given me a negative lens through which to view the world, others and myself. I think the first step to altering these “glasses” (and hopefully smashing them) is to write and talk about experiences I think caused the glasses to form in the first place.

I can’t tell you about all of them. That’s too private for a forum like this. But I can share just a few that I am comfortable with.

Bullying: a lot of my negative cognitions are a result of rejection or not feeling good enough. As a kid, I was not typical. I was significantly taller than others, and did not have the cool clothes etc. I liked nerdy stuff like science and reading. Third grade is when I first remember being picked on as the pecking order started forming. I had friends, but I can’t seem to totally forget being targeted for the way I looked, my weight, not having the coolest stuff, etc. There was NO WAY for my parents to protect me from this, and I wouldn’t expect them to. Kids should have been less shitty, or teachers should have gotten involved. This was before the big push to define and end bullying in schools, so I don’t suppose there’s anyone to blame, really. Many of those kids ended up being nice to me later. But in the process, that sense of rejection, not belonging, looking different/ugly, and never being good enough to merit niceness and respect left a mark on me.

College Friends

When I first arrived at Iowa, I basically divorced all of my friends from high school, because I wanted to reinvent myself. This time I would be better and perfect. Obviously you can see how stupid that was. I made some friends, and these friends started dating people. I never seemed to get a date or keep a relationship going. I remember one time we had a fake prom with our friends that was really just a house party. I technically had a “date” but it was a just friends thing. My friends all went out to dinner together as couples and basically told me I couldn’t come as a fifth wheel or whatever. I remember eating a single serving microwave dinner and feeling like a piece of shit. My parents met and fell in love in college, and I felt like the clock was ticking for me to find my life partner. So this led into a long string of guys I went out with because they liked me a lot, and you can guess how that ended. All throughout my young life I simultaneously desperately wished to be normal and rejected it because it was easier to be a self-proclaimed weirdo than let people label you as such.

Anyway. There are a lot more that I’m not ready to share. But the important thing, what made me giddy and sad at the same time is that I know why I think the way I do. I didn’t come by it naturally. And I think I can repair it given enough time and working through my emotions and tough spots with the people I love.

I think I just never let myself acknowledge my trauma. Because I kept thinking, “This happens to everyone, get over it, it’s nothing to make a big deal out of, you were so dumb back then to let this bother you.”

Thank you for listening. Here is a gif of some cats.

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