Posts Tagged ‘neighbors’

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”    ~Maya Angelou

I’ve done a lot of reading and attended some trainings over this winter on the topic of trauma and trauma informed care and here’s what I have learned so far. When someone is in the middle of a meltdown, the thinking part of their brain stops working. No lie. The science is there. Kids, teenagers, all of us. It just stops. Decision making skills? Out the window. Language? Gone. Nothing above the brain mid-line is in gear–only the parts that can feel and act—or react.

This new learning caused me to notice the questions that we ask of people at those times. I’ve done it in my job over the years. “How can I help you?” ‘What do you need?” The questions are innocent, an outpouring of our desire to support and assist people we care about. They can’t engage in those questions with us, though. Their brain has turned off. They can’t answer a question like “What do you need” when they can’t access the upper part of their brain where language lives. We are asking them to do something with us that they are literally unable to do.

I am reminded of a Ram Dass book one of my graduate school instructors shared with us that talked about the helplessness of the helping professional. That book was written before we even knew any of the neuroscience that is driving our understanding today. Back then, it just resonated with me that sometimes the most important thing you could do with someone in crisis was to honor them by witnessing their pain. Just be with them. I have carried that message throughout my career.

Working with LGBT youth, sometimes the most important thing we can do is to honor them by witnessing their pain. We, as the agency staff, have no access to their family home. We have limited access to their school, and then only by invitation. We meet kids in tremendous pain who are being verbally and physically harassed, assaulted, threatened…kids are dealing with trauma on a frequent basis.

Neuroscience is also telling us now that people who experience trauma in childhood (abuse, neglect, parental mental illness or addiction, sexual assault, witnessing domestic violence, natural disasters, and a few others) develop cognitively in a different way than do people who do not experience trauma. The more trauma, the more different the brain and the more likely for health and mental implications in adulthood. The science is fascinating. Take a look at a quick, easy and interesting overview by Dr. Nadine Harris Burke. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95ovIJ3dsNk&t=577s

I wouldn’t have to scan the brains of some of the LGBT kids we work with to know that there are some differences in development going on there. We know there’s been an uptick in harassment and assault in the last couple of years (https://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/GLSEN%202015%20National%20School%20Climate%20Survey%20%28NSCS%29%20-%20Executive%20Summary.pdf). We know there’s been, at best, benign neglect of their needs, and, at worst, open hostility toward LGBT students, especially trans students.  We also already know that LGBT youth make up between 20% and 40% of the kids who are homeless and on the streets every year, particularly high on the T, most particularly on trans youth of color. Newer research tells us that LGBT kids also comprise about 20% of youth who are incarcerated.  (Should we place bets on how many of those kids were homeless before they were locked up?)

Those are some mindblowing stats when you take into account that we make up…what….maybe 10% of the general population? Conservative stats say 5%, but let’s be generous and say 10% for the hell of it.

Now let’s add one more twist. Where’s my bugle? This information should come with a bugle blaring to announce its arrival. According to Dr. Caitlin Ryan, researcher at The Family Acceptance Project, and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the leading trauma experts in the world, all is takes is one person.

You read that right. All it takes is ONE person who hears, one person who witnesses, one person who honors and believes to begin to relieve some of the effect of that trauma. That’s one school counselor. One school nurse. One social worker in individual session. One mom. One brother. One neighbor. One volunteer at Youth Outlook or Big Brother/Big Sister. One person who is safe and trustworthy and respectful can provide an opportunity for rewiring a brain that has been traumatized. One person can be the protective factor that stops a desperate kid from making an attempt on their own life.

Wow. Think about the power you have to affect a kid’s life. Not just their life right now, but if you listened to Dr. Burke’s TED talk, you know it’s the power to affect a kid’s life throughout the life span. It’s not about the question at that moment of crisis: “What do you need?”  or “How can I help?” Remember, in meltdown mode, none of us can actually process that question.

Thirty years into this, although I see what Ram Dass meant, I don’t know that I would limit my description of this as helplessness when we watch someone hurt. It has honor. It has meaning. True enough, we may not be able to stop it from happening, but being there with someone while he/she/they hurt, holding space for them to have their experience safely, has the potential to change cognitive wiring. We can get to those pesky questions later. First, we just have to be. We are amazing critters—both what we are as individuals and what we have the ability to do for one another.

Yes, Dr. Angelou. I agree. When we know better, we do better.

Childhood Trauma Family Courts - 2015

We All Win

Posted: February 12, 2017 in Blog
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I’m not much of a morning person. There may have been hypothetical occasions, even, when there may have been hypothetical house rules about talking to me in the morning. Maybe. But let’s be real. I don’t make much sense in the morning, so how much of a conversationalist could I be?

Today was a bit different. This morning, I voluntarily got up early on a Sunday to join my neighbors at our first neighborhood coffee gathering. I even got up a little earlier than I needed to, just to make sure that I DID make sense, should anyone feel like conversing with me.

It’s been such a weird couple of months. It feels like we are often all walking on eggshells with each other. I have experienced fear for the first time living on my street when my neighborhood was menaced this fall by a young guy driving a pick up truck with the word REDNECK emblazoned across the rear window and flying a confederate flag over the bed. I live in a diverse neighborhood. It feels like the entire country has become a dog fight, with minority populations being used to bait people into statements and acts that used to horrify us and now have become common.

It is not okay to live in fear. It is not even a place I wish to visit.

I have walked in my neighborhood every day for almost fourteen years, most days twice, with 2 dogs pulling in different directions on the ends of their extendable leashes. I know lots of my neighbors by sight, and some even by name well enough to stop and chat on warm summer mornings. People know me. There are waves and calls to say hi, or to wish me a good holiday in the Christmas season.

There was talk, even before the eggshell-walking started, that we were all quite attached to our neighborhood. People ask after each other. “Have you seen…”  and  “We should have them over…” Someone put up a Facebook page named after our neighborhood so we can communicate with each other.  Last year, some practical joker stacked my recyclable bin on top of the garbage bin and left them that way, ensuring the waste management people would just drive by. I was recovering from knee surgery and navigating the house on crutches. There was no way I could go move the recycle bin, which stands almost as tall as I do, into its correct position. So I posted on our neighborhood Facebook page—“Hey, if anyone is home this morning, can you give me a hand?”  It took less than a minute, and a neighbor popped over, put the bins in their proper locations and popped back into their own house.

On that afternoon when I first saw the pick up truck with the flag slowly cruising my street…no, he was not driving, he was cruising, looking for someone or something… it immediately worried me. There’s an elementary school on the corner, attended primarily by brown and black skinned children. There’s a Muslim family up the next block and the mom walks her daughters to and from school every day. My next door neighbors are Latino. The new neighbors in the corner house are an African American couple. I wondered who would not be safe—who was being looked for.

At first, I was concerned about posting anything to the neighborhood Facebook page. What if some of my neighbors supported the guy in the pick up truck with his flag? Was I going to draw attention or perhaps hostility for speaking up? As the only genderqueer person on this street, I did have to wonder about my safety, too. I can’t imagine that my neighbors don’t already know who I am…but was I crossing a line by speaking up and saying that the pick up truck and the message of the flag were making me uncomfortable?

When I heard that the pick up truck had been spotted on a couple of other nearby streets, I realized I couldn’t let it go. Was I ready to defend my space? Was I ready to speak up for my neighbors? For the little kids walking back and forth to school? I had to.

I posted to the Facebook page: Just want to make you aware…I know many of you have kids…we need to keep our neighborhood safe.  I waited, apprehensive. The comments that followed were warm and appreciative. Everyone who answered understood my point about neighborhood safety and agreed.

A few days later, I was out walking the dogs and the neighbor who wears a burqa passed by to go pick up her girls. Ordinarily, I smile and wave but I don’t go close enough for conversation to anyone with the dogs on their strings. I don’t assume everyone will like my dogs as much I do.  That day, I reeled the dogs all the way in and approached her.

“Have you seen the pick up truck?”

“Yes—and there’s another one just like it further up the street.”

“I don’t know what he’s doing…”

She nodded. “I’m not sure why anyone with those beliefs would move into a neighborhood like ours.”

“You know if anyone bothers you while you’re walking by, you can turn up my driveway—just come right to the house and ring the bell.”  I didn’t need to tell her where I lived. She’s been walking by while I mow the grass for at least two years.

“Thank you. I will remember that.”

“Let your girls know, too. We can’t have this in our neighborhood.”

She continued down the street.

So enough with the eggshells. This morning, I got up early and took my slightly incoherent, gender neutral self over to my neighbors’ house and we gathered with several other families to have coffee and danishes. I don’t know what the political stances of most of those people might be. I don’t know what religious affiliations most of them have. It didn’t matter. We had coffee and talked about spring, and gardening, and house projects, and our pets. I learned about growing mushrooms and that alligators and crocodiles have different temperaments and that most of my neighbors want to keep chickens and bees. Who knew?

We reclaimed our neighborhood and celebrated each other simply by having coffee. Our differences were minor in comparison to the myriad of things we wanted to talk about, standing around on a Sunday morning as kids ran through the kitchen and the dog wanted his belly scratched. In the words of my neighbor Greg, who is a math teacher (something I will never be able to relate to!), “Let’s keep this street and city full of love.”

Indeed, Greg. We all win with that outlook. I’ll get up early for that any day.

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