As the Health ForwardGKC’s Blog has been exploring this past month, childhood trauma is known to be directly tied to increased risk for poor health and health-related outcomes in adulthood. Since early 2012, a dozen and a half organizations have been meeting and working together to build a trauma-informed community in Johnson County, Kansas. Valorie Carson, community planning director at United Community Services of Johnson County, last blogged about the effort in 2013. Today, she shares her thoughts about what becoming trauma-informed has meant for her.
I’ve always thought that as human beings, we are biologically predisposed to understanding our world in the simplest of ways – black/white, right/wrong. As our senses receive information and our brains respond, on the cellular level, a neuron fires or it doesn’t. It doesn’t surprise me, then, that as human beings we often default to understanding the world in the same way – as one of two categories, one acceptable and one not.
This predisposition is even stronger when interpreting the actions of our fellow humans. When explaining our own choices or behaviors, we are privy to not only the actions themselves, but the immediate and broader contexts within which they happened, the history of similar situations and choices made, and how they made us feel or what they helped us avoid. But when faced with the behavior of others, our understanding of those actions and how they are judged again defaults to discrete boxes. And often we do the same to the actor – putting them into the box of ‘good’ vs ‘bad’, ‘healthy’ vs ‘unhealthy’, ‘right’ vs ‘wrong’.
Becoming trauma-informed compels each of us to step away from this simple framing and to embrace the perspective of the person acting. To ask, “What has happened to you?” and listen. Really listen. It demands we become vulnerable and connect. Becoming trauma-informed pushes us outside of our tidy boxes to embrace the messiness of lives – others’ and our own.
My journey to becoming trauma-informed has not always been comfortable. Many on the Task Force got involved because as professionals in systems of care and correction, they hoped to improve long-term outcomes for those they served. But quickly we all became aware that this “trauma-informed care” work was not about others – it was about us. It was about me. It challenges my history, my understanding of the world, and those parts of my story that I bring to the table every time I interact with the people around me. I had to become much more self-aware.
Being deeply self-aware is not in my comfort zone. I’ve spent a half-century trying to be in the “right” box — to be the good child/student/parent/employee/sister/partner – by whoever’s definition was deemed appropriate at the time. And I struggle with being vulnerable – acknowledging my faults, my mistakes, my shortcomings, my triggers – especially with those I love. I don’t know if I will ever not struggle – but I choose to be on this journey. To understand the past, how it has shaped my present self, and embrace the messiness of this life.
Becoming trauma-informed has changed the way I interact with my family and friends, the language I use, how I think about the violence and strife in the world, and how I treat myself when I fail. But its greatest impact has been on how I parent. Parenting is hard – and knowing what I do now about how trauma affects the developing brain, I am even more aware of the impact of my actions on my child and his future. How I treat him and how I treat myself forms his worldview and his ability to love and accept himself completely. And perhaps that is the greatest gift I can give him – the capacity to fully love and accept himself. So I continue on this journey toward becoming trauma-informed, knowing that the discomfort means there’s still work to be done. I’m not sure if the journey ever ends, but I know in the end, I will be better for having made it.
This blog post is part of A Healthy 10.