“We offer support to those living in recovery with mental illness, addiction, and/or trauma.”  You’ve heard that before, but what does it mean?  Join our hosts, Juliet C. Dorris-Williams and Gabe Howard, as they discuss what trauma is, what impact it can have, and how to practice “trauma informed care.”     

Many in our community have experienced trauma, from stereotypically horrible things, like war or violence, to other, more nuanced, experiences.  Listen in as Juliet and Gabe discuss their own past traumas and review possible coping mechanisms.  Juliet puts on her “social worker hat” to help us understand more about an often overlooked component of mental illness and addiction.

Highlights of PEER Voices Episode Four

1:48 – “We do ourselves, and our peers, a disservice by not understanding, and not bringing in, the trauma element.” (The role of trauma in mental illness and addiction is often overlooked.)

2:29 – “Trauma is an event that changes your life’s trajectory.” (Trauma is an unambiguously life changing event.)

8:35 – “I wouldn’t be the person I am today had those things not happened.  Now, would I choose those?  Absolutely not.” (It does not lessen the impact of trauma on your life to acknowledge that you learned or gained wisdom from your experiences.)

14:36 – “…those among us who are super resilient.  And they don’t have to do any of those self-destructive things to cope and get through life.  (Everyone handles trauma differently, and some coping skills are more productive than others.)

15:37 – Acknowledging that you are suffering from trauma goes a long way to finding the right therapeutic treatment.  (Recognizing the impact of trauma on your life is the first step in moving beyond that trauma.)

17:28 – “…there was some power there.  Power in being able to connect with other people who had similar stories.”  (Peer support can be helpful to a variety of people, including those impacted by trauma.)

Transcript of  “Trauma Informed Care:  How trauma impacts our lives, and how to move past it.”

Editor’s Note:  This transcript is computer generated and therefore may not be an exact match to the recording.

Announcer: You’re listening to the PEER Voices Podcast. This show is for peers, by peers, and focuses on information that’s important to our community. Here’s your hosts, Juliet Dorris-Williams and Gabe Howard.

Gabe: Hello, everyone! And welcome to this episode of PEER Voices The only podcast that The PEER Center does. Juliet, welcome! How are you?

Juliet: I am well, Gabe. How are you today?

Gabe: I am very good. I always like how I welcome you to your own show. That’s like a fun thing that I do.

Juliet: It’s nice to be welcomed.

Gabe: Excellent. Well, today we are going to talk about trauma. And to kind of set this up a little bit, Juliet, you are an expert on trauma. You know a lot about it from a personal level, but also as a social worker, you understand the back end. The reason that I’m bringing all of this up is because when I first met you, when we started working together, I didn’t think that trauma was a factor in my life. I knew nothing about it. I thought, “Hey, I have bipolar disorder. I don’t have this trauma thing.” And you explained what it was in a way that I understood. I don’t have anything like PTSD, which is what a lot of people think of when they think of trauma. They think of this very, very high level trauma. But you helped me understand that, for example, I was in a psychiatric hospital, and that was traumatizing. I was diagnosed with with an illness and I felt all alone, and that was traumatizing. And I think there’s a lot of people that don’t understand trauma. So that’s what we want to talk about today.

Juliet: Well, it’s a good topic. When we talk about mental illness, we talk about mental health in general. We talk about addiction. We do ourselves, and our peers, a disservice by not understanding, and not bringing in, the trauma element. Because there’s always or almost always something there. We just sometimes have to dig down a layer or two.

Gabe: So let’s pretend that the people listening know nothing about trauma. Which I know that that’s not the case. We know that our listeners are very trauma informed because we have a lot of opportunities to learn about it. But pretend that you’re talking to Gabe five years ago, when we first met and I said, “I don’t know what trauma is and I don’t think it applies to me.” And you said – I know you don’t remember – but you explained it very well. So explain trauma to me like I’m me.

Juliet: Trauma is an event. And this and this is how I have explained it to our participants and our staff. Trauma is an event that changes your life’s trajectory. There’s a bunch of lists around, and I wish I could remember it off the top of my head, but the things that I do know that are on that list: childhood neglect or abuse, domestic violence, crime – both witnessing and/or being a victim of crime. That’s the usual stuff that people associate with trauma. War and terrorism are on the list, and generally I get blank looks with that. But then I tell people that September 11th was a national trauma event for all of us. That many of us who were alive and old enough to know what was going on, we will always remember.  And there’s many of those types of events, culturally, that we experience.

And we still feel the impact of institutionalization. What I explained to you about being in a hospital and being hospitalized, particularly being hospitalized against your will, is very much traumatizing. And people who have had that happen – that has been not been my life experience – but those that have shared their life experience with me. Even though they felt, in the end, that they may have benefited from that hospitalization or from that experience. The overall impact of it they still consider negative. It was a negative event simply because of having that choice taken away, or the sense of not having control of their own lives. So institutionalization also is traumatizing. We can talk about the correctional system. People who have been in prison also experience a level of trauma and, gosh, we don’t talk about that enough. Restored citizens, they have stories.

Gabe: We don’t talk about a lot of things, and I want to touch back on something that you said, where you said that for example, being institutionalized. For example, going to a psychiatric hospital or being committed, like I was. My overwhelming thought was that I benefited. I got a diagnosis, I got treatment, and my life did get better. So therefore, if I thought that it was traumatic, I would be somehow lessening the benefits to my life. And you explained to me, at the time, that it can be two things. For example if you have surgery, that’s traumatic to your body.  You know what I mean? Trauma, physical trauma, it is traumatic to your body to cut you open and remove your appendix. Bbut your appendix is sick and it needs to happen. So it’s good that the appendix was removed, but it’s also a trauma to your body that needs time to heal. And it needs to be addressed. You explained this to me as that just because in your mind something is good, doesn’t mean that it isn’t traumatic.  Even if it has an overall benefit. I won’t say “good,” I’ll say “overall benefit.” It doesn’t mean that you don’t need to address the trauma, and I never did. I was angry, and I thought, all’s well that ends well, I guess, so I’m not going to pay attention to it. And this leads into trauma informed care.

Juliet: Back to that, that both of those things can be true. And this is a thing that I – maybe it’s the human condition. Tht often our brains are able to hold to what feels like and looks like two opposing factors. I think we hold these two things in tension. Both of those things can be true. It can have been a traumatic experience. It can also have been an overall benefit. And at the end of the day, it was an overall benefit. And so we’ve got to stop with this. This, you know, “if one thing is is right then the other thing is wrong” mentality. We’ve got to stop that.

Gabe: Well, we like to have… we like to have a good and a bad. I mean, our society is set up for good and bad. Right and wrong. Pluses and minuses. Black or white. Evil or good.

Juliet: Right.

Gabe: And that’s a very simplistic way of thinking. I think for most things it works okay. You know I think Diet Coke is good, and you think Diet Coke is bad.

Juliet: I do.

Gabe: I know that Diet Pepsi is bad, but you think Diet Pepsi is good. But, all joking aside, we understand that’s trivial.

Juliet: Yes.

Gabe: But we work in the mental health and addiction space, and there’s almost nothing that’s trivial. Because some of these trivial things can trip us over. For example, if I hadn’t addressed my trauma, maybe five years from now, or five years ago, I could have relapsed. Or I could have decided to stop taking my medication. Or I might have needed to go to a hospital but refused to go because it was traumatizing. And your, Juliet Dorris-Williams’ opinion, is that we don’t spend enough time in our community focusing on the traumatic events that have happened to us. We focus on mental illness or we focus on addiction, and we sort of ignore the trauma? Maybe ignore is too…..we don’t give it its due.

Juliet: I think it’s changing. More and more, I am seeing that people recognize it. That is how I started this conversation. It’s life changing, it’s the before and after. It’s like that absolutely. It’s like going from one room into another. You’re in the same house, but for sure you’re in a different space because of that event. And I am a trauma survivor. As I’ve said, I think on a couple, or all of our shows so far. And while at the end of the day I learned so much, and I gained so much wisdom. I wouldn’t be the person that I am today had those things not happened. Now, would I choose those? Absolutely not. Absolutely not.

And so this is about when life happens. And life comes at you fast sometimes. There could be an accident, or it could be as the result of some decision we made. Like, you know, if I decided to go rob a bank and I got caught and I had to go to prison and I had to deal with that experience. That’s a decision i made. Or if I grew up in a family, a chaotic family, and there were other things that happened in my family unit that should not have happened. I had parents that didn’t know how to parent, or I had parents who were traumatized in their own right. And they just think that this is normal. I came out of these experiences thinking, or finally maybe even learning,-Wait that that’s not normal! Those are things that should not happen in families, in some of those things. Those things happened without your choice, without you making a decision that you were going to be abused or molested or any of those things.

Whatever those things are, when you come to acknowledge that they have had huge impacts on your life, on your decisions, and on your future. You learn to separate those experiences from who you are as a human being. And yeah, you’re most likely going to need some support and some intervention of a sort. Hopefully. I advocate for social workers. Obviously, this is not the end of your story. In fact, it is only the beginning. It is part of your life. It’s part of it and it could even be a foundational part of your life. But it’s not the end of your story. It’s an event that changes your life. It has long lasting impact. It is an event. It’s not like closing a door, and okay, now that’s over, and it’s in the past. No, it is something that has a life long life change. To pull it more into the social worker arena-

Gabe: Please do.

Juliet: Is adverse childhood experiences, like the ACE Study, the A-C-E study. People can Google it. They can actually go take an online quiz that asks them specific questions about their experiences. And there is a whole body of knowledge about this. And, if I’m remembering correctly, a score of 4 or more probably means that you are trauma impacted. They ask questions like, “Have one of your parents ever been incarcerated.” They ask – Gosh, I can’t remember them all right now.

Gabe: Are you saying you don’t have the internet memorized?

Juliet: I do not have the internet memorized. But experiencing the loss of a parent would absolutely be on that list. I believe that because it changes you. It changes you. But what you were talking about earlier, there is a movie, I think it’s called, “Failure to Launch?” That is in the realm of “these folks need therapy” for sure. When we cripple our children into adulthood, and they no longer – they don’t have the wherewithal, or they don’t have the ability, the skills, or the knowledge. The ability to go out and make lives for themselves. That’s on the spectrum. There’s something not quite right in that scenario.

Gabe: You talked about the ACE tests. So let’s say that somebody goes out and Googles it, just like we said, and they take it and they realize that they’re trauma impacted. What is their next step?

Juliet: I would imagine, actually, I would bet money, that there are people who have had childhood experiences and something about their makeup or something about their personality is that they are super resilient. And they manage to get going and get it done. Whatever that is. And they put it somewhere that it does not interfere with their daily life function. Yay to those folks! We need those folks and I’m sure that they exist.

Gabe: There’s many people in our community that have had to be.

Juliet: Yes.

Gabe: Be that resilient.

Juliet: Absolutely.

Gabe: Help just wasn’t available, right?

Juliet: Help wasn’t available, or they didn’t believe in help. We’ve had that. You know, people will say, “snap out of it!” You know those folks.

Gabe: Go for a walk in the woods.

Juliet: Oh yeah, those. Yeah. And if it works, you know? If it works for, you work it. And then there are some of us who needed a little support once we realized that something wasn’t quite right. We thought, “Why am I stuck in this place? And why can’t I get out of bed in the morning? And why am I crying all the time? And why am I using substances to quiet my brain or to just feel normal?” There are some of us, and I would imagine there’s some research somewhere that talks about those among us who are super resilient. And they don’t have to do any of those self-destructive things to cope and get through life. And then there’s the rest of us, who don’t quite cope as well and need a little support. I needed support. I needed support, and I got support. The support helped. That’ another plug for social workers.

Gabe: But what’s that treatment look like, specifically? I mean, I know that you know that peer support is vital and we certainly encourage it. You know, that “sitting around in the circle in the church basement” kind of stereotype. But there’s also, like you said, going in to a social worker or seeking therapy. Are those the only two treatments for trauma?

Juliet: Are they the only two? You know how I hate absolutes, right?

Gabe: Right.

Juliet: Of course not! I’m sure you know that. What you were talking about before – the walking in the woods, yoga, mindfulness. What other type of “mind things” do people do? Running?

Gabe: I imagine that acknowledging that you are suffering from trauma goes a long way to finding the right therapeutic treatment. I mean, whether it be a social worker, a support group, yoga, a walk in the woods, or mindfulness. I think that many people don’t realize that they’re trauma impacted.

Juliet: I think that a lot of people don’t realize that these experiences do have a life long impact on them. You were joking before about the “church basement” peer support group. I’m actually one of those people. It wasn’t a church basement, it was actually a community hospital. The community room that they leased out to groups for support groups. I was absolutely one of those people. I found that somehow the universe led me to this life saving group. To a support group for people living with the same issues that I was. And I found that support in addition to the professional help that I was getting. I went for professional help. For the therapy counseling. In the course of my weekly sessions with my counselor, I happened upon information about this group. And, not go go on for too long, but there’s a woo-woo story about it. Well, it’s a very woo story about how I managed to find myself sitting in the space with these other women.

But the most important part is what I found. I found myself in that space, and within a very short time I came to recognize there was some power here. Power in being able to connect with other people who had similar stories. To the point that when I went back and did a “report” of sorts to my clinician. I said, “Hey! I’ve found this group. I’m going to this group. And this is happening, and this is happening, and this is happening!” I think I may have had two more sessions with my with my clinician, when she finally said, “You know, what I think you need is to continue going to that group! Because it looks like they’re helping you more than what’s happening here.”

Juliet: And she basically said, “Go off, little birdie! Go do!  Go do peer support, because that is helping you. You know where I am if you need me.” And I did. I stopped going to therapy, because I’d been going for several weeks. So I started going to the group exclusively. Now, that wasn’t trauma, but it absolutely changed the trajectory of my life, and ultimately, my career. So it was very impactful.

Gabe: And you ended up here?

Juliet: I did.  I did. There’s a direct line from me walking into that room with other people with same similar life experience. And, we were also very different, racially and culture wise, but we had these very similar life experiences. Who knew? Twenty some years later, well more years actually, more than 20, that I would get to do similar work. And get to provide very much similar services to those that I actually benefited from.

Gabe: And now you have your own podcast.

Juliet: Oh my! Yes. Yay!

Gabe: Juliet, it is always fun hanging out with you here on PEER Voices.

Juliet: Thanks, Gabe.

Gabe: You’re very welcome. Everybody, please share this with the peer community. As we’ve mentioned many, many times, we do not have a multi-million dollar advertising budget. You will not see an ad on the Super Bowl, but you can share on social media, or via e-mail, or on Facebook. Find us on OhioPeers.org or on your favorite podcast player. That’s it for us and we will see you next time here on PEER Voices.

Juliet: Bye-bye.

Announcer: You’ve been listening to the PEER Voices Podcast, sponsored by The PEER Center, with a grant from the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. To learn more about this podcast, please visit OhioPeers.org. To learn more about The PEER Center, please visit ThePEERCenter.org. We encourage you to share this podcast with other peers in our community. Thank you for listening, and see you next time on PEER Voices.