Living My Truth…

I had an epiphany while driving the other day. I was thinking about my anxiety. Not the popular, feeling nervous or uneasy anxiety that someone might normally feel while driving on a Canadian road in winter time. No, I was thinking about the real, heart-stopping, brain-freezing, paralyze you, mental health struggle with anxiety. I wasn’t feeling anxious while I was thinking about my anxiety, but I was thinking about how I have struggled with it throughout my adult-life. I didn’t know that is what I was struggling with, I just knew things were hard. I just knew that I had to struggle, grit my teeth, push down my feelings, and persevere.

I remember many moments in my life when I didn’t show up, or follow through, because anxiety had me in its grip. Instead of whispering my truth, and pleading for understanding, I just shrugged. I endured the exasperated sighs, the eye-rolls, and the loss of respect from people I cared about or admired. I never once thought, “I wish people understood.” No, because that is not how anxiety works. Instead I asked myself what was wrong with me. I berated my self. I told myself to pull it together. The problem lies with me, and it is my problem to solve…which is not entirely incorrect, but the underlying assumptions about what that problem “really” is, and how it is actually going to be solved were very incorrect.

After a near fatal car accident, I sustained a brain injury. Because of the brain injury, I would often be confused or forget important information. One time, when I had first returned to work, my head began to ache, so I closed my eyes and leaned against the wall for a moment. When I opened my eyes, I panicked because I couldn’t remember where I was or what I was doing. Another time, I was speaking in front of a group of people and again my head started to ache. I paused for a moment and when I looked up, I couldn’t even remember the topic, let alone the next thing I was going to say. I don’t remember what proceeded it, but I have a very clear memory of being at work, and running to the bathroom to hide. There I was, locked in a stall, and trying to convince myself to just grit my teeth, push down my feelings, and get back to work. “You are going to get yourself FIRED!”

It was at this point that I realized I had gone back to work too soon. I made an appointment with my doctor and off of work I went for a couple more months. In that process of describing what was going on to my doctor, she prescribed me medication for the anxiety and therapy. The medication helped. It didn’t cure me, but it did improve things quite a lot. So did therapy. Therapy gave me words to describe what was happening to me. Therapy also gave me words to describe to others what was happening to me. My therapist often challenged my negative thinking or assumptions…not that I appreciated it at the time.

I now find myself in a place where I have a deeper understanding of who I am, and how I react to things. How I had always reacted to things. Sure, the anxiety got worse after my car accident, but there were elements of it throughout my adult life. I don’t know much about my childhood, except that it was hard. The older I get, the harder I can see that it was. When I come to the edge, and look over the cliff, trying to summon the terrifying, and often heartbreaking memories of my childhood, I am confident that the source of my anxiety is not a defective part of myself. It can be traced to the defective parts and processes of my upbringing. Not getting what I needed as I was growing up, left me with  poor coping strategies for life’s challenges. That’s the bad news. The good news is, once I understood that, I could set about fixing it.

How would my life have been different if I had known that I struggled with anxiety?

Well, that I have no way of knowing that… What I do know is that I am happier now. Now that I know what is happening in my mind and in my body. Now that I can name it. Now that I can speak about it with other people. “Please, give me a moment, I struggle with anxiety.” I don’t know that there will ever be a time that I don’t struggle with anxiety, but I do know that I can be gentle with myself, and honest with others. There is a certain feeling of contentment I feel just knowing that.

“Living your truth.”

A phrase often used in regards to sexuality or gender. But to me, living your truth, is anytime you experience something that has historically been mocked, ridiculed, belittled, and shamed. And to stand in the place where fear once stood, and say, “This is who I am, and I will no longer be ashamed.” “You can mock, ridicule, and belittle this in me, but I will no longer feel ashamed.” “I will make peace with myself, I will love myself, and I will seek understanding and support from those broad-minded enough to offer it.”

Why Do Children and Youth In Substitute Care Struggle Academically?

It has been a long held understanding of the Child Welfare community that “kids in-care” will struggle academically. Some agencies and advocates quote numbers as high as 90% will fail to graduate from high school. The outcomes for adolescents who do not complete high school are bleak, but when you lack natural advocates or a consistent, mature, support network, the reality becomes even more tragic. So tragic, that many people will treat the issue like a horrifying car crash. You see it coming; you can’t take your eyes off of it because aspects seem morbidly fascinating, but then at that moment where the carnage and catastrophe are the greatest, you close your eyes or look away. And so it is with the lives of youth in substitute care; we are engrossed to a point, but when the horror gets too great, we cannot bear to look, let alone critically examine. These young people become the bastard step-children of society, hidden from view and rarely talked about.

It is also widely known and understood that children and youth who wind up in substitute care, wind up there because of significant traumatic events. Either a single, profoundly traumatic event, or a series of stressful experiences that are traumatic because of their consistency, breadth, and/or duration.

So how does traumatic stress impact school functioning? The short answer is, traumatic stress impacts school functioning negatively.

Children and youth who have experienced traumatic stress, regardless of their background, often will share a number of characteristics, that are born out of a drive to cope with their experiences and survive in a world that they do not trust, and has not been kind to them.

One-on-one with adults these students function quite well. They will likely enjoy and respond positively to supportive or innocuous conversations with adults. Adults in supportive roles, like school counselors or success coaches, will often describe these students as likable or even endearing.  Some supportive adults will describe them as pleasant, charming or earnest. However, even in these smaller, calmer, more orderly environments these students will also be described as “jumpy”, have a hard time concentrating, and struggle with confrontation or attempt to hold them accountable.

In a variety of settings, in the classroom, with supportive adults, as well as in unstructured times such as in the lunchroom at lunchtime, these students will often be quiet and watchful, engaging in what most professionals call “hyervigilance”.

While in the classroom these students can be well liked by their peers, sometimes even described as the class clown, they often will have no real close friends. They will quietly slip away after school and make no real attempt to connect with classmates in the evenings or over the weekend. At home they often spend a lot of time alone, in isolated locations like their bedrooms or basements, literally playing video games for hours on end. Many of these children will surround themselves with stuffed animals, partly in an attempt to create a layer of protection around them, but also providing a source of comfort and support. This layer of protection and support is often not accessible to kids and youth in substitute care, as they often have lost many of their belongings in their journey. Therefore, they will feel less insulated, protected, nurtured or comforted and this leads to the placing an overemphasis in importance on their remaining few possessions. Their behaviour may seem irrational or obsessive to outside observers, but in reality they are channeling that same intense energy and emotion into fewer items.

Students who have experienced traumatic stress will also likely struggle academically in school, become easily frustrated, and fail to hand in their homework. They will struggle to concentrate and often will be diagnosed as ADHD. However, children who have experienced traumatic stress generally will not respond well to medication. Additionally, they will struggle with authority and once again coping well with confrontation or discipline.

Students who struggle academically, AND struggle to make meaningful relationships with adults, AND to establish any real any relationships with their peers will often enter a negative perpetuating cycle with the school. For example the more they feel disconnected from the school and the people therein, the less engaged they are academically. The more they struggle academically, the less likely they are to establish or enjoy meaningful relationships. School itself becomes an everyday struggle and children and youth in substitute care lack natural advocates or supportive adults to guide them in their struggle.