Full text of educator Dani Bostick’s talk titled “Breaking the Silence about Childhood Trauma” at TEDxGreenville conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Dani Bostick – Educator, Writer, and Advocate
So what do you think about when you hear Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Military. Exactly. And there’s a reason for that. There’s a lot of service members who have PTSD.
And there’s also another reason for that. The injury that troops suffer happens very, very far away, and that injury is happening to people we consider heroes. So that’s a very very safe way for us to talk about PTSD; it’s a safe way for us to talk about trauma because it happens far away, and it’s happening to very strong people.
PTSD doesn’t just affect veterans, however. That’s me. I was enrolled in gymnastics. That’s right around the time I discovered I wasn’t very good at gymnastics because Dominique Dawes signed up for my class.
And in hindsight, maybe I could have been OK-ish at gymnastics but at that time, I was like, ‘You know what, this just isn’t for me.’
So, I started taking swim lessons and I joined a swim team, and that’s when my trauma began, because my swim coach was a predator and he sexually abused me for five years, from the age of seven to around 12.
So, lots of people think that PTSD is just for veterans, but it can affect children too; just like it affected me. And I’m not alone in my experience at all. 1 in 8 children suffers enough trauma to have long-lasting negative effects, in terms of both mental health and physical health, well into adulthood.
And these 1 in 8 children can expect to experience a lifespan that is 20 years shorter than their peers. And the fact is that combat is not the only type of trauma; child sexual abuse is not the only type of trauma. Because another way we try to make trauma OK, in addition to making a very far away, is to make it a little less farther away but still far away, ‘Oh that happens to other people. That happens to people in different neighborhoods.’
Well, it can happen to anyone, and I’m willing to bet there’s people here who’ve experienced something similar to what I’ve experienced, and I’m also willing to bet that there’s people here who’ve experienced other kinds of trauma; it could be a car accident, a serious illness, witnessing a death, some type of other kind of violence, living in poverty can be a type of trauma.
The stakes are extremely high for children, because trauma can change the architecture of the developing brain. And since stakes are so high, I’ve always wondered why didn’t I know about this before?
You see, I didn’t know I experienced PTSD or even trauma until I was a student in counseling school. I had been a teacher for 10 years and had probably seen over a thousand students. I had never learned about the symptoms of PTSD. I always thought it was for other people, far far away. I never thought it was something that I had experienced, and I never thought it was something that was affecting me every single day.
And I remember sitting in that class and I’m taking notes, and I’m writing down the symptoms: intrusive thoughts, mm-hmm, avoidance; and I’d always called avoidance, I don’t know if you can tell I’m from the mid-Atlantic region, so avoidance, for me, was strength; nothing bothered me. But really, I was avoiding my own reality.
I also learned about nightmares; I learned about hyper arousal, overreacting emotionally to certain situations. So, I’m sitting there taking notes; class goes out on a break; we’re all looking at each other; several of us figured out in that class that we had PTSD.
And I thought, why haven’t I learned about this before? Why don’t we talk about trauma and children? Why don’t we talk about trauma in other populations?
So, in addition to reading the book and seeing it in a very clinical way, which is also a very safe way to deal with trauma, I learned about PTSD by experiencing it. You see, around that time, I reported my childhood perpetrator. I called the police and said, “This harm happened to me. I know something happened.”
They said, “Well, what happened?”
I said, “I don’t know.”
And they said, “When did it happen?”
And I said, “30 years ago.”
And I was fully expecting to click, and the detective said, “Next time you’re in Maryland, come on and we’ll take a statement.”
So, as I processed my trauma, and I processed it partially through reporting, I learned a lot. And here’s what you need to know about trauma, and here’s what you need to know to help millions of children like the child I was.
First of all, the way I’d like to think about trauma is like gravity. And I don’t know about you but I’ve never turned to somebody and said, “Man! This gravity’s amazing today. Check it out. This is amazing. We’re not floating away, my shoes are on, my shirt is staying down.”
We take gravity for granted, just like I took trauma for granted and just like millions and millions of people, who’ve experienced trauma, take their post-traumatic stress for granted. It’s not as simple as having a bad memory of something disturbing. It’s not as simple as having a nightmare. It pervades every aspect of your life, from relationships to your sense of time.
When you re-experience the trauma, you think in what year is it? We’re partying like it’s 1999 again and it’s 2018. So, trauma is a lot like gravity in so far as it pervades every aspect of a person’s life.
And if you think about children, they’re the most disenfranchised group in our country and in the world. We like to think children are okay. We want to look at them and say if they look okay, they must be okay. But sometimes children aren’t.
Seneca, the ancient Roman philosopher whom I’ve loved, I’ve always loved him. I’m a Latin teacher now. I had a stint as a mental health counselor and now I teach Latin.
But Seneca was suffering from a really really severe illness. And he wrote; “Sometimes, just living is an act of bravery.” And that’s the case for children and anybody suffering from trauma.
But if you imagine that child in the context of school and that child is re-experiencing a trauma, and that child is literally afraid for his or her life, because that’s what it’s like when you re-experience, it’s well beyond a memory. In fact, I don’t have any memories of my trauma; I just have feelings.
So, you’re sitting in class, you are thinking, ‘Oh my gosh! It feels like I’m about to die.’ And your teacher writes up on the board, here take these notes. Are math facts important when you think your survival is at stake? I’m guessing, not.
Other ways kids cope with trauma, my favorite one is dissociation. We all do it to some extent. Maybe you space out, you daydream. In a more extreme sense, when you dissociate because of trauma, you can actually leave your body. Your body’s there but nobody’s home.
So, if you imagine that in the context of school, where kids spend most of their time, what do teachers say to kids? I say it all the time, ‘Pay attention.’ No command to pay attend can bring a kid back out of dissociation. And then not only are they missing out on schoolwork but then they’re the kid that never pays attention.
So, there’s lots of symptoms of PTSD that you might read about in a clinical way, like I did when I was in school taking notes, I did have a sinking feeling like this is sounding very familiar. But when you’re actually living it, it’s just like Seneca said, ‘just living is an act of bravery.’
So, what are some things we can do about this? I mean it’s affecting a lot of people; it affects a lot of children. Our national conversation about PTSD generally focuses on veterans, to the point where we know on the 4th of July, we might want to be careful with our fireworks.
What do we know about a child who’s experiencing PTSD? Probably not very much, and that’s dangerous because these children will grow up hurting and these children will experience higher rates of suicidality, higher rates of eating disorder, higher rates of obesity, dysfunctional relationships, higher rates of addiction.
So, what can we do? We obviously can’t control the weather, if it’s a natural disaster that’s a source of the trauma. We can’t stop all crime.
But there are some things that we can do to make our communities and our schools and the places where our children spend the most time, friendlier and safer for them.
The first is simply to disseminate information. So, when I had my children, I have four; I had my first child, I knew when I brought her home, she was going to cry all the time. I knew she wasn’t going to smile and talk right away. There’s lots of things I knew.
When I get a runny nose, I don’t think my brain is coming out. I understand what that’s all about. When we have flu epidemics, we get sheets of information as teachers. We find out how to prevent the flu, what to do if you have the flu.
Information helps. It helps people make sense of the world and it helps people understand how to react to certain situations. So, we need to make sure that information about childhood trauma isn’t relegated to universities. And certainly, that’s not relegated to some gimmick of the month that’s going to be popular before the next acronym comes out.
We need a sustained commitment to spreading accurate information about childhood trauma, and that can happen in our schools, and that can also happen in our communities, doctor’s offices, other places children go.
That way, people have the information they need to understand and experience that most people with trauma cannot put a name to.
The second thing we can do is to share our stories. I share my story so that others will share theirs. And since I’ve started sharing, I’ve met a lot of people who’ve experienced the same thing as me. And I wish I had that as a child. I did not know anybody who was like me as a child. In fact, I didn’t know anybody like me until I named myself as ‘victim A’ in the case against my perpetrator.
The third thing we can do is to be an ally. This is my seventh grade social studies teacher. She came to the sentencing of my perpetrator in 2014, and she was there not just to support me as an adult but to support that 11 year old girl who sat in her class.
And she supported me then, she supported me by making me feel important, she supported me by telling me my work was good, and she supported me by caring and providing a safe secure environment. And she did that for me at my perpetrator sentencing.
So, the third thing we can do is be real allies to children, not be afraid of them, not other them, not keep them at arm’s length but make them feel heard and seen and understood.
I’ve had a good life, and all children with trauma deserve that chance. And together, we can make that happen. Thank you.