Although I had graduated the social work class, and became a registered social worker, the extent of my past traumas was far reaching and deeply ingrained into my mind. Unbeknownst to me the trauma I suffered and endured as a child, teen and young adult had resulted in PTSD. A traumatic brain injury that I could not possibly intellectualize my way out of. I was told by certain class mates that I tended to be very analytical, if they only knew how much I really felt. However, I was hired at the women’s shelter and I could not have been more proud of my accomplishment.
I felt that I made it. I was a bona fide registered Social Worker and a certified crisis intervention worker. I thought to myself that surely now I would gain the confidence and composure I needed to work with Women and children in crisis… right, I had all the knowledge and credentials. I even had life experience with extreme abuse. I failed to realize, however, that a couple years of study would not undo the damage that was done to my broken mind and soul. I was determined to be a Social Worker though and if baby steps got me there then so be it.
I was so awkward around people. In fact it was not just awkwardness I was actually afraid of people. Anthropophobia is the fear of people. I had been so badly abused and used by people who should have been my safe persons, how could I possibly not be afraid of people I did not know. I had been shunted from foster home to foster home to group home to group home to institution so much that there was nothing safe in my world, yet I had to find a way to function in it, with out the coping mechanisms that I had used for so many years. I honestly did not realize how pervasive and far reaching the damage done to my psyche was. I also did not realize that I was not going to grow out of it, past it , or through it. I was mentally ill and was suffering with Severe PTSD. For me suffering was my normal so how was I to know that I was mentally ill? That I was the broken one and I needed help and support too? That I needed healing.
Do you recall the phrase to smart for their own good? That was me, I could rationalize, intellectualize and just plain old pull the wool over the eyes of whom ever I needed to, to present a fictional healthy functional individual. That was me. However, on the inside I was terrified, unable to establish healthy boundaries, which made me extremely vulnerable. I was beaten and sexually traumatized so much that I was incapable of defending my self. That was the stark reality of my world I was a vulnerable mentally ill young woman, who was to smart for her own good. I suppose for those that have not been conditioned to sexual,physical and emotional abuse it is very difficult to understand how this could happen. Please just let me say it does, it did and it continues to happen to children all over the world hourly.
You may be asking how did I cope with all those women and children who were in crisis. How did I handle myself around my co workers? Well the short answer is I made my self so busy cleaning the shelter that I didn’t have time to help the women and children in crisis. It was not fair, nor was it right, it was just a coping mechanism I implemented for my self to cope with the inner turmoil and chaotic stress I was feeling. It was a way of refocusing my anxiety on a task I was comfortable doing. It was not fair to the women and children in crisis, nor was it very professional. I was actively avoiding doing my crisis intervention duties by making my self unavailable by cleaning. It was so bad that I would clean the vents with an old toothbrush, saying to my self the dust and lint must be cleaned off so we do not breath it in…there was no dust or lint but I would swear to you up and down that there was before I cleaned it so thoroughly. Gratefully, this only went on for a couple of months.
One day I got up to get ready for work and said to my self enough is enough. Face what you fear with courage and composure and get on with what you are supposed to be doing. Which of course was counselling, advocating and supporting women and children in crisis, not cleaning base boards that were already pristine. I was shaking in my boots, today was the day I was going to put my self up front and center. A place I avoided at all costs. Today and every day there after I was going to do my job and help these women and children. I was absolutely terrified. I had tools and skills to help though and slowly I gained confidence in my ability to help those in need. For the first time in my life I was willingly being vulnerable and giving, and I was not getting hurt, terrorized or molested. I used all my new skills taught to me by my training, and reached back into my own personal repertoire of pain and suffering to become the best social worker I was capable of being. I advocated for these women and children fiercely. I felt such a strong kinship with them, I really wanted them to succeed and meet what ever goals they set for them selves. Most of all I didn’t want them to suffer any more. I wanted them to feel at peace and safe. Dare I say I wanted them to feel the joy of being alive and free from the brutality of victimization.
I began researching material for a 21 day program, which is the length of stay women and children can stay at the shelter, without an extension. My personal view of this is, 21 days is not enough time to get to a place were you can cope with rebuilding your life after abuse. However, I had to work within the confines of shelter and government policy and protocols. Having spent about four months researching a 21 day program, I began to hold two hour group sessions nightly. This I did for the women as the children had their own program coordinator. The 21 day group program was a success. The next step was to begin individual case plans to address issues and needs of the individual women in our care. This could be anything from advocating for them to get their children back, a very difficult endeavor, as if a woman flees with out her children the courts deem she has in effect abandoned them. In order for me to advocate women getting custody of their children back from their abuser, I had to overcome my fear of authority figures. I managed to do this and successfully was able to help those women who left their children behind get their children back. The amount of work, collaborating with agencies and courts and police was sometimes overwhelming for one person. However, it was imperative I do this work because I too was an authority figure and the only one willing to help her try. It was my job to show the courts why the children were better of with their mother and not the abusive father.It was a difficult undertaking but after a week or little more child welfare would be bringing the children back, and the woman would begin custody proceedings at my urging.
Another prevalent issue abused women contended with was addictions. I utilized all my personal experience and local 12 step groups to help these women begin addressing their addiction issues, and hopefully build a support network for themselves. Addictions are a coping mechanism that they lost control of. In order to begin addressing the addiction issue it was no only imperative that they detoxify, and begin a program of recovery, I also needed to help them implement new coping mechanisms. One does not have to be an addict to know how difficult and challenging change can be.
Most of the women that came to the shelter had sever mental and emotional disorders, which also had to be addressed. Unfortunately addressing a lot of these issues fell to me as a lot of our staff were ill prepared and lacked training to even begin to try to address, the issues, or steer the women to the appropriate resources. This became very clear to me when a Staff member got hit by a woman for trying to strong arm a woman into sharing her problems with her. The woman was not comfortable talking to this particular staff member and felt threatened, when the staff member pursued the woman to her safe space, her room, the woman lashed out and hit the staff member. There was also incidents were I was working with child welfare, because a mother was abusive to her child. A staff member would confront the woman and they would flee. Undoing all my work to be non judgmental while prioritizing the child’s safety and well being.
To be brutally honest children really freaked me out. I was torn from my siblings so much that I never bonded with small children, to a point were I was comfortable with them. They were like little aliens to me. Sadly or not, children loved me. They would swarm me when I went into work jostling each other for my attention. The little girls especially would drive their mothers to distraction, changing their dresses over and over to find just the right one. The reason they would do this is I would wear either a skirt or a dress to work, and they wanted to emulate me! I was understandably flattered. The little girls would line up to show me the dress they picked out for the day. I would tell them how smart and pretty they looked all ready to face the work day. They would then get their paper an magazines and work on a collage on the office floor, building their dream house. That was their work day task, while I worked on files. Another phenomenon happened, by happen stance albeit but still it happened. I struggled to speak child. I was incapable of talking like they did with short easy words. So you know what they did? They adapted to me, and began asking me what such and such a word meant, then they would begin using those new learned words. Their mothers were baffled as to how and were they were learning such large words. After talking to me a while they soon figured it out. Their teachers were amazed and impressed at the extensiveness of their pupils vocabulary. This made me realize how quick children are to learn and they impressed me too! They taught me something as well, they taught me it is ok to be silly once in a while, and to just be loud for the joy of being loud. They taught this broken down angel how to play for the first time in her life. I will never be able to thank those little angels for their guidance and imparted wisdom, but I certainly can cherish the memories. Playing is a learned skill, and they taught me that skill. I became very good at it and sometimes i’m loud just for the joy of being loud.
I gave all I had to the shelter for ten years of my life, and I skidded headlong into my own crisis. I developed nervous ticks, constant anxiety, an nightmares. I lost my appetite and my sleep patterns were reverting back to the night life pattern. The fact that the new man I was partnered with wanted me to quit working there and made no bones about it exacerbated the problem. By working with the very women and children I grew to love I was systematically abusing my self by vicariously traumatizing myself. My own unresolved issues were surfacing with a vengeance. I was to fall into a depression so sever,that lasted years without treatment, I never fully recovered from it. The loss of a career I loved with a desperation almost killed me. However, I knew in my heart no matter how badly I wanted to do it, it was not healthy for me or fair to the women and children to only get a small part of me. I was not functioning as whole individual. I incapable of being whole, when I really didn’t know what pieces were missing. With that my friends, I leave you now, while I recall the happy times I had at the shelter. Till next time stay safe, stay happy and know you are loved.