This is the first in a series of 7 blog articles we will be publishing between now and the end of 2021, called "A Season of Healing." This first piece, on the expansive topic of "trauma", was penned by Safe Harbor's Social Services Coordinator, Laura Nye. Laura is a licensed social worker and is currently in school to earn her Master's degree in Social Work from The Ohio State University.
As part of my job as the Social Services Coordinator for Safe Harbor, it is my responsibility to interview potential clients and assess if they are appropriate candidates for the Safe Harbor program. In all of these assessments, I have yet to talk with a woman who has not experienced significant trauma in her life. This is an unfortunate and common reality among the population we serve. "Trauma" can be broadly defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing event that causes an emotional response. However, trauma affects much more than just our emotions: it is well documented that trauma profoundly affects the body and the brain. Thankfully, God is able to step in, change the narrative, and break the chains of trauma, abuse, and addiction! He sheds His healing light on our traumatic experiences.
In periods of stress, the body's fight-or-flight response is activated. This is a necessarily survival mechanism common to all of us, which God brilliantly designed. A healthily functioning nervous system processes stress and returns to a neutral state when the threat has passed.
Traumatic events can push the nervous system past its ability to regulate itself. For some trauma survivors, the system gets tuck in the "on" position, and the person is continually overstimulated and unable to experience calm. Anxiety, anger, restlessness, panic, and hyperactivity can all result when you stay in this ready-to-react mode. This physical state of hyperarousal stresses every system in the body. For other trauma survivors, the nervous system gets stuck in the "off" position, resulting in depression, disconnection, fatigue, and lethargy. People can also alternate between these two extremes.
This is especially true for people like the women served at Safe Harbor, who have endured compounded traumas. Complex-PTSD can result from this consistent and unrelenting exposure to stress. In this case, the nervous system becomes conditioned to exist in a perpetual state of heightened anxiety and fear. This state can continue for years after the trauma has ended, and be triggered by a myriad of things that seem completely unrelated to the initial trauma.
Looking back at my time at Safe Harbor, one particular client stands out to me as an example of God's miraculous healing power. Let's call her "Danielle". Danielle came to us from jail, broken and hopeless. She had been neglected, traumatized, and abused for much of her life. At first, her emotional outbursts seemed irrational, but as I learned her story, I became acutely aware that these outbursts were a response to her buried trauma. It became obvious why Danielle was in treatment for a substance use disorder: she had become addicted to substances in her attempts to numb the pain of years of trauma that had never been addressed.
As Danielle began to work on her addiction recovery, recommitting herself to the process on a daily basis, I started to see signs that she was ready to begin processing through some of her past trauma (We do not immediately begin trauma work with new residents, as their bodies and brains need time to stabilize after prolonged period of substance use. They also need to focus on learning basic coping skills that will help keep them sober and in treatment, before they face the daunting task of trauma therapy.) We connected her with a licensed trauma therapist, as we do all of our residents, and she was faithful to keep these appointments weekly. I started to see glimpses of what it might be like for Danielle to find freedom from the injustice of traumas that had been inflicted upon her. I saw her start to cry and express appropriate grief and anger for the first time. Danielle began to understand her own life from a trauma-informed perspective, which is how we at Safe Harbor engage all of our residents. A trauma-informed approach flips the script from the judgmental 'what's wrong with them?" to the more compassionate and empathetic "what happened to them?" The former question is primarily concerned with squelching problematic behavior, while the latter seeks to understand and address the root causes of behavior, thus having a higher chance of long-term success.
This trauma-informed practice does not absolve us, or the women served at Safe Harbor, from responsibility in our healing process. In fact, it does the opposite! Perhaps counter-intuitively, a trauma-informed lens helps us to correctly view traumatic life experiences so that we can deal with them, and not remain helpless victims of things that have happened to us. A trauma-informed approach encourages honesty, self-compassion and a healthy level of self-responsibility. Responsibility literally means, possessing the ability to respond. A trauma-informed approach helps to restore a person's ability to respond as opposed to merely act, make thoughtful decisions and choices, and participate in their own life in a present and proactive way. This is how we choose to empower women and honor their dignity at Safe Harbor.
Danielle spent over a year with us, working on healing from her past trauma. This woman who seemed so broken and hopeless when I met her, has blossomed into one of the strongest and most beautiful people I have the privilege of knowing. She bravely faced her trauma and now sees herself as whole and healed. The trauma is something that happened to her, but it is certainly not what defines her. It is not who she is. She did the hard work of processing and fighting through it over time, and the results are incredible. She is now pouring back into a community of vulnerable people and giving them the hope and help that she once so desperately needed.
I will leave you with this plea: don't give up on someone who initially reacts (or overreacts) to things from a place of woundedness, particularly if they are willing to acknowledge their trauma and take steps toward healing. When encountering difficult people in life, consider asking yourself, "what might have happened to this person that is causing this response or behavior?" as opposed to immediately jumping to, "what is wrong with that person?" - even if that person is yourself! Remember that healing and wholeness are possible; I have experienced it and seen it with my own eyes. Our God is able! He invites us into the hard work of trauma healing, promising to never leave us or forsake us. He is the ever-present Emmanuel who dwells with us, even when we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. He promises goodness and mercy on the other side!
If you would like to contribute to the healing work that Safe Harbor is doing, please consider giving a donation of any amount during this holiday season. You can donate securely by clicking the button below or send a check made out to Safe Harbor to P.O. Box 124, Springfield, OH 45501.