This past school year was one of the hardest in my career. This was due to the trauma and stress I had experienced this past year. This time last year I was in a hospital room after my grandpa had tried to take his own life after his first dose of chemo. He had advanced prostate cancer that had spread throughout his organs. Let me be very clear, he was in indescribable pain and his quality of life was unlivable and I was the one who spoke to a doctor about putting him in hospice, which is a lot of pressure and stress for any person. My mom and uncles were so distraught they could hardly function. Nobody knew what to do. My sister found him and noticed that he had overdosed. She was so mad. There were so many emotions, and I felt so guilty for being the one to say “no more pain.” Acute trauma.
I lost my father-in-law to prostate cancer. I knew and saw the signs of dying. It was heart-wrenching as was the weeks that led up to my grandfather’s death which happened to be the first few weeks of school. In that time, my work life was also a little up in the air. My then principal had received a promotion, and at the time took on many administrative tasks as an instructional coach. I took one day of bereavement and then headed back to work due to all of the change at work. My school is a small school, so a change in leadership is a huge change.
I felt like a ghost for months. At a time I really needed community I found my community could not support my grief. They had their own adverse experiences. I found myself being the blame for a poor school culture due to the ASB program I was running. A particularly unsincere colleague allowed students to write a very hurtful article in the school paper about how the ASB program, that as a school was started with academies, was no longer what students wanted and all of the ways it was falling short. This might not have affected me the way it did this last year if my heart was not already broken, but it really hurt me and I felt so inadequate. At this same time, my son was having adverse side effects from the newly released Xyzal, an allergy medicine. My son has always had chronic health conditions with a very weak immune system and severe (anaphylactic) food allergies and environmental allergies. It is common for my son to have open wounds from eczema and lesions from his skin condition, he is always sick with an ear or sinus infection, or a virus, or pneumonia, along with a very restricted diet. Now, he had serious behavioral problems. He had incredible mood swings, aggression, and was violent. He was two years old.
So, I had just lost my best buddy, I was made to feel inadequate at work, and I was struggling with my son who seemed so out of control of his body. Now looking back, I had multiple incidences of acute trauma. Acute trauma last 6-8 weeks. I was experiencing short-term or acute trauma, but it was spread out. So each time I started to get back up, or practice resilience, I was knocked back down. When we talk about trauma, there are three primary types of trauma: acute, chronic, and complex.
There are three types of trauma:
Acute: Single incident
Chronic: Repeated prolonged trauma: Repeated, prolonged trauma
Complex: chronic, interpersonal trauma; varied and multiple traumas; early onset; often by trusted caregivers
To be able to understand trauma, you have to understand that trauma is not an event, but rather a response to an event.
The APA defines trauma as:
an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster” (APA.org, 2018)
My being bullied, for lack of better words, may not be a traumatic event for another person, and probably would not even have affected me if I was in a better mindset, but this last year my emotional response to all of these events were truly traumatic. It affected my doctoral work and affected my teaching. My writing was terrible, I got a B in one of my classes (the ultimate doctoral mark of shame). I was not able to give as much as I normally do to my students or my studies this past year. I serve all at-risk, or as I often state “at-promise” youth. How do you help a wounded student when you are wounded yourself? This was my challenge for this past year.
Well, with my knowledge of trauma I knew I had to practice self-care. I got massages, (I have a membership to Massage Envy), I practiced mindfulness (I am a trained mindful practitioner), I practiced yoga, and I really tried to forgive. I had to forgive my family for putting me in charge of determining the end of my beloved grandfather's life, I forgave my colleague, and the pharmaceutical company that made this drug knowing these adverse side effects in adults, let alone children, and I advocated and tried to understand my son’s behavior. At the beginning of the process of his severe behavior problems, I had no idea what was going on. It was only from tons of research on my part and access to research databases through my doctoral status were we able to get to the root. My son is still chronically ill, he still has behavioral issues, but he is not severely harming himself or others. His situation will be a process, but I am able to have the perspective and vision of hope that I did not have when going through these acute traumatic experiences.
What I wish would have happened differently
First, I wish I would have had a larger community to fall back on. I have my best teacher friends at my small school, but they were facing their own trauma: surgeries, loss of parents, compassion fatigue, and burnout. I found at work there were not many people that could ask me what was wrong because they could not take on one more problem in their own head. Even my new Principal that is very caring and supportive had his own loss that I didn’t fell allowed taking on someone else's pain.
Second, I wish I would have talked to someone. I looked for a therapist and found that a good therapist is hard to find. From insurance limitations and high costs of therapy (being upwards of $100 an hour), it was really hard to find an excellent therapist. I had this same problem when looking for a therapist that specialized in postpartum depression. Three days after my son was born, I lost my cousin to a tragic car accident, he was only 23 and was raised like a brother to me. I was a mess, and I could not find a therapist that listened and did not first offer pills. I do not feel like I was having a chemical imbalance where I would need depression meds, I just needed to be heard and permission to feel.
Summer could not have come sooner this school year. This was the first time I had felt this way in years. I have opened up more about my loss and my son’s health problems and have heard from great people all over the country that see the same thing. They work with trauma and are some of the great change-makers in the US educational system. I have also opened up my network to Instagram and Facebook page have had some of the most motivational and positive feedback from others passionate about Alternative Education, at-risk/at-promise students, and dropout prevention, as well as other graduate students that are suffering through dissertation writing as well.
I have set my intentions to continue forgiving and coming from a place of understanding with those that I don’t like. There is a guided meditation that I love that says “I do not have to like you, I have to love you” and I am planning on making that a poster for me to look at whenever I get frustrated with someone or feel hurt by someone. I am also in the process of forgiving myself for this year that I was not in my opinion “Teacher of the Year” worthy. I am looking forward to being more active on Twitter and building my community on all online platforms. And mostly I am looking forward to new beginnings. Hope is a really big part of resilience building. “Hope is a mindset that the future will be better than the present and that you play a role in making it happen.” (Johnston, 2014). I plan on reading “The Hope Quotient: Raise it and You’ll Never Be The Same” by Ray Johnson and continuing on building my hope, loving my family, and being a better teacher every day I am in the classroom.
I also look forward to writing “Trauma part 2: Trauma in Students”