Did you know that the diet industry is a $70 billion, that’s billion with a B, industry? Did you also know that 95% of diets fail? I’ll let that sink in for a second!
People spend more than $70 billion in a year on a product that will fail more than 95% of the time! Would you buy a car that wouldn’t work 95% of the time, a house that had a 95% chance of collapsing into a pile of rubble, or buy clothes that had a 95% chance of falling apart on the first wear? Of course not! Yet that’s what millions of people in America do each and every single day when they go on a diet. They’ll spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on something that will ultimately fail them.
When I begin treatment with clients who have an eating disorder, like Anorexia; Binge Eating Disorders; or Bulimia, one of things I introduce to clients is Poodle Science. I was introduced to this concept by Tianna Smith, a a wonderful dietitian based in California. For the non-dog lovers out there, a Bullmastiff is a HUGE dog that usually weighs 100 pounds or more while a Chihuahua is a small dog that usually weighs around 6-7 pounds. Because of genetics, it would not matter what kind of diet or exercise you did with a Bullmastiff, it would NEVER weigh anywhere close to the 6-7 pounds of Chihauhua. Not only that, that Bullmastiff would probably be pretty miserable from the lack of food and constant exercise. And yet, it would never come close to having the bodily figure of a Chihuahua.
At SYTI counseling, when we work with our clients in therapy, we talk to them about Poodle Science because the same concept applies to humans. We have a biological blueprint based on our genetics that determines the shape and size of our body. Some people will naturally be 100 pounds while others will naturally be 150 pounds or more. Like the Bullmastiff and the Chihuahua, it’s an impossible fight for a 150-pound person to try and get down to 100 pounds. All you will do is fail, be miserable, and in some cases do incredible harm to your body. By accepting your biological blueprint, you are going to lead a happier and healthier life. So, the next time you see or hear diet culture in the media, brush it aside and be proud of the beautiful body you have!
I really wish that we were talking about Pascal, the chameleon from Rapunzel. He is one of my favorite Disney characters! Has anybody ever discovered a stuffed animal Pascal? I’ve looked high and low but cannot find one anywhere! So if you know where I can buy one, please let me know. Clearly it’s a very urgent matter!
But I digress. What I really want to talk about today are the human versions of chameleons – those whose thoughts, beliefs, and opinions can change depending on their environment. Pete Walker, author of Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, first coined the term “fawning” as a trauma response. Fawning is essentially described as being a chronic people pleaser. Some trauma survivors will engage in fawning, or people pleasing, as a way to diffuse tension if they feel unsafe or uncomfortable. But what I don’t think many people know is that fawning extends beyond saying “yes” to everything and everyone’s requests. People pleasers are also the kind of folks mentioned above – the ones who tend to have different beliefs or different personalities depending on who they are around.
For example, someone who is fawning could look like your friend that tells you all the time she is a Democrat, but in a room full of Republicans she will quickly turn into one of the most passionate Republicans the world has ever seen. Someone who is fawning might also look like that cousin of yours who complains constantly about how much she hates this one person in her friend group, but the second she hangs out with that person she acts like the two of them are best friends.
As a whole, the public generally doesn’t take kindly to people who behave like this. It creates a sense of mistrust and frustration among people when they see that somebody acts one way one minute, and is completely different the next minute.
Now I am not saying that every single person who engages in these types of behaviors is fawning, because that simply isn’t the case. But what I am trying to say is that sometimes people aren’t trying to copy others and sometimes people aren’t changing their beliefs and values out of a desperation to fit in. What this behavior actually could be is fawning, or in other words, a type of trauma response.
I myself can be like this when I feel threatened in some ways. Recently, I found myself in a situation that felt tense, uncomfortable, and downright awkward. The people around me were in a heated discussion about something that I actually found offensive. On a good day, or even a so-so day, I might have chimed in and dared to have an opposing viewpoint. But on this day in particular, I was already having such a bad day, and between the topic of conversation and the harsh tone of everyone’s voices, I was triggered beyond belief. I did the only thing I could do to try to get the conversation to come to a close: I simply agreed with them. Yep, against everything I believe in, I became the person that I thought that they wanted me to be and I agreed with what they were saying, even though, if you were to ask me to speak on that same subject any other day of the week, I would have given you a completely different opinion.
I didn’t agree with them because I had an overwhelming desire to fit in, and I didn’t pacify them by siding with their beliefs because I wanted to make friends with them. It was more so that I felt emotionally unsafe, and feeling that way put me in such a high state of emotional distress that I said whatever I could to get myself away from the situation. Fawning, like fight or freeze or flight or any of the other trauma responses, is a survival tactic. I wasn’t able to fight or flee the situation, so I became a chameleon and I blended in with my surroundings in the best way that I knew how.
Millions of folks do this. I’ve watched it time and time again, and while a younger version of me might get annoyed and accuse that person of not being genuine, the person I am today realizes that so many people engage in fawning because they have found themselves in situations that trigger their previous traumas.
While I have come a very long way in my PTSD recovery, I was reminded by this event that there is more work to be done. Even though I am tempted to sit in a pit of shame and self-loathing, I’m refusing to do so because my brain did whatever it could to keep me safe in the moment, and that is no reason to feel ashamed. So here I sit, pouring vulnerability onto the page in the hopes that I can educate other people on this type of trauma response, as I think it is often misunderstood and creates a lot of tension in relationships.
To those of you who have never engaged in fawning and don’t quite get it, please be patient with us.
And to those of us who struggle with fawning, let us try to have more compassion for ourselves. We have brilliant minds, built for survival. And although fawning doesn’t always serve us well, it did keep us safe and alive for many years. We are all a work in progress, but please oh please, don’t forget to love yourself throughout the journey just as much as you’ll love yourself once you’ve arrived at your destination.
I am quite guilty about having talked like this in the past: “I’m so OCD about it.” About what? How clean I like my house to be, how I organize my closet, etc. I can even recount many times at the gym where I would be in the middle of a fitness class – God forbid the instructor accidentally lost her place and we ended up doing 11 kettlebell swings with the right hand and 10 kettlebell swings with the left hand. I’d be the first to say out loud: “Oh my gosh, we’re uneven, we have to do one more one this side – I’m so OCD about it!”
A lot of us do this, but as I got older and started becoming more seasoned as a therapist, I realized how wrong those comments were. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) can be a crippling mental health disorder in which we find ourselves having to act on certain impulses in order to quiet the thoughts in our head that just won’t seem to stop.
Yes, people can develop OCD symptoms around cleanliness, disorganization, and numbers, like I mentioned above, but the obsessive thoughts can also be much more than that. You see, when I would make those comments like the ones I mentioned above, I would laugh, my friends would laugh, and we would go about our day. But the truth is, I was joking about an issue that runs so much deeper and is more serious than most folks know. While many of us joke about having OCD, the truest form of the disorder is brutal.
Of all of the things I have battled throughout my life, the one I talk about the least is my OCD, mostly because I know that my OCD is a result of my trauma and in treating the trauma, I am also treating the OCD.
But truth be told, OCD is an absolute beast, one that lives with you, follows you everywhere you go, and keeps you from sleeping at night. It’s the worst friend you’ve ever had, but cannot seem to get rid of. It’s counting how many times you chew your food before you swallow, it’s making sure you step on the scale 3 times just to make sure the scale is right. It’s this irresistible compulsion to say your prayers exactly the same way every night, fearing that something bad will happen to you if you don’t.
This elusive beast comes in many forms, and what I named above are only a few symptoms that people with OCD may struggle with. Looking back on my childhood, I know that my OCD began as early as 3rd grade, where I remember washing my hands so much and for so long that my skin would bleed. As I got older, my obsessions then became about people breaking into our home. I would have to check the doors at night, dis-arm the alarm that my mom already armed, check to ensure the garage door was shut, and then re-arm the alarm. After about 3-4 rounds of doing this each night, only then could I be assured that the doors were truly locked and the alarm was truly set.
And have I mentioned intrusive thoughts? I could write an entire blog post on intrusive thoughts so I won’t dive too deeply into this, but they often couple with OCD. For example, if you’ve ever been driving your car on a highway and suddenly thought to yourself: “What if the car next to me runs me off the road and I crash into a tree and die?”, this is an intrusive thought. Or maybe worse, you’ve even pictured the entire event taking place in your head. This is also an intrusive thought, and you are not alone if you have them.
Often times we develop compulsions to quell our obsessive and intrusive thoughts. Some examples include:
-Driving to work: Did I check the stove to make sure the gas isn’t on? (after having checked it 20 times before leaving) Am I sure my dogs are safely in their crates? What if there is a fire and my house burns down?
-Driving home from work: Did I really blow that candle out in my office or did I just imagine it? Let me turn around, I have to check, I can’t be responsible for burning down the building. *drives back to office, confirms that the candle is blown out, starts driving home again* Okay but what if I imagined that? Did I really blow out that candle? *Gets home from work 45-60 min later than expected because I have to act on my compulsions*
It’s terrible. It’s exhausting. This is the case for so many folks with OCD. It’s not just about wanting your house to be neat and orderly. It’s about needing to do certain things to avoid horrible things from happening and to quiet the brain.
I understand things so much differently now. I used to have the attitude of “I’m not changing the way I speak just to save other’s feelings” but the older I get, the more I realize how much of an impact words have on myself and others (I am a therapist, after all!). Intent does not equal impact – and even if I was just joking all those times when I said “I am so OCD about it”, I realize that it is nothing to joke about.
1. If you have been diagnosed with OCD, know you’re not alone and there is no shame in sharing the thoughts and compulsions you are having. In fact, speaking them out loud takes the power away from them.
2. If you have never been diagnosed with OCD, but resonate with some of what I’m saying in this post, please reach out for help. You don’t have to live like this forever and managing the symptoms truly does get much easier.
3. If you have no experience battling OCD, but often say phrases like “I’m really OCD about it”, maybe consider trying to change your words. What else could you say instead? “It makes me feel frazzled and disorganized when my house is a mess” or “I prefer my closet to be organized by color because it makes me happy” are just a few examples. The beautiful thing about language is that there are millions of ways to say something without using words that might minimize the beast that is OCD.
Boundaries are limits that we set with other people or sometimes, even ourselves. The point of setting a boundary is to protect our own physical, social, and emotional health. Setting boundaries with others can look like:
-“Thank you for the invitation, but I can’t go out this weekend.” -“I won’t be joining you for the holidays this year due to the pandemic.” -“I have let you know repeatedly that I do not want to speak about this topic. If you continue to bring it up, I am going to leave the party.” -“I have told you that I am not comfortable meeting up without masks. If you are not able to wear a mask, let’s wait to meet up until it’s safer to do so.”
Again, boundaries are put in place to honor ourselves and protect all aspects of our well-being.
Threats are designed for us to get the things we want and/or need, often at the expense of someone else. Threats typically come in the form of a warning that someone or something might be harmed if we don’t get what we want. Some examples of threats might be:
– “If you are going to continue dating that guy, then I’m going to stop asking you how you’re doing since you’re only going to get hurt.” -“If you don’t spend the holidays with us this year, then I’m not buying you those shoes you have been asking for.” -“We aren’t having sex at night anymore since you clearly can’t even have the laundry done by the time I get home from work.” -“I’m paying for this wedding so I think I should have some say in where you have it.”
Threats are about securing our wants and needs by taking something away from someone if things do not go our way.
THE THIN LINE
As you’ll notice in the section on boundaries, none of the examples I provided were about doing harm to the other person in any way. The only thing a boundary should do is help us to protect ourselves without doing harm to others. The line between threats and boundaries starts to blur when we start punishing other people for not getting our way. There is no punishment happening when we tell others, for example, that we aren’t comfortable meeting up with them unless they are wearing a mask. There is punishment happening, however, when we withhold sex, threaten emotional neglect, or hold money over people’s heads in order to get what we want. Sometimes it can be quite difficult to tell the difference between a threat and a boundary. Many people feel that they are one in the same, but that could not be further from the truth; and it is important to suss out the difference so that we are taking good care of both ourselves and our loved ones.
Today, the day after Thanksgiving, is my favorite day of the year! Yet, it’s also one of the hardest days of the year for those of us who struggle with being elbow deep in diet culture and eating disorders.
The day after Thanksgiving leaves so many of us feeling guilt and shame over our bodies as a result of what we consumed yesterday. Eating disorders and diet culture, at their core, are really all about having control; and in a world that feels more out of control than ever before, I am sure that the urge to over-exercise and restrict food intake as a way to make up for the the calories consumed yesterday is extremely strong.
So I’m here to ask you one thing, and that is to have mercy on yourself.
When you find yourself opening your eyes in the morning and immediately thinking about what you ate yesterday, have mercy on yourself.
When you tell yourself that you need to work out as a form of damage control for the food you consumed, please have mercy on yourself.
If you feel as though the only way you deserve to get through the day today is by eating lettuce that you later end up purging, please have mercy on yourself.
If you find yourself staring in the mirror and pinching and poking the softness on your body, wondering if your stomach is more doughy today than it was yesterday, have mercy on yourself.
When you find yourself starting to feel hungry, but do not feel as though you deserve to eat because you enjoyed yourself yesterday, have mercy on yourself.
And finally, if you find that you cannot stop chastising, telling yourself that you were out of control yesterday, and calling yourself names that are shame and guilt inducing, I beg of you, please have mercy on yourself.
You do not have to spend the day obsessing over how to reverse what you ate yesterday because you did absolutely nothing wrong. One huge meal will not, I repeat, will not have any effect on your weight. You deserve to nourish your body today, whether that means having three full meals with snacks, or snacking throughout the entire day.
Try to check in with your body and listen to what it needs. If we tune out the noise of diet culture, we will discover that our bodies already have the answers to the questions that we have been asking our entire lives. So be extra kind to the body parts that you hate, for those body parts have kept you healthy, safe, and alive far before your brain developed enough to allow diet culture and eating disorders get in the way.
When the guilt and the shame and the urges to restrict, purge, over-exercise, or body check start to creep in, please remember to have mercy on yourself. Not just today, but always.
I don’t know how many times I have said this in the past, nor do I know for how many more months I’ll continue to say this, but damn, times are tough. I have more clients than usual who are in a state of suicidal crisis. While I am by no means negating the prevalence of the coronavirus, I do think it is important to point out that the number of suicide attempts and suicide completions far outweigh the number of covid cases in our world. Again, I say this not to take attention away from the seriousness of the pandemic, but to also point out the suicide pandemic that receives little attention.
As a therapist, I am frequently in contact with other care providers who work with my clients, such as doctors, school counselors, and parents. Lately, when suicidal urges increase among my patients, I find more and more doctors, school counselors, and parents having the same response: “I really think he/she/they is just doing this for attention. I don’t think there is any real threat here.”
This statement really hits me like a ton of bricks….not because I feel judgment towards the people who are saying it, but more or less because I find it to be so sad that we have quite literally shamed, chastised, and ignored people for wanting and needing attention from others. When people tell me that they don’t think suicidal urges are anything to be concerned about because it’s just a plea for attention, my response is usually “Yes, this very well could be for attention, but that doesn’t make those urges any less real. And why risk it? At the end of the day, if you’re child/patient/student/spouse/parent is saying this for attention, then that means something is very wrong and we do need to give this person the appropriate level of attention and care.”
Why do we do this? Why do we condemn people for wanting and needing attention? Why is it such a bad thing to want attention from someone else.? I’ll be the first one to admit it: I love attention. I need it. I crave it. And most of all, I deserve it. I deserve to have others know when I am hurting so that they can help me. When my pain isn’t heard or validated, my suicidal thoughts and urges only become louder.
Now with this being said, I do acknowledge that there are people who can be manipulative with their words or are seeking attention in dangerous or unacceptable ways. I’m not suggesting we should be okay with this. What I’m suggesting is that we stop writing folks off when they say they feel suicidal. Sure, it could be an attempt at getting attention, but often enough, the attention that people happen to be seeking is much needed, even if it’s not necessarily needed in the form of crisis intervention. And besides, why risk it? Why label a suicidal person as ‘attention-seeking’ and then just wait and see if he/she/they really mean it?
I’ll say it once more – life is hard right now. Like, really friggin hard. And the more I speak to doctors and school staff and parents and other providers, the more I see how hardened we have become to the needs of others. All I ask is this: let’s stop shaming and criminalizing others for being “attention-seeking”. Instead, let’s ask ourselves what kind of attention this person might need and how/if we might be able to help. Let’s all do our best support each other through this so we can all make it out on the other side of this pandemic happy, healthy, and most importantly, alive.
Are we all drained right now or what? We’ve got election stress, COVID-19 anxiety, and good old seasonal depression waiting for us right around the corner. Not to mention we are all fighting battles that others know nothing about.
As we head into the colder months, when the flu meets COVID and political tension rises as power shifts from one President to another, let this be your gentle reminder to take the time to get back to the basics of your life so that you are well-equipped to handle what may be coming down the road.
-HYDRATE. Drink drink drink – not beer, not wine, not tequila (okay, maybe tequila). Drink water. As much as your body is telling you that you need. Take notice of how often you’re going to the bathroom and if you need to be consuming more water.
-SLEEP. I know, I know, it is so difficult to be in a regular sleeping routine when life feels like such a jumbled mess these days. But the world is going to keep turning, regardless of whether or not you get sleep, and nothing earth-shattering is going to happen if you log off of Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok for a while to give your body some R&R. Or maybe something earth-shattering WILL happen – and you’ll find out about it after you have slept. Try not to feed the urge to know everything that is happening in the world the second that it happens.
MOVE. Gyms have stricter regulations. It’s dark by 5pm. The weather is getting cold. We want blankets, and hot chocolate, and Christmas movies, not long walks or cardio or yoga. But as great as all the holiday vibes can be, sitting on the couch or in bed for hours on end can lead to a black hole of depression that can be so hard to get out of. So break up your day a little – go for a walk, stretch, take a 15 minute mild yoga class, or blast heavy metal music and go crush some weights. Either way, the movement will mitigate symptoms of depression and anxiety and will help your body to feel its best.
EAT. November is upon us so everywhere you look you’re going to see diets and holiday fitness programs all designed to help you avoid weight gain during the holidays. This season of life is stressful enough for all of us, don’t throw a diet into the mix and start detoxing or counting calories. If anything, be intentional about eating. Don’t skip meals. It doesn’t matter if all you did was sit on the couch all day – you still deserve and need to eat.
CONNECT. Make plans with friends and family in whatever way feels safe for you these days. Don’t use COVID as an excuse to feed into your depression and stop connecting with your loved ones.
LOOK AROUND. Shut off the TV. Put down your phone. Look away from your laptops and desktops and smart bikes and smart watches, etc. Look around at your environment. Love up on your partner. Snuggle with your pets. Stand outside for a few extra moments after getting out of your car just to feel the crisp air on your face. Be wherever you’re at. Tune in to your surroundings and let the stress of the world melt away, if only for a moment.
In these difficult times, I struggle to maintain all the of above, especially the last one! But when we feel overwhelmed with life, it’s crucial for us all to get back to the basics of living so that we can build strength for the future. So take the time to rest up everyone, for when we wake, we will get back to trying to change the world!
A few weeks ago, I finished reading Abigail Pesta’s book, The Girls, a book about the USA gymnasts who took down sexual predator Larry Nassar back in 2018. If you are not familiar with the case, Larry Nassar was a highly esteemed doctor at Michigan State University. He also served as the doctor for the USA gymnastics national team, where under the guise of treating young gymnasts, he spent decades sexually abusing them. Larry had convinced his victims that his “treatment,” which included digital penetration, was medically necessary for their recovery.
As Larry’s heinous crimes continued to escalate, he would often abuse children while their parents were sitting in the same room, using his body to shield the parents from seeing what was happening. He worked double-time to develop sincere relationships with the girls and their parents….so much so that they came to view Larry as a friend, a confidant, and a trusted doctor.
After Larry was convicted in 2018, the presiding judge, Rosemarie Aquilina, gave each of the survivors the chance to speak about their abuse and how it affected them. One by one, the women rose up and spoke their truth about the ways in which Larry’s abuse ruined their families, their psychological wellbeing, their ability to form healthy relationships, and so much more.
The victims blamed themselves for never speaking up, for trusting an esteemed doctor who appeared to have their best interest at heart. Parents of the victims also blamed themselves, finding it inconceivable that their child could have been assaulted while they were sitting in the very same room.
Let me crystal clear about this: There is absolutely no blame to be shared among the victims or their families.
The fault lies entirely with the abuser himself, as well as the other adults who were aware the abuse was happening and chose to do nothing.
What? Others knew and did nothing?
That’s right. NOTHING. There were so many people who did not believe the girls when they tried to ask for help. They explained away Larry’s actions, which left the girls feeling more confused than ever. For decades, people were able to pretend as if this horrific abuse was not happening.
But it was. And the sad, disturbing fact of the matter is that there are many more predators out there, just like him. Abigail Pesta’s narrative about this particular scandal is such an important read for everyone because it shows how even the most vicious of wolves can be dressed in sheep’s clothing. This is what makes abuse so confusing, this is why some people cannot see it coming, and this (among a million other reasons) is why victims should never be blamed or asked “Why didn’t you speak up?”
Predators are often the ones who work their way into your hearts, gain your trust, build a sense of safety around you, and then shatter your sense of safety by violating you. It leaves you feeling so confused that you don’t speak up. You don’t say anything. Because you spent so much time believing that this person could be trusted that you continue to believe he or she didn’t mean to abuse you – that the violation was just a mistake, or a slip-up. You tell yourself whatever it takes to keep up with the belief in your mind that this person is good for you and has your best interest at heart. To think anything less than that is too much to bear.
Time goes on, this person continues to build trust with you, and then just like that, there comes another violation, another boundary crossed. But at this point, you feel that it is too late. If you speak out now, people won’t believe you because they will question why you didn’t speak up earlier or why you continued to be in contact with a person if you knew he or she was sexually abusing you. So you sink into the shame and guilt, blaming yourself for getting into this mess in the first place.
Before you know it, you have lost all sense of self worth. You continue to find yourself in dangerous situations because you think, after all this time, that you deserve the abuse that you got. You find yourself wondering if your life is worth living, since your body, mind, and soul, no longer feel like your own.
So many people don’t understand nearly enough about this type of abuse, which is why I highly recommend reading The Girls. It is a devastating, sobering, and extremely important book that is helping other survivors of abuse to realize that it’s okay to speak their truth.
I feel it in my bones – the world is changing. The silence of all of the disbelieved, disregarded survivors is becoming louder. For so long, victims of sexual abuse have been told:
-You shouldn’t talk about that unless you’re REALLY sure it happened. You could ruin that person’s life. -Are you positive you remember it that way? -Maybe you shouldn’t have gotten so drunk. -Maybe you’re confusing this memory with something else? -Well maybe he/she was just being really friendly? -Did that really happen? That’s a serious accusation. Are you just doing this for attention?
No more. No more. NO MORE. We are finding our voices.
Can you hear us? If you don’t, you will soon. We’re just getting started.
-To the army of survivors who rose up to take down Larry Nassar: I have the utmost respect for all of you. -To the judge who gave those survivors a voice in that courtroom – I hope you know that you broke the mold and changed the world, especially the worlds of the victims. -And to the ones out there who still suffer in silence, to the ones who are not ready to speak, to the ones who are not quite sure yet or cannot find the right words to say what happened – there is so much hope. You are so much more than the abuse you endured and you can reclaim what taken from you.
Speak up. Seek help. Find support. And know that you are believed.
After being cooped up in quarantine for months, last weekend I jumped at the opportunity to meet up with my cousin and join a friendly, low-key horseback riding competition. I am a novice rider at best, but my cousin has been riding basically her entire life. I have always enjoyed spending time with her, being on the farm, and gazing around at all of the gentle giants. This competition was by no means cut-throat, and I operated at turtle-speed, weaving in and out of poles and around barrels. The obstacle courses were timed, but truthfully, I didn’t care if it took me 10 seconds or 10 minutes to go through the course. I was just happy to have some sense of normalcy in my life in the midst of this global pandemic.
Given that I have not been on a horse in a year, the first time I tried to mount my cousin’s horse, Duncan, I swung my leg over him with too much force. I was lopsided on him and he was uncomfortable. He started neighing and spinning around to try to get me off of him. I flew off and hit the ground (ALWAYS WEAR YOUR HELMET). Yes, I was hurt, a little bruised, a little banged up, but I was alright. I understood that Duncan was just trying to tell me I was making him uncomfortable because I was sitting on him lopsided. I took a moment to collect myself, got back on Duncan, and had a blast riding him for the rest of the day.
The following day, as I was speaking to my therapist about falling off the horse, she asked “Weren’t you angry at that horse for trying to get you off of him?”
Truth be told, the thought of getting angry at Duncan (who is a total sweetheart, by the way) for trying to throw me off of him did not even cross my mind. Why would I be angry? That was his only way of communicating with me that something did not feel right, that he was uncomfortable and possibly even in pain. It seemed odd to me that my therapist would even ask me that sort of question.
And then it hit me. In that moment I realized why I have such a deep-seated connection with animals, big and small, mean and kind. Animals do not have voices to let you know when something is wrong; and throughout many parts of my life, neither did I.
You see, animals simply do not have the language to tell you when something is wrong with them. Therefore, they communicate with us in other ways. Sometimes this looks like a dog who bites and growls viciously at humans when he feels threatened. Other times, this looks like a horse trying to get you off of him because he isn’t comfortable with the way you are sitting on him. The only way animals can let you know that something is wrong is by acting out.
Sadly, child abuse can cause us to behave in similar ways.
When something is being done to us as children, our brains have not developed the language to speak about what is happening to us. We do not know how to tell others that something is wrong because we don’t even understand it for ourselves.
So what do children do when they can’t speak up about being abused?
They try to communicate through their actions. Sometimes those actions involve self destruction, such as self harm, refusal to eat, binge eating, sneaking alcohol, etc. Other times, those actions involve hurting others, like getting into fights with peers , bullying others, or stealing. Some kids become the dog who feels backed into a corner who will growl and bite anyone in order to protect themselves. Other kids may become the horse who hurts its rider because he had no other way of communicating that something didn’t feel right. Silenced children often hurt themselves or others in the hopes that someone will realize that they, too, are being hurt. Abused children can relate so much to animals because both have learned to speak without using their voices.
In my practice, my patients with histories of child abuse tend to connect with my therapy dog, Noel, much more than my patients without an abuse history. Again, I believe that this is because child abuse survivors relate to animals on a different level. They bond so well with animals because they have learned, from childhood, to communicate without using words.
One of the biggest parts of healing from childhood abuse is learning to find your voice and use it as a way to remind yourself that you are no longer that scared, silent child. As we heal from our abuse, we become different than animals because we develop the ability to speak up when things do not feel right. As survivors of childhood abuse, however, I do believe there is a part of us that will always have a special connection with animals, because we will always know what it is like to be vulnerable, scared, and silent.
Dare I say during this school year, school staff members were tested far more than the students were?
I have the privilege of being in connection with so many teachers, administrators, school counselors, and SACs in a variety of ways. Aside from having teachers and administrators in my family, I also work with a few teachers in my private practice, and I am very well connected to the school districts through my job with the Gloucester Township Police Department.
Throughout the pandemic, I have heard people make comments about how easy it must be for the school staff members to be able to work from home. People have made comments about how, because schools closed in March, this will be “the longest summer break for them”. And I just have to say,
I wholeheartedly disagree. This will not be the longest, easiest summer break for school staff, but it will surely be the most well-deserved break they have ever had.
Mid-March should be an exciting time throughout school districts – spring is in the air, school trips are being planned, graduations and proms are around the corner, award ceremonies are being anticipated, etc. This year, however, in the blink of an eye, COVID-19 forced schools to take their regular teaching curriculum and turn it into remote learning. Was this a seemingly impossible and daunting task? Absolutely! But the school staff rose to the occasion. I have spoken with teachers and school counselors who have worked tirelessly just to make sure that they could continue to educate kids whom they could no longer see in person.
But it doesn’t end there! See, the really inspiring thing about teachers, SACs, school counselors/social workers, and administrators is that they never do just the bare minimum.
It is hard enough to meet the needs of every child in a school when they are sitting right in front of you, let alone trying to keep up with children, especially at-risk children, who are now forced into remote learning. It would be a million times easier to let these kids slip through the cracks and simply give them zeros or fail them for the year when they are not checking in with their teachers, not turning in their work, or have not responded to any of the school staff’s requests. What the school staff did instead, however, is work even harder to make sure that these children know they are not alone and ensure that they have the resources they need to continue with remote learning.
School staff have worked double-time, triple-time, quadruple-time to make sure the students do not miss out on any of the fun activities that were planned for the end of the school year. I am honored to work with one school SAC in particular who even transformed the school’s annual senior scholarship competition so that it could be completed virtually and the students would still have a chance to compete. I have watched teachers make videos for their students, hold Zoom meetings so the class could be together, and schedule time individually with each child to talk about the end of the school year, especially the younger children, like 5thgraders, who will never get the opportunity to go back to their elementary school, as they will now be moving onto middle school.
Teachers and counselors care so much more than we give them credit for. When the schools first closed, I remember sitting in my private practice with a patient who teaches elementary-aged children in an inner-city school district. In our previous sessions, we had many conversations about how much these children challenged her due their environments, histories of trauma, lack of support at home, etc. However, when she realized she was no longer going to be able to see her students at work every day, she was devastated. She grieved over not being able to interact with her kids. She worried because she knew that for so many of those children, school was their only safe space. She was frustrated with figuring out how she would continue to connect with her students when so many of them do not even have internet access in their homes.
It has not been easy for members of school districts, regardless if they are teachers, counselors, SACs, or administrators. It has been exhausting, heartbreaking, worrisome, and stressful beyond belief. But in typical school staff fashion, they rose to the occasion. They have done socially-distanced visits with their students, checked in with many of them on a regular basis, surprised them at their homes with goodie bags to celebrate making it through the school year, and so much more.
In this week’s blog post, I simply wanted to make space to honor the schools and recognize how hard these loving and dedicated individuals have worked on behalf of their students. They did not have an extended summer vacation. The truth is that they went to war against a pandemic that took away their ability to influence and educate our younger generations.
To the teachers,
To the SACs,
To the school counselors and social workers,
To the administrators,
To every single person who works in or for the school districts: