Overwhelming Gratitude

Yesterday I finished the second trial group of the two-day training I presented to Corrections Officers. The first day was all about Officer wellness. Desert Waters, an organization out of Colorado, developed a program entitled, From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment. In it, we spent 8 hours talking about the deep fatigue that can set in from the near constant possibility of violence, traumatic incidents like self-harm/suicide, operational issues like being short-staffed, and organizational issues such as negative workplace culture when lots of staff are fatigued. It validated the difficulties of the role and taught solid ways people can either recover from fatigue, or hopefully learn to become resilient against it. It also talked about how to form a healthy organizational culture that includes components of physical/psychological safety, trust, healthy uses of power and attitudes of optimism, empathy, gratitude and compassion. Pretty big cultural shifts. It’s a good training.

The second day was the Trauma Informed Care in the Prison Setting training I helped develop with the Compassion Prison Project out of California. In this day we spent the first part of the morning learning about things like adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the detrimental effects multiple ACEs can have on a person’s mental and physical health if not recognized and countered. We saw how prisons are filled with some of the most traumatized people in our society and looked at the neuroscience behind how this impacts brain development. We looked at the correlation between ACEs and things like substance misuse, internalized shame, mental health diagnoses, suicide rates, physical health ailments, going to prison and in some cases early death. See below for a TED talk by the former Surgeon General of California that we watched.

We then discussed historical traumas that get passed down from generation to generation and will continue until someone (or multiple someone’s) recognize what is happening, heals from the effects of the underlying trauma and stops the cycle from being passed down to the next generation. How marginalized communities all over the world are still reeling from colonization and the negative impacts of being told you and your identity are bad or wrong. This message is toxic, devastating and impacts any group of people who are told that a core part of their being is not ok. To lose your meaning, purpose, worth, identity or culture can cause an emotional wound that can take generations to restore. We talked about the emotional pain that is created from this and how using substances to help manage what feels intolerable creates further harm and destruction. As does ongoing discrimination and prejudice.

Video made by the Healing Foundation in Australia based on the Aboriginal people’s experiences.

It also can cause people to internalize the belief they are broken, flawed or not OK. If I am not OK, why would I have hope or motivation to be my best self? Or why wouldn’t I be angry at a society wherein I have experienced abuse, neglect, discrimination and hatred? Why would I want to give back to that society- especially if I do not know my worth and have no hope of being any better? Without rehabilitation and opportunities to heal, change and learn things I was never taught, I probably won’t.

We discussed the difference between guilt (I am OK, but my actions need to change) and shame (I am bad and therefore unrecoverable) and how guilt is associated with growth and change, but internalized shame is associated with things like addiction, depression, eating disorders, anxiety, personality disorders, PTSD, suicidality and the list goes on. We talked about how important reconnecting people to their worth, healing from trauma, and restoring pride to one’s sense of identity is at the core of healing and rehabilitation. How often times this has to be led by the community that was deeply affected and the sense of cultural identity and pride restored by the leaders of that community. We tied this into the strategies the Department of Corrections here is trying to do, outlined in their Hōkai Rangi strategy designed to help reduce the disproportionate amount of Māori people who are incarcerated here.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is guilt-shame.png

It was powerful. We had some big conversations and many people talked about how much they resonated with the information. Not only getting a better understanding about many of the people in our care, but many of the people in the room also had ACEs and came from families who have experienced ACEs, myself included. It helped chip away at some of the “us and them” categories humans tend to place people in.

I think it also helped people gain awareness that those of us who have not experienced a lot of adversity in childhood (or had supportive people in our lives that helped us remain resilient in the face of adversity) see the world much differently than those of us who weren’t fortunate enough to have that. They may not have learned the same things that you or I did, or been exposed to loving and nurturing people that role-modeled how to lead a healthy life free from harm. The toxic stress response that would have been generated from these experiences would also impact the way the brain of the child developed. Children who spend most of their time in survival mode don’t have a lot of bandwidth left to learn and build their cortex like kids not exposed to those things would. What may have been a choice for me, may not have even been a realization for another who didn’t have the same experiences or opportunities that I did.

This training helped us realize that the lens through which I view the world is not the same one that others see the world from. Some people have to unlearn the messages they were taught and relearn things they have never known how to do. This can include things like learning to manage emotions in appropriate ways, having healthy boundaries, challenging cognitive distortions, learning impulse control, recovering from addiction, identifying and asking for needs to be met in appropriate ways, and healing from the effects of trauma, including core negative beliefs we may have acquired about ourselves or the world. Luckily, our brains have plasticity and can change throughout the lifetime. It just takes awareness, buy-in to want to do the hard work required to heal and learn new neuronal pathways, and a lot of courage and support. It has to be the rare combination of a good rehabilitation program (or therapeutic/healing modality), necessary community supports AND the person has to want it. If any of those components are missing, it gets much harder to see long-term results. When it is successful, the rewards can be priceless for both the individual and the community.

What I have come to understand so far in my journey is that oftentimes, the first thing ACEs or other experiences of trauma can take from us is the relationship we have with ourselves. We may come to hate ourselves and develop an internalized critical voice where we often abuse ourselves in ways we wouldn’t dream of doing to another. To repair this relationship is foundational and often at the very heart of healing. If I can begin to appreciate myself, encourage myself, protect myself, and be kind to myself, I can almost bet I will see a reduction in my symptoms of anxiety, and depression. Especially if I can then do whatever work I need to do to heal the parts of myself that did experience trauma or need to be seen, heard, grieved and loved. I need to examine my core negative beliefs and see if they are really accurate; chances are they may not be, but rather just a side effect of experiencing trauma. This work can be life changing and it can be the motivation I need to want to become the best version of myself that I can be.

We talked about these things and then for the second part of the day we discussed the 6 principles of trauma-informed care and how we can apply them in the prison setting. We discussed really tangible, yet often simple, strategies that can be done in each of the 6 guidelines: Safety; Trustworthiness/Transparency; Empowerment/Voice/Choice; Peer Support; Collaboration; and Historical/Cultural/Gender Issues. These elements need to be a part of the environment both among staff and with the people we care for. This can prevent retraumatization and also create an environment where those that want to heal and change are more likely to be able to begin doing so. It also means they have to learn tools and skills they were never given and better ways of getting needs met.

I thought I was going to get opposition. Who is this mental health person saying all these things and why should I listen? If they thought that, I didn’t pick up on it. Instead, I witnessed deep and beautiful conversations. I watched things “click into place” for people as their understanding increased. Things that hadn’t made sense before were starting to make sense. They also seemed to understand that if we helped people shift from shame to guilt (I am ok and worthy of love and belonging, but need to heal and change my actions so they stop causing harm) it could be a giant step that might even begin to see our society change. Especially since many of the things we were discussing happen in many homes- not just the ones of the prisoners we care for. We also saw that it couldn’t be done by Corrections alone. It’s a societal problem that will require a societal response. Communities, Corrections, the Government would all have to come together if we want to see real and lasting change. It feels big, but the first step is having a shared vision. It felt hopeful too.

By the end of the day we were all exhausted. It was A LOT of information. In fact, part of my feedback was that I needed to break the day up so people had time to absorb all these huge topics we were covering. I agreed. However, NO ONE pushed back about the information. Everyone said it was relevant, helpful and needed. Some people even said it was the best training they have had. By the end of the second day with the second group, I was so full of gratitude, I almost cried. My fears of people hating the training or of it being more than what they would be open to were just that, fears. In truth, it went as good as I could have dreamed. ALL Officers from both trial groups said these trainings needed to be rolled out to the rest of the staff.

I don’t know what happens next. We have to gather some additional feedback and then type up the results to give to the director and leadership team. We shall see what happens from here. For me though, I was proud. I showed up, I did my best, I spoke my truth (based in research) and I did what was in my control. Even if it ends here, I will walk away feeling like I did what was so important for me to do.

Until next time.

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