The Pathway to Recovery from Childhood Trauma

Child Abuse & Neglect
Health

This blog post originally appeared on Huffington Post.

We know that children in the foster care system have, by definition, experienced trauma – often multiple forms of abuse and neglect over extended periods of time. The trauma experienced by many of these children is complex, can cause Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and if left untreated, impact their health and wellbeing for years to come. Furthermore, the separation from their families, friends and communities that follows removal is often re-traumatizing and can further add to the pain, loss and uncertainty they have experienced.

The road to recovery can be long and difficult and there is rarely a clear path to success. However, as adults, it is our responsibility to ensure that children in foster care receive the treatments, services, and supports they need to heal from early trauma and give them the tools they need to thrive.

Lexie Gruber spent time in the foster care system and found herself homeless as a teenager. But today, she is a senior, majoring in policy science and women’s studies at Quinnipiac University and one of her goals is to help children in foster care. She is doing so in a number of ways, including serving on the advisory board for the State Policy Advocacy & Reform Center (SPARC) at First Focus.

“I’ll always be a foster kid,” she said in an article in the Quinnipiac Chronicle. “Do I want to be a professional foster kid? No, but I want to help them. If you go through something and have the ability to change it, you have a responsibility to and that’s what I’m doing.”

As I bear witness, Lexie is an incredible young woman and below is a piece of her story through her journey with PTSD and to success.

By Lexie Gruber

Another dreary Monday morning spent in trauma therapy. My therapist, Lisa, sat calmly and pensively as I rambled on about the manifestations of my “insanity”: depression, random bouts of crying, a sense of infinite loneliness, and so on. When the soliloquy came to an end, she met my eyes and whispered, “You are not crazy, Lexie. You are a child of trauma.”

That was the first time in all of my twenty-one years that someone connected my internal turmoil with my traumatic childhood. When I became a foster child at fourteen, the cause of my unusual, depressed and erratic behavior was diagnosed as an internal, biological defect. The Department of Children and Families had me evaluated by psychologists and psychiatrists. Each diagnosed me with a different mental illness. Sometimes doctors claimed I was merely an anxious child, while other doctors diagnosed me with complex psychiatric illnesses that were characterized by symptoms that I was not exhibiting. Despite the variety in their claims, they shared a common theme: I was crazy.

There was never a mention that my behavior was provoked by nurture rather than nature. At the time, I was a sophomore in high school, homeless, reeling from child abuse and a traumatic removal from my biological home. Yet, the doctors never believed that my symptoms were the result of being homeless rather than being viscerally insane. Every time I moved to another foster placement, I became increasingly unstable. I was made to consume a myriad of medication instead of being placed with a loving family or addressing my troubles more directly. The medications did nothing, and I began to believe that I was broken beyond repair.

My saving grace came in the form of a man I called my big brother, Alex*. When we met during the 2013 Foster Youth Internship, I was taken aback by how a survivor of extreme child abuse could be so completely put together and – dare I say – happy. During one of our twilight, tear-filled conversations on the stairwell of our apartment building, I asked him how he managed to heal from his trauma. The solution was simple: he sought professional help. Alex looked me in my eyes and pleaded, “Lexie, you need help.”

When I returned to Connecticut after a summer in Washington, I took his advice and found a trauma therapist who practiced near my university. My therapist, Lisa, warned me that this type of therapy was not simply a place to vent. Rather, she would work with me to bring out the inner, repressed pain. Once I was gutted of the trauma, we would carefully heal it. This process evokes flashbacks, dissociation, and an insufferable amount of pain. It’s been one year since, and although I’ve made some headway, there is still plenty of work left to be done.

I wish I could offer you some banal, optimistic platitude about how PTSD does not control me. But in truth it has hold of nearly every aspect of my life. Routine tasks are nearly impossible – like waking up in the morning after a night of horrifyingly real nightmares. The stress has rendered my intestines dysfunctional, and I’ve had to undergo several surgeries. The formerly-suppressed trauma has risen to the surface of my consciousness and, for now, holds me captive.

But I am not my PTSD. I never was – and never will be – crazy. The trauma therapy, however hellish, is a pill I must swallow. Through it, I will heal. The darkness in my life will, someday soon, brighten, and I will excel when that time comes.