Transformation and Healing After Trauma, Loss and Grief

My Mythic Garden

A blog by author and trauma expert Gary W. Reece, Ph.D.



Gary Reece, Ph.D.

I have found myself stuck for the past few weeks. It seemed I had run out of ideas for my blog. (My first experience of writer’s block) I didn’t know if it was because I was depressed and had lost my enthusiasm for writing or if something was going on with me that was a shift in interest. Lately, I have been preoccupied with things all around me, troubling things like violence and a rising death rate in Compton and other metropolitan areas, not to mention the refugee crisis in Europe. There is also the back story of the clown show also called politics and the coming presidential election. Perhaps all of this is just a big overwhelming distraction and I just don’t know where to start or find inspiration for a topic. On the other hand as I examine myself a little more closely I find there has been a tectonic shift within me. I seem less preoccupied with the existential issues I have been writing about for the past few years and now appear to be focusing more on what is going on around me. These are still deeply existential issues, just not ones I have focused on.

The catalyst for this change appears to be an invitation I received to speak on mental health at a local discussion group. I to my surprise was totally stumped. I found I had no interest in talking about mental health; found the topic profoundly boring and struggled for weeks to find something interesting to talk about. As I struggled to resolve this block, I examined and discarded topic after topic. No enthusiasm for anything came to mind. I thought of 10 different topics and then thought of combining them all into one really boring talk. I finally decided to talk about social policy and mental health, this also sounds profoundly boring. My talk probably was very boring and I walked away feeling very dissatisfied.

This led to a small epiphany. I find I am now more concerned about the things going on in society which affect our personal wellbeing. This metamorphosis appears to stem from the experience of writing my book: Broken Systems/Shattered Lives. This was the end product of 10 years working in the Foster Care System in Los Angeles. Those years changed me in many ways. The change confronted me with a culture shock I was totally unprepared for. First, I was horrified at the level of abuse I encountered and was even more horrified at how broken the system was and how this resulted in thousands of children living in abusive conditions. I concluded from all of this that child abuse in itself is the nexus of several problems: mentally ill parents, drug abuse, poverty, broken families and a system which seemed to exacerbate the abuse and suffering of these children who had become a hidden, disenfranchised minority. In short, the children were suffering from the failure of a number of social systems which were supposed to protect them. They and I were caught up in a system in which everyone was powerless.

These systems, The Children’s Law Center, The Department of Children and Family Services, The Public School System, The Mental Health Department, The Police Department, The State of California and The U.S. government were all complicit. Each in their own way failed to serve the children. The programs are underfunded, the children have no say in their fate, the Law Center made decisions which favored the birth family’s rights over the child’s and the DCFS failed to protect the children, causing hundreds to die in their care. In short, these institutions are the infrastructure of our society and they are failing badly.

The end result of all these broken systems produces concentric circles of victimization. The children are marginalized and their abuse is compounded by multiple placements and lack of services. The cost of this systemic failure is children being subjected to serial abuse. One author stated it very succinctly: “abuse a child and you give him/her a life sentence.” Instead of children growing up in safe, stable, nurturing, and secure homes, they grow up in chaotic situations in which they are victims, powerless over their condition. They experience the trauma of poor, erratic, or disorganized care. This powerlessness creates psychological trauma which affects the developmental trajectory of their whole lives. They are deprived of the one thing which gives them a chance of being a normal human being: Secure attachment. Without it there is little chance of a child becoming a fully functioning adult person with the necessary self esteem, competence, and social skills to establish intimate and lasting relationships.

When a child feels helpless at the hands of someone who should be caring for them it creates a pervasive sense of shame and rage. This is the powerlessness-helplessness of victimization. This rage often is at the core of violence when it breaks out in adulthood or adolescence. In childhood it presents as emotionally driven behavior or “dysregulation.

Child abuse and domestic violence are not the only casualties of broken systems. All we have to do is look around us and read the headlines, Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, New York, Los Angeles, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Palestine, Afghanistan etc. Not to mention a special category: mass school shootings: Sandy Hook, Columbine, and Roseburg. When necessary social systems break down, the results are usually catastrophic. The European refugee crisis testifies to the ravages of failed states, failed ideologies; vying for power and resultant violence. Four Million refugees produce four million cases of serial child abuse with resultant chaos and family disruption. We will be reaping the consequences of this global catastrophe for years to come. Will these children be lucky and find a stable place along with their families or will Isis find them and turn them into radical, violent, sociopathic killers? Or will they just be herded into mass refugee camps and forgotten.

When a gunman stands up and starts shooting in a theater or a church chaos ensues. After order is restored a post mortem is done. Questions are asked, profiles are gathered. “Why?” “The motive was unclear.” The narratives sound eerily the same, early child abuse, untreated mental illness, early warning signs not picked up and addressed because of lack of services and people trained to observe and intervene. Social groups and individuals alienated from power and disenfranchised, striking out in violence in order to have their voices heard. These are the warning signs of societies which are failing to provide meaningful community through inclusive, accountable leadership. We know the motives the acts are almost predictable; the less obvious is what can be done about it.

It requires interventions on so many levels. So many things need to change in order to restore our broken society. First, it must start with awareness: from this awareness, concerted, systematic, focused action. I have always believed that problems are solvable if their basic source and dynamics are understood.

The problem begins with alienation; people are cut off from the seats of power within the community. They feel their lack of connection and powerlessness. Then as conditions worsen they begin to lack trust in leadership and usually there is a trigger, a catalyst, an inappropriate attempt to “enforce the law and regain control by those in power. As in the case of the Watts riots and Ferguson there were a lot of angry disenfranchised people who expressed their rage and powerlessness in a rampage against the “establishment’ i.e., those in power. Paradoxically it is the poor who end up being victims of their own violence. What is their message? “We are powerless, no one listens to us, we are oppressed, and do not trust government.” There are contributing factors as well, poverty, unemployment, poor schools, and segregation. This is the formula for violence. Abused and neglected children and abused and neglected adults feel a deep sense of shame and rage at the humiliation they experience on a daily basis.

Fractured communities need to recognize the depth of the problem and create strategies for healing. It begins with awareness and is actualized by a dialogue which must heal the fractures and begin the process of inclusion and trust building that results in empowering the disenfranchised. People need to belong, they need to feel connected and people need to feel valued this is the essence of healthy community. This will reduce violence and reduce chaos; this is the road to a sane society.

In conclusion, I noticed something very powerful and illustrative this past week. The Pope visited America. It became a spectacle, a phenomenon that built and built into massive, enthusiastic crowds; people cheering, trying desperately to see him, touch him and hopefully be blessed by him. This hunger appeared deeply existential, as if it came from the depths of their hearts, a hunger for hope, for faith, and for meaning. It’s what we all hunger for, a faith which will make us whole and to be a part of a moral, integrative, cohesive community that affirms, supports and sustains us as we lead our quite ordinary lives. And then the pope went home. He did not lead us out of the wilderness, no Moses stepped up to end the Middle Eastern crisis, a Messiah did not emerge to teach us how to love each other. Oh, wait, he already did that and the Pope was just repeating the message: just love each other and treat each other as we would like to be treated. Why is this so hard?

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