Courage

My palms are sweaty. I am anxious and procrastinating. I think, “Who cares! Readers will think this is stupid and simple. They will think I am a pushover and easily manipulated. I don’t want to write this! As I sit quietly reflecting, my mind races and continues to play these messages. My shoulders feel like hard rubber and constrict into knots. I remember past name-calling, being labeled a Mickey mouse practice. “You give them what they want! You are too soft!” And yet, deep within there is something challenging me softly, nudging me to share. In the past I have found colleagues with whom I felt safe and with whom I vented. We discussed relational practice, compassion, vulnerability in practice, openness, transparency, wellness and well-being. Recently, I have realized the importance of writing and challenging myself to move beyond this comfortable pattern. I have recognized my professional practice as valuable and believe in the importance of sharing this practice as a way to support fellow colleagues and the people we serve. Amongst the screaming and chatter within there is a soft calling. I recognize this quiet voice and here I find my courage. My courage intertwines with the courage of people in pain. Present to this omnipresent sensation, I choose to write.

For twenty-two years I have worked with people who have experienced childhood trauma, complex trauma, homelessness, addiction and incredible pain. During the first year of my work, I struggled with the intensity of the behaviors presented by the youth, their sad stories, their anger and pain. I blamed the parents. I blamed systems. I felt powerless and passionate about creating something different. I began my career at the age of twenty-one working in-group care for an agency in Vancouver. During my first month of work, I had an experience that language doesn’t capture. I was working a weekend shift. Sarah, one of the children in the group home, needed to be dropped off for her weekend home visit. I brought Sarah home to be with her family. She had four siblings all cared for by her father. Sarah lived in a group home due to “out of control” behavior. As I approached the house I noticed Sarah’s siblings. Four little people running around the grassy area of their complex—- busy, frenetic, loud and excited, all four had been diagnosed with ADHD. Their hair was a mess, they wore mismatched and dirty clothing, kool-aid moustaches framed their little mouths. They ran to us and swarmed their sister. Their father looked exhausted, angry, and frankly a little scary. We spoke for a while and made the plans for pick up. Interrupting us with urgency one of the youngest demanded that we come and see. We stopped the conversation and walked to the children. They were lying on the grass looking up. Without words we laid down with them. I looked up and noticed an eagle soaring. The children watched in silent awe. A peace that passes understanding enshrined us all. Then the Father brought out his drum and played. The sound, the beat of the drum, the eagle, the coolness of the grass, connected us all. The fear I had of the Father dissipated. My heart leapt in deep understanding, the children giggled and for a brief moment all was well. The shared experience transcended values, rules, morality, skin color, anger and pain. The moment was magical. Throughout my childhood years, I had experienced this sensation —in a canoe, with friends, as I played, when my family hugged me, when my parents tucked me in at night, in church, in the forest, when I danced, played piano and swam and when I cared for others. There was a newness about this. Now I had this experience with people I barely knew, people whose lives were turbulent and traumatic. I treasured the experience and kept it to myself, still in awe of its very happening. The twenty two year old, naïve, scared, self conscious, and compassionate me returned to studying trauma, methodology and legislation in search of an answer to trauma and pain. Thankfully, throughout the next years of my career and in my personal life, I continued to have these indescribable experiences. I valued and hid my ability to help create and be present to these ineffable experiences. I worked tirelessly sometimes to my determent often brought to my knees by my own trauma and anxiety as well as the trauma of the youth I served. I struggled to create and honor these experiences as I worked with youth. When I was with the youth it felt natural to share experiences of music, hikes, tears, mountain biking, art, food making, birthdays. They became pathways through rage and emotion, chaos, mistakes, disconnection and connection. I grew nervous and felt overwhelmed as I attempted to share this way of working these experiences with colleagues. Until now my fear of judgement, and my own patterns of pain and disconnection kept me silent except with a few colleagues I deemed safe.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to work with a boy I will call Grant. Grant had experienced trauma after trauma, crisis and pain and more crisis. Addiction, sexual, physical and emotional abuse, homelessness… his life was a painful and tragic story. I was very aware of his trauma as I met him. It just dripped off of him. His eyes darted, his pupils dilated. He was robotically tense and movement appeared to be difficult. It felt as if he would either crawl under the carpet or beat the crap out of me as he waited for me to greet him. Sensing his pain and trauma and informed by years of experience, my own healing, yoga practices, meditation, a variety of daily ceremonies, counselling methodology and an understanding of physiology and trauma, I greeted him. With genuine concern and invitation, my heart open, my body relaxed and my mind focused, I expressed my concern and my gratefulness that he had survived the current experience of pain. My greeting to him was genuine. I wasn’t fearful of him or of his posture. I felt him start to settle. Together, we built a pathway through the pain and trauma he was facing, my language informed by the sensations within. I remained curious and open. He was able to eat, to draw, color, cry, question and share his story. I watched in awe, as he seemed to re-inflate. I noted a glimmer of light in his eye. He was able to express his pain, no longer shackled in shame knowing he wasn’t to blame for the abuse he had experienced. This moved him beyond the containment trauma can be. He was incredibly articulate, poetically describing his painful experiences and the people who hurt him. He also spoke of his hopes and dreams beyond his horrendous experiences. I noticed courage, resilience and connection. I wondered are all people who have experienced trauma this aware, this articulate when given the chance and the freedom to be? Driving home at the end of the day I felt a surge of gratitude. I was grateful for life giving practices cultivated over time. I was also grateful for all the learning’s I have received in working with youth. I was amazed at the energy I felt even after hearing a story of child abuse and pain. For the next week I experienced the sensation of love in my heart as I reflected on my experience. No language can describe the gratitude in my heart, the knowing, the courage. I simply can’t find the right word to describe the sensation within and I am ok with that. I no longer believe it necessary to force colleagues or the people I serve to change or to find language. Imposition is no longer a part of my personal or professional practice. I now endeavor to teach through creating experiences, connection to nature and to one’s physical body and to the experience of a self within that is indivisible, loving and courageous.

I share my experience because I don’t believe my story is unique. Educators, social workers, child and youth care workers, nurses, counselors, doctors, pastors, elders parents, first responders, compassionate people have the opportunity to experience the indescribable and its impact as I have. I am as unique and special as every other person who comes to helping professions desiring to make a difference, hoping to help and wanting to heal and to be healed. Unfortunately, I continue to experience and to hear of the stories of disillusionment, burnout and vicarious trauma. There are cultures of division within workplaces. There is lack of support and the frenetic pace of the work within the helping community. Thus pain is unwittingly imposed upon the clients we serve. I understand what it feels like to search to the point of exhaustion frantically hoping and pleading for an oil, a ceremony, a counseling session or something that would provide me the answer, help me to do this work, as well as to belong in the community of professionals and to openly discuss and share my practice. The experience I shared with Grant reminded me of all that I learned in childhood, of the practices I have already integrated, of who I am in this moment and who I am becoming. In the complexity of trauma it is possible to find the simplicity of the moment, the body’s ability to heal and the connection that comes from compassionate practice. Sometimes life’s pace and turbulence can be overwhelming and pervasive and change seems impossible. I now understand that when I find my feet, breathe deeply, am curiously compassionate and courageous, vast experience is inevitable and life becomes more abundant.

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