What winning the Olympic Trials Taught Me about Trauma-Informed Care (part 3 of 3)
by Corinna West
This is part 3 of 3 of an essay posted about the day I realized that my mental health diagnoses might have just come from my trauma experiences. This is about how I realized I needed to work at a place that had built trauma-informed employment.
My former employer tried to create a truama-informed employment situation:
….And this spring, [spring of 2008] after I got back into that place of terror, hopelessness, and powerlessness, I began to lose a small amount of my touch with reality, to see and live through things that weren’t there. I felt those same thoughts of there being nothing left, and have a few suicidal thoughts. I was also having some problems that were going on with work that made me feel that I might not be secure in my job, and the two things combined shook me. I missed two days of work, had to get a lot of support from the networks of people around me, including my employers. It took almost six weeks to feel grounded and safe again.
Yet in a way, even though most people would have called this a relapse, I learned a lot. I told my doctor that it was good for me to get sick because I got to remember what it was like, and it helped me connect more with the people I work with. I finally realized that it wasn’t the hallucinations and sad feelings that were the issue. What was giving me problems was the thought that came next, “Oh, I’m sick. I might lose my job.” So I learned that when the hallucinations started happening to me, if I didn’t jump to that conclusion about my job, I didn’t get nearly as sick. In the middle of this I came out with another poem that ends,
“…Power to face any misperception along with all the interplanetary connections.
I can take my unreality because I’m stronger through all the misdirections.”
Here’s a video of that poem:
How I realized I needed more help creating trauma-informed employment:
Then recently I had another experience where my feelings did not match the facts of the situation. This time I was upset about a situation at work, and my supervisors came to me in a truly caring way to find out my point of view, and to share their point of view with me. They told me that I was a solid and valuable employee, and they didn’t want me to quit. It should have been a positive, helpful meeting, but it generated some strong negative feelings for me. At one point in the conversation, they asked, “Are you mad?”
I said, “No. I’m terrified.”
They said, “Don’t be.” But I was still scared four days later. I realized that my bosses basically came to me to support me through some changes being made in our agency. But what it felt like to me was that they said, “You need to agree with these changes being made or you’re fired.” I realized for the first time how feelings and facts could be so separated, yet both were real. I saw how I was still being affected from the scars in my heart from the lack of regard.
How it feels when trauma experiences have been reactivated:
I felt like it was one of those games we used to play in Judo class called “Sharks and Minnows.” People that are “sharks” crawl across the mat and start wrestling people over onto their backs. The last people to get wrestled over are the big, strong, or fast people and it takes a whole pile of people to get them. There will be two or three people on the legs, two or three on the arms, and someone directing the teamwork up top telling which direction to turn.
What it felt like to me was that my coworkers had piled on me, and everyone was working on me to get me turned over. When they did, I said, “OK, I submit, I see your point of view.” Then I felt like they didn’t believe me. And there I was like a dog on my back, and I had stopped fighting, I went limp, but they didn’t believe and they kept telling me their point of view. It was an incredibly powerless place, to submit and then somehow still have to defend myself.
But they were actually being nice, and it was a supportive meeting. Only the scars in my heart made it into something else. Also somehow during the conversation, I felt incredibly strong as well, maybe because it took so many people to pile on to change my point of view. Or that they would care enough to do it, even if it somehow got bungled.
Afterward, I walked out of the office and said, “I didn’t know how powerful I was.” And I told one of my coworkers my plans to integrate the work I did at my job with my own business that I’m starting, and my art, and my bicycle pedestrian advocacy – because all of this is linked together. I shared the big picture of my life’s goals for the first time ever at this work environment.
I realized that it’s possible for something to be a very positive, but also very negative, event at the same time. For the next four or five days I was still afraid. I had low moods and energy. I felt sad and not grounded to the present. I was seeing things that weren’t there and having one or two suicidal thoughts even though my life was going just fine. I realized this time around, “This is just what happens to my brain when I am feeling stress, and it doesn’t mean that I am going to get sick again.” I spent a lot of time processing what had happened. Since I was busy that week, I ended up doing the processing in the middle of the night, because I couldn’t sleep, and it kept me awake. Finally, about three in the morning on the third night, I realized what was happening to me. I came to understand that I am a person who has trauma and issues about work and suicide, and thinking that I might never be able to work again. I’ve been fired so much for not being good at my job, and my job is so important to me, that even a conversation about me doing a good job ended up re-traumatizing me. I figured out that’s what trauma is – when the feelings from the past can influence events in a disproportionate way in the future.
Creating trauma-informed employment because peers can help in ways professionals can’t:
I learned so much in that week. I’ve been to three or four workshops about trauma, and never learned so much as I did when I experienced it firsthand. Since I’ve never lived with domestic violence or assault or war or abuse, I didn’t realize I had a trauma history. Now I know, that as a suicide survivor, this is indeed part of my recovery knowledge. By most definitions, all suicide attempts or hospitalizations are traumatic. Now I understand deeply how important trauma-informed care is, and how the core issues of trauma need to be addressed to help other people move forward.
This is the power of the recovery movement. It was the anguish, despair, and encompassing sense of fear that kept me up night after night, that told me more than I could have ever read in a book. Our recovery experiences, and the feelings we had when we were ill, stay with us and give us so much more richness and insight. Our lives are our training, and we have walked through the fire and come out stronger on the other side. As a member of the consumer movement, I know how strong we are as a community, as strong as the community of Olympic athletes of which I am also a part. I am ready to do anything it takes to help other people recover. I want to build a world where all of us can acknowledge the beauty as well as the terror of what we have been through and how it has changed us. If we can build the right kind of mental health system, if we can change the hearts of enough people including our own, maybe one day no one will ever choose to give up their goals or to die because their experiences and isolation are so overwhelming.