One Nation, Traumatized….

5:00 am.

I rolled over and found myself on crowded streets of the North Side area of Pittsburgh. People pushed past me on their way to wherever they needed to be. Suddenly someone up ahead signaled an “active shooter” situation. Those around me and I ducked into the nearest building. Minutes later, so did the gunman. Trembling with fear, we found ourselves in a hostage situation. A couple kids, a couple adults, and me….huddled together. A sense of doom. A push into another room. Smoke in the air. Chaos around. We were moved from room to room and building to building. Shots rang out. Fear. Pain. Darkness. Darkness. Darkness and sandwiches.

5:21 am.

I startled awake, heart pounding, sweat beading, mind racing. I lay there for hours aching in my deepest soul.

I have not known a single victim of any terror attacks or mass shootings, yet I am traumatized by what is happening in this country. Traumatized by news that rocks my soul. A toddler, a kid, a pregnant woman, numerous family members gunned down as they sit in worship. Hundreds of people dealing with physical and emotional injuries from bullets barraging a country music concert in addition to the 56 dead. Families grieving. Loved ones crying. Thousands of people dying every day by gun violence.

I shield my young boys from the trauma. I try to shield myself from the details of the trauma. Yet, miles away, tucked under a down comforter, safe in my home, I am traumatized in my sleep by the pain that touches so many lives.

For years I worked hard to open Jeremiah’s Place, a crisis nursery, to join the work of preventing child abuse. The premise behind the work was the vast amount of research showing the imprint of “Adverse Childhood Experiences” on later physical and mental health. The accumulation of traumatic events during childhood has long-lasting consequences. And this is not just being hurt or abused yourself, but witnessing violence. The research is irrefutable. The anecdotes are real. Soldiers experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. Victims of violence experiencing PTSD. Even intense medical experiences, such as time in an intensive care unit, when very ill are now shown to be linked to post-traumatic stress disorder. And now the rising rates of gun violence and mass shootings add to the trauma and stress for children and adults in this country.

We know the consequences. We see the pain. We hear the stories. Yet the rates of individuals traumatizing hundreds and thousands of innocent people are rising steadily. We as a nation are experiencing repeated and heart-wrenching trauma. It’s common now to hear people ask, “Is there no where safe anymore?” “Where will it happen next?” “How can I find work in another country where my kids and family can be safe?”  We now talk about how to teach people to prepare for mass shootings and protect themselves. We train teachers to handle school shootings. We drill medical staff in hospitals to handle huge influxes of wounded patients.

When will we consider prevention instead? When will those who are elected to protect and care for the population stop claiming an inability to do anything about the violence and make a change? When will we stop pretending it’s just related to mental health issues when the evidence argues against that? When will we acknowledge that this country has a problem with a culture of violence, particularly against those perceived as powerless?

We walk around every day hoping it won’t happen to us. Praying that our kids will be safe in their school after boarding the bus. Praying that our family, our friends and our neighbors will come home safely every night.

“In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate,” Dan Hodges, a British journalist, wrote in a post on Twitter two years ago, referring to the 2012 attack that killed 20 young students at an elementary school in Connecticut. “Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” (What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings)

This is not the world I want to live in.

This is not the world I want my sons to contend with.

I will continue to work and labor to Be the Change! I don’t have concrete answers for you or for me. But I do know that there is some pretty serious work that needs to be done. I do know that there are some huge shifts in how we look at other people and how we treat other people that need to occur. I do know that I will not give up.

I do know that there are some steps that can be taken. Stay educated on what is happening. Make calls, write letters, or visit your representatives to encourage them to protect the innocent. Join a group like Everytown for Gun Safety or Moms Demand Action.

Reach out to neighbors and build your community. Volunteer where your passion guides you. Stand for others and promote dignity and respect.

Hope never fails.

Love will prevail.

Be the change.

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I am your ACE

Sometimes the strain of parenting really gets to me. Sometimes I am not personally balanced enough on my own little teeter-totter, that when the boys throw me a curve ball, I fall off in the attempt to catch it.

I’ve been doing a lot of work in establishing a crisis nursery for the Pittsburgh area. Although a respite for any parent, it started as a child abuse prevention model. Put the young children in a crisis nursery for a few hours or a few days to keep them safe while the parent or caregiver takes a break and attends to an emergency or pressing situation.

This work is built on the premise that our young children are very vulnerable to stress under the age of 5 at the same time that their brains are developing at lightning speed. If they are exposed to “adverse childhood experiences,” their brains, genetic structure, and immune system can be altered for life. Yes – brains, genes, health…changed for life. This is some serious stuff!

So, these adverse childhood experiences are called ACE, because no one likes to say a mouthful of words. In the research, an ACE score was based on an experience of physical abuse, sexual abuse, exposure to domestic violence, having an incarcerated parent, living with a parent with mental health issues or substance abuse problems. The higher the ACE score, the harder the childhood, the worse the person’s health in adult life.

I spoke with a friend about this research recently. Her whole career is focused on this area and in helping people think about ACE and how we care for children and adults who have been traumatized by events in their life.

Naturally, as she is a mother of a boy….we also shared a lot of stories about the joys and stresses of parenting boys. I told her that when Super Tall Guy was around 2 or 3, Way I feelwe were reading a “feelings” book together that had wonderful illustrations of a range of emotions and the word identifying them on the page. He was silent as we turned pages….until the drawing of a red head with exploding swirls and dark eyes and jolting lightning bolts….and he said “Mommy” …  right there at the page labeled “Angry.”

I paused. That moment is imprinted on my mind. Sometimes, for my developing boys….“I am your ACE.” I am a stressful experience. I am a scary moment. I don’t want to be that. I don’t want to be the model of an angry face, even if sometimes my head is red and there are lightning bolts jutting out at all angles. (I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of these ACE “experiences,” just reflecting on how powerful emotions can be and a parent’s potential role).

I once took a mini-video of Mr. Ornery when he was having a huge fit of tears and anger. I played it back for him to let him see what it looks like as he yells and flails and stomps and wails. It’s probably the case that I should actually take a “selfie” of my own face sometimes when I’m in a “mood” with the boys….when I’m frustrated at having told them for the umpteenth (I now understand that that word refers to parental infinity) time to not stand on the piano to climb up and hoist yourself over the staircase railing…. when I’m reminding them to aim in the bathroom…. when I’m shaking my head and saying “really? Really? You just hit him for what?!?”

It’s quite possible that my selfie might make me reconsider my outburst. It might help me step back and count to ten. It might encourage me to put myself in my own room for a time-out break and some deep breaths. It might be just what I need to remind myself that I actually never want to be an ACE for my children and will do absolutely everything in my power to protect them from a single Adverse Childhood Experience.

Wrapping them in the “protective relationship” of unconditional love, body-slamming them with praise, encouraging their expressions of independence and individuality….these….these are the experiences I must provide. For I am your Absolutely Cherishing Each – ACE!