The Children’s Aid Society’s Domestic Violence and Child Welfare initiative of the Family Wellness Program organized a conference for foster care and preventive staff. The conference’s theme was trauma and domestic violence. I was invited to not only share my story, but to discuss the traumatic impact of dating violence and my experience with trauma care providers. While preparing for the conference, I experienced difficulty molding my presentation to cover my own healing process. I was so used to discussing my mother’s trauma and recovery that I forgot that I too had experienced trauma.
In my presentation I was sure to discuss how I worked to regain a high self-esteem, love myself again, forgive, and release the feelings of shame, guilt, and hopelessness that once consumed me. While it wasn’t an easy road to healing, I did so with the complete support of close friends and family, as well as over a year of therapy. The impact of a good therapist, one that actively listens, makes suggestions on how to move forward, rather than give instructions, can really make a difference to someone seeking healing. There were two more presentations that followed mine; Dr. Erica Willheim gave a presentation on the biological effects of trauma and DeShannon Bowens, M.S. Sexual Trauma Therapist, talked about the impact of vicarious trauma on social workers. At the end of the morning session, all presenters including myself, sat on a panel to answer audience questions.
The rest of the day consisted of different educational workshops surrounding the theme of trauma. I attended the "Teen Relationship Abuse: Understanding the Trauma" facilitated by Reetu Deleon, LCSW, Psychotherapist. The workshop was designed for service providers to better understand the dynamics of relationship abuse in adolescent development. We started the session with an icebreaker, introducing ourselves and how we had a connection to working with adolescents. Most of the participants were social workers dealing with foster care clients and abused adolescents. The presentation turned into a conversation of how social workers can better understand the needs of traumatized adolescents. As a young dating abuse survivor, I gave the professionals insight on what I found effective and helpful in navigating through, what was for me, the most trying time of my life.
After the first session we were given the opportunity to explore other areas of trauma. I was interested in learning more about the vicarious trauma that care providers face in working with clients. Angela Cooper, LCAT, ATR-BC, Director of Disconnected Youth Services, Children's Aid Society, hosted, “Don't Take it Home with You: An Experiential Workshop on Vicarious Trauma”, an Art Therapy experiential workshop. The intention of the project is to help service providers leave behind the feeling of being overwhelmed with the “extra baggage” that comes with the professional responsibilities of client based social work.
In this session we were given empty boxes and were told to fill it with materials that described the most difficult feelings we experience in the line of trauma care. On the inside of my box I used cut outs from magazines and other trinkets that were provided, to describe how I feel after presenting and encountering other victims of trauma. I decorated the outside of the box with words of empowerment like courage, independence, leadership, and a drawing of a smile and a heart. Some of us went around explaining what each box meant to us and I was questioned by a participant on how this exercise was helpful to me.
Although I am not a social worker with clients, I do experience a great deal of vicarious trauma after presenting at domestic violence conferences. A lot of times audience members come up to me after I present my story to commend me for my honesty and bravery, then they reveal their own stories of relationship abuse. While I am glad that they feel comfortable sharing their story with me, my memories of past incidents of abuse resurface. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by these thoughts and other times I use them as a way to connect with my audience. After giving them a brief description, I closed my box leaving the feeling of heaviness behind and the positive images on the outside to reflect my current state of mind.