Childhood Trauma Is Not a Mental Illness

Tabitha Ferguson
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I was born in 1982 into a divided family and grew up below the poverty level. My mom and dad divorced before I was a year old, and my family did not get together unless we had a funeral to attend. From a very young age, I was abused verbally, emotionally, sexually, and physically by my parents and family members. In addition to suffering from an unstable home life, I was bullied by my peers and the popular kids at school. When I started showing signs of this abuse and neglect—including rages, relationship challenges, and defiance, which were really cries for help—I was passed around among the local clinicians. They diagnosed my behaviors as mental disorders instead of holding my abusers accountable and addressing the trauma I was living through. By the time I was 10 years old, I had been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, Body Dysmorphic Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Attachment Disorder, Adjustment Disorder, parent-child relational problems, a partner relational disorder, and a developmental disorder. One doctor even hooked me up to an EKG and then told me I had “abnormal brain cells” that caused my blackout rages.

Though I did try to tell my mom and Child Protective Services (CPS) about all the bad things going on in my life, my mom (who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) insisted that I had inherited her “biochemical imbalances.” So doctors also placed me on one psychiatric medication after another, including Zoloft, Tegretol, and Tofranil, to name a few. A few years later, doctors prescribed Seroquel after adding Bipolar Disorder to the other pathologies I’d been diagnosed with.

I was placed in special education due to additional diagnoses of emotional disturbance, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, ADHD, and other disorders. And when I was no longer able to function in a regular classroom due to my continued disruptive behavior and flunking grades, I was pushed into the juvenile justice system. Among other “crimes,” I was considered a chronic runaway: My mother used to pick fights with me, which sometimes escalated into violence. Then she’d kick me out of the house and call the police saying I’d fled our home. Once I entered the system, I had to attend a school with boot camp drill instructors who yelled and cursed at us daily during physical training and normal classes.

A Downward Spiral

Needless to say, due to all of these struggles, I never felt safe. When I was released from the system at 17 years old, I literally could not function in society.  Since I was medicated for my behavioral issues for so long, I lacked developmentally appropriate skills such as self-regulation, problem-solving, critical thinking, and emotional stability. I fell into what all the statistics predict, including drug addictions. It started out with smoking marijuana. That led to harder drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and crystal meth, along with prescription drugs purchased on the street, including Xanax and hydrocodone.

It was a vicious cycle: Grown, well-respected men in my community had introduced me to the “partying” lifestyle and passed me around to their buddies and other men I met at their gatherings. Since I was exposed to so many destructive things in these circles, I did not trust people and used more drugs to drown out feelings and emotions that were too painful to cope with. Eventually, I became pregnant, homeless, and stuck in a lifestyle from which it seemed I could not escape. Addiction and my lack of life skills continued to interfere with my ability to function; I struggled to hold a steady job and be a stable single mother to my twin sons in their critical, early stages of development.

In 2007, when I was 24 years old, I fell into one of my last rock bottoms and knew I was going to end up either dead or in prison.  I temporarily lost custody of my twin boys, which made me realize they needed me to fight harder to get well. Fortunately, a guy I became friends with started giving me books by an evangelist named Joyce Meyer. Her books, Battlefield of the Mind, Beauty for Ashes, and Root of Rejection began ministering to me and my pain. For once in my life, I felt connected to someone who understood and was able to articulate the grief I carried from a life of abuse and traumatic experiences. Between her books, landing a job, and taking college courses, I found ways to remain stable and stay away from the lifestyle I was starting to break free from. I started making progress and even regained custody of my boys.

For the first few years of my recovery, I was able to find things to keep me busy and was able to avoid facing my past. This did not last long because my past found ways to creep into my consciousness through dreams and nightmares. My dysregulated emotions still interfered with my parenting and maintaining my other relationships. Then, in 2012, two semesters away from graduating from the social work program I was enrolled in, I found out that I no longer had funding to complete my bachelor’s degree. In 2013, I was laid off from a job I had held for over four years. My life came crashing down, and I was left to face all the memories I had desperately tried to get away from by keeping myself so busy.

I was still determined never to go back to what I came from, so I found a path to more rehabilitation through a local Christian university’s psychology clinic. Thanks to a counselor who understood trauma, I was able to regain stability. This is where I began learning more about myself, the effect of my past, and why I had continued to battle so many mental health issues.

Uncovering the Truth

Eventually, I decided to retrieve my childhood records, hoping to learn more about what had happened to me. I wanted to know if my community had ever tried to help me, and I thought that maybe I’d find closure in the answers to the many questions I still had. To my surprise, I was able to retrieve almost 1,700 documents from CPS, and yes—they knew. The CPS records detailed all of the torment I had been living through. I also obtained my school records, mental health records, and juvenile justice records, all of which confirmed the abuse I’d survived while institutions were labeling and medicating my pain instead of holding my abusers accountable.

For example, clinicians had documented that for five years during my early childhood and adolescent years, I was living in an “unsafe environment that interfered with my overall functioning.” Yet nothing was done to remove me from that environment. These same clinicians also documented that when I was 21 years old, I was at a middle-school level and emotionally detached from my twins. The only solution I had been offered as a young adult was the same one they had placed on me growing up: to take my medication while they treated me for my “personality disorder.” I also discovered that the therapist assigned to me through Texas Medicaid was the same one that had treated my mom, whom I resented because she was my main abuser. Therapy never helped her, and the therapist never held her accountable for how she had treated me or addressed the trauma that, I later learned, my mother had suffered in her own life. Instead, they diagnosed and treated her for psychotic disorders.

A Sense of Purpose

I did not realize it then, but what I found would set me on the path I am on now as an advocate and activist for at-risk kids and their families. Around the time I retrieved my documents, I was also working for our local school district as a reading literacy aide.  In 2017, when I saw my story repeating itself with the kids I served and their families, I decided to go public with my story. Texas Governor Greg Abbott was working with legislators around the same time to reform CPS, so I used my experience and the documents I discovered to push for systems reform.

I believe that to truly help both children and families, CPS needs to address the parents’ trauma and offer effective, evidence-based psychological help instead of the same solutions they pushed on me. We need a supportive community that uses all resources to work together and to help parents and children stuck in these systems to better understand themselves and how trauma has affected them to the core. And as a survivor, I need support instead of the backlash that I have faced. I am also working at the national level as a local liaison for the National Trauma Campaign, which lobbies national leaders to devote more resources to and incorporate trauma-informed practices into our legal, health care, social service, and educational systems. When we have a thorough understanding of child development, we can help at-risk kids, youth, and their families to develop their natural coping skills, become resilient and overcome their own personal tragedies.

Due to the severity of what I have lived through, I have been in therapy for almost a decade, cleaning up the messes I was left by the adults who weren’t there for me. The long-term effects I have suffered affected my overall development, so I have continued to expand my basic coping and life skills while grieving the childhood I never really had. I have also gotten off all the prescribed and illegal drugs. While I worked on myself in therapy,  I suffered for years with anxiety and depression as I faced all the painful memories that led me to take up a destructive lifestyle. Throughout this process, I was motivated to fight hard for the sake of my twins and had a deep desire to break the generational cycle I was part of, so I did what I had to do to become successful. In 2018, I stepped out in faith and finished my bachelor’s degree online (but in business instead of social work) and completed my teacher’s certification. In 2019, I became a certified teacher.

Today, I live a normal and productive life because I found stability working with effective therapists who understood and focused on healing my trauma instead of labeling and medicating me. I now understand and share with others what happens to our bodies and minds when we’re faced with trauma—a topic not brought up in the DSM. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk explains it well in his book The Body Keeps the Score, which I encourage everyone to read.

The Path to Prevention

Helping others understand how early and ongoing trauma affected my life is why I wrote my memoir, My Innocence Was Stolen. I now see that instead of diagnosing and medicating my pain, clinicians should have shown me how to set healthy boundaries and develop communication skills. I should have been taught how to use my voice against mistreatment and been given a safe place for my brain to develop properly. If we expect to see an effective change in the mental health system so other kids can avoid what I endured, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and trauma-informed care need national attention. Some recommendations:

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) should recognize and prioritize the need to address ACEs and support scientific studies on the topic.
  • School systems should use trauma-informed practices and have programs within every school to help children who are at higher risk for trauma due to poverty—but also recognize trauma does not discriminate and is pervasive even in middle-class and wealthy families.
  • Mental health care providers should also be mandated to use trauma-informed practices.
  • Communities should develop programs to address this topic and use consistent measurements to examine how effective their programs are and how they can continue improving.
  • Communities also need to work collaboratively to help address childhood trauma and hire honest and competent leaders who are held accountable.

My story could have been prevented with strong community support and proper utilization of resources. Trauma is not a mental illness; it is an emotional and physical reaction that can be healed. My life story is a testament to this statement. If my life can impact someone else’s and help them avoid the messes I have spent over a decade cleaning up, then it will have been worth it.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

17 COMMENTS

  1. Yet another FABULOUSLY well-written from Mad in America. I totally agree with you. Enough is enough. After a certain point, there comes a time when we have to say, together, with one voice, and with total clarity of purpose, those four little letters: STOP!!!

    I’d like to share with you something I found on the internet the other day, that I found extremely helpful and encouraging (the author, a former trauma counselor, is cited at the end):

    “Your soul is indestructible. You just need to believe that there is some part of you, deep down, that no evil, no foul attempt at dehumanization, no form of cruelty can ever touch.”

    “You cannot change the past. You experienced that trauma and nothing – no amount of wishful thinking (no amount of money), no magic wand, no drugs, prescribed or otherwise – nothing is ever going to take that experience away. It is going to remain with you for the rest of your life.”

    “Trauma inflicted upon one human by another, ultimately only dehumanizes the perpetrator. How can we deal with the indisputable fact that the perpetrators of trauma; dehumanized and soulless they may now be, are themselves likely never going to face justice?” Perhaps that, in and of itself, is its own form of justice: They have sold their souls for a cheap thrill.”

    “Treat each traumatic episode as a rebirth and not just a death. You are not the same person you were five years ago, and that person wasn’t the same person five years before then, and so on.”

    “Surround yourself with loved ones and joy. The trauma and injustice you faced and will face, no matter how harsh, don’t stand a chance against true love and joy.”

    “Fight for the healing and liberation of others. As you heal and liberate yourself from the trauma and injustice you faced, you will realize that it’s better doing so as part of a collective.”

    “Eventually you will stop believing in the myth of your dehumanization and you will stop being controlled by the illusion of your defeat. Your unconquerable soul will prevail.”

    Wise words from Sriram Ananth

  2. I appreciate and respect your story and how you chose to tell it, and yet I wonder how you can trust an education that is taking you into the same system that failed you and your parents, and their parents before.
    I am curious if there are alternative approaches that are healing to your trauma and those you want to serve in their trauma. We tend to settle in the modalities that are recycling being dependent on counselors and ‘people in power’ and not in finding agency in one’s life. I’m speaking from my own experience of course, but am curious in if you have your doubts about the education you’re going forward in, that and community and systems already in place that cycle trauma in their behaviors and beliefs that collude with systemic oppression.
    Thanks for writing and reading.

  3. You are truly a survivor and thriver! You were born into trauma and you have now overcome the cycles and are obviously healing by leaps and bounds while using your voice and life experience to help others whose voices are not being heard when they need to be. You are saving lives. Congratulations on your many accomplishments, so far!

  4. The fallacy that learned behaviour or adaptive behaviours are illnesses or disorders is exactly what keeps us from forming the very supports needed. Kids don’t need weekly chats. What they need is safety and space to relax enough to have fun. They are plunged into an adult world of serious counselling. That in itself is pretentious and abusive.
    The parents need in home support and teaching of how to be a parent.
    The governments think it’s cheaper to drug the kids.
    Even the parents have no such thing as MI.

    Problems are born from hardships, adaptive mechanisms develop. Those are absolutely not treatable by psychiatry or drugs.

    It is time to abolish the lies, and abusive disabling industries.

    I am so glad you saw it for what it is. It failed your mom, you and your kids.

    • It doesn’t occur to people that taking a kid to a “professional” and telling the kid it is because they are “mentally/biologically defective” is counter productive. Fake it till you make it, or this case society tells you what you are and makes it.

      When what someone needs is social support, connection, and relationships doing the above is providing the opposite. Our society now considers telling people, “seek professional help, and take drugs because you’re ill/defective” as being a good friend/family member.

      It Doesn’t feel good when the response to sharing your suffering is a bunch of insults. Feels worse when you’re guilted because you have decided deadly drugs and $200 talk sessions where you’re told your thinking is stupid isn’t a beneficial use of your life.

      • Yes Parents started taking their kids to the “doctor”, who then suggested an asylum, or “mind doctor”. Who then proceeded to do really nasty things to kids minds. Of course, that was then and now we have science with drugs that treat.
        And we remember how those old treatments were seen as okay by the public and governments.
        Now of course psychiatry knows that it is more fucked up than it ever was, that nothing good comes out of their practice, that eventually most that they treat have awful lives and early deaths.

        Yes psychiatry changes alright. They get worse each year.

  5. “I now understand and share with others what happens to our bodies and minds when we’re faced with trauma—a topic not brought up in the DSM.”

    Well, actually child abuse is mentioned in the DSM, but the DSM outright makes child abuse a non-billable trauma. Which means the “mental health” workers must misdiagnose child abuse survivors, with the billable DSM disorders, in order to get paid. Which, of course, distracts from the real issue at hand.

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-child-does-not-have-bipolar-disorder/201402/dsm-5-and-child-neglect-and-abuse-1

    But I couldn’t agree more about the absurdity of an industry that is neurotoxic poisoning people – due to distress, as opposed to real illness – that completely denies the reality that trauma and traumatic events can cause distress.

    I also agree, “Trauma is not a mental illness; it is an emotional and physical reaction that can be healed.” So long as one is not neurotoxic poisoned, and the trauma is NOT denied.

    As the mother of a child abuse survivor, who did get my child away from the child abusers fairly quickly. And I was able to keep my child away from the loony psychiatrist and school social worker, who thought drugging up a healing child – years after the abuse – is how to deal with a well behaved child who went from remedial reading in first grade, after the child abuse, to getting 100% on his state standardized tests in eighth grade. Yes, healing from trauma is possible.

    But I can say with 100% certainty, from personal experience and lots of research, the “mental health” and social worker industries – and CPS – are all about covering up child abuse, not preventing it.

    https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2019/01/23/18820633.php?fbclid=IwAR2-cgZPcEvbz7yFqMuUwneIuaqGleGiOzackY4N2sPeVXolwmEga5iKxdo
    https://www.madinamerica.com/2016/04/heal-for-life/
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5fqaaBpTLY

    The “mental health” industries really do need to be called out for being the systemic child abuse cover uppers, and child abusers, that they are.

    https://www.alternet.org/2010/04/are_prozac_and_other_psychiatric_drugs_causing_the_astonishing_rise_of_mental_illness_in_america/

    And when the “mental health” industries misdiagnose the common adverse and withdrawal symptoms of the antidepressants and ADHD drugs, in over a million children as “bipolar.” Resulting in the subsequent neurotoxic poisoning of those children with the antipsychotics. Those industries are systemic child abusing – actually child “torturing” – industries.

    http://www.narpa.org/reference/un-forced-psychiatric-treatment-is-torture

    And our country is not benefitted by having systemic child abuse covering up, child abusing – and pedophile aiding, abetting, and empowering – “mental health” industries. Quite to the contrary, we’re all now living in a “pedophile empire.”

    https://www.amazon.com/Pedophilia-Empire-Chapter-Introduction-Disorder-ebook/dp/B0773QHGPT

    Thank you for sharing your very important story, which exemplifies this systemic child abuse covering up problem, of the so called “mental health” industries, Tabitha.

  6. I think that you are courageous to tell your story. We have gotten so far away from the idea that children are put on earth to play, learn and grow. We have returned to pre-industrial and early industrial times when children were treated as “little adults” except now it is much worse; because not only do we treat them like “little adults” we drug and therapize them like “big adults.” So, that leads to unneeded pain and suffering across all ages. I was not introduced to most of the drugs you mentioned being prescribed until I was an adult. I lost much of my life during those years and I am still experiencing the effects of those drugs, although I have not taken these drugs since 2013-2015. This is beyond comprehension that you were subject to abuse and trauma from those drugs and related experiences as a child, in addition to what you endured in the other areas of your life. What we do to our children in this country is very tragic! However, you are beacon of light and your courage will lead the way to assist children and adults, too a way out of this terror and abuse. Thank you.

  7. I was just thinking this morning, in response to my having read this article, of the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Imagine if a coal miner were to bring in his canary to the veterinarian because it was behaving strangely or acting out. The first thing that the veterinarian would want to assess would be its environment, specifically whether or not it was toxic. Kids are the equivalent of canaries in the coal mine, but unfortunately the impact of their toxic environment is all but ignored. Which truly is asinine. Seriously, why would you blame the canary? I suppose because nobody likes a whistleblower and our first instinct is apparently to silence them in any way that we can.

  8. You are a warrior, Tabitha. Despite extraordinary obstacles, you’ve kept or retrieved everything – career, children, recorded history – that psychiatry tried to take from you. Your students and children are so lucky to have you in their lives.

  9. “Trauma is not a mental illness; it is an emotional and physical reaction that can be healed.”

    I’d say this is the elusive truth, although I’d condense it to “trauma is an emotional and physical reaction that can be healed.” Something about including the phrase “is not a mental illness” throws it off a bit and brings ambiguity to this statement, but the truth about healing from the effects of early childhood trauma is powerful in and of itself.

  10. The idea that “kids” or anyone are “canaries in the coal mine” when considering the extremely misguided and destructive effects of the “mental illness industry” I, honestly, don’t like to think of anyone being a “canary in the coal mine” because the canaries in the coal mines die, so the coal miners will know when to leave so they want suffer the same fate. I would not want to wish death upon innocent children or innocent people of any age, even to wish death on those not innocent might be dangerous and damaging. I know many mean well in this analogy. I don’t know if there is a good analogy, but, all I can say is that we need to stop traveling this road that is not helpful or kind, but damaging and hurtful. This is why I also say that Mister Rodgers had good intentions when he told his child audience to “follow the helpers” he probably had not idea that it was those very helpers who end up hurting the children in so many ways. Thank you.

  11. Dear Tabitha,

    What an incredible, admirable life journey. Well done for writing this important article for Mad in America.

    Your statement is correct in my view. Childhood trauma – is not a mental illness or ‘mental health issue’. Period.

    I do not understand how any child, can be put on psychiatric drugs – without a prior, thorough examination of the family home, the parents/care-givers and the parents’/caregivers’ treatment of the child and all other children in the home/family system (including cousins, children of parents’ friends and others)?

    In line with Kristen’s astute observations above, I wonder whether laws should be introduced across national jurisdictions – banning the psychiatric diagnosing and drugging of any child – without there being first a thorough and independent examination of the family home, parents-caregivers and the relationship of the parents-caregivers with each other and with the child/children, along with any other events (death, homelessness, physical illness, domestic violence, abuse whether it be sexual or otherwise, trauma to pets, relatives, neighbours, teachers, other children, nannies, babysitters etc.)?

    Childhood trauma is said by some, to be experienced whenever adults-parents are not there for us: emotionally, physically, mentally, financially – and then that ‘painful experience’ is not immediately corrected, ceased, soothed and healed at the time or very shortly thereafter (a.k.a ‘parent-attachment’ trauma).

    When the traumatic experience is repeated, daily, for years, the current moniker to describe the after effects (not in the DSM-V) is ‘complex post-traumatic stress.’ (I do not add the word ‘disorder’ because post-traumatic stress ‘is’ the ‘ordered’ proper human response to trauma. If you fall and cut your knee, we do not pathologise the bleeding as ‘post-traumatic bleeding disorder’ etc. It is simply called bleeding due to cutting one’s knee on falling over. To add the word ‘disorder’ seems to create an oxymoron, or en masse gaslighting?)

    According to different authors, childhood trauma especially includes when adults-parents, use (or ‘prey upon’) children as a ‘resource’ (a.k.a ‘narcissistic parenting’ cf. Harry Hendrick 2018) for the parents’/adults’ own ‘self'(ish) survival needs. When children are used to satisfy the parents’ needs (emotional, physical, sexual, financial, mental) rather than parents meeting their child’s needs for safety, security, protection, nurturing – this is highly traumatising for any child (cf. Bessel Van Der Kolk).

    Children should not be psychiatrised with a ‘disorder’ when they experience and display a normal, sane, human distress response to trauma inflicted by adults. It is not for a child to be cajoled and forced to ‘forgive’ and understand the adult-parents’ conduct. Nor is a child to be tricked into believing their distress is ‘all in the mind’ (what and where is the ‘mind’?) or an inherited genetic brain issue that cannot be verified by a scan or other independent objective medical test. Such psychiatry, seems to serve to conceal, deny and protect parental-adult abuse, manipulation, neglect and exploitation of children.

    Or does a materialistic, consumer driven narcissistic neoliberal capitalist society (cf. Anne Manne 2015) which thrives on ‘free market competition’ instead of voluntary, peaceful, human compassion, care and cooperation – need its citizens to be traumatised/exploited as children and then numbed by psychiatry-pharma (and other) drugs, so they become lifelong addicted capitalistic consumers (cf. Dr Gabor Matè et al.)?

    I look forward to reading your book.

    Best wishes,

    Magdalene

  12. Beautifully written. Tabitha’s life was a living trauma hell, but without a capable guide when she was young who could lead her to healing. Her quote is true: “Trauma is not a mental illness; it is an emotional and physical reaction that can be healed.”

    Tabitha, praise the Lord. You have been set free. I am a newcomer to the deleterious effects of trauma. But now I am an evangelist for trauma healing. The following book is a great primer on complex trauma, “It’s Not You, It’s What Happened To You.”

    An insightful workbook written for therapists to use with their trauma clients is called “Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma.”

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