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.
Read the sequel to Tabitha’s story “Why I Fight for Trauma-Informed Care,” here.
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.