In 2016, I fell into the education field as a reading literacy aide in my local school district in Texas. I had no prior experience or qualifications for this position other than teaching Sunday school classes from time to time in a local church I attended with my twin sons. So you could say I was naïve to the system.
Prior to accepting this position, I had been grieving the loss of my childhood, which I described in my essay “Childhood Trauma Is Not a Mental Illness.” Not only did I have to process all of the abuse I endured growing up, but also the knowledge that my community had been well aware of what I was exposed to back then – because the educational and social services agencies documented it all. I had been able to retrieve over a thousand documents from Child Protective Services (CPS), which detailed the torment I lived through. I’d also obtained documents from local mental health agencies, juvenile court, and school records proving that the adults in my life knew I was being abused.
But instead of responding to my cries for help, they placed me on multiple psychiatric medications to modify my behavior, diagnosed me with mental illnesses that my mother and other clinicians projected onto me and–when I could no longer function in school or society–pushed me into the juvenile justice system. Only by persistence and luck was I able to find a supportive provider who helped me understand and process my trauma and then put my life back together so I could support myself and be the best possible mom to my boys.
But once I began my teaching job, I saw my story repeating itself on a daily basis with the at-risk youth and families I served. I saw misdiagnosis and overmedication of kids who were obviously experiencing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). The fallout of ACEs, such as having a parent in jail, made it hard for the students to regulate their emotions and stay calm enough to learn. Their behavior got labeled as ADHD or Oppositional Defiant Disorder, but the actual source of their trauma was never addressed. It seemed to me that our schools were becoming a pipeline to prison: These kids kept being told there was something fundamentally wrong with them, and continued to act out.
So I decided to lay down my life as an educator and go public with my story in a local newspaper to raise awareness to help these kids and their parents. I talked about being abused and neglected by my family, bouncing between different CPS placements, and being retraumatized by a mental health system that labeled and drugged me without offering me any coping skills or path to healing.
The article was published in the fall of 2017, during a year Governor Greg Abbott had been working with state legislators to reform the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. The system was so underfunded and poorly run that abused and neglected children were languishing for months without placements. Some even died. Earlier that year, I later learned, the governor had signed four pieces of emergency legislation that made major changes in the foster care system and CPS. So I’d been cautiously optimistic that things were changing and that my voice would be heard.
Targeted for Truth-Telling
But it soon became clear that exposing the system and criticizing institutions got me labeled a problem all over again. Before speaking to the journalist, I had reached out to my school superintendent to let him know about the article. His assistant replied and asked how the school district could best support me. I was relieved and believed they intended to help because they had previously been very encouraging about my goal to become a certified teacher. For example, the school encouraged me to find a way to finish my undergraduate degree. But no sooner did I go public with my story and call for reform than the career support ended…after I’d spent over $10,000 of my own money (not easy as a single mom on a paraprofessional’s salary).
People in influential positions began messing with my livelihood, bullying me into resigning from my position after informing me they weren’t going to renew my contact and, I believe, sabotaging other, better employment opportunities that came along. For example, the day before I was due to start a new position with a charter school—having finished my degree and passed all of the screenings–my employer suddenly reneged on the job offer. This hurt me deeply because, without a source of employment, I almost lost everything I owned as well as my peace of mind. I later had to file for bankruptcy because I’d had to rely on credit cards to pay my bills and couldn’t keep up.
Despite facing financial hardships and the challenges of securing a new job within my community, on August 9, 2018, I went before Texas lawmakers at a joint hearing of the committee on Public Health and Human Services to speak on behalf of the kids and families in the local school district where I’d previously worked. By sharing my story of being retraumatized by the mental health system and how I saw this process repeating itself among the youngsters I’d taught, I hoped to get the government agencies to understand what wasn’t working and the need to bring in trauma-informed perspectives so we could end that cycle of harm. With only three minutes to speak, I told them, in part:
“I was misdiagnosed with mental illness. I was suffering with trauma, which does parallel to traumatic brain injury. …I came here to educate the systems on what we call ACEs, which explains why you all have a crisis on your hands. ACEs are linked to high risk for mental disorders in childhood and a lasting vulnerability to mental disorders that persists into adulthood. Common forms of mental disorders in children exposed to adversity include anxiety, depression, aggressive behavior, PTSD, and substance abuse later in life, which is why I fell into that statistic.
And because nobody responded to my cry for help, I didn’t know how to cope with life, and because I was medicated and given a pill to function and told this is your problem, I turned to the substances.”
I also told them about trying to advocate for one of my brothers, who was caught in the system himself, and concluded,
“I am reaching out to help others understand that when you misdiagnose, you miss the whole problem. So if you continue to place diagnoses like bipolar or any of those ‘chemical imbalances’ we’re not getting to the root of the problem, we’re just resurfacing, and you’re going to continue to see the problem happen.”
After I spoke before the House of Representatives, I decided to try to take my message further and joined a state committee. My first meeting seemed like a golden opportunity: I found myself at the table with representatives of all of the systems that had failed me growing up. Unexpectedly, it also included one of the local mental health providers who had misdiagnosed me growing up and placed me on medications I did not need. When the talk turned to trauma and at-risk youth in the juvenile justice system, I spoke up about my experiences and made suggestions, sharing how I have gotten sober and overcome my past after years of therapy with a local, trauma-informed Christian psychology clinic. Later, a woman with Texas Systems of Care invited me to join a second committee.
No sooner did I begin this work than I experienced the same backlash I had from our local school district. I was exposing things they did not want to be made public, and they weren’t ready to hear it. Plus, people didn’t want to listen to my lived experience because I wasn’t a doctor, or because they couldn’t reconcile their belief in the responsible use of medication with my argument out that no pill can resolve underlying trauma. Agency leaders pretended to make nice with me, but then excluded me from community events and contracting opportunities.
When I realized what was happening, I filed formal grievances with leaders in Austin. I also began requesting meetings with Governor Abbott’s office to further discuss our mental health and addictions crisis, from the time the newspaper article about me was published right up until a couple of months ago. But his colleagues always came back with an excuse why it wasn’t possible. I also filed several grievances with the governor’s office when my community began messing with my livelihood for going public with my story, but I was denied an investigation, even though I had documented proof in the form of my childhood records and saved emails from my committee work. I eventually resigned from both committees because they seemed more interested in retraumatizing me than in reform.
I am not sure what was worse: being abused on every level growing up while my community documented the torment I lived through while they labeled and medicated my pain, or being attacked for going public with my story from the very community that set me up to fail.
Still, those of us striving to get awareness of ACEs and trauma-informed care into our education and health systems are making progress! In 2020, I joined the National Trauma Campaign as a local liaison. In this volunteer position, I lobby my U.S. senators and congress members and their staff to support policies, programs, legislation, and appropriations that prevent and respond to trauma and build resilience. I also assisted the NTC in advocating for ARPA, the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan, which was successfully passed last March. The funds and programs from ARPA provide so many opportunities to embed trauma prevention and response into programs nationwide–but it’s going to take a lot of work to educate our leaders on successfully implementing them. There is still time to mobilize around ARPA to leverage as many resources as possible for trauma-informed supports. You can find extensive information on the issue and how to advocate for funding here. I also urge you to reach out to decision-makers in your state as soon as possible.
There has also been new funding for trauma-informed care in Texas, but from what I’ve seen, it’s not coordinated, and the systems are still substantially the same in how they work. You know what they say: If you keep on doing the same old thing, you’ll keep on getting the same results. I believe all both our mental health and school systems need to be trauma-informed. And we need to make information about the effects of trauma common knowledge among the public—holding leaders accountable if they don’t.
In the meantime, I’m inspired by the growing number of people who truly “get it” about the connection between ACEs, mental health problems, and antisocial behavior, along with the need to heal the underlying trauma. I’ve found places where I’m welcome to share my story and speak my mind, most recently on an episode of the Courageously.U podcast with therapist Tara Bixby, and also in my current job as a language-arts teacher at a new school. Having finally gotten my teacher certification, I’m now pursuing a master’s degree in developmental psychology. I use that knowledge in my advocacy–as I’ve explained to so many doctors, psychologists, and school superintendents, kids can’t learn academics when they’re emotionally dysregulated. I’m helping schools to understand that we can mitigate this problem through trauma-informed practices.
As someone who scored 9 out of 10 on the ACEs screening quiz, people have asked me how I overcame so much trauma to live the healthy, productive life I lead today. I think it’s because while no amount of meds can fix trauma, there’s evidence that we can heal the mind and the body. We just need to stop asking “What’s wrong?” and start asking “What happened?” because that’s when healing begins.
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.