Coming Out of the Closet (of My Own Making)

Screen Shot 2016-11-22 at 11.56.09 AMI used to curl up in a ball and hide in the back of the one tiny closets in the old shack I grew up in, for all the good that did because the closet had no door. It was a shack the size of the garage with only one place to hide. Duh.

Somewhere along my journey I realized that when I was reading, I didn’t get hit. Hmmm, having a book in my hand somehow created an invisible force field around me in which I was relatively safe, at least from physical harm–much better than the little doorless closet! In fact, when I was reading, it was almost like I, myself was invisible. Sweet.

Screen Shot 2016-11-22 at 11.56.20 AMFrom the time I was six years old, and thus eligible to get my own library card at Upland Public Library, they knew me by name. (God bless the people who thought up free, public libraries.) When I was done with the maximum number of books I was allowed to check out at one time, I’d go back to reading from the unlikely set of encyclopedias that were the only nice, relatively clean thing in that filthy little shack. I loved the feel of those hard bound books in my hands because that feeling meant that I was magically safe in the closet of my making–at least for a time. I loved those encyclopedias and read a little from them every day of my childhood, but I’d read the label on the ketchup bottle if necessary (sometimes ketchup was the only food in the house).

What a welcome reprieve reading provided. As the years went on, I learned a little about a wide range of subjects, my vocabulary exploded, and my test scores spiked. As an aside, I’m convinced that IQ scores reveal much more about a person’s vocabulary than they do about their intelligence. My heart used to break for the kids who only spoke a few words of English. They weren’t dumb. In fact, I knew that many were very smart–but they were often subjugated to the “slow kid” category and virtually dismissed because they had no idea what the foreign-looking words on the page said. I hope we are doing better for those kids nowadays.

Everybody Leaves

In my teenage years, after I emancipated and was on my own, I realized that it wasn’t just my mother and father who left. People I thought were friends left when I was no longer willing to go along with what they wanted from me or able to meet their expectations. I was like the kid who would give away the cookies in her lunch in order to be allowed to play with the cool girls. But the cookies always run out, and you’re no longer able to do what you always did to stay in the group. You either have to produce more cookies or get left behind. I always ran out of cookies.

Screen Shot 2016-11-22 at 11.56.29 AMSo since people who get close enough to harm, ultimately leave and tear out a chunk of your heart when they go, why would I ever leave my nice, safe invisible- force-field-closet? Irrefutable evidence demonstrated time and again that there was great danger in doing so. The guys who said they’d love me forever said the same thing to the next girls. The girls who said that I was the sister they never had evidently found other long-lost siblings. Other than my husband and some precious girlfriends, everyone, eventually left.

You can’t be hurt if you won’t let anyone close enough to do so. And you can’t be left behind if you’re happily in peaceful solitude. And what’s not to be happy about? Over the years, my tiny, filthy closet, in which I would roll up in a ball and cover my ears until I thought it was safe to dare to listen, became an elegant, comfortable, cozy space that is my own, private, no-one-else-allowed place. Like a backyard “boys-only” clubhouse, the closet I’ve erected is off limits to other humans—even the ones I adore.

My closet has everything I need. There’s a phone to the outside world (but I don’t care too much for it). I ALWAYS have my books. Only now I own them. I still love the public library, but with my financial success came beautiful shelves filled with hardbound books I’ve acquired, accumulated, and yes, assimilated into the fabric of my being. And the internet allows me to follow the journeys of others, and to share what I hope will help those younger abuse victims coming up behind me on the path… all safely from my cozy closet.

Hide and Seek

Life in the very safe “invisible closet” I had erected to protect myself from harmful humans was great. It wasn’t broken, so I wasn’t trying to fix it. And then a game of Hide and Seek rocked my world and resulted in the throwing open of the plutonium-strength door that protected my invisible-force-field-closet-safe-place.

Screen Shot 2016-11-22 at 11.56.37 AMI regularly play Hide and Seek with two of the most precious people in the world. The little boys, aged 8 and 11 as I write this, represent two-thirds of the “blood relatives” I have on planet Earth. (There are probably others, but I’d rather not to “seek” and “find” them.)

One date night I announced that I would be hiding first, with the oldest counting, because I had found the ultimate hiding place. I threw down the challenge, I gave them some vague clues (the whole idea is to help them learn to be adventurous in a totally safe way), and I ran off as soon as the counting began.

From my most excellent hiding place, I could hear the boys, along with my husband, looking for me. They looked in all the usual places. Then they looked in places they didn’t think I could actually squeeze into, but looked anyway because they were running out of potential hiding places. They called out, but I refused to “take the bait” and give away my position with a response or even a clearing of the throat—yep, I was that close. What they didn’t know is that I was hiding in a rarely used closet that the boys had seen a million times but had never been in. For them, it blended into the wall because they had never seen it open.

Screen Shot 2016-11-22 at 11.56.45 AMI stood totally still in the dark space behind the closed door, barely breathing, trying not to give myself away with an untimely sneeze or cough, when I heard the boys and my husband seem to stop searching and start talking. The voices faded farther away until they couldn’t be heard at all. At first I thought they were huddling to strategize on a new and yet untried response to my amazing disappearing act. But I didn’t hear them anymore. I waited in the dark closet.

I refused to give up the whereabouts of my most spectacular hiding place by simply walking out and taking the chance the one of them would see from where I had just emerged. So, I made myself comfortable. I sat down in the dark closet and waited, knowing from the experiences of my childhood that I was far more equipped to wait than they were. I would WIN this. (By now you are probably wondering if you’ve missed something…a woman in her 50’s playing Hide and Seek?! Yes, that’s correct. You heard right.)

Well, the time ticked by, and they never did come back to look for me. The boys and my husband had gone on to do something else. They quit looking. Darn.

When it finally became clear to me that no one was coming for me, I realized that regardless of how lovely my beautiful and comfortable closet is, I have always secretly hoped that someone would come find me.

As a little girl, I had hoped that my big, strong daddy would suddenly show up, break down the door, beat up my abuser, and rescue me from that place. Later I hoped that some big, strong, handsome guy on a white horse (or a white 8-cylinder Mustang) would sweep me up and ride out of town into our new, wonderful, pain-free life. When I figured out that none of that was ever going to happen (and that I didn’t want to be a victim to be saved anyway), I settled in, decorated the closet, installed multiple padlocks on the door, and ordered high-speed wireless.

Right up until the fateful Hide and Seek game, I had forgotten about the little closet of my childhood. It wasn’t until recounting this story to a friend, that I realized that I was actually quite content to be in the social isolation of my own making. It was in that conversation that my dear friend gently guided me to connect the dots between literally being left in the closet and figuratively keeping myself safely in the “closet of my making” so that others wouldn’t have an opportunity to hurt me.

Thank you, Dr. Karen Bergstrom, Director of Safe Families for Children, for leading me to the stunning realization that I had never stopped isolating myself, yet secretly hoping that someone would come looking for me. Thank you for refusing to give up on helping me feel safe with healthy social connections—almost as safe as I feel in the isolation of my beautiful closet. (SAFE families isn’t just for the kids and families served!)

Out of the Closet and Onto the Bridge

I eventually had to come out of the closet the night of that Hide and Seek game. It was time to make dinner. No one cared about the hiding place anymore. And they seemed to be so engrossed in their new game that they didn’t realize I had been missing in action. As I cracked open the door to what turned out to be the ultimate Hide and Seek hiding place, I realized that there were people in my life who had been knocking on the solid door of the invisible-force-field closet that separated me from all the people who wanted nothing from me other than, perhaps, return of the friendship they wanted to share.

One friend in particular had steadily rapped for quite some time without being hurt or offended by my lackluster response. Being a retired therapist, she knew that I couldn’t give what I didn’t have. So, she started where I was (rather than where she hoped I’d be), she waited, and she continued to gently knock, never giving up. It turns out that her ability to wait patiently surpasses even mine!

I knew from my friend’s persistence, and from my finely tuned weasel meter, that she was “safe.” Since gingerly exiting my beautiful, safe closet (where I would still prefer to be), my new sister-girlfriend,Screen Shot 2016-11-22 at 11.55.56 AM the one I never expected to find at this stage of my life, has gently led me out of the closet and is now encouraging me to step out on the bridge to the other side of life—to a life I never knew (or wanted to know) existed.

I’m out of my beautiful closet, and I’m enjoying the walk toward the bridge. But don’t push me. And please don’t get too close—I’m still not convinced that someone won’t push me off in a well meaning attempt to teach me how to swim in the waters below.

Rhonda Sciortino PhotoRhonda Sciortino, author of Successful Survivors and the 8 character traits of survivors and how you can attain them, used the coping skills from an abusive childhood to achieve real success which she measures by good relationships, good health, peace, joy, and financial prosperity. Through her writing, speaking, and media appearances, she shares how others can use the obstacles in their lives as stepping stones to their real success.

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A Blanket and an Evil Frog

A blanket in your trunk will help keep you warm if your stranded out in the cold, but the better, funner use of a blanket is to make a totally spontaneous memory with the kids in your life by making a fort or a ground covering for an impromptu picnic.

I have a “fun kit” in the trunk of my car at all times. The contents of the kit are:

  • King sized, machine washable comforter
  • Plastic horse shoe game
  • Snacks (bags of nuts, bars, and other little semi-healthy things with a long shelf life)
  • Paddleball game
  • The evil frog

Every so often (I like to wait until they least expect it), I’ll take the kids in my life on an unexpected detour. We have a date on the same night every week, so there is routine and consistency that helps them feel safe and secure. But within the structure of the consistent date night, we have all kinds of different experiences.

When the kids see that we have taken a different route, they start to wonder (in a fun way) what’s going to happen next. When we pull up along side a park we’ve never been to, they know what to do. We pretend that we are the park review authority, and it’s our job to thorough check out every aspect of the park. Is it fun? Is it safe? If so, why? If not, why not?

Without knowing it, they’re learning situational awareness. They’re learning how to have spontaneous fun. And they’re learning how to have fun at very little expense.

Enter the evil frog. The kids had a plastic squeaky toy in the shape of a frog. I couldn’t stand it. It was ugly, and it was annoying. I don’t recall where it came from, so I’m relatively certain there was no sentimental value to the hideous thing. But the more I expressed displeasure, the more the kids took delight in placing it near me.

They’d sneak to place it on my chair at the dinner table before we ate. They’d sneak in and leave it in the bathroom knowing I’d wind up there at some point. They’d sneak into my office to put it in the middle of my desk or on a bookshelf where the evil-looking eyes would be gazing at me. The more displeasure I expressed, the more they’d laugh. I’d throw it away, and it would be retrieved from the trash can as soon as I wasn’t looking. So although I was having as much fun as they were, I’d put on my Academy Award worthy performance of feigned disgust every time the evil frog would pop up.

I put the evil frog in the fun kit in the trunk of my car for the times when the park we chose turned out to be just not all that fun. Because regardless of how boring a park is, seeing an evil-looking frog fly off a merry-go-round or launching a plastic frog into flight from a swing can be good for a laugh.

It doesn’t need to cost a ridiculous amount of money to make memories. Theme parks, miniature race car tracks, and carnivals can be fun (they can also be crowded, hot, and miserable), but the good memories and teaching moments that heal hurts and create solid foundations for the children in our lives can be had for little or no cost.

rhonda-sciortinoRhonda Sciortino, author of the new book Successful Survivors: The 8 Character Traits of Survivors and How You Can Attain Them, used the coping skills from an abusive childhood to achieve real success which she measures by good relationships, good health, peace, joy, and financial prosperity. Through her writing, speaking, and media appearances, she shares how others can use the obstacles in their lives as stepping stones to their real success.

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THE TOP 10 MISTAKES OF PUBLIC SPEAKERS

We’ve all been there—suffering through a painful presentation. And many of us have been that person standing in front of a group of people, all eyes on us, knowing that the group is expecting more than we feel capable of providing.

Having spoken to many crowds and listened to many speakers, I’ve had enough experience both in front of the microphone and behind it, to weigh in on the good, the bad, and the ugly of public speaking. I’ll begin with my top 10 mistakes and finish with my best advice, all of which I wish I’d known before I ever gave a speech, workshop, or media appearance.

  1. Telling the audience how nervous you are.
  2. Telling a completely irrelevant story designed to “break the ice.” Unless it’s relevant or universally funny, skip it and get to the main message you’ve been entrusted to bring.
  3. Rambling all over the place without connecting the dots to the fragments of your speech.
  4. Giving a speech filled with bullet points bereft of story to provide context.
  5. Standing like a statue with no movement, animation, or facial expression to help drive home your point.
  6. Telling an off-color or politically incorrect joke. Just don’t. Ever.
  7. Giving TMI (too much information). No one wants to hear your intimate details.
  8. Going into too much detail, especially irrelevant details. No one needs to know the turn-by-turn instructions of how you arrived at the venue.
  9. Using “fillers” as in the person who says “um,” “you know,” etc. repeatedly throughout his or her talk.
  10. And the number one biggest mistake of public speaking is being OVER- or UNDER-prepared. The person who is over-prepared has memorized his or her speech which sounds “canned,”and generic. The under-prepared speaker wastes everyone’s time by failing to prepare a relevant and engaging talk specifically for that particular audience.

Now that you know what NOT to do, here are some tips on what TO do to earn the appreciation of the people who have invited you and to be asked by others to share at their events.

  1. Know your audience and what concerns them. This is key to being relevant.
  2. Know the theme of the event, and understand what they expect from you. Be sure you can meet their expectations before you agree to speak.
  3. Prepare your talk so that you know your main point, and deliver it with passion, enthusiasm, and with relevant stories that drive it home.
  4. Prepare yourself mentally and emotionally so that you arrive at the venue with a genuine smile on your face and a message in your heart and mind that you are prepared to deliver with every ounce of energy you have.
  5. Prepare yourself physically by getting plenty of sleep the night before the event, drinking plenty of water, and eating lightly before the event. It’s important to eat something so that you don’t get lightheaded or distracted by hunger, but it’s equally important not to eat too much so that your stomach isn’t trying to process a heavy meal while your mind is trying to coordinate with your mouth to deliver an engaging message!
  6. Prepare what you will wear so that your clothing doesn’t distract from your message. It’s important to wear colors that make you stand out in the crowd but not so far out that you aren’t taken seriously.
  7. Be sure that your attitude, facial expressions, and body language match the message you’re trying to communicate.
  8. Never, ever, under any circumstances distort the truth. If you’re not sure about something, verify it before stepping out in front of the crowd. If you are put on the spot in front of the crowd, don’t be afraid to say, “Gosh, I don’t know.” It’s better to admit that you don’t know everything than to prove you’re a liar. Remember that practically every attendee in the audience will have a little device in their pocket on which they can verify the veracity of what you have to say in less than 10 seconds. Don’t lie. Ever.
  9. Be early to the event. Remember that whoever invited you has put his or her reputation on the line to vouch for you. Unless you’re in the emergency room or the morgue, you do not get a “pass” for being late.
  10. In the last 10-15 minutes before giving your talk, don’t look at email. Do not check your social networking pages. And be careful not to engage in serious conversation. This little piece of advice will help you avoid the avoidable disaster that can happen if you receive bad news that you can do nothing about right before you become the center of attention.

If you’ve been entrusted with a message to share with others, I wrote this for YOU. If you fall prey to these mistakes, your message will be diminished. On the other hand, if you avoid these mistakes and follow this advice, you will be better able to communicate your message with those who can benefit most from it.

 

rhonda-sciortinoRhonda Sciortino, author Successful Survivors — 8 character traits of survivors and how you can attain them

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Pretending Suicide Isn’t A Problem Won’t Make It Go Away

Originally published by Foster Focus Magazine.

Victims of abuse are at higher risk.

We can’t prevent suicide if we don’t talk about it. So, let’s have an honest conversation about the fact that those of us who have experienced the pain of being abandoned, abused, neglected, sold, or treated in any way that made us feel unloved and unworthy of love, are at a much higher risk of suicide.

According to Dr. Daniel J. Pilowsky of Mailman School of Public Health, adolescents involved with foster care are about four times more likely to have attempted suicide than adolescents never placed in foster care. This probably comes as no great surprise to anyone who has ever been in foster care.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15-24 year-olds, and the sixth leading cause of death for 5 to 15-year-olds in the general population. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, “teenagers experience strong feelings of stress, confusion, self-doubt, pressure to succeed, financial uncertainty, and other fears.” If teens in the general population experience those feelings, imagine the exponential magnification of those feelings by the factors of abandonment, neglect, and abuse that preceded time in the foster care system—a system of living with strangers (hopefully well-meaning, but strangers, nevertheless).

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says that every 40 seconds someone commits suicide in the US. This is a national tragedy, which is particularly poignant because it’s often foreseeable and preventable.

Depression and suicidal feelings are treatable mental disorders. The challenge is that many current and former foster kids don’t seek help. This unwillingness to talk about depression and suicidal thoughts can be rooted in various issues including, but not limited to, being unaware that no- or low-cost services are available and accessible, an inherent feeling of hopelessness that there is anything that can make life any better, a feeling of being unworthy of receiving help, or the stigma and shame that can accompany thoughts of suicide.

Many of us have been touched by suicide. This is, in fact, one of the factors that increases our risk of suicide. Once someone in our life has taken their life that person’s action becomes an option in the back of our minds should the pain simply get beyond what we can bear. For people who had a parent who suicided when the person was young, there can be an additional underlying sense that it is their destiny to repeat that tragic family history. In addition to childhood abuse and knowing someone who suicided, other risk factors include previous suicide attempts, family history of mental health conditions, mental health diagnosis, and substance abuse.

– See the complete article: http://www.fosterfocusmag.com/articles/pretending-suicide-isnt-problem-wont-make-it-go-away#sthash.xVTRhYem.dpuf

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You May Say I’m A Dreamer

Originally published by Foster Focus Magazine.

I have some big dreams and visions. And I’m not the only one. There are lots of us who want to do big things with our lives. We want to make our lives count for something. Many of us try to accomplish big things, but because we only have our piece of the puzzle, we fall short. But when we come together, we’re stronger and better able to do big things.

I have a dream to see kids who are growing up in less than the best of circumstances to be connected with churches in communities throughout the country. I can envision kids who have experienced abandonment, abuse, neglect, poverty, or homelessness (or all of the above) connected with the good people in local churches who will look them in the eyes and see the value they don’t see in themselves.

I envision these kids, like the one I used to be, learning to mine the lessons out of all they’ve been through, learning work ethic and character building, and learning how to have healthy relationships with good people. Having been abandoned, neglected, abused, hungry, and homeless in my life, I am confident that what I envision would be prevention of homelessness, drug use, criminal activity, and trafficking.

Kids who feel valued and cared for are less likely to feel pain that leads to self medicating. The sense of belonging they would feel in a church family would make them far less likely to fall for the lure of a trafficker. And kids who learn relationship skills, work ethic, and good character in the safe environment of people who will gently teach rather than judge them are far more likely to find and keep a good job that will help them become responsible, self-reliant adults.

– See the complete article at: http://www.fosterfocusmag.com/articles/you-may-say-i%E2%80%99m-dreamer

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If I could give you anything, I’d give you these 10 things:

gift

  1. I would give you eyes to see yourself as the awesome person you are.
  2. I would give you a healthy awareness and confidence in your strengths and an acceptance of your weaknesses.
  3. I would give you an ability to speak the truth in a considerate way and to listen carefully to everyone in your life.
  4. I would give you fresh sense of optimistic anticipation of good things every morning.
  5. I would give you healthy, meaningful relationships with good people.
  6. I would give you excellent, pain-free health so you could live your life to the fullest.
  7. I would give you happiness—no, scratch that. I’d give you joy, which, unlike happiness, isn’t diminished by our circumstances.
  8. I would give you a clear vision of your unique life assignment.
  9. I would give you financial provision to fulfill your life assignment and to have all the good things that accompany it.
  10. I would point you in the direction of the steps to fulfilling your life assignment so that you could earn the incomparable feeling of doing what you were made to do…I would “point you” rather than “give you” because only you can fulfill your life assignment.

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Grieving the Irreplaceable

Grieving the irreplaceableI lost someone who can never be replaced. I suppose that no one can truly be replaced, but there are some relationships that no one else can ever fill. Like losing your mother, father, brother, sister, or a beloved grandparent. There will always be others who come in and out of our lives like neighbors, coworkers, bosses, and others. It’s healthy to accept that these types of relationships may be for a season rather than for your whole life. There are no guarantees that anyone will be in our lives forever, but there are some relationships that are in a category all their own. These are the relationships with people who give us life or who so powerfully influence our lives that we will feel their imprint on us forever.

I have lost irreplaceable people before, so I know the unquenchable pain of losing a piece of your heart—a piece of your life that is never going to be there again—a part of you that’s so important, so interchangeably woven into the fabric of your being that you’re not sure who you are without that person—or if you even want to find out.

I lost my mother and father when I was a little girl. One day they were there—and the next day they were gone. I was too little to understand logic or explanations of why they chose to live their lives without me. I only knew that they were gone. I know intimately that others can try to fill those vacancies in our hearts, but the hard truth is that anyone who tries to fill that open space isn’t ever an exact match. Picture a jigsaw puzzle. There may be a piece that seems to fit–sort of. You can try to force it, but it will never be the exact fit.

Grieving the irreplaceable

When I met Janet, I was like a leaky bucket that would never be filled—I was so in need of a sense of worth and value, yet unable to believe that I was worthy of anything good.

When I lost my dear friend of forty years, I knew intuitively that the hole in my heart would never again be completely filled. You see Janet wasn’t just a casual friend. Janet knew me when I still lived with my abusers. She saw the shack I grew up in. She saw that I was dirty and dressed in clothes and shoes that were dirty, often had holes, and didn’t properly fit. She surely noticed that I smelled–we had no shower and I didn’t even own a toothbrush when I first met her. Despite all of those reasons that others shunned me at best and ridiculed me mercilessly at worst, Janet treated me the same way she treated everyone else. She included me, she joked with me, she made it ok to be me.

Through the years, I learned that I could truly trust her–something that doesn’t come easily to someone who has been through what I’ve been through. I learned through the experiences of her sticking with me as I made stupid decisions, that she never judged me or thought less of me. She didn’t preach to me or scold me, despite the fact that I probably could have benefitted from either or both. When I showed poor judgement, as I did on many occasions over our forty years together, she simply stood by me.

You can Google her name and not find a single picture of her. She had no website. She had only the wisp of a “digital footprint” in the form of a lone Facebook page that she never even uploaded her profile picture into. She didn’t care about clever “posts,” or “likes.” She didn’t follow Hollywood gossip or fashion trends. Although she was interested in theater and music, she was completely out of touch with who the actors, actresses, and famous musicians were. She didn’t care. Fame wasn’t a measurement of a person in Janet’s estimation.

Grieving the irreplaceable

Rhonda and Janet in New York City with a minion. It was classic Janet to have no idea what a minion was or what I was singing about when I broke out into the “Happy” song.

Wealth didn’t impress her either. As I went from the dirty young girl who often didn’t have enough to eat, to a financially prosperous business owner and investor, Janet’s opinion of me didn’t change. She cared only that I was a good person doing good in the world. THAT is what she asked about and on which she expressed her pleasure. She was oblivious to my house overlooking the ocean, luxury automobiles, and my matching shoes and handbags. She was clueless about name brands and designers, in fact, in Janet’s economy, anyone who’s purse was worth more than what was inside was probably foolish.

Janet’s big, hairy, audacious goal was to create an online program to help people who had been diagnosed with cancer. She wanted the program to help those who were at a crossroads in life to choose to find and follow their passions. Janet believed that cancer could be a turning point for those who were willing to make dramatic changes by focusing all of their attention to living out their passions, and in so doing, would be “flipping a switch” that engaged the systems of their body to fight and win against cancer (or whatever other life threatening diagnosis was trying to diminish their lives). Janet didn’t get to finish her project, and in the end, apologized to me. Can you believe it? She apologized as though she’d failed or somehow disappointed me.

The truth is that although Janet had an ambitious goal to help others, and was fully qualified to execute it down to the tiniest detail, doing so evidently wasn’t part of her Life Assignment. Janet had absolutely nothing to apologize for. She fulfilled her Life Assignment beautifully. She influenced so very many people that we will never know this side of Heaven what all she did, but this one thing I do know for sure: she changed me.

Grieving the irreplaceable

Showing the love of God to someone who’s never known love is the greatest thing any of us can ever do in this life.

Janet’s acceptance and love helped me to go from feeling like a caterpillar crawling around in the dirt, expecting at any moment to be stepped on by the next malicious beast who came along, into a beautiful butterfly, free to fly from here to there, touching people with my message of turning adversity into advantage, the message that it’s possible to use the lessons mined from pain to create a meaningful life.

I suspect that God knew that a 13 year old girl who had never been loved and didn’t know what love was, would only open up and receive love from another 13 year old girl—one who didn’t judge, didn’t look down on me, who never took offense at my very often rough, tough actions and words, who included me, was kind to me, joked around with me, and stuck with me through good times and bad. Giving love (expecting nothing in return) to someone who’s never known love is the greatest, and perhaps most difficult, thing that any of us can ever do in this life.

It took her all of our forty years together, but she finally taught me, with her life, that it was better to let the walls of defense down enough to enjoy people rather than continue to keep those walls up in ever-present expectation of being hurt. Janet thought everyone was interesting. She looked for the good in everyone, and seemed to always find it. I, on the other hand, have kept most people at arm’s length. My theory was that the closer the person is, the more likely it is that I’ll be hurt. And I’ve simply had all the hurt I can bear.

I have a litany of experiences I could recount that would support the wisdom of keeping the padlock on my heart locked tight. But as I process the fact that she’s gone on without me, that we’re not going to be “little old ladies” together, that there’ll be no more 5 hour conversations over endless cups of hot tea, I’m asking myself what of Janet can I take from her and incorporate into my life. How can I be part of the legacy of this amazing and wonderful woman who changed me forever by loving me when I was very difficult to love.

Grieving the irreplaceable

Janet Kay Reid loved me when I was very difficult to love. She was a priceless, irreplaceable gift.

There are likely to be many times in the future when I’ll realize Janet’s influence on me on one thing or another, but what I know so far is that I am going to let down the walls around me and let people into my life. I see now from Janet’s well lived life that I can let people into my life and into my heart, and that the fuller, richer life that will result will outweigh any hurt.

In the end, despite that Janet didn’t complete her big, audacious goal of a program for people diagnosed with life threatening disease, she did far more than that—she gave love freely, received love gladly, and taught others to love. The three most important things in this life are faith, hope, and love, and the greatest is love. Janet intuitively knew that—she had and shared all three freely with everyone within her influence.

I know from experience that there is life after the loss of an irreplaceable person. Life is never again as it once was or as we hoped it would be, but we realize that although we might have thought we wouldn’t be able to go on breathing, we do. Planet Earth continues to turn. And somehow, through okay days and awful days, we realize that a new normal exists. There is change, but the change is inside us. We’re better, wiser people for having had the honor of having those irreplaceable people in our lives.
Grieving the irreplaceable

www.rhonda.org

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Smart People Talk About Ideas

Great IdeaWhen I was in third grade, my teacher, Mrs. Elizabeth Coffey, told me that really intelligent people think and speak more about ideas than they do about other people. I have never forgotten that. I may not have been the most intelligent person in that class, but I have always tried to make up for in diligence what I may have lacked in brain power. Great Minds quoteI thought, “If that’s what smart people do, I’ll do that too !” I’ve since learned that emulating good mentors, whether they be good at relationships, business, investing, or whatever their expertise may be in, is a smart thing to do.

That concept of speaking more about ideas than I do about other people is so deeply engrained in me now that when I’m about to speak about someone else, I ask myself, “Does what I’m about to say put this person in a positive light, or conversely, will it influence others to think negatively about the person?” 

This doesn’t mean that I’ve never made a mistake in this area. I dislike confrontation, so it’s far easier for me to seek advice from others rather than going directly to the person with whom I have a problem and having a direct conversation.  There have been times when I’ve spoken to a trusted friend about a problem involving someone else, so speaking behind that person’s back was necessary to get advice on how to deal with the situation.  Similarly, as a business owner, there were times when I had to have conversations about employee performance with the employee’s supervisor to gain perspective on the quality of the person’s work on behalf of my company. But after gathering information to gain wisdom and perspective, it’s time to have a private conversation with the individual with whom you have a problem.

“What Comes out of your mouth is evidence of who you really are”

There have been times when I declined opportunities that looked amazing to others, but which I had no choice but to decline because I chose not invest time or resources with someone of questionable character or someone who demonstrates through speech or actions less than ethical intentions or motives. I have made discussing ideas rather than people a deliberate lifestyle, and there is no business deal or opportunity that is worth tarnishing my reputation or diminishing my quality of life.

So, if you want to create a life of true success and have everything that goes along with it, choose to speak more about ideas than about people. You just might find that one of your ideas could change the world!

Each of us has a limited number of hours in this life. Let’s spend our time helping others by speaking directly to them about what we’d like to see change rather than gossiping behind their backs to others.

Rhonda Sciortino head shotRhonda Sciortino, author of Succeed Because of What You’ve Been Through, used the coping skills from an abusive childhood to start her own business and develop it, along with her other investments, into a multi-million dollar balance sheet. Through her writing, speaking, and media appearances, she shares how others can use the obstacles in their lives as stepping stones to a great future. Connect with Rhonda at www.facebook.com/succeedbecause

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The Body Keeps the Score

by Dee Wilson

Bessel van der Kolk is one of the world’s leading experts on trauma and trauma treatment, and continues to be a creative and provocative researcher and scholar in a subject that is finally receiving the attention it deserves in child welfare. Van der Kolk’s recent book, The Body Keeps the Score, should be required reading for professionals and advocates interested in bringing trauma informed practice to public child welfare agencies, courts, training programs and child and family treatment agencies.

Van der kolk was a member of a group of trauma experts that developed the diagnosis of complex trauma in the early 1990s and lobbied unsuccessfully for its inclusion in the DSM-IV. His scorn for a diagnostic system that fails to distinguish acute trauma resulting from natural disasters or car accidents from chronic trauma perpetrated by caregivers is evident:

“This was a tragic exclusion (from DSM – IV). It meant that large numbers of patients could not be accurately diagnosed … You cannot develop a treatment for a condition that does not exist. Not having a diagnosis now confronts therapists with a serious dilemma: How do we treat people who are coping with the fall-out of abuse, betrayal and abandonment when we are forced to diagnose them with depression, panic disorder, bi-polar illness, or borderline personality, which do not really address what they are coping with?” And Van der kolk continues “To this day, after twenty years and four subsequent re-visions, the DSM and the entire system based on it fail victims of child abuse and neglect – just as they ignored the plight of veterans before PTSD was introduced back in 1980.”

Remarkably, almost the same series of events have occurred in recent years after Van der kolk and some of his colleagues in the National Child Traumatic Network articulated the diagnosis of Developmental Trauma Disorder to give traumatized abused and neglected children a single diagnosis rather than multiple diagnoses. In the proposal to the American Psychiatric Association they stated:

“Studies on the sequelae of childhood trauma in the context of caregiver abuse or neglect consistently demonstrate chronic and severe problems with emotion regulation, impulse control, attention and cognition, dissociation, interpersonal relationships, and self and relational schemas. In absence of a sensitive trauma specific diagnosis, such children are currently diagnosed with an average of 3-8 co-morbid disorders. The continued practice of applying multiple distinct co-morbid diagnoses to traumatized children has grave consequences: it defies parsimony, obscures etiological clarity, and runs the danger of relegating treatment and intervention to a small aspect of the child’s psychopathology rather than promoting a comprehensive treatment approach.”

Once again, however, the relevant DSM subcommittee rejected the proposal on the grounds that “no new diagnosis was required to fill a missing diagnostic niche,” a response which Van der kolk views as clueless, but which most likely reflects an ongoing stubborn resistance to any new diagnosis that would subsume multiple more familiar diagnoses, a denial likely based as much on considerations of power and authority among mental health experts, along with ready access to funding streams, as on intellectual differences among scholars. Clearly, some well-placed clinicians have viewed developmental trauma disorder as a predatory diagnosis with the potential to undermine established treatment protocols and practices. Unfortunately, Van der kolk does not address the interpersonal tensions and conflicts resulting from his evolving understanding of trauma with the same candor as Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery.

Body Awareness and Mindfulness

For years, Van der kolk’s perspective on recovery from trauma has been divergent from many other therapists and researchers. In The Body Keeps the Score, Van der kolk is critical to the point of dismissive of cognitive behavioral treatment (which he asserts helps only about a third of trauma victims) and other talk therapies, and less concerned with developing a trauma narrative than most other trauma therapists. Van der kolk was an early user and proponent of Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) which, unlike some experts, he does not view as an idiosyncratic version of CBT.

Van der kolk comments that “… my professional training, with its focus on understanding and insight, had largely ignored the relevance of the living, breathing body, the foundation of our selves.” He asserts that “many of my patients they could not feel whole areas of their bodies,” and were literally unable to identify objects that he put in their hands when their eyes were closed. According to Van der kolk, trauma victims may often feel disconnected from their bodies, and numb to their internal states, or feel constantly anxious and on edge, profoundly unsafe in their physical being as well as in social relationships. This is because the brain systems that monitor (for the most part unconsciously) “housekeeping” functions in the body such as breathing, appetite elimination, sleeping and waking have been overwhelmed by the perception of threat(s) resulting from the brain’s response to traumatic events and their aftermath. The body is on alert, activated by stress hormones to the extent that physical health is eventually harmed, according to Van der kolk, whose account of mental and emotional functioning has been greatly influenced by Antonio Damasio (see The Feeling of What Happens). Physiological dysregulation, in turn, leads to emotional dysregulation characterized by panic attacks, “meltdowns”, self-harm and other desperate survival strategies, according to Van der kolk.

Given this perspective regarding the suffering of trauma victims, Van der kolk has gravitated in his therapy toward practices developed in various spiritual traditions (especially Buddhism) to regulate internal states, for example mindfulness, meditation, yoga, physical practices like massage and dance, and scientific advances such as neuro-feedback. Feeling safe first means feeling connected to (i.e. aware of, sensitive to) the body and knowing how to calm down, in Van der kolk’s view. He is extraordinarily focused on slow conscious breathing (6 breaths per minute with a pause between breaths) as a means to both physiological and emotion regulation.

The Importance of Social Relationships

The normal response of children to danger is to seek out others for reassurance or protection; a baby’s or toddler’s attachment pattern is a survival strategy. But what if children have been severely harmed, or neglected, or abandoned or repeatedly humiliated by caregivers? The survival strategies these children employ when they fear and distrust caregivers, e.g., numbing, dissociation, rage, social isolation, bullying are likely to puzzle or frighten caregivers, teachers and peers and undermine the potential for stable committed parenting, friendship and intimacy. This is the challenge confronting caregivers, i.e., birth parents, foster parents, adoptive parents, as well as parent educators, therapists and other professionals who work with abused and neglected children and youth. Arguably, a disrupted capacity for intimacy in early adulthood is a common pathway to intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment.

Van der kolk emphasizes the importance of the experience of early nurturance in developing resilient responses to adversity. For the most part, Van der kolk asserts, children who recover quickly from trauma have strong, secure, positive relationships with attuned caregivers, which provides a reliable source of emotional safety in dangerous conditions. But what if children lack nurturing parenting, and/or have experienced multiple unplanned moves in foster care?

Van der kolk’s recommendations for facilitating recovery from early severe abuse and neglect are similar to those of Deborah Gray, Ann Gearity and other trauma experts:

“Since emotion regulation is the critical issue in managing the effects of trauma neglect, it would make an enormous difference if teachers, army sergeants, foster parents and mental health professionals were thoroughly schooled in emotion regulation techniques. Right now, this is mainly the domain of preschool and kindergarten teachers, who deal with immature brains and impulsive behavior on a daily basis …”

Van der kolk has an important cautionary message about the over dependence on psychotropic drugs and verbal therapies to suppress and manage undesirable child behavior. He writes:

“Mainstream Western psychiatric and psychological healing traditions have paid scant attention to self- management … other traditions from around the world rely on mindfulness, movement, rhythm and actions.”

Van der kolk goes on to mention yoga, tai chi, rhythmical drumming, martial arts, conscious breathing and meditation, but he adds “Aside from yoga, few of these popular non- Western healing traditions have been systematically studied for the treatment of PTSD.”

Agency: developing self- leadership

Despite his dismissive comments regarding “talk therapies”, some of Van der kolk’s most interesting chapters in The Body Keeps the Score are about psychodynamic approaches to re-enabling the capacity for agency seemingly lost at the time of traumatic events and subsequently. Van der kolk comments that “almost all (of his patients) had in some way been trapped or immobilized, unable to take action to stave off the inevitable. Their fight/ flight response had been thwarted and the result was either extreme agitation or collapse.” The experience of trauma victims suggests that it is psychologically devastating to be immobilized at a time of severe threat to life and bodily integrity. The self-loathing that so many survivors suffer from may, in part, arise from an inability to forgive oneself for what seems an unforgiveable failure of nerve.

Some readers may remember the outstanding American movie, “Fearless” (1993), about the survivors of a plane crash in which most of the passengers died. One of the story lines in the movie is about a woman who survived the crash but condemns herself for not holding on to her baby who died when the plane hit the ground. No amount of empathy or compassion, or words of understanding, can relieve her self-condemnation until the main character (played by Jeff Bridges) places the young woman in the front seat of his car with instructions to hold on to an object about the size of her deceased child, and then accelerates the car until they hit a wall. Both the Jeff Bridges character, whose take away from the plane accident is that he cannot die, and the mother whose baby died in the crash are injured (though not severely); and their family members are horrified. Nevertheless, the young mother is released from a self-loathing that made it impossible for her to function or accept the love of her husband, extended family and friends. The Jeff Bridges character has a different challenge: he must relearn the fear of death.

Anyone who doubts whether severe life threatening neglect ( often combined with destitution) can be traumatic should read Marilynne Robinson’s extraordinary new novel, Lila, about a young woman who at age 3 or 4 lacked a name or identifiable caregiver and was in danger of starvation or death from exposure to the elements. Lila is rescued and mothered by a homeless woman who drifts from place to place. As a young adult, Lila is redeemed by the love of an elderly minister who must overcome her distrust and expectation of rejection. Lila is not redeemed from sin but from a deep sense of her worthlessness. Like many other trauma victims, she believes herself to be godforsaken, literally a non-entity in the eyes of others.

In the chapter, “Putting the Pieces Together: Self Leadership,” Van der kolk describes Internal Family Systems therapy (IFS), the goal of which is to integrate the fragmented parts of the self. Van der kolk states that “At the core of IFS is the notion that the mind of each of us is like a family in which the members have different levels of maturity, excitability, wisdom and pain.” And he continues, “In trauma, the self-system breaks down, and parts of the self become polarized and go to war with one another.”

Like other psychic families, IFS views the self as having three parts with distinct roles: “exiles” ( the toxic rejected parts of the person), “managers” ( critical and perfectionistic) and “firefighters” (emergency responders who act impulsively “whenever an emotion triggers an exiled emotion”). All three parts have an important role to play in protecting the self from “the full terror of annihilation.”

The goal of IFS as described by Van der kolk is to cultivate “mindful self- leadership” through compassion and curiosity regarding every aspect of the self and what trauma victims have done to survive. Non- judgmental curiosity is the therapeutic lynch pin of IFS; but the underlying belief is that the self that we aspire to does not have to be cultivated or developed. Van der kolk asserts that:

“Beneath the surface of the protective parts of trauma survivors there exists an undamaged essence, a Self that is confident, curious and calm, a Self that has been sheltered from destruction by the various protectors that have emerged in their efforts to ensure survival. Once those protectors trust that it is safe to separate, the Self will spontaneously emerge, and the parts can be enlisted in the healing process.”

Summary

Van der kolk’s account of recovery from trauma has practical meaning for child welfare systems and for professionals who work with abused and neglected children:

· Safety means not just physical safety but the experience of deep connection to and awareness of the body, so that the survivor’s body and brain are not always, or even usually, on alert. Activities that mobilize purposeful enjoyable physical movements have great therapeutic potential.
· Emotion regulation begins with body awareness especially awareness of breathing, and, in young children, requires the willingness to turn to caregivers for help when they feel vulnerable.
· The capacity to develop and sustain social support necessary for both protection and a sense of security begins with experiences of early nurturance, i.e., attunement, between caregivers and very young children. Managing behavior through consequences and damping down aggressive behavior with drugs is not a substitute for the experience of attuned caregiving.
· A renewed capacity for personal agency is created by the acceptance of split-off parts of the self, a therapeutic process enabled by non-judgmental curiosity regarding the complex array of behaviors and internal processes deployed by victims to survive.

References

Damasio, Antonio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness , Harcourt, Inc. 1999.

Fearless, starring Jeff Bridges, Isabella Rossellini and Rosie Perez; screenplay by Rafael Yglesias from his novel, directed by Peter Weir, 1993

Robinson, Marilynne, Lila, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

Van der kolk, Bessel, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Viking, 2014.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s and are not intended to reflect the views of Casey Family Programs or any other organization.

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Top Ten Ways You Know You Had a Rough Childhood

1. You try to help others who have it rough—it doesn’t matter how busy you are, you do what you can to help others who are going through tough times.

2. You are crazy about fairness. You can’t stand unfairness or injustice—you’ve experienced a lot of unfairness, and you can’t stand to see anyone treated unfairly. You stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves.

3. You work three times harder than anybody else, and you will never, ever give up—you know that there are lots of people who came from solid families, were given what you’ve had to earn, and had lots of good breaks in life, but that doesn’t stop you. You make up in hard work and good attitude for whatever you don’t have.

4. You know that your experiences don’t limit you, but rather qualify you—you know people who had every advantage, but who aren’t able to do some of the things you can do. Because they haven’t been through tough times, they haven’t learned how to figure things out. They don’t know how to read people’s faces, how to figure out who’s in charge, how to get along with difficult people… in other words, they aren’t street savvy. And sometimes, street smarts and common sense makes the difference between success and failure.

5. You run toward problems rather than away from them—you are unable to look the other way and pretend something bad isn’t happening. You don’t shirk responsibilities. You may not know how to solve a problem, but you can be counted on to try to do something to make the situation better.

6. You can handle just about anything because you’ve handled worse—because you’ve been through tough times, you know there is nothing in your life now that can be that bad. You know that challenges are temporary, and one way or the other, the situation will improve.

7. You can get along with just about anybody because you learned how to go along to get along—you figured out how to survive a tough childhood when you were too little and too vulnerable to do anything about your circumstances. There were times when you got through it by going along. That valuable lesson of knowing when to go along to get along serves you well in your adult life.

8. You are fiercely loyal to the people who’ve helped you. and you NEVER, ever forget someone who’s helped you—you remember the teacher who was nice, the kid who invited you to his birthday party, and the neighbor who included you in their family events. You would do just about anything for the people who have been kind to you.

9. You are protective over the people who’ve helped you—you know you’ll lose your good sense and all self-control if anyone tries to harm the people who’ve helped you. You’ll move Heaven and Earth to protect those who have done good by you.

10. You’ll take calculated risks to improve your life—you’ve made it through tough stuff before, and succeed or fail, you’ll make it through the risk you’re taking. You’ve built a good life, and you know you could do it again if you had to.

If you’ve had a rough childhood, I’d like to know what YOUR thoughts on how you survived, how your experiences shaped you, and what you learned. Post your comments at www.facebook.com/succeedbecause. I read every one, and will respond to you.

sb logoRhonda Sciortino, author of Succeed Because of What You’ve Been Through, became a ward of the court at 6 months old. For most of the first 16 years of her life, she was raised by a mentally ill man and an alcoholic woman in an abusive, emotional roller coaster of a childhood.

Rhonda emancipated from the child welfare system at age 16 and used the coping skills from her childhood survival to start her own business and develop it, along with her other investments, into a multi-million dollar balance sheet. She credits a brief stay with a wonderful foster family for teaching her that there was a better way to live. Through her writing, speaking, online courses, radio show, and media appearances, she shares how others can mine the lessons out of what they’ve been through, and succeed because of them.

Rhonda serves as the Child Welfare Specialist for Markel Insurance Company, spokesperson for Foster Care Alumni of America, and the chairperson for Successful Survivors Foundation.

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