Toxic Stress for Christmas

When I go around speaking about trauma I will mention ‘toxic stress’ and inevitably someone coming from wealth and stability will think they identify due to his/her personal stress level. And I think – how do I get this across? That this is stress of a wholly different caliber? Maybe this scenario will be my new go to…I am keeping this gender neutral because it could apply to a number of students I know. Christmas break should be fun, right? I’ve had a couple of students this week tell me they wish school was back in session.

His ACE (adverse childhood experiences – max 10) score is up to 7. She is living a 7. This is not past tense, it’s current. He is 17 years old. The number is a little too clean really – useful for quantifying – if that is possible – the amount of stress this kid deals with daily – but lacking descriptive language that fleshes out her reality.

I figure he gets a point each for:
watching her mother being beaten
being punched himself in the side of the head
being humiliated by her father, who has told her to go sell herself on Broadway
living with a family that does not support each other
having a sister who is incarcerated
living with someone who uses illegal drugs
living with someone who suffers from mental illness

He doesn’t get a point for being raised by a single parent since both parents are home– but in this case is that a good thing? It doesn’t seem like it to me.

With me she is polite and thankful. During discussions he displays insight beyond his years, and wisdom. But with friends and family she is quick to fight. And why wouldn’t he be? Her cortisol (stress hormone) levels have to be out of whack. He says he is tired of walking on egg shells at home and can never let his guard down. I visualize the slide I have illustrating the subconscious autonomic nervous system – an erratic red line on a graph going high, low, high, low. That has to be her.

The police have been called. So have youth protective services. Dad shouldn’t be home but Mom keeps letting him back in. Mom is never home because she works 2 jobs to make ends meet – she is out of the house 15 hours a day. Dad can’t hold a job because of behavior issues. It’s exhausting.

Where can I make a difference here? I certainly cannot fix this situation. I can be a loving presence; I can help her focus on what gets her through. I am not in a position to bring him home – and I am not sure that would be the answer anyway. Family and friends are all in close proximity; social media and cell phones bring them even closer, and I would impose restrictions, which she would rail against
And that can’t be what I am called to do – to remove all these youth from their lousy circumstances. But dropping this one off at home after responding to a desperate call to pick him up at an angry friend’s house – I find myself fervently praying that she doesn’t walk into violence in her own home. That I won’t get a phone call telling me he is injured. I feel inadequate, impotent against this force of darkness. She assured me she would be okay.

His plan tonight is to babysit his nephew. Maybe at that house it will be quiet enough that she can get some schoolwork done. Because he knows that education is his way out and he is determined to go to college. I just pray she will hold on.


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