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Why Trauma-Informed Care Made All the Difference in My Treatment

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I am a trauma survivor. For 10 years, I had been misdiagnosed and treated for bipolar disorder after my fourth attempt to take my life. Never did I think I was struggling with trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I had only understood PTSD as a disorder affecting soldiers who went to war. However, little did I know, for the last 20 years I was experiencing symptoms of childhood trauma. A trauma that I kept a secret until my fifth and most recent suicide attempt.

As a child, somewhere between the ages of 9 and 12, I was sexually and physically abused by my father. I was always raised with the idea that if I don’t think about what is bothering me, it will go away. However, someone who is dealing with untreated trauma is a ticking time bomb. For me, my emotions seeped out in “bad” behaviors: hypersexual behavior, substance use and self-harming behavior. I would become explosive, leading to my multiple suicide attempts. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and took a mood stabilizer and an anti-seizure medication to treat it.

In February 2020, I left my husband and kids in Washington, D.C., to travel West. I checked myself into a mental health facility in Tucson, Arizona. When you first enter the property, there is a sign that says “Expect A Miracle.” It seemed so cheesy. After all, I’ve been through almost 20 years of traditional therapy and up until a week before I arrived, I had attempted to take my life. What were the chances I was going to achieve a miracle after 30 days? Regardless, I went into the whole situation with an open mind, ready to work on myself.

Unbeknownst to me, this treatment center, recommended by a couple’s counselor, was focused on trauma-informed care, or TIC. In my trauma-informed environment, I never felt judged, at least not by my doctors or the staff. They were careful with their language. Even when residents used negative language to describe themselves, the clinicians would never let it slide. Once during an individual session, I remember telling my therapist that I was a bad child who was promiscuous and took whatever drugs I was given. She immediately told me she didn’t like that language. She explained I was not a bad person. I simply did what I needed to do to cope with life after my trauma. Realizing that something wasn’t wrong with me was life-changing.

More importantly, I received care that was so different than the traditional therapy I was accustomed to, and I found more effective with immediate benefits. At this treatment center, their focus was not to treat the symptoms, but to treat the cause. I feel like this type of therapy was crucial to my recovery. It was there I learned that my bipolar disorder was a misdiagnosis. After all, symptoms of my PTSD mimicked that of bipolar disorder. I actually allowed my bipolar diagnosis to control many aspects of my life, and many times I used it as an excuse for my behavior. In treating the cause, my clinicians were able to take me off of my bipolar medications and start over.

In treatment, I worked on holistic therapies that helped me discover that my childhood sexual abuse was not the only trauma I was suffering from. Through a genogram, I learned that I also experienced developmental trauma from my mother. In learning this, I was able to understand my maladaptive behaviors and identify the coping skills I needed to change years of thinking.

In treating my trauma from the sexual abuse, my therapists were careful to avoid re-traumatization. The staff and clinicians were resolute in making sure we listened to our bodies. If we were tired, they wanted us to rest, even if that meant missing a group. The staff understood that trauma work was exhaustive and never forced anyone to push their limits. This allowed residents to work at their own pace, setting them up for success.

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Once it was time for me to be discharged, it was recommended that I step down to a partial hospitalization program, or PHP. In searching for one back home in Washington, D.C., to be closer to my family, I found it difficult to find a treatment center that was trauma-informed. Substance use rehabilitation centers dominate the treatment space on the East coast. However, I was lucky enough to find a place in South Florida that had an EMDR therapist, which was a sign that they do some trauma-informed work. It was also near my in-laws where I would be able to be with my children.

It wasn’t until I checked into my new treatment facility that I realized the difference between a facility that was trauma-informed and one that was not. Most of the group therapy sessions at my new facility focused on substance use rather than trauma. In my previous treatment center, the staff made efforts to reduce shame and to uphold the dignity of each resident by focusing on their strengths and resources rather than their weaknesses or difficulties. Unfortunately, my second treatment center did no such thing. There were many times process groups were highjacked by residents voicing their concerns about how disrespectful and triggering the residential technicians were to each resident, making it difficult for them to focus on their own recovery. At my PHP, I realized that many of the technicians were not only disrespectful, but bullies.

Implementing TIC requires a shift in philosophy and a clinical approach to assessment and treatment. Treating the cause and not the symptoms is a simple example of this adjustment that requires staff to learn new practices and techniques in working with clients. It allows patients to seek care with dignity in a safe environment where healing and recovery is the main focus. If it wasn’t for my TIC treatment, I can’t say I would be as far along in my healing. Maybe if more treatment centers employed TIC, more people would be able to find their miracle as I did, and a real path toward recovery.

Getty image by Prostock-Studio

Originally published: October 21, 2020
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