From Pain to Progress: Transforming Systems to Put Patients at the Center

From Pain to Progress: Transforming Systems to Put Patients at the Center

Anonymous Guest Blog

Catalyst Center held a series of conversations with diverse providers and trauma survivors from varied sectors to discuss how to address Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), human-centered approaches to healing, and cross-sector collaboration to mitigate the toxic stress response and curb the cycle of intergenerational trauma.

My lived experience lies at the intersection of the Me Too movement, child advocacy, and the need for trauma-informed civil courts that prioritize safely honoring survivor stories without inflicting shame, blame, and guilt, to reposition survivors and their dependents at the center. I have been harmed by outdated, bureaucratic, legalistic processes put in place by privileged autocrats who have no training in cultural responsivity, Adverse Childhood Experiences, or trauma-informed care, and I have a lot to say about it.

I have sat within circles of sisterhood within the Me Too movement, stood together with sisters from all walks of life, as we all declared "never again," and then were disappointed by a broken civil court system that failed to recognize our stories and support our needs.

I co-parent my children with my abuser, whom the court assigned joint custody. Being forced to communicate with him on a regular basis is a triggering event for me. I often shake with uncontrolled vulnerability, which is what my toxic stress looks like in action.

I watch my children suffer daily from the effects of their Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and advocate out of pocket for all of their needs that were denied by a court and judge that stigmatized mental health, blamed me for what happened to me, and left the optional burden on my plate to provide behavioral healthcare, alone for me to bear financially.

The power of parent advocacy

My life is a complex web of navigating my own trauma and toxic stress, while simultaneously supporting and advocating for my children, through their many adversities, to mitigate their toxic stress response, and bring a sense of calm, loving, and nurturing consistency to their lives. We all have asthma, eczema, and gastrointestinal issues, which I now know are ACE-Associated Health Conditions, or AAHCs (p17), meaning we have real, negative health outcomes that manifest from our toxic stress. This is extremely scary to address, as our ACEs manifest as emotional and psychological reactions to our experiences that are taken out on our bodies. Doctors can see the symptoms, but the root cause—the actual ACEs themselves—are invisible. But we are not.

As a parent advocate, one of my strengths that I developed is learning how to navigate the healthcare industry to get the support my children and I need from providers who are still learning what the toxic stress response is, and it’s biomarkers for detection and intervention. If you’re lucky enough to have a provider who offers ACE screening, you’ve got one foot in the door, but if your provider does not offer ACE screenings, there’s still a lot you can do to initiate the conversation about yours and/or your child’s toxic stress symptomologies, which I’ve laid out for you here:  

1. Discuss the concerns you have about you or your child with your doctor/pediatrician. Name the adversities and explain their root cause. (When the appointment is over, make sure you take a mindful moment and center yourself, as discussing these adversities can be triggering.)

2. Then focus on the physical and behavioral health symptoms to allow a clear conversation with the doctor/pediatrician on how to treat current negative health outcomes (e.g., eczema, asthma, digestion, anxiety, nightmares, etc.) and prevent additional negative health outcomes due to “toxic stress.” Specifically name this condition “toxic stress,” as it is a buzz word that doctors know, even if they don’t screen for it. This way they will pay attention to treating the physical health symptoms associated with the condition and not brush it off.

3. Regardless of ACE screening availability, prioritize the 7 stress busters (and other available resources) that mitigate the toxic stress response: supportive relationships, quality sleep, balanced nutrition, physical activity, access to nature (try combining with physical activity!), mindfulness practices, and mental healthcare. While we may tend to already do most of these things, reprioritizing them in realistic ways with intention will be most impactful.

Bolstering social connectedness and community supports

I cannot emphasize enough how much a support network can make a difference in the life of someone who is suffering. Society is taught to stigmatize ACEs and trauma and to punish the survivor through shame, blame, and guilt, which creates deeper isolation and a hesitancy to come forward in asking for help. This is especially true for people of color and/or under-represented groups who have experienced multiple and often overlapping systemic barriers that place blame and the onus of responsibility upon the person harmed to heal themselves. What is often not discussed, and yet commonly ensues, is deeper isolation and resistance to come forward by the person harmed due to distrust of systems that have caused historical harm. A supportive figure in one’s life can be a game-changer for guiding the survivor toward resources and being their champion, at a time when things might feel as if they are hopeless. I know that I will forever be grateful to my OBGYN, who screened me for Intimate Partner Violence, and ultimately directed me toward A Community for Peace, where I finally found the courage to seek resources for me and my children, where my experiences were validated, and my voice was honored. It was here that I found my new beginning through the healing I so desperately needed.

Recovery requires a commitment to hope; transformation requires systemic change

My hope in my recovery is that with my children, we will break the intergenerational cycle of trauma. I believe that helping my children in their recovery journeys and working with their healthcare providers to treat their physical and psychological symptoms of toxic stress will eventually lead them to their own sense of centered healing, where their needs are completely met and addressed, and they are then able to extend and share of themselves with others in a safe, loving, and supportive way to foster a new, healed generation with a fresh start. I wish this for all of those who are suffering.

Systemically, I wish to see a transformative and unified network of care that puts children and families at the center, and offers targeted care navigation to ease the burden off of survivors. This network of care should align the needs and functional operations across sectors to address the social risk factors that impact ACEs and toxic stress, particularly for populations disproportionately impacted by systemic and structural inequalities. It’s also time to redefine human-centered civil court systems. These voices and stories have just not been heard, and it’s time to unlock the veil of secrecy behind how these systems work, for whom they truly benefit, and what options are available to move toward a more equitable judicial process. We can begin by educating judges on ACEs and toxic stress so they can recognize and validate the risk factors, to then support safe environments and resources that encourage protective factors.

ACEs are amenable to treatment, and systems were meant to be transformed. Let’s achieve both— in partnership together. Please share this story, and inquire how you can leverage your support. Together we can move the needle to ensure that we cut toxic stress in half in one generation!

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