The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Introduction: Rebuilding After Trauma
Represent Staff

Our minds are wonderfully creative when it comes to dealing with trauma.

One common response to something unbearable, including childhood abuse and neglect, is dissociation. Dissociation is mentally removing ourselves from frightening situations.

Many survivors describe the feeling of leaving their bodies when abuse is happening. That protects us, but it can have lingering effects. People who’ve dissociated from trauma, particularly ongoing trauma, may not know why their heart starts pounding in response to a certain smell or sound.

Because the emotions stirred by the trauma were so intense, they effectively shut down the story-building part of your brain. You may have trouble piecing together coherent memories of the trauma. The memories are more like fragments than full chapters.

A person who’s been through trauma then has to reconstruct a meaningful story out of those fragments. And often, they aren’t emotionally ready to revisit feelings and experiences of what happened.

They may still need the protection of the dissociation to distance themselves from the pain. That may mean filling in gaps in their memory, or covering up the difficult feelings with wishful or invented feelings and experiences.

In this issue, writers describe fantasizing, giving themselves over to others’ fantasies, and hiding the full truth from others and themselves.

Others process what’s happened by writing about their experiences, or making paintings about things they’ve had trouble facing directly.

Creating a Better Life

Blocking out and replacing the awful events is part of creating the joyful or impressive or good-enough life we all want.

In "Liar, Liar, Life on Fire," Bianca writes, “Dissociation by lying helped me deal with foster care. When bad things happened to me, such as a new placement or a reunification attempt gone wrong, my lies helped me forget reality. When I lied, my family’s dysfunction didn’t define me.... I got to be normal.”

For youth in care, there are additional challenges.

Many foster youth have been told to hide the truth, sometimes even with threats. K.G.’s mother told her that she must conceal her father’s domestic violence: “She said that if I told anyone, they would both go to jail.” K.G. was in the 2nd grade.

So youth in care often have very good reasons to invent or lie. It can be a creative form of resilience and a way of visualizing the life they want.

But given that lying may eventually get someone in trouble, what responsibility does a supportive adult have to help guide a young person closer to the truth?

How Workers Can Help

Therapist Elizabeth Kandall says she never confronts a traumatized youth about a lie. “The onus is on the adult to ask a question that can be answered honestly,” she says.

image by YC-Art Dept

An adult should be careful to ask a youth who has experienced trauma the right questions at the right time. That empowers the youth. With gentle questioning and support, a young person will take their own steps toward wholeness. (See “Bringing Trauma Into View.”)

Trina McCune, in “Easier to Write It,” describes the responses that helped her heal from her childhood sexual abuse: “It wasn’t your fault.” “No matter what, I’m here for you.”

Hearing these words was a relief, but for years she still couldn’t talk about the abuse with anyone.

She could, however, write what happened in a notebook. “Writing was still hard, but I could stop whenever I wanted to,” she writes.

Feeling a sense of control over communication is crucial. Here at Represent, we editors sometimes work with writers for years. As the teens write drafts of their stories, we pepper them with questions for the writer to consider: “How long did you live there? Who else lived there? How did you feel about that foster parent? Can you write a scene that illustrates that?”

Early drafts might skip entire years or include scenes that seem drawn more from a movie than from life.

But as writers fill in the details of their lives in story after story, they gain emotional strength and feel less need to protect themselves from trauma in their past. They allow more into the narrative. Writing, alongside an adult editor, feels like “safe space” in part because it gives the writer control.

Even if the writer isn’t out of danger as she’s writing, she has the identity of “writer” to distance her from the subject of the story. She’s not a victim; she’s a survivor, and a sophisticated detective. The writers in this issue look back on their own coping techniques with astonishing insight.

That takes time. K.G. writes in this, her fifth Represent story, about facing the fact that her late father abused her mother. In her first few stories, she wrote about herself as competent, which she is, and able to control the adults around her, which she isn’t.

Here she admits for the first time that dwelling on memories of her father’s abuse makes her feel “afraid and powerless.” She adds, “These are emotions I’ve tried so hard to ignore, but acknowledging them makes me realize I don’t ever want to make anyone else feel the same way.”

Turning back and looking at the abuse doesn’t kill her; it helps her grow. But she had to arrive there in her own time.

Bianca similarly observes, “When I tell people what happened to me, I tap into a place inside of me that I have always been scared to release. Before, I always avoided this moment of self-awareness because I was scared of what might arise in the process; the emotions, the heartbreak, and what it all means. I fear that everything I have fought to create for myself is a lie and everything bad that happened to me was my fault.”

Now, Bianca works with foster youth and that helps her open up. “I have my teachers, friends, and foster care community to remind me that I am not facing this alone like I was in care, and that I have the opportunity to accept my truth and get support with my journey into the future.”

For Bianca, K.G., Trina, and the others, a feeling of wholeness starts with accepting the worst things that happened. Then they fit those fragments of memory into a more truthful, more integrated self-portrait.

Those who’ve done this here at Represent extend that wholeness from an individual to a community by sharing their stories.

As Bianca puts it, “In the future, I see me being my most authentic self, without fear of ridicule from others. I already notice that my vulnerability gives me the courage to accept that my trauma wasn’t my fault and neither was my way of coping.”

Adults should acknowledge, even celebrate the creativity youth have used to rebuild themselves out of shattered childhoods, without judgment. That acceptance and understanding will allow youth—over time—to tell a fuller story, painful parts and all.

As Trina writes, “The abuse is part of me,” but now that she’s expressed it her way, it no longer controls her.

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