Sean Williams is Headteacher at the Forge Pupil Referral Unit in Redditch. The following is a talk given at the AGM of the St Paul’s homeless charity in Worcester.
Thank you Claire for the introduction. Yes I used to be a PE teacher in Worcestershire and before that I worked as a teacher and care worker in a residential childrens’ home in London. I’ve got 15 minutes to talk to about my 8 years of discoveries at The Forge – and I could talk all day! So This talk has is framed to keep me in check, framed into three key parts:
- Defining trauma and health
- How trauma effects us
- Using relationships and society to safeguard and heal from trauma
I welcome your thoughts and associations as I take you through these discoveries I’ve learned a great deal about humanity in this line of work – I’ve learned of the remarkable depths of our human capacity to both flourish and to suffer. I’ve learned of the importance of ‘suffering well’ in developing our own human capacities – to care, play, be creative and make the most of what life has to offer.
However, ‘suffering well’ is something that cannot be achieved alone – put simply I have learned an inescapable truth – we need the hearts and minds of others to flourish.
But what happens when for good reason, reasons we are about to explore we develop a mind, a heart, a biology that doesn’t trust or feel safe with others? What then?
Defining trauma and health
The violation of the expectancy of safety with another”
Porges Melbourne Conference 2014
“A psychologically distressing event outside the range of usual human experience. It involves a sense of intense fear, terror, and helplessness, and may lead to a variety of effects, depending on the child.
Examples include child neglect, abuse, domestic violence, parental imprisonment or abandonment, a family member’s serious mental illness or substance abuse problem, highly conflicted divorce situations, as well as experiencing serious accidents, disasters, war, or acts of terrorism.
Trauma is pervasive – it affects us all. Some argue that society itself is traumatic and many of our cultural practices are making it increasingly difficult to feel safe in the world on a daily basis.
Those of us who are lucky, are born into worlds where we are loved held and delighted in, born into a world of rich relations and rich opportunity. We are played with, touched and enjoyed for who we are and how we feel.
We, as infants realise early on that we have an affect on others and can elicit a helpful response from people around us, we can then operate from a place of emotional safety, we feel that we are special, we are safe and that our needs will be met in the world. This supports us to explore – explore who we are and who others are. We develop, we grow, we connect deeply to those in and of the world around us. Setbacks, difficulties, losses, endings, disappointments and misunderstandings can all be recovered from – relationally and we settle back to growth, health and restoration. We are resilient.
Through this ever deepening understanding of self and other, we develop compassion and empathy, confidence and skills. We go out into the world and ‘pay forward’ with a sense of gratitude and authentic pride the love and richness we ourselves have received. We work in the main, as a force for good.
How trauma affects us
However, Many of us are born into a world of adversity. A world where the people who were meant to love and care for us don’t, won’t or can’t, often through no fault of their own.
A poem from one of our pupils a few years ago captures some of the challenges she faced growing up ..
It was the year 2000 & I was born
I was took from me Mam & she was torn
When I was 5 I moved in with me Mam’s sister
All because of me Mam’s new Mister
My Mam was on drugs & so was he
Even though they were happy, they didn’t care about me
I used to visit me Mam & find bare drugs
Mostly amphetamine from all the little mugs
When I was 9 my Mam was blessed with a bundle of joy
Early in March she had a beautiful baby boy
Unfortunately he wasn’t with us that long
Because my Mum was still doing things wrong
So what happens to us, to our relationships when we can’t turn to others for love and care?
Daniella Sieff in her book Understanding and Healing Emotional Trauma writes:
“When our experiences are unbearably frightening or painful, particularly if there is no one we can turn to for emotional support, a damaging imprint is left on our mind, brain and body, sending our lives onto a different path. We are driven by a hidden fear of retraumatisation which is burnt deeply into our brains and bodies. We dissociate from our emotions, as well as from any parts of our personality which have attracted disapproval. We come to experience ourselves within the distorting framework of shame, believing that we are fundamentally defective and inadequate. As a result the way we relate to ourselves, to other people and to the world around us is compromised and distorted.”
Studies, such as Felitti and Anda Adverse Childhood Experiences study have shown that adversity in the absence of an emotionally available adult changes our biology. Our nervous systems become primed to expect and often create danger.
We lose our capacity to play, care and be cared for and go out into the world and explore, join in, collaborate.
We become unwell, addicted, we die young.
Socially this can manifest as Homelessness, incarceration, disembodied and dismembered existence, set apart from society – unknown, misunderstood, unseen and unheard.
As life unfolds, once traumatized we may turn to something other than relationship to bring us relief from pain and distress, however, this ‘something’ whatever it is leads us to even more pain and distress as we remain disconnected from our selves, our bodies and our world.
Loneliness follows. To compensate we overdose on work, drugs, alcohol, spending, exercise, food, none of which fill the gaps that a lack of intimacy – feeling felt, understood, being known, – the sense of wellbeing and belonging that connection really brings.
To make matters worse, our shift in biology means that we don’t trust kindness. We provoke and evoke responses in people around us that confirm our belief that we are alien, unlovable and unwanted. We create and recreate the traumatic circumstances that changed us in the first place – stuck in an endless cycle – repeating the painful and distressing events of our childhood, or our parents lives and their parents before them.
Using relationship and society to safeguard and heal
How then do we relate as a society to the adults and children – who through no fault of their own – have been shaped biologically by relational experience to feel: alone, to mistrust others so deeply that they find themselves on the margins of humanity refusing adamantly that they cannot and will not step back in?
How do we relate to such powerful levels of despair, shame and rage without becoming traumatised ourselves and losing our own capacity for joy, love and connection?
In a society where people have ‘adapted’ to survive in the harshest of conditions and have been labelled: insane, maladjusted, criminal, in need of medicalisation or antisocial, vile, monstrous, or just in some way the other – how do we now relate to traumatised minds and bodies with the knowledge that the adaptations that these hearts and minds will have made were were nothing short of heroic attempts to survive in the harshest of conditions?
At the Forge we feel the answer is simple, but not easy. I repeat. At the Forge we feel the answer is simple but not easy and we wonder if this approach may offer some hope for society at large as we face interesting global politics such as ideologies based on building walls to keep people out and moving away from connection with our global neighbours but not really knowing if it’s what we want or in our best interests.
We are born into and made in relationship and this relationship – this ‘between -ness’ must have certain qualities if we are to develop into creative, loving, playful adults with a capacity to fight for what’s important and go out into the world with confidence and meaning.
As we have explored, there are ways of relating that are traumatising our minds and bodies. It stands to reason that there are also ways of relating that bring people back to life – back to connection.
Jonathan and I started this from trauma to creativity in our organisations simply by changing the question we asked from:
‘What’s the matter with you?’ To – ‘what’s happened to you?’
This question over time has moved to ‘what are we doing for each other, between each other to support the ‘biology’ that leads to connection and safety rather than threat and dissociation?’
We changed the quality of the relational experience for all in our organisations so that people can experience relationships that bring about connection, reflection, restoration and recovery.
We ensure that staff have access to the physical and emotional resources, care and support that promotes resilience and creativity. After all, leaders need to give their team the experience they wish the team to give its clients. Some people believe that if we make life too safe, too nurturant for people they will slacken off; we have found the opposite to be true.
Becoming an emotionally available adult supports people to use life in a way that develops resilience, helps people to stay connected and involved – it lessens our propensity to avoid, withdraw or fight.
By no means does trauma informed practice make everything perfect, it is not magic. It leads to self awareness, painful self reflection and a capacity to really be with another. The application of the science and wisdom that comes with this work in my direct experience has led to growth and change in very many of the members of our community, both staff and pupils.
To finish, I’d like to leave with you with a note given to one of our emotionally available adults who work with the young girl who wrote the poem at the beginning of our talk today.
When everyone was leaving my life I promised myself I would never trust or grow to like any new people who entered my life but the minute we talked I instantly knew I could trust you.
You haven’t been an authority figure to me you have been more like a friend & I have nothing but respect for you because of this.
I have this fear of people leaving me & in a way this is how it feels – like you are leaving me but I know if you had a choice you wouldn’t.
To be honest, I wish that you had entered my life sooner, when I needed someone more permanent than I had. I don’t know if you know this but you’ve got me through a lot & you care about me more than anyone else ever has done before. I’m so thankful for the time I’ve had with you to talk. I’m going to miss you more than I can explain – and I don’t miss people often xxx
From B xx