Before the Master's Degree and the clinical license, before the online trainings and podcasts, or the webinars and cross-country speaking gigs, I had been a scared little girl who'd been hurt many times.
Yearning to be understood.
Desperate to be known.
And scared to death that deep down, underneath it all, I was truly unlovable.
This sense of being unloveable doesn't come from nowhere.
When you're a kid surrounded by untreated mental illness, addiction, rage attacks,
your parents' volatile marriage, chronic moving and changing of schools... it's safe to say that these things leave their impact.
Moreover, without anyone to help identify what any of these things are, or how they've affected us, we simply learn to adapt to them. To cope. To keep going. To survive.
I'd had moments when I felt pure delight in life... I felt safe, loved, important, enjoyed. Moments when I soaked in the attention my older brothers would shower upon me. Moments of waiting by the window with excitement for my parents to come home from work so I could run outside and greet them. Those were really good, really beautiful moments.
Yet, when those moments are mixed with abrupt mood changes, fits of terrifying rage, or when it turns out that those are the people who hurt you the most, and when that hurt goes unacknowledged or is minimized and ridiculed... that soft and fuzzy version of you starts to become something else.
It starts to harden.
It starts to distrust.
It starts to "act out."
These kind of experiences create in a kid a deep need for love and belonging that is
hidden behind a veneer of some kind... the "tough guy," the "good girl," the brains, the rebel, the mascot, the athlete.
Something more predictable.
The chaos, shame and pain that had embedded itself into my body and the core of my being led me to develop the symptoms of a "troubled teen" who really needed help:
>> Increased withdrawal and loneliness
>> Crying myself to sleep most nights
>> Hating everything about myself
>> Increased apathy toward schoolwork, despite my brightness
>> Inability to focus and regular disruptions in class
>> Grades that reflected only a fraction of my potential
>> Weight gain, weight loss, eating to the point of numbness
Which then escalated into...
>> Talking back or swearing at teachers I wasn't close with
>> Threatening fights with classmates
>> Getting picked on by others
>> Regular Absences
>> Suspension for sexualized behavior
>> A don't-fuck-with-me scowl that I wore on a regular basis
I was a mess. And the truth was... my teachers knew it. In the years since, when I've spoken with them, they've acknowledged that they sensed there was something going on in my life... Most of them just didn't know what to do about it.
In retrospect, it seems so simple... Yet, at the time - to that feral 15 year old - it felt revolutionary:
Hearing these words, receiving this kind of attention, kindness and compassion from an adult... it felt so foreign - and so desperately needed - at the time.
Like taking a sip of water, only to realize I'd been dying of thirst.
Suddenly, I had someone there to help me carry the load of my life. I had just one person who helped me feel less alone and who validated my pain.
The weight. The depression. The self-loathing. The poor grades. The offensive and erratic behavior. Whatever unfortunate or unsavory 'behaviors' are manifesting themselves... All of these external symptoms begin to shift as a result of having a safe, loving and consistent adult in their lives.
No, it doesn't happen overnight.
No, it's not linear.
And no, it's not a clean and tidy process.
It can be messy. It can be hard.
And yet... it happens.
As my once-empty tank started filling up with experiences of feeling loved, respected, worthy and important... I started to rev my engine and really transform my life in high school, then college and beyond:
+ From 2.9 GPA to straight-A's, Honor Student and Dean's List
+ Showing up to class and actually putting in effort
+ Teaching myself how to actually do homework (!) and taking pride in doing it well
+ Less disruption or storming out
+ Reducing the occurrence of procrastination as I worked through my shame-based perfectionism
+ From frequently isolated to embedded in community
+ Creating healthier and more authentic friendships
+ Learning how to better tolerate and navigate difficult conversations (with peers and authority-figures)
+ Developing more appropriate boundaries
+ Taking risks and allowing myself to be "seen" (i.e. DePaul Idol, Gospel Choir, etc.)
+ Increased esteem and overall well being (reduced depression and anxiety)
+ Less emotional volatility and reactivity, more responsiveness
+ Developed a sense of purpose for my life and meaning about what I'd been through
+ Dramatic changes in health and lifestyle (increased activity and 40+ lb weight loss in college)
+ Using my Voice, becoming a Leader and an Advocate
+ Truly feeling proud of who I'd become
Having someone to witness my wounds helped transform them into something greater and more powerful than I ever could've imagined.
When I reached out to one of my life-changing teachers several years after graduating (shout out to my Pre-Calc teacher Judson Miller!), and told him where my life had taken me... this is what he said.
Later, as I became a trauma therapist myself, I always remembered the power and impact of a single present and loving adult.
And as I worked my way through the various "systems" - therapeutic schools, adolescent treatment centers, addiction rehabs, mental health facilities - I kept seeing the same thing at the root of all these secondary symptoms:
So I began thinking about a different kind of Impact... I started asking different questions:
>> Since childhood trauma is happening in childhood, who are the "first responders?"
>> Which professionals work with vulnerable kids the most?
>> Who could use the most ongoing support and training in understanding traumatized children?
>> Who are the folks who are really struggling with these struggling kids?
>> Whose job is made infinitely harder because they are working against (instead of with) these invisible wounds?
>> Which professionals could make a huge impact in the lives of these children, even if they never came to see a mental health clinician like me?
And there it was...
If I hear one more administrator drop the old phrase “we've just got to motivate our students”, I might just whip out my Olivia Benson eye-roll (any SVU fans out there?) and summon the entire detective team to do my evil bidding.
Because I know you know about "motivation."
That’s why you’re here.
That’s why you have signed up for a job that requires it on a daily basis.
That’s why you spend hours after work every day trying to think up strategies for getting important concepts across to your students.
That’s why you’ve invested REAL hours and real dollars trying to make your learning experiences meaningful and worthwhile.
By reading this, you’ve proven that you’re willing to motivate and DO the work – you just want to make absolutely sure you’re doing the BEST work in the BEST way.
(For your students... AND for You.)
Proud and obsessed Auntie #Niblings
Scouted for Clinical Director and Assistant
Director positions for major service
centers by age 29...
Decided to build & launch Trauma Camp instead ;)
Two-time guest on Trauma Therapist Podcast
"DePaul Idol" contestant in college
Member of the Beyhive.
(A few places JR & TC have been featured)
- JULIA ROSE M. POLK, LMFT