My Cousin’s Experience with Childhood Trauma
We know the effect of things like second-hand smoke and lead paint on the developing brain, but we need to pay more attention to toxic emotional stress, too.
Published in partnership with The Fuller Project, a nonprofit journalism organization that reports on critical stories about women.
Trauma is not only created by singular incidents. It can also be born out of a person’s repeated or continuous exposure to stress. A child in poverty faces a higher likelihood of developing this kind of trauma when they don’t receive adequate support from adults, being at higher risk of economic insecurity, hunger, and housing instability.
We know the effect of things like second-hand smoke and lead paint on the developing brain, but we need to pay more attention to toxic emotional stress, too. There are scientific studies beginning to back this up. Then there are personal stories, too.
One such story is that of my cousin, Rebekah Irizarry. She’s taken a long road from growing up in North Philadelphia in a house that rarely had enough food. By the age of 16, Rebekah had bounced around to more than 10 homes, supported by a single mother who worked in a printing factory. The constant movement also meant Rebekah often switched schools. Throughout her teenage years, she felt like a constant outsider with extreme social anxiety.
“I thought high school would be different, maybe I could build up a new persona, be a completely new person,” Rebekah, now 23, says. “Well I guess you could say that I did just that, except not in a good way.”
She found refuge in all the wrong places — first in a boyfriend who later moved in with her family. This was the same family that struggled her whole life to put food on the table. To make her preexisting trauma worse, the boyfriend turned physically abusive, punching and choking her. These experiences led up to Rebekah's gateway into self-harm.
“I started cutting myself, it was the only thing that helped take the pain away — focus on a whole other pain. It was a terrible distraction, but a distraction nonetheless,” she says.
The effects of complex trauma are often two-fold: When the brain doesn’t have all of it needs (food, affection, intimacy) it begins to expel limited resources on those needs. In the case of hungry children, their mind wanders to food and how to obtain it, leaving less cognitive bandwidth for things like school. But when there’s a mix of needs, as is the case for most people living in under-resourced neighborhoods, then the brain’s chemicals like adrenaline and serotonin — important in balancing the fight/flight response and mood — can be thrown out of whack.
I’m not trying to make a case study out of my cousin’s younger years, but I bring this up to illustrate how deeply a few negative experiences in adolescence can push a young woman down a road that takes years to recover from.
Poverty, abuse, and self-worth — they fed each other in intricate ways in my cousin’s younger years. “I was so in love with him I’d do anything,” she says of the boyfriend who abused her. “This one boy ruined me. I thought maybe he was just going through a rough time and I promised to help him get through it.”
There are labels for it now, “toxic stress” being one. But at the time when Rebekah sought help, all she received was a diagnosis of depression.
Rebekah knew she didn’t want to continue allowing her circumstances to determine her future, so she chose to take a stand and better her life. She received the proper care that was needed to do so. Rebekah has come a long way from where she once was, and although she is no longer getting the counseling she was once receiving, she is now enjoying her life with a loving husband and her two-year-old daughter. Rebekah is currently a stay-at-home mom and is doing great with the support of her husband and family.
Trauma is something that will last a lifetime for most people who live in poverty.
Although Rebekah was able to get the help she needed, not everyone in poverty is able to find the help.
The struggles of life do not make you who you are as a person, ultimately they push you to grow and be a stronger and better you.
This article is part of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project among more than 20 news organizations, focused on economic mobility in Philadelphia. Read all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.