Monday, April 06, 2009

Let Me Tell You My Story, One Piece At A Time

I've been asked to moderate a youth panel at an upcoming conference. One thing that is very important to me is to follow Michael Sanders' example, in terms of equipping and preparing youth participants.

Therefore, I am doing my best to:
- Ideally meet with youth panel members ahead of time
- If not, most definitely talk with them on the phone

Youth panel members should be given the chance to review the questions and reflect upon them beforehand, so that they won't be blind-sighted by the unexpected.

If they have time to plan for the questions, they can decide which piece of their story they wish to share.

And if I know what matters to each young person, as the moderator, I can ask questions that help frame the issues that they want the audience to know about...

Don't Ask Me To Tell You My Whole Story
Part of the reason that I lead Strategic Sharing workshops today is because there were times in my college life when I over-shared about my personal experiences:

- When I was on a summer missions trip, and was asked each week to give my "testimony."
- In editorials for my college newspaper.
- Even on my first date with my future husband! (why I didn't scare that poor guy away with what I told him, I will never know!)

Respect for Emotional Boundaries of Foster Care Alumni
I still remember a 16-year-old girl at the OFCA conference, who responded to the "Boundaries" section of my workshop by pointing out that foster care doesn't promote healthy boundaries:

"Whenever I meet a new social worker, they ask me to tell them my whole life story. I don't know anything about them!"

After we age out of foster care, that attitude can still persist.

I wonder if we should develop a workshop or talking points for allies about not asking prying questions of adult foster care alumni?

Something like:
- "Talk to me about the ISSUES, and please allow me to share bits and pieces of my experience as they pertain to those issues, over time."
- "Please allow my relationship with you to progress gradually."

Has anyone else developed anything like that?

When I Tell You the Details, I Relive the Pain
It just seems like more people should GET that. When they ask prying, painful questions, it's not malice - it's more like ignorance.

I used to wonder: "Why don't they know?" But I guess they just don't know... can't understand how, for a foster care alum in college, simple questions like, "Where are you planning to spend the holidays?" or "My mom is such a nag! Is YOUR mom like that?" can unearth such pain.

Maybe it would help to map it out for them?

Traumatic memories are stored and processed differently than memories of ordinary events. "Normal" memories are encoded verbally, and thereby can be verbally communicated to others afterwards. But traumatic memories are experienced as emotions, sensations and physical states.

The trauma survivor faces an odd contradiction. The memories are so vivid and rich with emotional and sensory details. Yet it's difficult to put words to these experiences, to make cognitive sense out of them.

In the long-term, it is healthy to put words to these images and emotions. But trying to rush that process is very dangerous -- this is my undergrad degree in counseling talking here -- because it's important to give survivors TIME to heal in these areas...

A young adult who has just "aged out" of foster care hasn't had that time yet.

Giving Away Your Whole Story At Once Can Be Like:
- Giving away your strength: Information is power. For the trauma survivor, information is also pain. Samson's curls fall shorn to the ground and weakness overtakes him...

- An unexpected question can strip you emotionally, just like an unexpected touch. Especially if, within the context, you feel obligated to respond

- The Morning After: A person might flee after a one-night stand, because the intimacy came too soon. It's the same thing with emotional sharing. It can feel icky and uncomfortable the next day.

When I Meet Other Foster Care Alumni
I ask them what issues matter most to them. I focus on the ISSUES because that is safer - and can be very healing and empowering. I offer them opportunities to be a part of creating positive change.

I am open to the fact that they might share personal things with me, and if/when they do, I will respond in the very best way I know how to respond.

What do YOU think about this? How have you responded if/when you were blind-sighted by questions you didn't expect? How do you work today to make sure that today's foster care youth and alumni are prepared before public speaking?


Jae Ran said...

Thanks for sharing this Lisa!

Yondalla said...

I think the continual violation of children's boundaries is one of the worst systematic problems in foster care. They are usually in care because their boundaries were violated often violently. Then we try to teach them about boundaries while giving them no control over who to let in.

It doesn't make sense at any level.

Lisa said...

Great point, Yondalla!!!

Very well-said.

Anonymous said...

I agree that Yondalla makes a great point. I would add that also that over time so many people ask these personal questions of you and the reasons for or how they react in such an impersonal, out of laziness, or just for their own needs contributes to feeling helpless and worthless. It is like our life is being discounted over and over.