Tough is Not Bad

Megan Lundstrom, M.A.


Tough is Not Bad

The other morning, I pulled a coffee cup out of the dishwasher, only to discover it was still dirty – covered with tiny baked-on food particles after going through a full wash cycle with a lack of adequate rinsing before loading.  I sighed and set the cup in the sink and reached for another, only to find that one was in the same condition.  I just wanted a steaming up of Cafe Bustelo in the early morning silence before the chaos of the day!  My daughter was going to need yet another refresher on proper rinsing and loading protocol – this had to be the fifteenth time since January, and she had been doing the dishes for the family for several years now.  Why was this so difficult to understand?

After yet another verbal lecture that evening, and hearing the standard, “I knooooow, mom!” (Then why don’t you show me you know?!) I saw her doing the exact thing I was talking about, as I was talking about it.  Clearly, just verbal instruction wasn’t enough.  She needed a hands-on demonstration and direct supervision through the steps.  I sidled up to the sink to go through the process alongside her and catch the exact moments that needed correcting.

Modeling & Teaching In The Moment

As we went through the steps for the hundredth time in the past three years, my mind wandered to our job program, and how important it was there to model and practice healthy habits in the moment, not merely instruct from afar and hope for the best.  I thought specifically about how we support survivors of commercial sexual exploitation by creating a safe place to master new coping skills by providing living wage employment in our trauma-informed and survivor-centered job training program.

Barriers to Stable Employment

Stable employment for survivors is often prevented through a myriad of barriers – lack of documentation, criminal records, lack of reliable transportation and affordable childcare, spotty work history...the list goes on and on.  In addition to all of these, we also see poor coping skills and unresolved trauma that play out in the form of substance use disorders, which significantly impacts employment: angry outbursts and disagreements with co-workers due to lack of conflict resolution and communication skills, panicking and leaving the worksite in the middle of a shift due to a nervous system wrecked by trauma, or not showing up for a shift due to a relapse.

Substance abuse treatment, intensive therapy, and sobriety support groups are all critical components to identifying the source of trauma that often drives substance use disorders, and gaining a foundation of coping skills and peer support.  However, at some point, a person newly in recovery returns to their community, enters traditional education and employment arrangements, and reality sets in that not all environments are specifically designed for maximum support and decreased potential trigger points.  That’s where the rubber meets the road, and the person newly into sobriety has to flex new muscles – it’s hard to stay self-aware when emotions are raging, the brain is in an active trigger, and old thought patterns and behaviors are temptingly easy to return to.

But it’s this moment that our job program was designed for: seizing that moment in all its painful, messy, disorganized glory.  Wrestling through the racing thoughts, the urge to run, the desire to default.  Expletives fly, cigarettes are rapidly consumed on the porch.  We acknowledge and name what is happening.  We give space for the emotions to just be what they are for a few minutes.  And then, as the waves of anger and frustration crash down, they give way to the underlying reality: fear of connection, terror of rejection, deep pains of past relationships, and flashbacks of harming events. Tears flow, hands shake, feet bounce, breath is rapid.  The stories pour forth.  And we listen.  We enter into that moment with our program participants and join them for a moment as fellow humans trying to sort out life.

Exercising a New Muscle

At some point, there comes a deep sigh, maybe a rubbing of the face to signify the washing off of the old self placed upon them by others, the release of years of judgement and punishment for things done to them.  Something has shifted.  A new muscle has been exercised. New pathways in the brain are being formed.  It’s exhausting, but there is a new level of peace, trust, and understanding of self.  Sometimes there comes a verbal explanation, recognizing what their response was and how they might handle it differently in the future, sometimes, it is a visible re-centering and desire to return to work activities.  Other times it is recognizing that the best thing for the day is to take a hot shower and a change of clothes from the closet in the basement, and rest in the self-care room for the afternoon.

Tough Days Are Not Necessarily Bad Days

Most social workers and direct service providers view days like these as the tough ones.  And they are, but I think a lot of times we miss the point of the repeatedly messy for the sake of enforcing compliance as a demonstration of success.  Tough days are not necessarily bad days.  These moments – the willingness to be entirely vulnerable – to show emotions, to share past traumas, and to then take a deep breath and be willing to keep trying?!  These moments are the best days because trust, self-confidence, and resiliency are all being built.

It would be delusional to claim that after one of these processes, survivors in our job program are wondrously changed in lasting ways that radically alter the rest of their time in the program.  But that’s not how trauma works, that’s not how building new muscles works.  Healthy coping skills take lots and lots of practice, reminders, grace, and more practice.  Just like learning to do the dishes.  And if we can extend reminders, grace, and lots and lots of practice to our teenage offspring when it comes to making sure forks come out clean, how much more time and space do we need to give survivors of commercials sexual exploitation as they build long-term strength and stability?

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