Chicago, childhood trauma, distance. Cambridge. Violence.

The Foundation: 006

Blessed Are The Peacemakers

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Matthew, 5:9.

A young man was shot to death in Little Village last week. His older brother is someone I grew to know over the years of work there, someone I consider a friend. The victim’s wake was on what would have been his 23rd birthday. There were balloons next to his casket.

It seems there’s a churn of violence that touches everything and everyone in some way and it does feel hopeless at times. But those who survive shootings or bury their loved ones … people become connected through these acts in a visceral way. When I feel optimistic, it’s because in the middle of all this, people connected by violence working to make it stop, by standing, by trying to, between one act and the next.

In all its forms, with all its consequences, trauma is a loss of power and agency but also a disruption of our ability to relate and see into each other. The response to trauma that allows people to feel, to connect with the world again … often it’s rooted in love. As a coping mechanism but as a way of building resilience too.

Last couple months I have been thinking a lot about something Jorge Roque, one of the outreach workers we met in Little Village, said at a vigil around this time in 2016.

This quote seems relevant here. It represents the way the Jorge and other outreach workers move through the world. They radiate love, everywhere, with everyone. And the longer I’m away from the city and the neighborhood, the greater my appreciation for them and their work.

Jorge’s voice was hoarse. He was close with with the victim, and it had been a long couple days. It was cold and late in the afternoon. Dark grew around the vigil.

“For the guys that are here man, show love to each other. We never know when it’s the last time that I’ll see someone or you’re gonna see me. It could happen to any of us. Show love to each other. Show respect to each other. Give each other hugs. Tell each other I love you. Don’t be afraid as men to tell people te quiero, te amo. Como hijos, como madres, padres, abraza los quierer los. Dejanse que se quieren, que se aman.”

That’s it, for now.

Life is short. Show love.

The Foundation: 005

The Body Keeps The Score

“One day he told me that he’d spent his adulthood trying to let go of his past, and he remarked how ironic it was that he had to get closer in order to let it go.”

The Body Keeps The Score
I haven’t read a more comprehensive or instructive piece of work touching the topic of trauma. This book is a nuanced, in-depth accounting of the ways in which our body reflects our life experiences. I already bought a copy for a relative. One classmate remarked they were on their sixth copy, having given away their first five when encountering someone who would benefit from a better understanding of trauma. (I plan on giving my copy away too - Erin bought one a few years ago, trying to understand the things I didn’t quite have the language for.)

I have a lot of notes and I’ll excerpt more but what hits me the most is the idea of child abuse as something that’s within our control, able to be addressed to some degree and something that is a great burden on our society. Not just abuse, but neglect and failing to provide safe and loving environments for children.

Basically: neglecting or abusing kids leads to negative health and behavioral outcomes and both are an incredible drain on society. This much, at this point, is fact. You can debate causes, merits, solutions all you want, but it starts by recognizing that early childhood adversity causes later life problems.

Child Abuse: Our Nation’s Largest Public Health Problem
(Section head, p150, paperback)

-The CDC researcher who first presented the ACEs study could not hold back tears during its first presentation.
-Calculated that overall costs of early childhood adversity exceeded those of cancer and heart disease.
-Calculated that eradicating child abuse would reduce rate of depression by half, alcoholism by two-thirds, suicide, IV drug use and domestic violence by three-quarters.

ACE study results and two key points:
The results are housed under “violence prevention” on the CDC website. Seems noteworthy. See “Major Findings.”

“Almost 40% of the Kaiser sample reported two or more ACEs and 12.5% experienced four or more.” (SAMHSA)

ACEs have a dose-response relationship with many health problems. As researchers followed participants over time, they discovered that a person’s cumulative ACEs score has a strong, graded relationship to numerous health, social, and behavioral problems throughout their lifespan, including substance use disorders. Furthermore, many problems related to ACEs tend to be comorbid or co-occurring.” (SAMHSA)

“Dose-response describes the change in an outcome (e.g., alcoholism) associated with differing levels of exposure (or doses) to a stressor (e.g. ACEs). A graded dose-response means that as the dose of the stressor increases the intensity of the outcome also increases.” (CDC)

Then this:
“... these countries have already made a commitment to universal healthcare, ensuring a guaranteed minimum wage, paid parental leave for both parents after a child is born, and high-quality childcare for all working mothers.

Could this approach to public health have something to do with the fact that the incarceration rate in Norway is 71/100,000, in the Netherlands 81/100,000, and the US 781/100,000, while the crime rate in those countries is much lower than in ours , and the cost of medical care about half? Seventy percent of prisoners in California spent time in foster care while growing up. The United States spends $84 billion per year to incarcerate people at approximately $44,000 per prisoner; the northern European countries a fraction of that amount. Instead, they invest in helping parents to raise their children in safe and predictable surroundings. Their academic test scores and crime rates seem to reflect the success of those investments.” (The Body Keeps The Score, p 169-170)

Erin sent this. :-/

Aside from the three courses in trauma, I’m in a writing course where we read a couple essays or articles each week, have a short writing assignment, and then each class a few of us read our writing assignment and we discuss the required readings.

The first four short assignments: write about a childhood obsession, interrogate about a compulsion or dependence, write a character, and write about a body part in the spirit of Nora Ephron’s “A Few Words About Breasts.” (That was as fun an exercise as you’d expect it to be.)

This is to build toward a longer piece of writing of our choosing. I volunteered to go first when the time came to submit my writing to the group for critique. For me, that essay was due last week, and it was a consuming experience. I set aside other coursework to try and squeeze extra time into the assignment.

In class on Friday morning, we had dedicated time to discuss strengths and weaknesses of the submitted work. Having it off my chest and with my colleagues, to a *tiny* degree, was a bit of a relief.

When you work with the same people for so long, it’s only natural that you would start shaping your work toward their criticisms. But in this workshop, it was an opportunity to have ten critics from ten backgrounds (and I think three continents) all with different ideas, in a place where we had spent six weeks getting to know each other through personal free writing. I found it helped me strengthen what I wanted this work to be.

It made me wonder whether that’s able to be replicated in a newsroom setting. A group of six to twelve professionals, writing just to write, discussions facilitated by someone from the outside who could create an environment free of deadlines and other notions of daily journalism where people could feel free to be vulnerable and see what could follow.

Erin read my draft before I turned it in and said it didn’t read like my normal writing, which means I’m growing, and I need that.

I’ve been walking 20-25 miles a week with headphones, so. Music.

Dem Atlas - Bad Loves Company (“I love it when the drums sound like that”)
Atmosphere - Delicate  (“We all have the capacity to take it there”)
Atmosphere - Anymore (“Another morning in my mirror with my self-righteous - remind myself that you ain't the first that felt like this”)
Zero 7 - Mono (“But I've been dreamin' of this fear of flying, and it's real violent”)
Zero 7 - Red, Blue and Green (Dub Copy)
Run The Jewels - Legend Has It (“Copping of uppers and downers get done - I'm in a rush to be numb”)
Atmosphere - Graffiti (“I wrote this one when I was still alive.”)
Florence + The Machine - 100 Years (“I believe in love and the darker it gets, the more I do”)

The Foundation: 004

"The Deepest Well"

Sleep has been a source of anxiety for me. Started on nights. I’d lay down after work, unable to sleep. Get up, fuck around for a couple hours, sleep for a couple, then go to work without rest.

The intensity would keep me up overnight but I’d get stressed out in the morning, knowing I’d hit the bed and not be able to sleep for a few hours. The anxiety kept me up. Back to work a zombie after that.

Getting ready for sleep became a stressor outside of whatever I’d encounter at work and outside of work. This repeated itself until I found ways to ease into sleep every morning.

I don’t sleep regular now, because of the schedule changes. That’s fine. I woke up last night for no reason I could make sense of, and while I was trying to go back to sleep (breathing exercises, positive imagery, body scan), I fell into a dream where I opened my laptop, checked my email and had a tip to check the Facebook page of a victim from a quadruple homicide I covered last year.

In my dream, it was 0845. (I’m never in bed that late.)

As I opened the email, the fire alarm in our apartment hallway went off (in real life) and I jumped out of bed and checked the kitchen, the hallway, and found no fire and the alarm stopped beeping on its own after two cycles. PJ didn’t wake up, Erin knew there was an alarm but trusted me to check it. No problems.

It was 0220. (I couldn’t go back to sleep.)

When I can’t sleep, I read. Sometimes I clean. I’ve been trying to make use of that time, instead of fighting. Writing more. Listening to music. The not-sleeping part usually messes with my day, and I go back to sleep after the sun is up, but there’s no point in fighting it in the middle of the night.

I finished “The Deepest Well” overnight. It’s required in one class, recommended in another. It’s been hard for me to sit with a book for a few hours at a time because I’m not used to having the time to dedicate to reading. I have a hard time focusing. But when you can’t sleep and your son won’t be up for three hours … might as well.

This book was wonderful. A lot of my reading this semester has been research papers - they’re dense, they’re written for an informed audience, in language they speak … they’re informative but it’s a big ask to get someone outside to digest one of those papers.

(I’m not usually that guy, I’m not usually sold on stuff like this but - watch the author’s TED Talk.)

“The Deepest Well” is written by a someone who’s out there, and she summarizes the research in a really accessible way. (I struggled in high school science and that’s the extent of my science background — this book, along with The Body Keeps the Score - have both been very helpful in tying all the science together.)

The author focuses on toxic stress and the Adverse Childhood Experiences study from 1998 - the study that established a connection between childhood stress and common causes of death later on in life. More adversity means greater likelihood of death by common disease. Adversity, early on especially, affects brain development, hormones, immune system, and “even the way our DNA is transcribed and read.

The author advocates (and this is something that makes sense to me) screening for adverse childhood experiences in a primary care setting. Questions like - did your parents beat the shit out of you? Did your dad beat the shit out of your mom? Were your parents drunks who occasionally played with coke? Did anyone in your house get locked up? Questions like that.

(The author also notes that in some settings, doctors ask patients or parents of patients to present a ‘score', instead of having to account for specific adversities.)

(I look at this now and think - knowing what my score is - I wish I would have had this before I turned 32, I wish this is something that would have come up for me in doctor visits over the last ten or 12 years. I wish someone would have asked me or my brothers these ten questions 20 years ago. Maybe things would have gone different. But the ACEs study was published around the time my brothers and I were aging out of the highest-risk age groups and it’s only been in recent years that it’s become part of the conversation in a public health setting, so. )

I have four pages of notes from the book. I’m going to write from those over the next few weeks because the book connected a lot of my own disorganized thoughts about trauma, stress and violence.

The first entry I noted is:

“We’ve all heard the Horatio Alger-like stories about people who have experienced early hardships and have either overcome or, better yet, been made stronger by them. These tales are embedded in Americans’ cultural DNA. At best, they paint an incomplete picture of what childhood adversity means for the hundreds of millions of people in the United States (and the billions around the world) who have experienced early life stress. More often, they take on moral overtones, provoking feelings of shame and hopelessness in those who struggle with the lifelong impacts of childhood adversity. But there is a huge part of the story missing.”

She hadn’t mentioned the 1998 ACEs study yet but alluded to its findings in the next graf:

“Twenty years of medical research has shown that childhood adversity literally gets under our skin, changing people in ways that can endure in their bodies for decades. It can tip a child’s developmental trajectory and affect physiology. It can trigger chronic inflammation and hormonal changes that can last a lifetime. It can alter the way DNA is read and how cells replicate, and it can dramatically increase the risk for heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes — even Alzheimer’s.”

This is as good a beginning as any. A fast read, a good book.

A piece of work that could inform the way we view the world, if our view of the world is that our children should have it better than we did.

The Foundation: 003

Adverse Childhood Experiences

ICYMI: The Foundation: 002

Why trauma?
I don't have a great answer. Not for lack of effort. I'm split on covering violence most days. Sometimes it feels like a compulsion, something I don't have control over (I know that sounds silly but it ... it's how it feels. Like I need to be doing this. I know that's not how it is, but that's how it feels.)

I believe in storytelling and the value in hearing from people who are hurting. I want to understand about the unsettling feeling we have when watching or being close to someone in pain, and what happens when the pain subsides. Why we all feel that but it hasn’t ever seemed to drive policy in any real way. Knowing kids suffer, conceptualizing it, unable to do anything about it.

We don’t need science to tell us kids shouldn’t have to see dead bodies or grieving relatives at a murder, shouldn’t have to to grieve young cousins or uncles, to learn to live after getting shot. There’s something within us that makes us want to shelter kids from those experiences.

But there is a body of research that shows what happens when kids have a lot of adversity or trauma in their childhoods. I want to use that to inform my work. So it’s not just whatever it is in my gut that says, write about kids or those closest to them.

I'd be lying if I said - I believe in the work so much that I have this unfailing dedication. I know I’m not unique among reporters in feeling torn about this.

Anyway. The way I've been explaining the “why” here - it’s childhood trauma is a largely undressed foundational rot in the city of Chicago that is not being taken seriously by anyone with the power or clout to move policy on that front.

The evidence is the body count, year after year, decade after decade really. (It's not nearly as simple as - it all starts at home - though research papers have acknowledged that to some degree - but, more later).

Stress is really bad for you. It's been stressful reading about how bad stress can be for you, then I get stressed out that I'm stressed out. Bad news. We haven't even gone much into trauma lately, not the type of acute trauma of a gunshot wound anyway. Just early life stress. (Trauma later, I promise.)

The ACEs study in 1998 (Adverse Childhood Experiences) established a foundation of understanding - it turns out, there's a pretty clear line between childhood adversity (not even necessarily trauma) and adverse outcomes later in life. This has been known for twenty years. (You can get the gist of it from the first page). I don't have a good reason for why this hasn't informed more of my work. I wish it had been apart of some course I could have taken before taking the job or some sort of training materials. (Here’s the survey. It’s short.)

The study was far from perfect - its participants were near 80% white (on a survey where one of the questions asked whether a parent was incarcerated), drawn from a single geographic area, and didn't ask about community violence.

But it’s an incredible starting point. Some excerpts:

Neurological development during early childhood is the foundation on which experiences, positive or negative, are organized and processed. Home and family environments and the characteristics of the parents and persons to whom children are exposed are powerful determinants of emotional, behavioral, cognitive, social and physiologic functioning later in life.

Because (adverse childhood experiences) rarely occur in isolation, the cumulative effect of multiple ACEs likely has an even more powerful negative effect on a young child’s developing brain via repeated and/or chronic activation of the stress response.

Abuse and neglect in childhood were shown to be associated with poor self-esteem, conflicted relationships, and severe life events in adulthood, in turn, acting as risk factors for depression and other adverse health consequences.

At the same time, for a different class, we read “Children Who See Too Much.” The author worked with children who had witnessed violence, very often domestic violence, at the Child Witness to Violence Project in Boston. It’s a fast read, could do it in a weekend, and offers experiential insight into the difficulties kids face and some of the ways clinicians can serve as a course correction.

It’s dark at times, but. Worth reading.

Outside reading

The Fighters - CJ Chivers (Slow and steady. Lots of school reading.)

Neighborhood stuff
We went to a Red Sox game - bought a nice clean fitted hat and a hoodie. I didn't see very many other Red Sox fitted hats, everyone's got an old weathered hat that looks like it's been sitting on a dashboard by the ocean for fifteen years, which, I don't understand.

I asked a vendor for a Polish sausage with grilled onions and he said, Italian? No, Polish, I said. "Are you kidding me? We'd go outta business. Italian."

Red Sox won, walk-off bloop single, over the Astros. (Their fans travel well.)

About the photo:
This is the ACEs pyramid. I'm going to print it out and put it in a couple places in the newsroom when I get back, so anyone who looks at it is reminded the of the potentially poor outcomes for kids who face frequent adversity. My hope is that we may bring this frame of reference to bear when discussing any issue facing the city - school closures, violence, food insecurity, etc.

Hopefully this fosters some empathy. We were all kids, after all.

The Foundation: 002

Jalen's Journey

Jalen’s story is finally out in the world. Project release days for me are always … I get nervous. I feel uneasy. It’s out there, now.

I met Jalen a couple days after he was shot, in early February. He was, and remains, paralyzed. He was covered to his neck by blankets, lying in a hospital bed in Comer Children's Hospital. He has expressive, warm and inviting eyes and I remember leaving the room after the brief meeting, knowing nothing about him except that he seemed sad and afraid. I felt like I hadn't encountered many more relevant testimonies to the state of things in Chicago than a paralyzed 11-year-old now terrified of the world before him.

I had called his mother Judy at the beginning of my first shift back after his shooting, just in the normal course of beat work. She was upset. We talked for a couple hours the next day in a Starbucks at the hospital. We made the pitch to Judy, to the hospitals ... that we would just be around for everything, recognizing we'd have no idea what we'd encounter, and hoped they'd trust us to be sensitive and respectful.

Judy said yes. We met Jalen the next day.

Jalen's story is that he's learning to live without being able to walk. His mother’s story, his father’s story … they’re each learning how to live without their son being able to walk. Without feeling below his chest. The moment Jalen was shot will shape the lives, until death, of those closest to him.

I understand - there's the risk of him living where he lived, or that because his uncle was a low-ranking Latin King that those nearby are more likely to get shot. I know all that. You can blame his mom (she certainly blames herself) or you can blame society. You can blame the guy who did the shooting, or the system that led to him thinking it was OK, or his parents.

But Jalen was 11. We lose sight of the reality of those nearest injury when the violence is framed only by politics or numbers. The goal of work like this, in part, is to foster empathy. So that people who see this, maybe they’re less quick to judge the next victim’s parent, less quick to write of the experiences of people they don’t know. Even for us, less quick to write off a GSW to the arm.

Jalen is a wonderful kid. It's hard to sit with him and not want to talk with him like an adult because he's operating on our level in a lot ways. (In others, many others, he's still a boy.) His sense of humor shades dark, something Jason and I can both appreciate. His whole family recognizes his maturity, and in a way it makes him more capable to deal with his wound than many others his age. Having a supportive family and healthcare and hobbies and ways to make meaning out of life will help him heal. Not every kid has that.

And that's just the state of things - it’s nothing for us, or for a family, to consider the degree to which kids can cope after getting shot, because we know kids will keep getting shot. It shouldn’t be in our framework to think of a time when that won't be true. But it's happened before him and since. Every kid has their own story. This one is Jalen's.

About the photo:
Jalen Ivy, 11, in his 18th-floor hospital room at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. (He grew so comfortable here that, with a few weeks to go before his discharge, he sat his parents down for a talk. He wanted a little space, and wanted to know if they’d leave him to sleep there alone at night.) Photo by E. Jason Wambsgans, friend and reporting partner.

Loading more posts…