C4 Innovations

Trauma-Informed Healing and Recovery: A Youth’s Experiences

An episode of “Changing the Conversation” podcast

Catherine Baz shares experiences of trauma and recovery and discusses the value of trauma-informed care with hosts Adrienne Kasmally and Nate Batiste. This episode is sponsored by Project Amp. Trigger Warning: trauma, suicide, hospitalization, domestic violence, abuse.

June 13, 2022


Adrienne Kasmally, Host (00:05): Hello, and welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m your host, Adrienne Kasmally. I’m the research coordinator at C4 Innovations and lead and support Project Amp’s youth advisory board. Today’s podcast is sponsored by Project Amp, a substance use prevention and early intervention mentorship program for adolescents. In this episode, we discuss trauma, hospitalization, domestic violence, abuse, and suicide. With me today, my guest co-host, former youth advisory board member and current Project Amp fellow and intern, Nate Batiste III. Hi, Nate.

Nate Batiste, Guest Co-Host (00:40): Hey Adrienne. It’s so nice to be here today.

Adrienne (00:43): Our topic today is the impact of trauma on substance use recovery and the value of trauma informed care for young people initiating recovery. Joining us to talk about this is a member of the Project Amp youth advisory board, Catherine Baz, calling in all the way from Blythewood, South Carolina. The complexity of healing from trauma while initiating recovery from a substance use disorder is a special area of interest for Cat. She experienced trauma as a young child and began to use substances as a coping mechanism when she was a teenager. She began her healing process after she was admitted to an inpatient mental health program after attempting to commit suicide. She went on to graduate from a recovery high school in Massachusetts. Today, Cat is a person in long term recovery. She is a mother, she specializes in helping clients with substance use disorder, and supports survivors of domestic violence. Hi, Cat.

Cat Baz, Guest (01:34): Hey, I’m so glad to be here talking about what I’m most passionate about. Thank you so much for having me here.

Nate (01:41): Cat, I want to start off by asking you, in your own experience, the experiences of those who went to your recovery high school, as well as now in your work experience, helping others who’ve experienced trauma, how common do you see experiences of trauma and substance use kind of linked together?

Cat (02:05): Yeah, so there’s a huge overlap between substance misuse disorder and traumatic experiences. A huge part of this is when you experience trauma, a very common reaction is to want to leave yourself and leave your body, and another very common reaction is to experience unbearable feelings within the body. Substance use disorder is unique in the fact that when we use substances, not only does it allow us to escape mentally from our suffering, but it allows us to escape physically from the suffering that we experience with trauma symptoms, and I think that is why we see so many survivors of trauma that use substances.

Cat (02:56): So I definitely was not the only person in my recovery high school that experienced trauma. I’d say whether or not they identified as traumatized, I would identify everyone that I went to school with as someone that had experienced trauma, to varying degrees, of course. Some of us experience really horrific episodes of abuse, especially the women. It’s very, very common.

Cat (03:28): However, what I noticed in my peers is most of us had very hard childhoods, and often, individuals that I was in recovery with had parents who were also in recovery, and so weren’t able to provide their children the nurturative care that they needed in order to really form fully, and that is a form of developmental trauma, and I think it’s very important that we keep our mind open and our ears open when we’re working with clients to hear parts of their story that they might not have healed fully from, and knowing that someone has a parent that used drugs and alcohol, that’s not a data point alone, because what that leads to is many data points about their life and trauma that they may have experienced. So when we begin to look at things in the lens of trauma, we can really pick up on these things, and we can really do good healing work for our clients, for our friends, for ourselves. When we look at substances as a way to soothe our wounds and soothe our inner child, then we can begin to see what needs soothing.

Nate (04:52): Thank you for sharing that, Cat, with us.

Adrienne (04:52): So how has the increase in traumatic experiences for young people today, including trauma related to the COVID-19 pandemic, trauma related to racial trauma, how do you foresee that impacting the upcoming generation in substance use?

Cat (05:15): Well, I think we can see right now we are in the middle of a real drug pandemic, in addition to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The rise of fentanyl deaths has just been increasing. I think we can attribute this to really three areas. The first area being trauma occurs in the body when you don’t respond in a way that effectively gets you away from the trauma, and this is not putting the blame on trauma survivors, this is just purely describing this on an animal basis. So trauma occurs in the body when you engage in fight flight freeze fawn response, and if the escape is unsuccessful, trauma gets created in the body.

Cat (06:10): Now, this can be in a multitude of areas. Now, we think of trauma in a very linear way. You experience violence, and then you become traumatized, when the reality of trauma is it can occur from much smaller things. So an individual who is trapped inside of their home during the COVID-19 pandemic may experience a traumatic reaction to this due to their inability to cope with their circumstances and leave. So currently, the climate in which we are in is creating more and more traumatized people, including teenagers. We’re also seeing much more school shootings.

Cat (06:51): That is the first thing, is the current climate. The second thing is our inability to handle trauma as a collective, because we have a very hard time talking about trauma. Trauma exposes the raw nerves of our society. It exposes the ugly underbelly. It makes us very uncomfortable. A lot of trauma symptoms, to a lay person, might seem like over reactions or other things, and so I see in my experience that lay people, especially on trauma, want to dismiss the trauma, because they want to dismiss that these things have happened, first of all, and second of all, they want to rationalize the trauma.

Cat (07:39): This is a very common response, but it doesn’t help our trauma survivors, and the third reason why we’re experiencing an increase in substances and trauma is because, although the people around us might try and minimize or rationalize our trauma and our experiences, substances do neither of these, and I think that is why people find a great refuge in substances, unfortunately. So now our job as individuals in direct care is to provide that unconditional presence and non-judgmental presence once we get rid of the substances in order to replace the ease that individuals are feeling with their trauma, with substances, instead with the human contact that they’re really, really needing.

Nate (08:26): I love that you brought in the aspect of the uncomfortability that a lot of people tend to have or receive from others when talking about these things. So how would you say that mental health is affected by youth who are using substances nowadays?

Cat (08:47): I think there are multiple areas in which mental health is affected when you use substances. So first of all, there’s a huge social component, because you’re finding a new community within the drug use community. Secondly, what is a common kind of knowner about substance use is we like to say that the age in which you use substances is the age you are emotionally when you stop using substances. That’s kind of simplistic, but what it really means is when you start using substances to cope with your daily life, you stop using other coping skills. So it kind of stunts you in terms of being able to deal with your stress effectively. Substances are a very quick fix to your life’s daily problems. Unfortunately, also, as we see the rise in substances, we might see a rise in adverse experiences. Violence, trauma…

Cat (09:50): As we get deeper into addiction, we tend to put ourselves in places that we don’t want to in order to get our substances, and it kind of creates an entirely new world for these teenagers who are for the first time figuring out who they are. So, unfortunately, I think it puts teenagers, especially, in a unique place where they might become identified with their drug use, and there’s a wonderful and a horrible aspect about that. The wonderful aspect is when they stop using substances, because they’re so young, they’re able to really right their life the way that they want to. The horrible aspect of that is being so young and identifying with your substance use disorder can really lead you far astray. I think that’s why early intervention is so vital when we’re dealing with young people that are using substances.

Adrienne (10:46): Thanks for sharing that, Cat. I’m also interested to hear a little bit about your early recovery.

Cat (10:51): Yes. So I recovered from drugs and alcohol when I was 16. At this point in my life, I had experienced a plethora of trauma. I was traumatized as a child. I was re-traumatized multiple times throughout my substance use, and so when I got clean, I was really at this low point in my life where I had just experienced a particularly violent event, and I thought I had nowhere else to go, and I tried to kill myself because I couldn’t imagine continuing to live.

Cat (11:32): Instead, what I found was myself in a mental hospital, and at that point, I said, “If I can’t imagine continuing to live this way, what would it be like if I stopped trying to kill myself?”, because since I was a child, I had always been looking to escape. I had always been looking to not be in my body, because being in my body was so painful. So I said to myself, “What would happen if I was just myself? If I wasn’t Cat with substances. I wasn’t Cat with anything else, but Cat. Who is Cat?”, and that’s really what shaped my early recovery, and I had to find my voice so I could get into drug treatment, and they wanted to put me in a treatment program for women with violence issues, and I found my way into a treatment program instead, because I knew how reliant I was on these substances to manage my emotions, and I knew without them, I wouldn’t be able to do my trauma healing.

Cat (12:28): So for me, a huge part of my trauma healing was getting off substances and learning to calm my body down to a place where I could finally begin working on my own healing.

Adrienne (12:40): What was supportive for you in that healing journey when you were first beginning?

Cat (12:45): So a huge support for me was my recovery high school, because that recovery space allowed me to be someone who I wanted to be. I could really right myself as a person there. Another huge support was my recovery counselor, and he was the first therapist that I had worked with that made me feel comfortable. I had this real tendency to project all sexual violence I had experienced onto my therapist. I felt very uncomfortable around men. He was the first person that made me feel comfortable, because he just left space for me, and that space enabled me to really lead the therapy and to kind of step into less of a passive role.

Cat (13:34): A huge support for me in early recovery was just making new friends, leaving behind the old friends, because I felt like my trauma had left this imprint on me, and I didn’t like people that knew what I had been through. It took me a long time to step into my recovery journey. I think the most helpful thing that I learned in my recovery was actually how to crochet and how to do yoga, and those two things enabled me to be in my body, doing something without feeling uncomfortable, because I was so used to leaving my body with substances, and I was in a state of constant anxiety. So for me, crocheting was really healing, and the fact that I could do something with my hands, I could get rid of that nervous energy while I was in class, and so I think it’s very important for practitioners to work with clients in alternative ways.

Cat (14:31): So you might say, “Oh, well, if she’s crocheting in class, she’s not going to be able to do her work,” but for me, it was the opposite, because I was so traumatized that I just couldn’t sit still. So by enabling me to crochet, I was actually able, for the first time in my life, to really be engaged in class. The second was yoga, because for me, I was very uncomfortable connecting with my body and my breath. I find myself, even now, I get really stuffed up in my chest. I find myself not breathing, which is a very common reaction your body has to trauma. So when I did yoga in school, which was actually in school, recovery high school, I was able to calm my body down further, and so for me, a huge part of my recovery was just getting embodied, because I had used substances to leave my body for so long.

Nate (15:23): Thank you for sharing that, Cat. That is such a unique experience that you were able to have within your recovery high school. Can you tell us a little bit more about your experiences with both trauma-informed providers and non-trauma-informed providers and how that kind of played a role in your recovery?

Cat (15:45): In my particular case, I experienced a lot of care that was not trauma informed. I think when someone has been working in the mental health care for a while, there’s this tendency to get really burnt out, and I think, unfortunately, I encountered a lot of people in my journey that were just really burnt out from working in this field. When I first was put into the mental hospital, it was done in a very uninformed way. I was chemically restrained, I was physically restrained, I was put into a room where a man came in, who blocked the door and I didn’t react in a good manner or in a manner I’m proud of in those circumstances, because I was so triggered.

Cat (16:32): If I was to go back and redo those things, I wish someone would’ve just sat with me and deescalated me, because I remember just being in a hysterical state, but I think someone could have really gotten through if they were to sit there with me and be present and just kind of enable me to have more mastery over the situation.

Cat (16:54): I think that was really the big difference between my good experiences and my bad experiences, because in those moments where they had to physically and chemically restrain me, it was because I felt I wasn’t in control and I felt trapped. So if you were to give me even a choice, “Would you like to sit….” Because I had locked myself in a room when they had chemically restrained me. “Would you like to stay in this room for five more minutes and do some breathing, or would you like to come out and maybe pace the hallway a little bit before we go down?” Kind of involving the client in their own deescalation instead of either forcing them to comply with drugs or physical restraints. This can be hard to do in emergency situations, but deescalation involving the clients is always the best.

Cat (17:45): In my particular case, I wish a female staff had worked with me instead of a male staff. I think it’s important to note that everyone’s trauma is different, but it would’ve been less triggering with a female presence, because I had been traumatized by men. In my rehab, they confined us to a very small space, which I think was also not trauma informed, because the big thing for trauma survivors is freedom of mobility. My rehab also didn’t allow us really full freedom over what we ate. We could only eat at certain times, and only with certain condiments. If a condiment wasn’t on the menu, we couldn’t have it. I think this is not very trauma informed, because when people are recovering from trauma, we want them to create a mastery over themselves in their environments, and I think that should be really at the forefront of your mind when you’re working with trauma patients, is how can I help my client build the confidence in themselves and their ability to take care of themselves? How can I help my client reenter their body and learn to trust themselves again?

Cat (19:01): So for me, my recovery high school really enabled me to do that, because I was able to build a mastery over my education for the first time, I was able to build a mastery over my emotions through group therapy, and I was able to build a mastery over who I was as a new person, because the ability to interact with other young people in recovery enabled me to try to be Cat without substances, and that itself was a very healing experience.

Nate (19:39): Cat, as someone in long-term recovery who helps survivors of domestic violence and works with other individuals who have experienced trauma, what are you hoping that youth will take away from this conversation and implement into their own lives, into their own careers of trauma informed care and harm reduction?

Cat (19:59): I hope that you take away that you are so much stronger than you give yourself credit for. Having survived trauma puts you in this unique situation where you know you can survive, and I think that’s how we need to reframe it, is you survived, and while you might blame yourself for your reactions, know that those reactions are what helped you to survive, and as you heal yourself and you go forward with your healing journey, know that while these things might drive you crazy now, they are what enabled you to survive, and so treat them with grace, because what might be a hindrance now is something that helped you before.

Cat (20:47): I think that’s a huge part of healing yourself, is forgiving yourself, because you did the best that you could in those moments, and know that you were not in control of what happened to you, but you’re in control of yourself now, and having experienced these things enables you to give a real presence to other individuals that have experienced similar things, because when you’re with them and you’re sitting there with them in presence, you have a different presence than someone that hasn’t experienced trauma, because we are, at our basis, animals, and when we sit with people, we can feel their energy, and know that when you’re doing this work, your energy can be related to by the people that you’re working with, because you understand and you empathize with the individuals that you’re working with.

Cat (21:46): If you’re someone at the beginning of your treatment journey, just know it gets easier the longer you do these things. Everything is practiced. It took years for these things to form into habits, and it’ll take years for them to finally leave, but know that each day, each month that goes by, it gets easier, because you forget what it felt like before. Your body forgets the trauma reaction, your body forgets the feeling of substances. The longer you’re out from it, your body begins to crave the new things that you’re doing, the new wires that you’re connecting in your brain.

Adrienne (22:32): Wow. Cat, thank you so much for sharing that. It’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you today. Congratulations on your recovery journey, and thank you so much for being willing to share your lived experiences in ways that can change our hearts and our minds and our actions.

Cat (22:49): Oh, thank you so much for having me. I’m glad to share.

Adrienne (22:52): And to our listeners, join us next time on Changing the Conversation.

Erika Simon, Producer (22:56): Visit C4innovates.com and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining us. This episode is sponsored by Project Amp and was produced by Erika Simon and Christina Murphy. Our theme song was written and performed by Peter Hanlon. Visit projectamp4youth.com to learn more. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.


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