A young, short-haired girl from India came walking shyly and alone into our trauma healing clinic at a rehabilitation center for girls who have been sex trafficked in New Delhi, February 2014. She held onto the swinging door of the clinic and only allowed one foot to trickle just past the door. She kept her eyes on the floor, never making direct eye contact with any of us. Yet when we looked away, she quickly looked up at us, scanning the contents of our clinic, meanwhile never letting go of the door. I began speaking to her in what little Hindi I could muster. I said, “Hello little beauty!” and “What is your name?” in broken Hindi. This little girl just looked at me with blank eyes, then before I knew it she backed away and ran out of the clinic.
That evening at dinner, I asked the staff of the house, “Can you tell me about the little girl with the short hair who is always alone? She came into the clinic today wearing dirty Looney Tunes clothes with holes in them. Her hair was dirty and matted. She only stood in the doorway for a moment and then she ran out. We didn’t get a chance to know anything about her.”
One of the social workers at the center looked at me with daunting eyes and said, “Mindi, my dear. That is Rita [name changed for safety reasons] and she is our toughest little girl here. It’s amazing to me that she came into the clinic at all. She has had the most difficult time since she has arrived, more than 6 months ago. We don’t know anything about her except that her parents sold her to a supposed candle-making company which turned out to be a sex-trafficking situation. No one knows where she is from. We think she was in the brothel for 4 years and are guessing she is now 9. She hasn’t spoken hardly a word since she arrived. She hasn’t made any friends. She only responds to Poonam, one of the female staff members, and only every once in a while. When she first arrived, we learned she has contracted HIV. If you can help her, we will do anything.”
(Our group of staff heading into the slum communities of Tughlakabad to teach about reproductive health and to host a trauma-healing clinic, February 2014.)
(These are the beautiful children at-risk for being sex-trafficked as their families are beyond poor, living in slums in New Delhi. They all got dressed up to come to our class and clinic with their mothers.)
My heart hurt. Five years old entering the brothel? How can anyone comprehend that? And now with HIV? I felt like I had received a hard blow to my chest…and it felt compressed…and it hurt. I found it hard to breath. I just couldn’t make sense of it.
The following several weeks in New Delhi were spent in an attempt to get to know Rita and see what we could learn about her, where she came from, what kinds of challenges she has. It was obvious from her behavior: isolation, fear of strangers, and lack of eye contact, that she had experienced trauma. A 9-or-so-year-old girl would never typically be so shut down and alone. We knew we would have to be careful with her. If we come off too strongly, we will further shut her down and reinforce her fear that the world is a dangerous place. Yet if we go in too gently, she might not trust us to be the adults and protectors that we are.
These are the very skills that we have cultivated over more than 10 years in our studies and participation in the field of trauma. This is the very work we were built for.
It is obvious that one of our biggest focuses of energy for Inner Ocean Empowerment Project is Healing Trauma.
Why? Because trauma has the capacity to change everything in a person, in their community, and in the world. For the better (we will talk about this more, later!) or sadly more often, for the worst.
You see, trauma itself is not an event. We can’t simply say that being in a car accident is traumatic. Or even that living in a brothel is traumatic. It depends on the person you ask because it is a perception of the event rather than the event itself. So the difference between the way each person or community views an experience is a matter of resources, internal, external, and spiritual.
The difficulty with trauma is that once someone has experienced it, it’s as though they have just put colored lenses on and now everything in their world becomes that color. This effect has to do with what happens to the nervous system when it undergoes a seemingly traumatic event.
But don’t be fooled, when someone has experienced trauma, that doesn’t mean that they alone are impacted. No way. When someone experiences trauma, they are more likely to become less functional in society. Not only that, but some are even more likely to act out.
I once had a teacher tell me, “All bad behavior stems from trauma.”
I remember this each time I hear of the human-caused horrors on the news or see someone acting poorly on the road, as in road rage.
What we often don’t understand about trauma is that after the experience of it, everything in life becomes an attempt at repair and/or survival. Often, that attempt is viewed as somewhat distorted because trauma, inevitably distorts our perception. We may just be trying to feel safe inside our own skin and then if someone cuts us off in traffic, it becomes a reinforcer of the fear that we are not safe and that we don’t matter. This could easily lead to an over-reaction.
After experiencing trauma, anything easily becomes a threat. I have seen countless young girls flinch, even as I just lean in to move their hair from their face. It saddens me every time. But that is what their nervous system has learned about life: that it’s not safe anywhere. So the flinching is simply an act of survival.
This is where Inner Ocean Empowerment Project comes in.
You see, we practice holistic health, utilizing healing presence, and education to get to the root of a person’s trauma. Our founder, Mindi K. Counts has extensive training in Chinese Medicine, acupuncture, and herbal medicine with a focus on trauma. At the core of this ancient system of medicine rests the notion that we are whole and that we always have an opportunity to return home to ourselves. That no matter what, no matter how dis-eased or difficult our lives have been, we can always find that resilient and divine place inside. So with that, Chinese Medicine works to restore homeostasis which is why this system of medicine is so supportive for people who have experienced trauma.
After four weeks of earning Rita’s trust just enough so that she would say a few words in response to us, we were finally able to get her on the treatment table and have a listen to her pulses. Everything we thought about her experience of trauma was true: Rita was in total fight or flight mode. We gently stimulated a few acupressure points that we knew would not only feel good to be touched, but would also begin to repair her nervous system and take her out of the fight or flight response. After that, we put together some herbs for her to continue to take each day (along with flower essences).
Two weeks later, you would hardly recognize this girl. One afternoon, Rita came into the clinic wearing a beautiful and bright pink, ruffled dress and ran up to me, hugging me immediately. In fact, she got so close to me, I could hardly do anything in the clinic any longer without her watchful eye. She asked us if we could take a picture of her in her dress. Of course, we obliged, This is the only photo we have of Rita, in her beautiful dress and in a nervous system that was learning to trust again.
Now, don’t be fooled. Her journey of healing was not over in those 6 weeks of repair. I wish we could say that was the case. But Rita is well on her way to heal her trauma and restore her opportunity to live a full life without unnecessary fear and anxiety waiting for her around every corner. At Inner Ocean Empowerment Project, healing trauma is a basic human need. And we believe all beings deserve to have their basic needs met.