Treating Childhood Trauma: An Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey for Her Report on CBS 60 Minutes
From a Mom, Fighter and Trauma Survivor
During your recent report on CBS 60 Minutes, Treating Childhood Trauma, you pointed to the frightening reality that many children carry trauma-wired brains into adulthood, causing issues such as mental illness and disease — not to mention in all areas of life: relationships, love, money, and the big one: self-worth.
I’m writing you this letter because I want you to know how timely that report was, and how much of an impact it’s already making in people’s lives. It really hit home with me because of the trauma my 8-year old son suffered last year, and my own collection of childhood events and traumas.
My parents were Cuban immigrants, a single teenage mom and a drug addicted absent father. Raised in Miami, we moved around a lot, and since we were poor, most of those neighborhoods were rough. I was molested at age 9 by a family member, and the only father I knew since age 3 was out of the picture by 13.
“The aftermath was a broken little girl with “daddy issues,” depression, and anxiety who didn’t feel loved, worthy or “enough,” until much later in life (still working on some of that, btw).”
I hated myself for most of my childhood and early adult life because I didn’t understand why I always felt so out of place. Why did I always feel like the outcast? Why did it always feel like people just didn’t get me?
I remember my cousins and other family members doing drugs, in and out of jail, and even breaking into our home to steal from us to feed their addictions. Waking up to bloody bathroom towels, and arguments between my mom and her brother for stealing from us will forever be recorded in my mind.
Even though my mom tried to move us away from all of that repeatedly, my sisters and I were still exposed to it in one way or another. I left home at 15, followed in a few of my family members’ footsteps, and created some massive wrong turns for myself. I did the drugs, had the bad relationships, and allowed myself to drown in self-pity, which only leads to more mistakes and lessons learned.
My biological father never made an effort to be in my life, and when I was already an adult, I found out that he died in a jail cell just a few miles away from where I was living in South Florida. Maybe that wasn’t as traumatic as some of the other things I’d faced, but it was heartbreaking to know for sure, that I would never get to tell him how I feel, or maybe hear him say he loved me for the first time.
I managed to fight my way to the top despite the obstacles. I hustled my way to the top of a great corporate career, good credit and world travel. Me? Little ol’ me knew she had “made it” when she got to live in Barcelona for a month and travel back and forth to Madrid — all expenses company-paid. Yeah me. A Latina from the Miami you don’t see in the movies, who was told once that “ I wouldn’t make it to 15 without getting pregnant or dying of an overdose.”
At 26, I got married, bought my first house and had my first son — all in the same year. . On the outside everything looked perfect, but if you saw my wedding pictures, you’d see the disconnect. That turned out to be a verbally, emotionally, spiritually and physically abusive relationship. It ended with me filing for (and getting) a restraining order and subsequently divorce.
A year later, I turned down an all expense paid relocation to beautiful Denver, CO because I didn’t want to spend most of my day in a cubicle when I wasn’t traveling. I wanted total freedom to be with my newborn son. So, I started my own consulting firm, and landed a six figure client within 60 days of launching. The business did great in it’s first year, but sadly, the depression and anxiety from the divorce caused me to shrink. I told myself I couldn’t be successful and this broken person trying to make it up to my child. I closed it down, and worked a side hustle as a notary to pay the bills.
I have always been fascinated and a bit obsessed with why people do what they do.
What makes them think the way they think?
What causes one kid from a good family to kill?
What causes another one from a childhood like mine or worse, to join gangs, do drugs and always feel misunderstood and like the outcast, or, go to college and defy the odds?
“What causes people to hurt so bad, they end up hurting other people?”
It may come to no surprise to you to learn that my actual work now involves helping women get out of their own way, own their power and share their truth. I’m a business woman, so I focus on leaders and entrepreneurs, but I know it is my purpose to help women like me and like you. Women who are not going to let what they’ve been through define who they are.
Everything I have been through in life — the good, bad, the “how are you still alive?” — has brought me to where I am today. A place of clarity, healing, and leading others to the same. Like Tony Robbins says, I wouldn’t be who I am today, if it weren’t for it all, especially the bad. Gratitude changes everything.
I have no degrees, but I have been studying psychology, physiology and neuroscience since I my age was a single digit. I’ve always known that humans hold more power than they realize within them. I’ve always known that there is some good in everyone. I guess, a huge part of me needed to know that there was an explanation, and ideally, a cure, to all the pain, sadness and loneliness that seemed to be causing so many people, including myself at one point and my own family members, to destroy their lives.
My career as a consultant gave me access to more training and education about the human mind, human behavior, communication, temperaments, and the works. Working with hundreds of companies across the globe, including the United States Federal Government, was always a challenge I welcomed because it came with one big demand: I had to understand humans — the CEOs, the leaders, managers, line-level people.
As you can see, I’ve equipped myself with training, education and hands-on expertise (and total nerdiness) around how the mind works, how to re-frame thoughts, how to handle negativity, and how to process emotions, etc. But nothing could have prepared me for what happened to my son in early 2017. There is no handbook, manual, or webinar a parent can watch when they go to turn on their child’s bath, and find them hiding bruises.
His face was shoved into a mattress as he was beat with a belt so badly, he had bruises on his hips and thighs. His neck was stiff and sore, and he couldn’t move it or walk right for a week. I felt like a complete failure to him because this wasn’t the first time, and the system had failed him/us before. In the thick of it, he told a therapist that he was thinking about dying.
This time, I was able to protect him physically, but I couldn’t escape the reality of what the trauma was doing to him inside. I couldn’t protect him emotionally or mentally. He started to wet his bed, have nightmares, bite his nails, and he just changed. He was angrier, more sensitive and/or completely distant, randomly. His grades suffered, and his behavior seemed like it would never improve at times. His counselor said that he used me as a punching bag because he knew that it was safe. He knew that he could let it out, all the pain showing up as anger, so he did. Prior to that, he dealt with a messy divorce, unnecessary custody battle, and other neglect and abuse. He’s also been diagnosed with PTSD and ADHD, which has also made committed to learning and understanding how to best create a thriving environment for him.
It’s been a little over a year, and we are still dealing with the aftermath of the trauma. I’d be lying if I told you this hasn’t almost broken me a few times. To watch my son think and feel things he doesn’t know how to process.; to be near him but feel like he’s a million miles away because I know he’s hurting, and sometimes I can’t get through to him; I’m not meant to. He has to live through that moment, those emotions, cross that mountain, and as the country song says “get a little stronger from the hurt times.”
After many prayers, fasting, crying, and punching the air, I did the only thing I could do to help him and hopefully other kids, I wrote.
I wrote a children’s mindset book that will be part of a series of children’s mindset books. I decided that it wasn’t too late for my son or for other kids like him, like the ones in SaintA, juvenile or being raised in a thriving environment — to have more tools to help them cope with LIFE.
I decided that my books, speeches and whatever else I think of on this certain journey, would help them see and remember that no matter how impossible something may seem, the power to change it, make it better, BE better, starts with their minds.
My prayer for my children’s mindset books is that they are part of the solution. They will plant seeds in children’s minds that equip them with tools to help them challenge their limits, embrace change and unlock the possibilities that are beyond the difficult situations or traumas.
Your report on 60 Minutes was a huge sign that I am definitely on the right track because just recently, I published the first book in The Invisible Hat Series, Noah Knots Not.
I wrote the book in mid 2017, and fought for almost 8 months to get it published. I had so many voices in my head telling me not to; telling me that no one would care, that people would think I am doing this for my business or for publicity — I was my own worst enemy, but I don’t care anymore.
I’m tired of hearing about stories like Noah’s and worse in the news. This is my way of doing something. This is my voice, in it’s loudest, freest version saying:
We need to start paying more attention to our children’s mental and emotional needs instead of basing their behavior off of our own screw-loose-wired brains. Trauma has many faces, and each one, is dangerous if neglected in children.
And Oprah? Thank you for also bringing attention to what SaintA is doing in the childhood trauma space. I am completely in love, inspired, moved and touched by their Trauma Informed Care unit, and I strongly believe that we need it in every school, college, and workplace. I never knew anything like this existed.
“SaintA is in the forefront of therapeutic practices called trauma informed care that apply what neuroscience has taught us about how the brain develops, functions and recovers from trauma to help children overcome adverse experiences and thrive. This adversity can include abuse, neglect, exposure to violence, divorce, alcohol and/or drug abuse of a parent, incarceration of and mental illness in a parent.”
I know that everything my son and I have been through is not in vain, and I feel personally responsible to share our story to help others overcome difficult, painful and traumatic situations in their lives.
I believe in treating childhood trauma as early as possible.
I believe that it’s never too late to treat childhood trauma.
I believe that as parents, caregivers, counselors, adults, we should be paying more attention to trauma (in all it’s facets) in children.
“Trauma: an experience that produces psychological injury or pain.” Dictionary.com
I believe with my whole heart that if we did, there would be less shootings, less violence, less hate, less suicide, less self-mutilation, less child pregnancy, less gang activity, less everything that’s destroying our future generations.
I write this letter to you with tears in my eyes because I believe Trauma Informed Care, if accessible to everyone, can change the world.
So, please? Keep doing what you’re doing. We need to start a movement, create a hashtag, keep going, and let’s get this kind of care available to every child and adult. And if there is anything this mom and fighter can do to help, please don’t hesitate to ask.
PS: Now that I know about SaintA, I will be donating copies of each book in The Invisible Hat Series for Trauma Informed Care Unit Patients.
Watch Oprah’s report on CBS 60 Minutes, Treating Childhood Trauma.
Vanessa Rende is a mom of two boys, wife, writer, speaker, entrepreneur and business consultant. She’s also the host of The Vanessa Rende Podcast: Business + Life + Motherhood. Vanessa is passionate about psychology, neuroscience, personal development, child advocacy, music and traveling. Learn more about Vanessa at www.vanessarende.com. Hang out with her on Facebook and Instagram.