3 questions for the ‘program kid’

Why don’t you like doing the things you once loved? Why do you shut down over seemingly basic things? Why does the GPS say 30 minutes but it takes you 45? These are questions I sometimes hear people ask me. The answers lay deep rooted in the long history of my life.

My name is Tom and I am a “program kid”. Over the past 11 years of my life I have been in over 20 residential settings, and over 15 schools. Some of them were good, some of them I can’t even begin to explain the trauma that has come from them. I won’t get into details, names, or locations. Though I hope to answer 3 questions I am often asked.

Question 1: “Why don’t you like doing the things you once loved?” When you arrive at a placement, they will try and get to know you and the things you enjoy. The first few times that was an easy question to answer. By the 7th or 8th program I didn’t want them to know me, and I didn’t want to know them. I’d had enough times doing the things I enjoyed and either being punished for it or judged. Unfortunately this only made me feel worse. I do enjoy the same things I once loved, but for much different reasons. I still love going fishing, for example. Not because I can be with my dad, but because I can be alone, in a quiet and peaceful environment. I still like wind in my hair because the white noise created by it rushing past my ears distracts me from the countless triggers around me.

Question 2:  “Why do you shut down over seemingly basic things?” You see, hear, and experience many things in program life. Most of it can be scary for a 7+ year old. So, when I hear glass breaking in the distance, “suddenly” my face goes ghost white and I can’t answer any questions. And when I hear someone scream or yelp in pain yet I’m the one in shock.

The best way to explain these happenings is with what I call a “time machine day dream” or better known as a “flashback.” It is as if I am picked up right out of my seat and placed in a program where glass shattered all over you and blood is everywhere. Screaming at night when a strange man walks in your room, but to no avail. I am barely able to write this, let alone experience it daily. This is why these seemingly basic things set me off.

Last, Question 3: “Why does the GPS say 30 minutes but it takes you 45”? The roads you take, I have been down. I will not, and cannot drive past that broken home one more time. The railroad tracks that are a simple non-occurance for you, remind me of a time I wish would be wiped from my memory. That pond over there? I almost drowned in it. This, and my photographic memory, consequentially make me extremely good with directions. I may be late, but I show up in a good space and ready to achieve the purpose of my visit.

I hope that these questions, one day, I will not be asked, and if so, my answer will be a simple, I do, I don’t, and I took 28 minutes, not 30. Until that day slowly comes, I hope that this gives some insight into how I live, and why.

Thomas Stewart is a member of Youth MOVE Massachusetts who enjoys creative arts and helping others.

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5 thoughts on “3 questions for the ‘program kid’

  1. Thank You Thomas for sharing this, it will be extremely helpful to us as parents and professionals to be mindful, genuine and to respect your experiences and insight. It is a window of opportunity to get the adult responses of this right for our kids, to advocate for their voice and acceptance of the difference in communication that we do not always understand or interpret while in the moment. Just as important to guide our systems to work harder to do what we can to improve and grow in implementing the best care for our youth.

    1. Thank you for this. Hearing that my story can help better the experience and care for future youth makes me know that this pain has purpose and it inspires me to share more and more.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I have understood that triggers can be everywhere, but you brought the severity of them to light. I personally will always try to keep my questions forward thinking instead of asking about the past. A friend I know just answers questions like #2 with just “It’s a trigger.”. I think it say as much as needs to be said. I live with two who have their own triggers, and know that that’s as much information as I need to let them alone to process it. If they want help, they will ask.

  3. Thank you.

    No one can understand such things that you have lived.

    Even someone who experienced the same things. It is just not possible.

    One simply trying to put themselves in another’s shoes never work.

    Thank you for sharing.

    We can all use a little more insight from another’s prospective.

  4. Tom, thank you for sharing your experience. Reading this truly saddened me. I feel that people are asking all the wrong questions. We should be making sure someone feels supported, not triggered, but our questions when trying to get to know a new participant in our programs. It is so important for us as staff to come from a trauma-informed place so that we are not causing more harm to those we are trying to help. Rather than asking “Why don’t you enjoy the things you used to?” we should be asking “What do you think you might want to try at this point in time?”. Instead of asking “Why do you shut down over seemingly basic things?” we should be asking “How can I support you when you feel triggered?” and “How can I help you identify triggers and help you develop a plan on how to get through them?” We all want to see our participants to succeed, but that will only be achieved when we fully understand two things: 1) everyone has different needs and using the same approach for each participant is not going to work, and 2) providing trauma-informed care gives power back to the individual who may feel powerless and creates a more supportive environment for that individual to grow.
    Tom, you have shown a great deal of courage in answering those questions. I hope you remember that healing takes time; change is a process not an event. May you find moments of joy in your journey and may they inspire hope along the way.

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