Iowans Thrive Blog
Featuring stories, research, and news on Iowa's movement to respond to ACEs
Changing the Labels
When Melissa works with people to improve their health or mental well-being, she begins by focusing on their strengths. Building up their self-esteem then allows her to have conversations about why they have certain behaviors or habits and what steps they can take together to address challenges. Starting with what’s great about them opens the door for change.
“You have all this stuff just stacked on you,” Melissa said. “That’s how you get so lost and think about everything that just sucks about you. You miss all the good stuff.”
Melissa understands this through her own experiences. As the chaos and trauma of her childhood layered on, she often believed in the labels she was given by those in systems meant to help her. Over time, a combination of self-reflection, fierce determination, and supportive programs and relationships helped her see different possibilities.
Possibilities that led to putting on a cap and gown as she prepared to graduate with a master’s degree in organizational leadership last May.
The moment felt “so surreal,” Melissa said, but she also recognizes it as a culmination of decisions that built a new path of hope for her future. She shares her story now so that others who are struggling may feel that hope, too, and those who make decisions or work within systems meant to support children can stop adding to the harm and provide support to families sooner.
I want lawmakers and people who are determining where funds go to realize that if we put something into people, we will get something out of them. It’s about getting parents over those barriers that they’re facing, and then setting up kids to where they don’t have to have those same barriers.
Where the labels come from
“Anti-social.” “Violent.” “Promiscuous.” “A bad apple from a rotten family tree.”
These are just a handful of the labels Melissa heard as a teenager and young adult. Now, with an understanding of research about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), she can point to how the labels described a child who was deeply hurt by the trauma she experienced within her childhood environment.
It began when she was a baby, born when her mother was 20 years old to a family that lived in poverty and had drug addiction and mental health challenges. Her mother worked at the Wild Side bar where she was introduced to meth. Soon Melissa’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives were all hooked. The friends they hung out with also were addicted.
Meth was part of the culture. I didn’t really know that other kids weren’t experiencing that lifestyle, because all of my friends were my mom’s friends who were all on drugs.
Melissa’s childhood memories are a mixture of images and events, but she doesn’t always remember people’s names or the order in which things happened. At a young age, she was left with strange men who she learned later were sexually abusing her. Living in poverty, she grew up believing that the way you got a new pair of shoes was simply putting them on in the store and walking out. She would show up at a friend’s house with a black eye, and a week later, her friend would have a black eye. It was the only life she knew existed.
Eventually, the sexual and physical abuse and the horrible conditions she lived in caused Melissa to reach a breaking point. She woke up one morning, packed all the drug paraphernalia she could find into her backpack, and took it to school, where she dumped it onto her teacher’s desk. The school called the Dept. of Human Services to intervene.
This began a cycle of bouncing from living with her grandparents, mother, other family members, foster parents, and at times, in a youth shelter and group homes. No place was ever safe or settled, and she’d go from one bad situation to another, being abused by adults and older youth. As a pre-teen and teenager, she dated men twice her age. She started using meth off and on, surrounded by the drug wherever she lived.
Then at age 19, police raided the house where she was staying and found meth being cooked on the property. Melissa was charged with manufacturing the drug, facing a potentially long prison sentence. Everyone else who was arrested was in their 40s.
From the adults in the system, she heard that she was “disgruntled” or had behavior problems. One individual referred to her as trailer trash like her mother. She had a quick temper and would fight back when threatened or hurt. She was told she was promiscuous for hanging out with older men and that she was broken, just like her family.
Melissa still wonders why no one questioned why she was dating older men or where her reactions stemmed from—how she craved love and attention, how she needed a place to stay even though it was a harmful environment. School staff ignored the bruises on her face until she presented them with evidence of drug use in her home. This layered on a feeling of shame and guilt that she must be doing something wrong to deserve the abuse.
“I’m not saying I wasn’t given a chance, but I wasn’t understood at that point,” she said.
Learning about the ACE Study has helped her understand where her shame, guilt, and hurt stemmed from, and to support others today who are experiencing the same feelings from trauma. It’s allowed her to see herself and others as “individuals” and not their behaviors.
In prison, I was diagnosed as being psychotic, anti-social with violent tendencies. I was put on antipsychotic meds because of this. I had all these medications, but it was the trauma of where I had ended up, where my life had been, the things people were saying to me. Was I disgruntled? Was I anti-social? Was I violent? Or was I being created to be that way.
By the time Melissa was arrested for manufacturing meth, she had two children. The support services she received while pregnant with her first child helped her find housing for a short time, complete her high school equivalency diploma, and stay off drugs—but she could never fully escape the environment she was living in and the harmful relationships she had with her children’s fathers.
Most of the older men she dated abused her. Escaping them meant being homeless and risking losing her kids. This forced her to try to stay and make it work, while doing what she could to protect her children from the harm.
“I was so young and scared, Melissa said.
After serving time for a manufacturing meth charge, Melissa did what she could to get her kids back from foster care, but she also became pregnant again with a man who abused her. Two days before her sons were set to move in, her boyfriend beat her so badly that she had to call the neighbors for help. The police arrested her boyfriend and charged him with a felony for domestic violence. Melissa lost the rights to her sons permanently. Fearing she would also lose her one-year-old daughter, she ran out of state, only to be arrested and sent to prison for breaking her probation. Her daughter was sent to foster care and eventually adopted.
When you were born into the life I was born into, everything is a struggle, everything is a barrier. Am I going to get food? Am I going to be safe at night when I lay down? You just end up in a cycle, it seems like, because you meet those same people over and over in your life until you start making changes in yourself.
A new path to healing
It took reaching this point – being in prison, losing her children – to receive the kind of support that helped her begin to feel worthy and to see other possibilities. It took having help in removing barriers so she could make different choices.
The Right Living program she entered while in prison especially helped her see how she could make different decisions – decisions that were difficult but possible with commitments to herself. A counselor in the program told her: “If you put as much effort into getting clean each day as you did to get high, you’ll stay clean for the rest of your life.” This was the spark Melissa needed to set rules for herself that still apply today. She will not be alone with the drug or go to places where she knows people are using. Each time she gets paid, she rewards herself with a little gift to honor her worth.
When she left prison, a friend connected Melissa with a job at Dr. Pepper, convincing the hiring manager to give her a chance. “Dr. Pepper changed my life,” says Melissa. It gave her the stability of a steady paycheck, a set schedule, and insurance.
Melissa also started to explore how other people lived their lives in healthier ways. She started running. She went to the movies and tried new foods. She discovered she loved to kayak. “I had no idea that I liked those things,” she said.
She also formed new relationships. She met her now long-time husband who supports her as she’s worked on her master’s degree and lived a clean life in Ottumwa. She also continues to connect with a foster family she stayed with for a short time, who demonstrated what a positive parental relationship could look like. Recently, her foster mother asked Melissa to help care for her foster dad while she was out of town. “I can’t even explain the pride that gave me that I was able to be there for them,” she said.
All of these changes have added up to a new environment and way of living, even as she still struggles with lingering impacts of trauma. She remains estranged from two of her children but is raising her youngest son while building a healthy relationship with her oldest. Even though she has her master’s degree and works a steady job in Ottumwa, she worries she’ll be wrongly judged for her past.
In prison, I made myself a promise that if my kids would ever forgive me, if they would ever come home, and they would ever give me a chance to be anything in their life, they would not find the woman that lost them. That’s the only thing I can do. I can’t change what I did, I can only change the direction that I go.
Intervening to help families sooner
Melissa does not harbor hate toward her mother, recognizing the situation she was living in.
“You cannot convince me otherwise, no matter what you said, no matter what she did, my mother loved me,” she said. “It was unfortunate that she had no idea how to. It was unfortunate that she was sick on drugs herself. It was unfortunate that nobody ever loved her.”
Today, through her job, she helps adults who are struggling to make changes that improve their physical and mental health. Through a series of questions that lets them identify barriers to making healthy choices and what steps they would like to take toward addressing those barriers, she coaches them to make different decisions toward a healthier future. Outside her job, she provides support to young people who have grown up in situations like hers and are working hard to create a different kind of life.
With a growing awareness of trauma and its impact, Melissa believes there needs to be programs for families sooner – removing barriers and providing support early on, while also intervening sooner to help young people who are in harmful environments.
“What can we do to strengthen the family right now to where there are less barriers?” she said as she reflects on how she didn’t receive the support she needed until she was single and pregnant with her first child as a teenager and then again while in prison. The Family Development and Self Sufficiency (FaDSS) program, for example, helped her complete her high school education, get an apartment, and have a steady foundation to welcome her first son. Opportunities to see other ways of living and better habits, like she was exposed to through Right Living, could also be offered in schools.
Changing systems to better support young people who have grown up in traumatic situations is also critical to preventing further harm. One girl she’s supporting, for example, is trying to graduate high school, but the credits she worked on for two years in the youth shelter won’t count toward her diploma. This kind of barrier can be defeating.
Also harmful is the judgment on young people’s behaviors. In addition to reducing social worker caseloads so they have the capacity to support, more training is needed on how to understand what is driving behaviors and how to respond in healing-centered ways that help young people see their worth and possibilities.
“Every child that comes into the child welfare system has a high ACE score,” she says. “That’s why they’re there. It’s not that they have behavioral issues. They have trauma issues.
Sharing her story and helping people understand the impact of ACEs is the first step toward change. Wearing her cap and gown and receiving her diploma on stage all demonstrate the resilience and hope that’s possible and can be even more so when people work together to support young people.
If people knew these kids were being treated like that, there would be people who would stick up for them, people who believe you can change, that you can do better. There are people that want to help.
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