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Gangs – one way kids cope with PTSD

Here’s a photo of me at 13. I was called a hard girl or a hood, terms popular in working class New Jersey neighborhoods in the ’50s and ’60s. I’m mad as hell and I don’t know why. I smoke and carry a switchblade in my pocket. I glare at everyone I see in a dare and am constantly on guard. What’s the problem?

One day, my beloved, former fifth grade teacher, Mr. Rubin, stopped me in the grammar school hallway, just after I’d gotten kicked out of graduation practice, and asked me why I was making so much trouble. He told me that the principal wanted to expel me from school, making it impossible for me to graduate.

I thought hard about this question. Mr. Rubin had been my favorite teacher and I owed him an explanation because number one, he was going to talk to the principal and advocate for me to graduate and two, he cared about me and I felt his love. I leaned back against the wall and racked my brain, but nothing came. “I don’t know,” I said helplessly.

Of course I didn’t. No one even talked about Post-traumatic Stress in the ’50s much less knew about it. The closest people came was in discussing the hush-hush topic of shell shock that World War II veterans suffered. What I knew for certain was that as an adolescent, I felt vulnerable, terrified, and helpless. A gang, a switchblade, cigarettes, and a tall, strong boyfriend who protected me helped me cope. Drinking on weekends helped. I was drawn to the troubled kids. I was a troubled kid.

At this time, I was also cutting my arms with razor blades, trying to soothe myself, odd as this may sound. After slicing my boyfriend’s initials into my arm, I’d carefully wash the cuts, dab them with cotton balls, and apply ointment, feeling sorry for myself. I remember the satisfaction I felt covering the wound with a band-aid. Caring for my cut helped me have compassion for myself, a diversion from the messages of self-loathing and fear broadcasting in my brain.

When traumatized folks enter stressful developmental periods in their lives, the anxiety they already feel from PTSD is exacerbated. Since I didn’t know that I had PTS symptoms–hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, difficulty falling asleep, recurrent nightmares, anxiety–I didn’t understand my behavior.

When children are making trouble at school, PTSD may be at the root or be a contributing factor.¬†In any case, blaming and/or stigmatizing the child or teen-ager is not the answer. Caring is the answer. A creative response is the answer. ¬†Understanding and patience are required. Gangs are often how kids cope with PTSD when they aren’t getting help any other way.

0 Responses to Gangs – one way kids cope with PTSD

  1. Many of us did things to ourselves and others during those days that we look back on and shake our heads about to this day. For me Mr. Rubin was a kind caring person/teacher with a rough exterior but a soft caring heart. I wish every child today had a Mr. Rubin in their lives. Wonderfully writing Wendy.

  2. Great to hear from someone–you–who knew me when. We dealt with some harsh realities at our little grade school, didn’t we? Yes, I too wish a Mr. Rubin for every child. Thanks for your compassionate comment. Many times I have looked back on my behavior during those times and shaken my head. Thank goodness for getting older and gaining perspective and understanding.

  3. We smile knowingly now at photos like the one you posted and at stories like yours which you have again told so beautifully. How well we remember, and how grateful we are if we had a Mr Rubin on staff. But the painful reality underlying all this was sad: we felt desperately confused, lonely, and angry. Our parents understood us less than our best teachers did, and perhaps even less than we ourselves. What a wonderful thing it is that we grow in more ways than physically!

  4. Oh yes. I would never want to repeat those early years in hell unless I could do them over differently. And yes, we are grateful for our Mr. Rubins, but they work within a system that, at least during my youth, knew little about what I might be going through and was more focused on discipline than caring about students. How well you put it with regard to our parents–“[they] understood us less than our best teachers did, and perhaps even less than we ourselves.” How happy I am to be sixty and ripening with wisdom. Of course, there’s always more to learn, but I’m glad we’ve come this far!

  5. Hard Girl! This is an absolutely amazing photo. And an incredibly profound connection between PTSD and the appeal of gangs. oxoxo

  6. Remember those photo booths at New Jersey malls and stores like Woolworth’s? I was in there, trying to look as badass as possible. Thanks for validating my understanding about the connection between gangs and PTSD. It was a way of forming a support group of sorts–pretty brilliant. But sad, too.

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