After Trauma, Cleveland Girls Speak Their Truth

Girls from John Adams High School are part of a supportive all-girls group called Ladies Of Today. [Laura Fillbach / ideastream]
Girls from John Adams High School are part of a supportive all-girls group called Ladies Of Today. [Laura Fillbach / ideastream]
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Joyce Hood is in her element, standing before a gathering of about twenty girls from John Adams High School in Cleveland. They sit at tables in a large room at Sanctuary Baptist Church, where they have come to attend the "'Trauma: This is My Truth' All-Girls Retreat."

Hood is a community member who has been working within the John Adams community for years, providing support for students and families who have faced trauma. This is the fifth all-girls retreat she has organized.

“I do not have an agenda because I chose not to," she tells her audience, "because things don’t always go in order. Sometimes we get knocked out of balance, but we know how to come back.”  

Joyce Hood

Joyce Hood stands before her audience at her annual Ladies of Today retreat. [Anne Glausser / ideastream]

Sitting at the tables with the girls are adults, handpicked by Hood, who have come to support the girls in what they are about to do. Hood explains that several of the young ladies are going to tell the group their story.

One at a time, a girl stands up, takes the microphone, and tells the group what has happened to her. Some of their voices quiver as they share one heartbreaking story after another.

“I lost my mom, then I lost my dad.”

“He molested me but he also raped me.”

“I told the police you can put me in the system, just get me out of here. And they left me, so the abuse went on.”

“I used to cut myself because I didn’t know how to handle it.”

“I don’t really like showing my emotions anymore, I kind of just numb my way through every day.”

“I just think I’m heartless all the time, when really I got so many emotions bottled up inside that it becomes anger.”

“It’s getting harder each and every day. But I’m here, and I’m glad I’m here, speaking to ya’ll lovely people.”

After every story, the room erupts in applause in support of each girl. Occasionally a girl breaks down in tears and is quickly escorted out of the room by a supportive peer or adult.

Lisa Ramirez is one of the adults in the room. She’s a child psychologist with Metrohealth’s School Health Program. She says these kinds of traumatic experiences have a psychological impact that doesn’t go away by itself.

“It comes out somehow, whether it’s smoking marijuana or drinking alcohol or cutting yourself, you know and somebody mentioned eating disorders. We see a lot of these types of self-medicating and coping," said Ramirez. 

So while some people react to trauma with silence, and suppression of the painful memories, psychologists say that sharing your story with others can actually be therapeutic, under the right conditions. "When you talk about it, and have somebody hear you and still accept you, you release the pressure that that experience has had, the power it’s had over you,” said Ramirez.

Clinical psychologist and author of Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls Lisa Damour points out that things are often much less frightening on the outside than on the inside, so talking about trauma can help contain it and bring it more under a person’s control. “That being said, the reception has to be a particular one,” she says.

“Just talking about an experience isn’t going to work if the person you’re talking about devalues it, criticizes you, questions you. So talking about traumas is important, but talking about them in the context of loving, supportive, empathic reception is critical," said Damour. 

It’s a context Joyce Hood knows how to create. She named the group of girls she meets with regularly Ladies Of Today, and whenever she calls out their initials, L-O-T, there is a resounding chorus of “I got your back!”

“That is the response that they give," said Hood. "What it’s saying is that, I’m standing there for you, I’m there to support you.”

Tiyona Scott is a senior at John Adams, and this is her fourth retreat. She echoes the sentiment. “That’s what Ms. Hood is there for, to help us be there for each other. That’s why she’ll always say L-O-T, and then we’ll say ‘got your back’ cause we got each other backs.” 

Psychologist Lisa Ramirez says meaningful relationships are one of the best ways to cope with trauma.

“That’s exactly what going on in here,” she says. “They don’t teach us in graduate school or the Ph.D. program how to hold community events like this.”

Decorations reinforce the retreat's topic, "Trauma, This is My Truth." [Laura Fillbach / ideastream]

At the end of the day, once the girls have helped clean up and boarded the bus back to John Adams, Hood reflects on how the retreat went. She says she is full of both love and tears.

“Even though I have the psychologist there, the social workers, the educators, I have all those different components, it’s when the youth start grabbing around each other ... that took years of building. So I love it. I love it, I love it.”

Hood is proud of the strong bonds she has fostered, which she compares to the roots of a tree, holding it strong even when it is shaken.

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