Day 5: Girls Who Lost Their Moms

So far in this project I’ve written 4 mostly sad stories in 4 days. One of the reasons I kind of stopped writing the past few years is just because so much happens every day and I just couldn’t keep up.

Today is Father’s Day, so I could write about the dad who has been making progress in recovery but was arrested yesterday with 6 tablets of “ice” in his possession. He’ll get 2 1/2 years, we’re told. On the positive side, I could write about strides that one woman with a severe trauma background has been making lately in understanding God’s love and forgiveness. “I don’t feel shame anymore,” she told me yesterday.

But I’m still kind of teary from a phone call that just came this morning, so I’m going to write about this:

Probably a majority of women that we help have unhealthy mothers. We have cared for quite a few daughters of drug addicts, prostitutes and of course, both. A couple of those moms have passed away in the last few years, one while in prison in China for drug trafficking.

The call was from “Gade”, a pretty and personable 16-year-old we met earlier this year. Another teen friend brought her, and she ended up spending about 5 months at The Well before returning home to a distant province. Gade called to say that her mom had just totally rejected her. “Don’t try to call,” she was told.  “I’m not going to talk to you any more.”

Of course this was not the first time, but it was the most emphatic. Gade grew up raised by others. But there is always that natural longing for Mom. Because we are wired to love and respect and our parents, a child only thinks one thing when abandoned or abused: “It’s my fault.” This sense of worthlessness can stay rooted in the mind well into adulthood.

In the “fight, flight or freeze” response of trauma victims, Gade is predominantly a fighter. All three types of responses are bridge burners, adding to the isolation, but fighters perhaps end up more blamed, including by parents such as Gade’s mom. The good news is that when we are able to see through the behavior to the heart, we can help heal.

We find this heart-focus in Jesus’ ministry, starting right out with the paralytic brought by his friends. “Your sins are forgiven” was an unexpected but powerful message of acceptance in a victim-blaming society. And certainly while physical healing is wonderful, no one who knows both would choose a healthy body over a sick soul. “You’re safe, you’re precious, you are loved,” we repeat to these broken hearts. It takes a long time to sink in.

Gade is smart, bright-eyed and gregarious. She loves to connect with people, and when I answer her video calls I know am usually going to be greeted with a wide happy smile. I have seen her fighting side too, but even then her desire simply to be understood and valued is obvious.

She wants to come back, and I told her we would pray and see if God would provide a way for us to care for her. Gade knows God’s love is real. “The Well is the only place with real love,” she says. “Everywhere else is just people using each other.”

Day 4: Teens with Trauma 2

Childhood trauma tends to produce sexually active teen girls.

“Som” , now 13, was born to teen parents. She was to be aborted by her 17-year-old mother, her grandmother had decided. Some negotiation by workers saved her life: Som’s mother and equally young father would marry and receive assistance in starting a family, and she would be carried to term.

Som received lots of love at The Well growing up, and we tried hard to help her mom and dad become a healthy couple. For a while things were looking hopeful, but fell completely apart just after Som turned four. Her dad returned to drug dealing, and her mom, deciding she had had enough, found another man and became alcoholic, following her mother and older siblings.

For a while Som stayed with her mother and stepdad, but eventually they sent her to be with her grandmother in a rural village. Her grandmother had a long history of alcoholism as well. Som did well in school, but between her grandmother’s continued alcoholism and her limited opportunity in a rural school, she was sent back to Bangkok for junior high.

Back in Bangkok, Som felt neglected. Her mom worked two jobs so was rarely home, and drank on Sundays. Soon we were hearing accusations from her mother that Som was lying and running around. Som said she was miserable and misunderstood. On visits to our home it was readily apparent that Som was highly addicted to her phone, and that she was talking with boys.

I have tried many times to help insulate girls from being taken advantage of sexually. I refer to the locker-room  and construction-worker talk that I heard in my past, and try to point out the lies that guys will tell to get girls into bed. To my knowledge, this attempt at educating girls has never worked. A 15-year told me proudly, “My boyfriend told me he has stopped womanizing because I meet his specs.”

I now understand it not as a behavior problem as much as a chemical dependency. We all remember that high, that rush of oxytocin, dopamine etc. when we first felt strong attraction at that young age.  Put that in the brain/body of a kid long starved for hugs, eye contact or simple praise, and you have a brain that has found what it always needed, that will focus its full attention on getting more. There is nothing else. This is love that is better than life.

I gave my sex ed talk to Som when she was still 12, in my mind not so much to prevent anything, but more as a “we’ll still love you” prophylactic. Indeed, recently it came out that something has been going on. Som says she is wants to go to Christian girls’ residential program we know, so we’re working with her and her mom to make that happen. She seems to accept my periodic messages of love and encouragement.

Day 3: Meth Epidemic

We accepted a new applicant today. “Pear”, 26, has a bachelor’s degree in food service management, but struggles with severe depression. Like other women we have had at The Well, she grew up with an unhealthy mother.

Pear has a 1-year-old son who has asthma, which she believes came from second-hand smoke: the family of three shares a single room with 5 others, including a smoking grandmother. Pear’s 35 year-old husband is addicted to meth-based drugs. She said he started while in his teens.

A common entry-level drug here for many years was yaba, literally “crazy drug”, a caffeine-methamphetamine mix. A dozen years ago a dose sold for about $8, but it has since fallen to about $3. Now more people are choosing the stronger crystal meth, or “ice”. Drugs are now as common among the lower class as water or oxygen. Just about the only people under 40 not using or selling, it seems, are in prison. It’s something we have to watch for constantly with folks we work with, and when we notice someone with money problems and frequent irritability we get suspicious. Thankfully we are near a government clinic that offers free testing.

It comes up regularly. Today “Pom”, Dtang’s mother made a surprise visit (see yesterday’s post). Pom said she is now legally married to a Christian man from her home town and living in a Bangkok suburb, but prior to that she had been virtually slaving away to support her four children, working wherever she could seven days a week. To keep herself going she had used meth, paying for her own drugs by doing deliveries for her dealer. Finally with the help of this new husband Pom left it all behind, literally. She said she has been clean only four months. She asked me to help her find a nearby church.

Last week in worship at The Well, I asked people to share thanks to God. “I’m thankful that I just turned down an invitation to sell drugs,” one shared. She had spent two years in prison not long ago.

Two men recently returned to our small “Faithful Men” program after a few months of drug relapse. We’re used to these cycles, but knowing that recovery often requires many attempts, always encourage all no matter whether they’re heading up or down. This morning I showed our Recovery group “The truth will set you free” from John 8, and taught them the corollary, “Our secrets make us sick.” Indeed we do see victory. One member of of the Recovery program celebrated a drug-free year a month ago. A new member, freshly detoxed and fully in love with Jesus, is learning the wonderful freedom of forgiveness through the cross. We know there is a strong chance at some point that she will relapse at least once, but that’s ok. She’s clean today, and heading the right direction.

Day 2: Teens with Trauma

We’re not really sure what all happened with “Dtang”, 18. She is the oldest of four, but with a different father from her younger three siblings. Her mom was at The Well a couple of times over a few years, and did fairly well, always hard-working and teachable. For a while Dtang’s stepfather lived with the family, and although alcoholic and edgy–often sporting a Che Guevara t-shirt, sometimes showed willingness to change. At one point Dtang made an accusation against him, but she later changed her story.

All we knew was that as a young teen Dtang was wild and disobedient, and exasperated her mother, who would sometimes hit her, even in the presence of other adults.

We tried sending Dtang to the Breakthrough ministry that Cori and Jub were doing in the Northeast, but she failed to thrive there as well, getting into fights and sneaking off at night. Finally her mom split from her stepdad, and returned with all four children to their home town. At 15, Dtang “married” another teen boy, and they have been mostly together since, living in her home town.

The biggest problem with childhood trauma is its compounding effect. Trauma makes a child feel unsafe, and without ability to understand or explain herself, she switches priority from attachment to survival. Her behavior then fustrates caregivers, creating additional trauma. The brain’s fear center overdevelops and interferes with rational learning, so school performance is poor. She also then has little if any ability to articulate past harmful events, so getting clear history, especially during the pubescent years when Dtang was with us, can be difficult. Elevated adrenaline and cortisol attack the immune system, causing health problems, and in many cases, eventual autoimmune disease.  Dtang has lupus. The body’s attempts to compensate the overbalance of stress hormones by drug and sexual addiction. It’s not good.

I keep in touch with Dtang on a regular basis, just to keep letting her know I consider her precious.  Sometimes she asks for money, which I limit to putting a couple dollars on her prepaid phone. A couple years ago we made an emergency trip to pray for her when her autoimmune disease was acute, and she has been doing better since, although still very much affected. At 18 Dtang is still extremely underdeveloped emotionally and at high risk for additional trauma. Currently she is with her husband on a construction crew in Pattaya., a place where a lot of bad things happen.

No happy ending yet for this one. While we would love to have interventions that can help turn these precious prodigals around, there seems to be no real cure at that age. We just pray, send our love when we can, and wait.

Day 1: The Power of Being a Safe Man

Nok Yung, 9, has lovely dark Asian eyes and honey-brown skin, her playful smile revealing a cheerful disposition. When she first came to The Well with her young mom five years ago, for some reason she quickly made a special bond with our family, and gives us no small amount of joy. We consider her a granddaughter. She often spends evenings with us, and sometimes weekends.

Later this month I will tell the encouraging story of healing and transformation in Nok Yung’s family. Her mother was a young teen when she was born, and Nok Yung showed signs of trauma during her first year with us. But now she is thriving, thanks to her much-improved home life along with a lot of input by caregivers at The Well. She is a bright, eager learner, strong and athletic, and does well at school. 

A couple years ago we attended a wedding at a town along the southeast coast, and Nok Yung went a long. After the wedding we stopped at a beach for a couple of hours. A few others from The Well were with us, including a mother and her daughter Mena, older than Nok Yung but small for her age.

For both girls it was their first ocean experience, and it fell upon me to join them in the water. A moderate wind was blowing some decent size waves onto the beach, which to 50-pound newbies were positively overwhelming. As a waist-high wave would break around me, Nok Yung and Mena clung tightly to each of my legs, screaming delight mixed with terror.

I felt big and strong, a nice manly experience for someone built on the smaller side as I am. Yes, you can count on me, ladies. But then I began to wonder, sadly, about the risk to children, especially of course these two precious ones, from unsafe men who would use their strength to harm.

But this experience also brought home to me the difference we can make in young lives as safe men, who reach out to children with warm eye contact and healthy boundaries. I still remember men who treated me that way when I was young (and thankfully in my case there were plenty). It’s a fun, simple way to follow Jesus that we can all do.