Thursday, December 8, 2016

Who Gets the Life Raft? The difficult relationships of foster youth

The difficult relationships of foster youth. 

Writing for this blog is sometimes problematic for me. I try to be as transparent as possible and talk about the things that are truly affecting my life in the moment. I want it to be honest, and sometimes that means discussing emotions and feelings that are difficult or painful to put into words.

Recently, I was at an event and a woman asked a question that I hear often, “How did you overcome the abandonment of your mother?” The answer is burdensome, and often shocking for audiences. The truth is, I never felt abandoned by my mother. Instead, I felt that I had abandoned her. I had spent much of my childhood taking care of her, worrying about her, and making sure she was OK. When I was13, she disappeared for a few days, then a few weeks. It wasn’t shocking to me; it was my “normal.”

When she still hadn’t reappeared, and my grandmother was going to be evicted from her housing situation, I knew I had to call social services. It was a difficult call for me, and one that I would wish, time and time again, that I hadn’t made. Making that call always felt like I was watching a life raft for one float by, and I selfishly took it for myself.

When people hear this story, I can see a bit of shock across their faces. It is difficult to put into words the loyalty I felt for my mother, and the betrayal I carry in my heart. As an adult I cognitively understand my decision, and most do, but the betrayal I feel I caused hasn’t lessened.

After the Presidential election results started coming in, I was struck with the idea of loyalty, and how the weight of that emotion can be viewed, oftentimes confused for betrayal. As defined, loyalty is a strong feeling of support or allegiance to someone or something. It is a feeling or attitude of devoted attachment and affection.  As a society, it is a trait we hold in high regard. In fact, any sign of disloyalty is often met with cries of not being patriotic, a traitor, crybaby or lots of other four-letter expletives.

And, that is why after not seeing my birth mother for over 27 years, I still have feelings of disloyalty and like I am the one who betrayed her. Abandonment was never my trigger or emotion. It is also why I have difficulty discussing those feelings; any sign of estrangement or retreat of creates feelings (and brings accusations) that I was wrong in my decision to save myself.

These emotions are complicated when children enter foster care. Old families, new families, changing families … How can you be loyal to everyone? Can you ever? Who do you betray? How do you protect yourself? Is it ever OK to be disloyal? If so, who decides who gets the life raft? Sometimes you just need to pick up the phone.

Shenandoah Chefalo is a former foster youth, and advocate. She is the author of the memoir, Garbage Bag Suitcase, and co-founder of Good Harbor Institute an organization focused on ensuring sustainable, implemented trauma care within organizations and individuals. You can learn more about her and her work at or

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Creating Good Harbors
A journey of unknowns

But this year has been one of accomplishment for me. After four long years of sitting on my “to do” list I finally finished and published my first book, Garbage Bag Suitcase. When I originally convinced myself to actually finish the book two years into the process, I had one simple goal: Change one person’s life for the positive. That was it. But, as publication loomed closer, I began to have doubts. I worried that the book would be misunderstood, that others wouldn’t relate to it, that I would be judged, that I had shared too much, or even worse — that no one would read it.

The night before its release, I remember lying awake in my bed, excited and petrified. It was completely out of my control.  During the book release and in the eight months since the book came out, I’ve pinched myself every morning. I can’t believe I was chosen for this amazing journey.

Every day I receive emails from individuals affected by the book in positive ways:

  • ·      a social worker who was considering leaving her job, but read the book and realized that if she left she would just be one more person on a long list leaving “her” children behind;
  • ·      a former foster who found solace in knowing they weren’t alone and decided to reach out for help before ending their life;
  • ·    a foster parent convinced that they should give up their license, finding new insights and understanding to the complex issues facing the children in their home.

I asked for one email; I received 100s. Then …  something else started to happen.

While out promoting the book, I found myself spending a tremendous amount of time educating and talking about the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study and its findings with average, everyday people. I was watching light bulbs go off and I knew that others were just as intrigued as I was. I developed a short workshop from the information, and again, more light bulbs.

It was fantastic and wonderful, but under it was a hint that things weren’t quite right. I suddenly starting hitting a wall and hearing lots of comments like “we understand trauma,” and, “our workers are already trauma informed.” I was excited by the idea that several agencies and groups might have already done the work, but suspicious when I asked a follow-up question: “That’s great, what are you doing differently?”

Blank stares ensued. The organizations had spent lots of time listening to educational material on trauma and its effects in webinars and in person, but that hadn’t changed anything within their organizations. Meeting after meeting, I was listening to folks who, with all good intentions, wanted to make changes within the community, yet couldn’t figure out how to turn the information into implementation and skills for the workers.

Complex problems, even more complex organizations, lots of unintended consequences and short-lived results were becoming increasingly the norm, and I wasn’t willing to accept it. I remember exactly where I was when I realized something BIG had to change:  another meeting, a conference room with about 10 people in attendance — all of whom hold more degrees and education than I do. The discussion was focused on becoming a “trauma-informed community.” Lots of great conversation — it always was. And then I asked, “What are we going to DO? What are our action steps?”

There was silence, and then suddenly the conversation moved on, as if the question had never been asked. I knew in that moment that something had to change. Dr. Cathy Fialon approached me afterward and we ended up having a lengthy conversation about organizations needing skills that could be used immediately to translate trauma information into trauma-informed care for implemented and sustained change.

Together we developed a trauma-informed model that addresses the needs of organizations and can be used immediately for change. Traveling the country, we are always surprised by the positive response of our work, and how groups finally feel that there is something for them to DO when it comes to understanding trauma.

For me, as I reflect and get ready to begin thinking about my 2017 goals, I am giddy. I NEVER thought that this crazy idea of writing a book would allow me to meet and talk with so many wonderful people. I never thought it would move people to share their stories with me. I never thought that I would have the privilege to partner with someone with a PhD, to deliver educational content that could immediately change the lives of children effected by adversity, and I surely never thought that people would care about what I had to say.

With that, I can’t wait to write out my 2017 goals, because I know that I will meet some of them, I will fail on others, but more importantly my world will be opened by opportunities and chances I never could have dreamed of. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

Shenandoah Chefalo is a former foster youth, and advocate. She is the author of the memoir, Garbage Bag Suitcase, and co-founder of Good Harbor Institute an organization focused on ensuring sustainable, implemented trauma care within organizations and individuals. You can learn more about her and her work at or

Monday, September 26, 2016

A Year to Find Out. Can Living Alone Help Heal Trauma?

Can living alone help heal trauma?

People are often confused by this seeming contradiction. I’ve been in a relationship with my husband for nearly 20 years now. How is that working? He will be so happy that I’m saying this publicly, but he really does a lot of the heavy lifting in our relationship.

After I aged out of foster care, I was on my own. Alone. I spent numerous evenings locked in my small apartment pondering the world, my life path and how I was ever going to escape. I didn’t have money for luxuries like cable; I didn’t even own a television. No cell phone (they hadn’t been invented). No roommate to offer a distraction. I had a few jigsaw puzzles I had picked up at a garage sale — and my own mind. 

When my now husband asked me out to a movie, I had a panic attack about how I was going to pay for it. Living alone in that apartment taught me lots of lessons, but the most important was how to quiet my mind and to be okay in my own presence. Not a real skill it seemed at the time, but it gave me lots of time to work through some things and find the courage and strength to problem solve on my own.

After I got married and we had our daughter, I remember driving with my husband and telling him that no matter what happened, I just wanted our daughter to spend at least one year on her own sometime as an adult.  Whether it was during college, or before she got married, she needed one year to live on her own, to gain real independence and to not rely on any other person for her needs, wants or explore her own desires.

He never really argued about it. Over the years I would tell him stories of finding my own Christmas tree, cutting it down myself, loading it into my tiny car, and even dragging in into my apartment — all by myself. It was a huge accomplishment and I loved that I didn’t need anyone to help me. That independence gave me the strength to overcome some of the most difficult times in my life.

Without those lessons, which I learned within those four walls, I would not have been able to get to a place where I could quiet the voices in my head, and make the necessary and difficult decisions to allow myself to move forward from my trauma so I could be alive in the present moment to find what feeds my soul.  Doesn’t everyone deserve that chance?

Shenandoah Chefalo is a former foster youth, and advocate. She is the author of the memoir, Garbage Bag Suitcase, and co-founder of Good Harbor Institute an organization focused on ensuring sustainable, implemented trauma care within organizations and individuals. You can learn more about her and her work at or

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Comfort in Chaos: Understanding Trauma Brain

Comfort in Chaos
Understanding Trauma Brain

In learning to “cover” for my mom’s actions, and watching my mom talk her way out of almost any situation, I had learned a valuable skill over my early life . . .lying.  It had become a valuable skill and had saved me numerous times from severe punishments.

I had thought foster care would be a positive solution to the life I was living. What I found was more of the same. Loneliness, isolation and depression followed me into care. I had become disconnected from my feelings and accepted that I was unable to love and was unlovable myself.  I continued past behaviors and found no solace in the families that took me in.

I ultimately aged out of the system at 18, turned loose onto the world without any real connections to other people. When I hit the college campus, a feat I wouldn’t learn was remarkable until later, I made a pact with myself to never talk about my past with anyone. I was a good liar and because of my skill I kept that promise for over 20 years.

I spent those years, hiding the past, keeping myself at arms length from any real relationships and doing the one thing I was knew I was good at, “lying”. I didn’t know it at the time, but I found myself in what I now refer to as “trauma brain.” Going to that comfortable place in my mind of Fight, Flight, Freeze or Appease.

Chaos was comfortable for me. When things in my life were going well, I looked for and caused chaos for myself so I could feel “comfortable.” I of course didn’t realize, at least consciously, that I was doing it; until I started to become increasingly unsettled with the life I was living. I had a good job, managed to get married and had a child, but I was only comfortable in the unknown and I wanted to change.

For most of my life, I chalked up my behavior to the idea that I was just “crazy.” It was a concept that I was comfortable with, and I had known it was only a matter of time until I turned into my “crazy mother.” At the time, I was working in a law office, and I was watching clients with similar tendencies. I had wondered about their past and when I started to ask, I was surprised by how many of them had been former foster kids. I had always assumed there were very few of me, and the numbers appearing in my office was off putting to say the least.

Flash forward. In an effort to find peace in my life, I initially turned to self-help books. I found a little relief, but often found myself going back to old habits. I started to realize that hiding my demons was only making me more depressed, and more disconnected.

I tried everything, more books, journaling, yoga, meditation, and hiking. Physical exertion was having an impact, but it only lasted a few hours, and then I was back in mind, returning to old habits. Finally, I realized that I had to tell my story. I wrote Garbage Bag Suitcase and began diving into understanding trauma and its effects on the brain.

The research began turning me onto new books, and suddenly I understood my “trauma brain” in a whole new way. I wasn’t “crazy” my brain was just programed to constantly be in Fight, Flight, Freeze, Appease mode, and this knowledge changed everything for me.

I recently heard Dr. Cathy Fialon explain trauma brain as a sledding hill. When you go sledding the path becomes worn, and when you go down how you gain greater speed. The well-worn path is easy, and comfortable. However, if you take your sled over a few feet to a part of the hill that hasn’t been used, it is difficult to slide down, you can’t gain momentum, and you often start and stop a lot. It takes time, she explained, to break in this new path and make it enjoyable for sledding.

I understood exactly what she meant. My learned reactions as a child had become the well-worn sledding hill. It was easy for me to go down that road, regardless of the effects. But, when I started working on myself (i.e. taking my sled to a new hill) it was difficult. Don’t get me wrong, while I’m still working on breaking in my new path, every once in awhile I like to take a spin on the old one.

That is “trauma brain” retraining ourselves, and oftentimes those we care about, how to break in a new way of thinking. I am thrilled to say, that I have a new career that allows me to help others recognize their trauma brain and the trauma brain of those around them, to help themselves and other heal in a brand new way. We all deserve to try out a new place to sled.

Shenandoah Chefalo is a former foster youth, and advocate. She is the author of the memoir, Garbage Bag Suitcase, and co-founder of Good Harbor Institute an organization focused on ensuring sustainable, implemented trauma care within organizations and individuals. You can learn more about her and her work at or