Trauma-Informed Care with Abby Wong-Heffter

This week on the podcast, Dan begins the first of two conversations with special guest Abby Wong-Heffter, a teaching staff member at the Allender Center and coordinator of the Concentration in Trauma & Abuse at The Seattle School. Together they dive into the topic of trauma and the parts of Abby’s story that reveal how she found her way to becoming a trauma-informed therapist.

Effective Trauma Care is coming up this July 22-23! Learn more about what Dan and Abby explore over this two-day event and register today.


Episode Transcript

Dan: There are many times I look forward to being able to do this podcast. In fact, all the time, I really look forward to doing it. But I’m telling you, I’m really looking forward to my conversation with a dear friend and colleague, Abby Wong-Heffter. Abby! So good to join you. And to let the audience know it is a season of rest for our dear friend Rachael Clinton-Chen. So it’s just you and me, Abbie. And we’re going to talk about- surprise- trauma. I imagine there are people going, oh yeah, like that’s a whole, you need to introduce that? But indeed, we’re going to step into trauma. We’re going to talk a bit about the reality of a course we teach called effective trauma care. But before we do that, I would love for folks to get to know you, you’ve been on the broadcast many times, but not for a while. So how, in all that is good, true and holy, did you get suckered into dealing with trauma?

Abby: Well, I think I recently said that I got suckered by you! And I think what’s funny is that, yes, not surprising to these dear folks that we’re going to talk about trauma, but maybe still, disturbing that you and I sound so buoyant and kind of excited. Like, oh we’re gonna talk about trauma! Yay!

D: [laughs] Okay. I will stand back and go, it probably isn’t the right mood. but I will confess that there is something both so horrible, heartbreaking, but also so deeply, deeply hopeful about engaging these matters. And I know it’s where I believe I have seen the goodness of God in dealing with my own, but even more so the privilege of dealing with other people’s trauma. So, back to that question, maybe I was part of stepping it in, but you’ve had a long, long, significant history of engaging heartache and trauma, and I’d love for our audience just to get a little bit of a feel for what got you into this complex, but also amazing world.

A: Yeah, and I think I would just maybe come back to– if our tone initially is somewhat bizarre to you, I find myself still in this work after, gosh, I think it’s coming on 15 years? Because it’s really actually enlightening for your life to make a little bit more sense. Sometimes it does bring laughter and buoyancy and joy, because otherwise, I think we’re left feeling like we’re crazy, or really, really into the drama. And so I would say I am, I’m in this work because there’s so much resonance. I feel like in talking about, in talking about trauma, in training people around trauma, in sitting with stories of trauma, there is in some ways nothing sweeter than seeing someone’s face come to rest because they feel believed, because there is now a bit more meaning around their life and and that there can finally be some integration where now what I know in my mind is also starting to match what my body has been telling me, my spirit has been telling me. So that’s why I’m still in this game. So I’m still in this game with you in particular.

D: [laughs] Well, that notion of resonance: like my brain, which is part of my body, but my brain and other parts of my body feels so fragmented at times, and disconnected, that when there is even a bit of an integration, I mean there’s just been times where my heart is just full of heartache and it’s sunny and beautiful and we live in the pacific northwest and that’s not a normal reality and the disjunction is huge. There are other days where it’s so cold and rainy and there is that sense of even my outside world seems to be in concord with my inner world and there is more peace when there is that reconnecting. So how did you get in here? And I’m going to prompt you because a lot of it began in your own life, as it does without all of us.

A: Yes, I mean I got here on a strange road, although I think I wrote that a lot of you probably will find really familiar. Which was I was a youth group kid who just was, I mean I think in really sweet ways, just so hungry for more of Jesus. And I found Jesus, and truly like where my life made the most sense, on mission trips to Tijuana, building orphanages, and then from there going to Guatemala and building orphanages, and my first gig out of undergrad was working for an adoption agency. At the time it was specifically working with families that were adopting Children from China, and that had some resonance because my younger sister was adopted from China, and so it had already been a really significant part of my story. And I would say at the time I still was in the mindset of, “I’m just doing the Lord’s work”, which I sadly think for a lot of us that comes from concrete thinking in our faith, often that’s divorced from our own ways of understanding our lives and our stories. So I just felt like I was doing the Lord’s work, and what I know, and I would say even scripture that stood out to me from a very young age, it was “I will not leave you as orphans”, that that Jesus’ heart is for Children who have known abuse, and neglect. And so I just kept following that road. It eventually even led me to working with child soldiers that came out of the civil war in Northern Uganda. So I would say it took me a long while. I would say, well after even my time in graduate school to begin to understand that my heart beat alongside orphans for a particular reason. That I understood something of, of the quiet echo chamber of my emotional and even psychological, and I would say in some ways spiritual landscape that just felt unknown and uncared for and alone and and really deeply sad and when I, I don’t think I even just said alone twice and it’s because I didn’t know resonance. So yeah, I think I came to the work of trauma by the way of the orphan and I think orphans no, a specific kind of trauma. Yes, sometimes it is violence. But I think sadly we too often associate, mhm, trauma with violence. And I mean the literal physical violence or sexual abuse. But I think what doesn’t get enough attention is the trauma of neglect.

D: Huge. And the reality is the category of orphan is a very concrete category, but it’s also in some sense, a reality for all human beings. And it’s part of the difficulty that I do not want the generic metaphorical to obscure the reality of what the trauma would be for a person who’s an orphan. And yet that experience of being an orphan has a more generalizable, you know, you were not orphaned in the technical sense, yet you’ve known as we all do to some degree something of what it means to be an orphan. And I’d love for you to talk about what it means for you to be a biracial woman, as part of the reality of what you’ve experienced with trauma and what it means to be an orphan.

A: Wow. Well, it just feels important to even name within this season, to be an asian, biracial woman. I think that the more that we are able, however, in your own story, you’re able to name what has been traumatizing, what has left you disoriented and fragmented and feeling like you don’t make sense. I think the more we’re able to put language around that the more opportunity there is for not only healing but acceptance and love. And I am talking about love of oneself, which I know coming again from a particular context, I’ve had a lot of pushback, I can even feel it internally, like, “oh, don’t go too much into love of oneself”. But gosh, isn’t that what trauma does though, it turns us on ourselves. So yes, being biracial, I think I’m in a season of wanting to really celebrate it and be excited about it and find more of my people. For the first time in my life I have biracial friends and that has just felt so invigorating. I’m going to give a little plug. Folks if you have not seen In The Heights, you need to go see In The Heights. Because I think it’s a beautiful representation of not only latino culture, but a mix of cultures and what it looks like for them to come together and what it looks like for them to come together in trauma. So I know that was a little side note, but I’m thinking because some of the dilemma for us, when we know that we need to pay heed to our trauma is that we sometimes lose the vision for beauty, we sometimes lose what needs to be celebrated. And so if your trauma has come from the fact that you experienced marginalization, then I notice this trend of getting bogged down in focusing on what keeps us outside instead of what is to be celebrated and seen as how we are unique image bearers. So again, whether that’s you as a woman or you as a person of color or you as a person with a disability, I am again just emphasizing to be marginalized often means you’ve also been traumatized just from being in dominant culture and not being fully welcomed and accepted.

D: Yeah. And as, in one sense a representative of the dominant culture, I’m very aware that there is a structure that it simultaneously excludes but then quickly absorbs and takes over, and in one sense appropriates, and uses in a way that: “It’s mine to use. I have the power and the privilege of being able to use”. I can wear a particular set of clothing that is appropriating another culture, but without any thought that there might be an issue in that. I currently, I’ve been in the Philippines a number of times, I love the people I’ve met and I’ve been given a number, I’ll just use the larger word shirts that would be ever appropriate to wear if I were back in the Philippines, but I don’t wear currently in the United States because it is a form of absorption. So how do I take in the gift that has been given to me, but also not misuse that gift. Again, these are not easy waters for any of us to own, to navigate. And there is almost that sense of trauma to enter the trauma, a kind of, oh, we’re going to fail. I’m going to fail as a white person engaging this. So let me be as anemic and disengaged or presumptive and to fall back and forth between these levels of extremes. There’s trauma in trauma. And it’s very hard to find a way through. But what I want to see if we can capture is: how has– what you’ve spoken about today, How is it informing your teaching about trauma, your engagement with clients who have dealt with trauma, and just the world? Is that a clear enough question? I know it’s not, but I’m going to leave it in your lap nonetheless.

A: Oh, I think it is because I think I would just say again. First and foremost, my greatest healing has been places where I feel seen and believed. And sometimes that means someone else has had to give me language I didn’t have for myself. And so when I’m sitting with clients, I think that some of what my first assumption is of my role in getting to journey with them, is that I get to see alongside of you what you have more or less normalized. It has been the air you breathe, the waters you swim in. And in many ways either you take it for granted or you, you’ve learned how to manage, mitigate that suffering generally by turning on yourself. Again, to make it even survivable. And so a lot of my role as a therapist is to help bring more vision, more language to that which actually should never have been normalized. And I think in my training, and teaching with folks, it’s the same of how do you gain that lens? How do you understand the work of an abuser? Which I know is actually really atrocious work, that we need to become really experts at some of the darkest behavior, darkest thinking, darkest intentions that I can even fathom. But to be able to unpack again what was happening within the realm of abuse, so that someone who has survived that has a better understanding, has more truth about their their own life and what they have needed to do in order to live through it, but in a lot of ways what we use as our defenses, which I first and foremost always want to honor and bless, but then I want us to consider, is it still for you? Or is it asking you to have to continue to live this compromised life? So I don’t– that was probably a really roundabout way of answering your question.

D: But I love it. And let me just underscore we are called to flee the schemes of evil and schema meaning structure a system way of being or functioning in the world. And so if we don’t know the schemes of evil, we can’t flee them. And yet the price for entering into the schemes of evil is to look at things that, at least from many people’s standpoint, feels very dark or negative. We need to look at the schemes of how an individual, how a family, how larger systems like the church or our government, create a world that at some core level is denying the Lord’s prayer, heaven on earth. And so this isn’t just being critical or negative, it’s actually learning to grow in wisdom. And I love what you put words to in terms of we don’t want to take away people’s defenses, we want to give people a choice with regard to the structure of how they schematically engage the world and if the schema they’re using is actually the schema ultimately of self harm. Even if that self harm worked for a season, then there has to be a moment, moment, a season and Aeon where you’re a lot freer to say, I see and I do not want. And it may not be able to snap my finger and say damn it, I’m not gonna do that again. But at least there is that intention and a movement of the desire of the human heart to say: I will be part of creating and becoming something far more beautiful. So that feels like I think one of the best descriptions of what we do together, in effective trauma care. When we teach that course, we’re exposing the schemas, we’re inviting people to dream and desire and opening the prospect of understanding what trauma does to the body, to the heart, to the mind, to relationships, to ultimately relationship with God. And I I’ll just say I love teaching this class with you, I love you, but I love teaching this class with you because some of what you do with regard to attachment and an understanding of the role of what you’ve learned from all of creation, we’ll just use that phrase. Monkeys, elephants and a lot of other glorious entities. Before we end, I just want you to like take us where you want with regard to the role of attachment and trauma.

A: Well, I think a really helpful word around trauma and what it does to us as it divorces us, it divorces us from ourselves. So again, back to that language of fragmentation. It certainly divorces us from the earth. So that I think we are, we’re in the midst of, let’s be honest, we’re still in the midst of a season, a long season where things of creation feel like, wow, we’ve we have brought harm, We’re now living in chaos. Some of that chaos is the pandemic. A lot of the chaos is climate change. So divorce, like there is a divorce between us as fellow created beings, and then there’s divorce in relationship. And so attachment theory is really looking at that first place where you learn resonance. Where you learn in some ways your place in the world, are in those primary relationships at infancy. And then it is the imprint. It creates somewhat of the template you’re going to then build all future relationships off of. And so when we understand what happens to a person, when they’ve experienced trauma it is really helpful to understand, well, what did those early relationships look like? Because they either set a really strong– and I’m going to use the word secure, which secure is a big word around attachment– It either created this really secure base for you to then be able to digest and experience, where you could go back to your parents over and over again with this thing happened and it was scary and made me angry or my body still hurts and there was capacity to help that make sense to you. Back to that word schema. We need schemas. In our development we need ways of making sense of a very complex world and very complex selves and very complex families. And when we’re really young we’re building those schemas, and Trauma doesn’t have one. And so a strong secure attachment helps you in a lot of ways, again, make meaning out of something that was meaningless. And without that, you are in many ways left to your own devices, you’re left to have to figure out how to navigate something. And again, you’re going to likely either figure out how to navigate it by yourself, which we would call avoidance, or with desperately grabbing onto others. And we would call that preoccupation.

D: Well, let’s just go back to that word. It leaves you alone. You don’t belong and you feel crazy. And in that madness you have almost no one “to blame” but yourself. And therefore the orphan ends up in so many ways devouring their own possibility of regaining connection. It’s such a heartbreaking double bind that you’ve been injured, and in the injury, you to some degree injure yourself again. And the repetitive cycle feels like a hopelessness that there will be any possibility that life could be different. And what we want to offer, we wouldn’t be doing this work if we didn’t have our own trauma, if we had not the privilege of working with others, people, people’s trauma. But as well with a deep conviction that there is a way, truly a path that can open the door to great change. So we’re going to invite you to join us July. And do you know the dates? Like I should be doing this with greater– but I think it’s like July 22nd 23rd. Or is it 23rd 24th?

A: It is the 22nd and 23rd.

D: Great! I was close to the ballpark. You can check on our website, to get more information, but we’d love to join you. And next week Abby. You and I are going to talk about trauma and with a little bit more particular charity, particularly with regard to children and trauma. So see you in a week.