In the weeks since the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, I have struggled with my own grief and fear and held space for clients while they do the same. I felt physically ill reading and watching the heartbreaking stories of the nineteen beautiful children and two teachers who lost their lives that day. It’s unimaginable, yet we’ve been here before. We want change. We need action. More than ever we see the importance of policy changes and holding leaders accountable. We desperately grasp for something tangible, anything to prevent this from ever happening again.
As a family therapist and a systemic thinker, I look at this tragedy and the path forward through that lens. I believe, without a doubt, that a ripple of trauma is at play when these episodes of devastating violence occur. Research has established that adverse childhood experiences are the root cause of most of our economic, social, physical, and mental health issues. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood. ACEs can include violence, abuse, and growing up in a family with mental health or substance use problems. Toxic stress from ACEs can change brain development and affect how the body responds to stress. As an ACE score increases, so does the risk of disease, social, and emotional problems.
I look at this shooter, 18 year old Salvador Ramos, and wonder what happened to him. Based on the accounts of Ramos’s life leading up to the shooting, it is safe to estimate that he experienced at least 7 of 10 ACEs. For reference, a score of 6 or higher is said to take at least 20 years off your life and cause marked difficulties in functioning. Ramos had types of childhood adversity that lasted for years. He experienced extreme bullying, his mother’s reported substance abuse, a father who was largely absent, and a volatile and unstable home environment.
There are multiple facets of trauma that we could consider, ACEs being one that is easiest to wrap our brains around. When we consider the neurological and attachment development aspects of trauma there are likely many other ways Ramos’ brain and body were traumatized. Based on the little history we have, we can hypothesize that his early childhood experiences likely contained significant amounts of stress, or at least numerous deviations from the optimal. His brain and body may very well have been primed for survival, with muscled up and disorganized lower regions of the brain. Survival is inherently selfish, and sees threat at every turn.
I don’t know the whole story. But I do know that we are the outcome of our relationships, our environments, and our support systems over the generations and most acutely, during our own developmental years. To arrive at age 18 being a violent loner with an unstable home life and an aggressive thirst for vengeance is not a fluke, but a result of layers and layers of trauma. This is not just in Uvalde, this is everywhere.
There is an African proverb that reads: “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.”
I feel heartbroken but at the same time, I have hope – because I know there are so many people out there working to prevent and heal trauma, every single day. So, we grieve. And then we go back out into the world to do what we can. We connect with those who need connection. We don’t look away. We don’t pretend the answers are simple. We don’t let fear drive us. We take a deep breath. We let fear and grief move through our bodies. And then we remember that healing takes place in the context of a healthy relationship, and we know how to do that.
Rebecca Bowers, MA LMFT
Individual and Family Therapist
Lakes Center for Youth and Families