by Savanah McCarty as told to Rebel Heart Poetry (@rebelheartpoetry)
Secrecy feeds shame. Brenè Brown once said, “If you put shame in a petri dish and you give it a little bit of silence and a little bit of judgement and a little bit of secrecy it will grow exponentially into every corner and crevice of your life. If you have the same amount of shame in a petri dish and you put a little empathy on it, you’ve created a hostile environment for shame.”
Shame is a tricky little concept and because of it we, humans that is, tend to keep our past to ourselves, tucked quietly away deep in our hearts, brains, and souls. It’s a nice thought, to believe if we don’t talk about something that it just might leave us alone, but anyone who has gone through any sort of trauma or has been a victim of any sort of abuse knows that tucking the past away is haunting. It rears its head in many ways- depression, anxiety, addiction, detrimental life choice patterns, ect.
Personally, I am a work in progress, like one of those pull-tab cans of fruit, I’m halfway open, not quite ready to let it all out. I write about my feelings, but I do so under an alias (hence the “rebel heart poetry”). It’s not only the fear of shame that stops me from talking about the less than sparkly parts of my past, it is the fear of trauma judgement.
What is trauma judgement? Trauma Judgement is what people do when they hear another person’s story. It ranges from the well-meaning words of attempted comfort such as “oh my goodness, you’re so strong, I could never survive that” or “well, everything happens for a reason” (the worst) to a decision that another’s trauma isn’t worthy of the damage it has caused to them i.e. “her story isn’t that bad, she’s dramatic” or “who hasn’t been through something like that?”
Social media has created the Supreme Court of Trauma Judgment, an open platform to share, read, critique, analyze, and dissect stories of trauma. I dream of a world where social media accounts are attained much like a license, requiring both an IQ and an empathy test before allowing a person the ability to comment.
However, here in the real world 2019, that is not the case. Any dope off the street can practice armchair psychology and declare another person crazy or decide that another person is a delusional liar, just based off a hunch.
Here’s the thing, my trauma and my story are not up for your third-party interpretation. Your trauma and your story, also are not up for third-party interpretation. Trauma is not a science. Trauma is a multi-faceted experience and only the person who went through it is allowed the right to deem how it affected their life.
Trauma is not one-size fits all. Resiliency comes in all shapes and sizes and relativity plays a part in every story. For one person, an absent father may lead to a lifetime of poor dating choices and a constant quest to find self-worth in the eyes of a man but for another, it may be something they are able to process and work through, unaffected. A messy divorce might be a stressful year to one, but the last straw to a person who has faced multiple abandonments. Other people don’t get to decide if a date rape or a childhood inappropriate touch is “enough” to be considered trauma. Trauma judgment is never appropriate.
Trauma has many chapters. When a person shares with you their story, keep in mind, there may be, and likely is, a darker chapter being left out. Trauma victims are fierce protectors, sometimes omitting part of their story to spare another. Opening up about occurrences that make a person feel “damaged” is terrifying. Trauma survivors have earned the right to share none, part, or all of their experience. They owe us nothing.
Yet some choose to speak up and share their story, nonetheless. Why? The reasons are multiple, from a need to break the metaphoric chains of an abusive family construct to a knowledge that speaking truth heals, but most people share their stories of trauma, abuse, and overcoming because they believe it might make a difference in the life of another
I ask that you consider the following as you read the story of Savanah, founder and Director of Wild Souls Ranch, as told to the writer.
I don’t name names when I tell my story. Each person in my life has their own story to tell and I wouldn’t dare do that for them. I will forever encourage each person I encounter, including those who were part of my story, to open up and share. Only by lifting up the rug and revealing what has been swept under it for generations, can families begin to heal.
This isn’t the first time I have sat down and shared my life story with someone though, this is the first time I am ready to share details of my childhood I have otherwise kept to myself. I’m not sure if I’m doing so because I am ready or because I feel forced to defend myself after a recent online smear campaign attempting to shame me for claiming the childhood trauma I endured was falsified, but, either way, it’s time.
Savanah recently was shown a Facebook post by a family that cared for her in her teens and early twenties claiming that she had falsified her childhood trauma, threating the validity of her motivation to find and establish Wild Souls Ranch. The posts claimed she dramatized her childhood trauma and was never in the foster care system, a technicality Savanah has never claimed, always identifying as a “ward of the court.”
The people who posted on social media claiming my childhood story is false weren’t present for my childhood. I suppose they feel like they know my whole story because they were a part of my teen and early-adulthood but, they only know what they were told. They don’t actually know my story.
Before reading any further, please be advised there are trigger warnings in Savanah’s story.
I have no idea who my father is. Does that feel great? No, but it would turn out to be the least of my worries. Before my biological mom was sentenced to prison, I lived with her. I remember domestic violence and addiction like other people recall bubble baths and bedtime stories. It was hell but it was all I knew. To me, early childhood was screaming, yelling, nightly fights and alcoholism. I had never seen any different.
When I was five-years-old, my bio-mom took me and ran, leaving my then stepfather with his two kids and a bankruptcy to deal with. I don’t remember much from this time but I know that no one in my extended knew where I was for months.
Somewhere between age five and six I was dumped off at the home of the people I knew as “grandpa” and “grandma,” the couple who had adopted my bio-mom as a child. The woman I knew as grandma was healing from her own family trauma, battling depression, addicted to pills, often spending days on end in bed but my grandpa, he was the one to introduce me to what it felt like to be loved.
Grandpa and I were thick as thieves. For this man, I keep using the last name “McCarty.” He is the one who looked at a small, freckle-faced girl who believed love was just impossible to earn, viewed pills as grown up treats, and thought that screaming and hitting were normal ways of communicating and saw that she needed help. He realized that I had already been exposed to the family pattern of brokenness and he decided if he couldn’t help me, he at least wanted to introduce me to someone who could.
My grandfather introduced me to the woman that would change my life, the woman who introduced me to horses. Every day after school and near every weekend, my grandfather drove me Marlene’s ranch where I would meet freedom for the first time, where I would feel a wild love only horses can give. Marlene and her horses saved my spirit and my grandfather is the one who knew they would.
In and out of my world, my bio-mom eventually went to prison which made me, still very much a child, a ward of the state. The state placed me under NFRM guardianship with my grandparents. For a long time, I was told, and believed, that my mom was getting better and we would be reunited. No matter what you have been through or how tough of a kid you are, a child always fills with hope for their mama.
There is something the courts call a “reunification process,” a court date for separated families where the child and parent are both scheduled to show up, meet and make a plan to live together again. I had several of these scheduled in my childhood. I showed up to every single one, smiling, hopeful, ready to hug my mom. She never showed. Not once. You want to talk about crushing childhood moments? I can remember the way that court room felt, the temperature, the smell, my sweaty palms, the feeling of trying not to hope but unable to stop myself from believing this day would be different than the ones before.
Eventually, I resigned and accepted that I was never going to be a daughter, never going to get my hair braided and watch sitcoms while sitting on the couch with my mom. I would live with my grandparents and as long as my grandpa was there to shield me from my grandma’s darkness, that would be good enough for me. I was loved.
Right about the time I relaxed into believing I was home, my grandpa was diagnosed with the early stages of cancer.
Have you ever met someone who seems unable to believe good things can happen to them? It might be because of never-ending crushing losses like this. Sure, on paper, a child facing a grandfather’s cancer diagnosis is sad, but not life crushing. However, when you consider that said child had been abandoned by every other family member since birth, the brevity of the situation changes. Remember, this is why there is no judge, no jury, when it comes to trauma.
It was decided that in order for my grandpa to fight cancer, he couldn’t also be the main caretaker for a little girl. At age 12, near after finding out the only man I called family was facing a deadly disease, I was told to pack my bags and that I would be moving to Colorado to live on an air force base with a woman I had known as an aunt and her husband, and I was told they were expecting their first baby.
I was worried about leaving my grandpa, terrified I would never see him again. I was heartbroken to leave behind my daily routine of riding and caring for horses with Marlene, the first female figure to make me feel somewhat adored. All that aside, as resilient home bouncing kids often are, I remained positive, telling myself that this could be the beginning of what I had always wanted, a real family.
My aunt and uncle were young. They didn’t seem to have dark habits or skeletons buried in the closet. They seemed happy and I so desperately wanted that, happy and normal. I would have taken a happy and normal family over anything else you could offer me.
I could hardly believe I was part of this nuclear, picket fence bliss. Pre-teen years in full affect, I decided to, once again, let go and let myself be happy. I had a family. I was part of family. It was settled. I was home.
I was happy but I was still a near teenager who had been spent her whole life around various forms of drugs, depression, addiction, and untreated trauma. Where I found my aunt and uncle comforting, they found me difficult to parent and, to their credit, I probably was, compared to the children of their military friends.
Right before I turned 14, they had decided I wasn’t a good fit for their little family and, once again, my bags were packed and I was told there was a better fitting place for me. This time, me and my bright blue duffle bag were dropped off at home that felt so strange to me, even though it was drilled into my head that it was a home with a family connection, a savior from a foster home which I was to be ever so grateful for.
I moved into to the same house as my half-siblings, my mom’s other kids. The head of household was their birth dad, his new wife, her child from a previous marriage, and their shared child together. Five children altogether, if you counted me.
I had spent little time with my half-siblings and their dad on a few occasions after we had been separated, a camping trip here, a passing through road trip there, but I had zero relationship with the parents of this household as a 13-year-old.
So, there I was. A teenager who had been told, in words and other ways, that she was not wanted, too much trouble, or a bad fit in every other home I had ever called home. I was very aware that I was to be in a constant state of gratitude towards their act of taking me in. I was terrified to let my guard down, to be anything but a quiet and helpful existence, rather than, God forbid, a typical a teenager.
It wasn’t their fault but it was to be expected, I was terrified.
I lived with this family for near four years and I will be the first to tell you that there were absolutely moments of happiness. In those four years, a few authentic smiles spread across my face and, in spite of it all, there were moments of laughter too. I did my part. My grades were good, I signed up for every sport I could, I held down multiple after school jobs.
Though I would like to say I did all of those things because of my innate desire to achieve and excel, that would be a lie. I had zero confidence of any sorts. The motivation behind my accomplishments was to prove my worth, make this family proud, fool them into believing I, the little girl who no one wanted, was worthy of a bedroom in their home and maybe a place in their heart.
Though it was nothing compared to the homes of my past, so much so that I believed it to be a healthy home, the house I lived in from ages 14-18 was stocked full of addiction, dysfunction, and nightly screaming and fighting. I had no control. I couldn’t speak up; I couldn’t make waves. The girl who couldn’t even get her mom to want her, who was once living in seedy motels, who didn’t even know her dad’s name, that girl, in my mind, had no right to complain about a little bit of emotional abuse and some addiction exposure.
I mean, when you’ve lived in a world of abuse as the norm and watched your mom passed out on a couch, waiting to see if she was just in a pill haze, drunk or dead, it hardly seems worth mentioning that your half-sibling’s step-mom ,who everyone else praised for taking you in, would often send you to your room, give you the silent treatment, a very extreme solitary confinement version of what your same-aged friends called “being grounded.”
Isolation is not a recommended form of punishment for children of trauma.
So, I did what many teenage girls who had less than ideal childhoods do. I took on an eating disorder because that, that I could control. I learned to love the isolation, forcing myself to view my punishment of having to spend the entirety of a month completely alone in my room as a gift in disguise. I would read books, escaping to a world of whatever the author created for me.
When the screaming and fighting down the hall would grow to be too much, I would put on my headphones. I would listen to the music and cry, wishing, willing, praying that a social worker or my previous Casa Advocate, Dottie, would come and rescue me. Just one home visit, I would pray, just one.
I would pray to be put with another family, one who wanted a foster kid and didn’t “have to take me in.” I would dream of being sent to a group home, a place where all the kids were as messed up and unwanted as me, but maybe there would be a therapist who understood us and could help us.
But that never happened. Just as the recent social media post said, I, Savanah McCarty, have never been in foster care. If that makes me lucky, well, you have a weird view on luck.
At age 18, I packed my Honda Civic with everything I owned and moved to the city of Monterey, California. I was ready to start my own life. I was an adult, by definition of society, and I was so relieved to be at an age where people would stop asking me the common kid questions, what my dad did for work or if I looked like my mom. I could just be a regular grown-up and live happily ever after.
But that is not usually how it shakes out for children of trauma. My early twenties were a rocky road meets a turbulent flight. Place a broken young woman without a loving foundation in the dating pool and watch her drown. Not even 20-years-old and I was trying to heal from wounds I didn’t even know I had. I was smart enough to understand that my childhood was far from perfect but broken enough to believe I had somehow earned it.
That mindset led to bad decisions. At age 24, I had yet to have a good night sleep in my entire adult life so, I did what was my family pattern and I turned to prescription medication both for insomnia and anxiety. With that long-awaited rest came the flashbacks; vivid, visual memories of the sexual abuse I endured when I was five years old, the only time in my life I had ever been alone with my mom.
Those months my family likes to reminisce about, when I disappeared with my mom, those months were actual hell for me. My mom would leave and I would be alone in motel rooms with men, her age and older, who did things to me, things that will haunt me, for reasons I will never understand.
All of this made me feel, if you can imagine it, even less worthy of love. More shame. That dirty, shameful, desperate feeling that can’t be washed off no matter how many scalding hot showers you take or self-help books you read. Visceral shame.
I attempted suicide.
Thankfully, it was only an attempt. The truth is, I have always had a will to live, a will to do with what I have survived a great good, to make my story end with a purpose. So, I called for help.
The call for help was answered by my brother, who sent his biological-father. My brother’s dad pulled up in a car, with his girlfriend, and took me in, another hopeful safe haven. On that ride to their home and in the months to come, I committed to living and pursuing the calling of purpose. I finally found a therapist, realizing mental support was not simply an option for someone who had lived the life I had, but a must.
Therapy is not easy. It is work, as in, you work through things, they don’t just heal from talking about them. While in therapy, the beginning of the idea of Wild Souls Ranch came to me. I knew I wanted to help kids who never known a home and I knew I wanted to use horses, the most healing and incredible creatures I had ever spent time with, to provide that help.
Therapy reveals more than aspirations and dreams, it shows patterns of dysfunction and challenges you, the individual to, for the first time ever, to choose not to continue the pattern.
After a long conversation, Savannah pauses. I can tell this is a part of her life story she doesn’t want to tell. I ask her a question, “You were in your twenties, right? In therapy. Did that happen to you? Did you realize there was a pattern of dysfunction in your life?”
The pattern of dysfunction was not only in my life, but it was generational, and challenging generational dysfunction is scary for anyone, but especially for people who are low on family as it is. Stepping away from toxic family behaviors is an individual choice but to those within the dysfunctional family system it is treacherous. It is traitorous.
Every single home I had lived in was riddled with some sort of very toxic behavior. From the motel rooms with my mom to the pill-popping of my grandmother to the home I was living in at the time, the pattern of my people stayed strong. Though, once again, I was to be grateful for someone opening up their home to me, I once again, knew the environment was far from healing.
In my brother’s biological-dad and his girlfriend’s home, again, there was a presence of both addiction and emotionally manipulative behavior. When I would try to talk about what I was learning in therapy or attempt to navigate the repressed memories I was facing, I was told that “we don’t talk about that kind of stuff in this house” and with that small sentence, I would give into the shame. This new family, who took in me, a young adult without any other family, I incessantly told me that my childhood wasn’t that bad and that I should, again with that dang word, be grateful that extended family had kept me out of a foster home.
And that was my new home. Was it enough to call the police? No. Was it an average American amount of addiction and dysfunction? Probably. Was it an excellent environment for a young woman who had just attempted suicide in order to escape her traumatic childhood? No.
So, I left. I left and went out on my own. Through therapy and a lot of processing, I decided it best to leave the family system that had failed me. Though it had been engrained in me to be forever thankful my extended family hadn’t turned me over to “strangers,” through therapy I was able to realize that none of this excused my grandmother’s refusing to come out of her room and acknowledge me, or my uncle and aunt’s decision to take me in only to throw me out when I acted age-appropriate or my half-sibling’s step-mom placing me in solitary confinement or my half-brother’s bio-dad’s girlfriend telling me I should stop complaining about my life and just be… grateful.
Yes, these people gave me a roof over my head. Yes, some of them did their best to welcome me into their version of a family but I, as an adult, realize that I deserved more than a bed to sleep in and a plate of food at dinnertime. I deserved and deserve unconditional love. I deserved and deserve acceptance. I deserved and deserve acknowledgement of what I have survived. I deserved and deserve a functional family system.
While that may seem an obvious statement to most, for me, it was a revelation, one I had to fight my instinct to believe. In order to do so, I had to cut ties with my “family”. I had to separate myself from all toxic behaviors of my childhood, big or small.
I have never said their names or paired names with behaviors. That is not my place. I have shared that I choose to separate myself from my family system. I do that in hopes that others, young and older, will see that you can stop the pattern of dysfunction, abuse or addiction, though it may mean going at it alone.
It’s interesting to see someone speak of solitude without great sorrow. I ask Savanah, “Are you alone?”
I’m not alone. Actually, for the first time ever, I have a family. My chosen family. The Wild Souls Ranch family and my friends. They love me, they see me, they know I have been through some trauma and that trauma has made me who I am, for better and worse. They know I struggle, they know I am resilient, they acknowledge what I survived is worthy of note. They see me.
So, this social media post. The one that states you lie about your past and dramatize your childhood trauma, how did it make you feel?
Honestly, at first, mad, only because defaming my character could affect Wild Souls Ranch.
I’m… unsurprised. That’s my family crest- deny the dysfunction, call for the gratitude. I walked away from behaviors I consider toxic. I never shouted their names and attached them to the behaviors I don’t want to be near. I just walked away. But that hurts pride, especially when trying to keep up small town appearances.
Believe me when I say there are times I would like to just keep the peace. But then I see a child enter the Wild Souls Ranch wraparound program, a child who, as much as it saddens me that this is true, has faced way more than me, a child who didn’t get the blessing of the break of a repressed memory, a child who has been dropped off at 30 homes instead of three, and I look at that child and I understand it is my job to show them that they can, one day, walk away.
If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Thank you for reading Savanah’s story. In working together on this article, Savanah and I have been inspired to write a book on the entire story of Wild Souls Ranch. What started as Savanah’s hope in horses has blossomed into one of the northwest’s most effective equine healing program for foster youth, adopted youth, and youth experiencing challenges. The journey from a vision to what it is today has consisted of challenges, triumphs, heartbreak, and hope. Stay tuned for the full story of Wild Souls Ranch.
-rebel heart poetry