• jess

Back to MF school: Applied Behavior Analysis and Trauma

Updated: Aug 6

You know, besides this project... I do a hellovalot, ya'll. I hint and I complain about my precrastinating ways of driving myself into the ground, but I don't always explain the context.


Admittedly, I've been keeping a big part of this outside life secret lately, because I feel like it's too good to be true. Don't want to speak too soon and have to redact my enthusiasm later - another form of "waiting for the other shoe" in action.


I guess... I'm about to make a pretty huge announcement in my life...


This Motherfucker is headed back to school in only a few short weeks. And... yeah, I'm freaking out a lottle.


If everything continues according to plan, I'm going to be attending a Master's in Science program in Applied Behavioral Analysis this Fall.


Of course, this comes with a whole host of other shit to figure out. Namely, how I'm going to pay for a new degree, pay for a roof over my head while I study, and find time to earn 2000 hours in supervised fieldwork. So, good luck and scholarships are necessary, as always.


Well, I just hammered out this little essay for a scholarship at Applied Behavior Analysis Education dot Org, and you know, it's not the worst thing I've ever seen.


I thought it might be worthwhile to share this brief explanation of where my own journey intersects with ABA, and how I hope to use this new degree to progress trauma informed care and behavioral analysis. It's an emerging field of psychology, and possibly something that other MF's haven't experienced yet.


Fingers crossed, pushing in this direction is going to open new doors for myself and others to help C-PTSD survivors in more impactful ways. For my own purposes, this is including practicing therapy in Behavioral Analysis, which I believe, can only further serve the community.


It is - and I say this with my usual cynicism - very exciting.


The most synchronistic part of this MS in ABA is, up until a few months ago, I didn't have the language for this psychology specialization. I only learned about Behavior Analysis towards the end of 2019. Even though I had been experiencing it myself for years, this void in language functionally made it nonexistent and inaccessible. Just like Complex Trauma and recovery were functionally nonexistent and inaccessible in my life only a few years ago.


P cool.


Anyways, I hope this short essay gives a little background information on Behavioral Analysis Therapy as it relates to Trauma Care.


With any lucky, it speaks to someone besides the folks who determine scholarship winners... but also them. Ahem. Money, please.





Two years ago, in the Summer of 2018, I was in a terrible time of my life. I found myself sleeping on the couch of a near-stranger from my brand-new job in Atlanta, unable to return to my home after chronic conflict with my significant other escalated to physical abuse. Besides having my loyal dog by my side, I felt entirely alone; I was 1000 miles from my friends and family in Northern Illinois and financially ruined by my relationship.


I had no idea what I was going to do next. Due to my anxiety and fear, I had been completely dependent on my ex for everything, from socialization to getting groceries from the store. I considered myself borderline-agoraphobic, incapable of driving, and too broken to manage a functional life on my own. It felt like my only option was to return home with my tail between my legs, and to get out of the way faster the next time he was getting belligerent.


I would later find out that this mindset was considered to be learned helplessness and avoidance from a life with undiagnosed Complex Trauma. At the time, however, I only considered myself to be a “crazy” invalid. My significant other was happy to play into this narrative with his purposeful triggering, mental health shaming, and gaslighting. I felt as though I was the problem, and there was no way to change the “emotional monster” I had become.


When I was finally able to find affordable mental healthcare, following 28 years of flailing with my self-diagnoses of anxiety, depression, and autoimmune dysfunction, I realized for the first time that C-PTSD was the common thread running through my life. It was the underlying basis of my thoughts, actions, and dissatisfactory life design. I wasn’t inherently broken, and my story wasn’t even unique.


It suddenly was clear; my small, fearful existence was self-perpetuating and creating new traumas. I began considering that my behaviors could moderate my life experience through a sort of immersion therapy, rather than avoiding all the activities that brought me discomfort. Instead of being “trapped” in this hopeless situation under the control of another human who very closely mirrored my father’s childhood abuse, I could choose to do things differently. I could re-learn to drive with confidence, I could find outside social support for my mental illness, and I could leave the house on my own to extend my experiences.


From this epiphany forward, my entire life changed very rapidly. I started viewing every day as an “experiment” in my anxiety and trauma management. I began documenting the results with sliding scales and outcomes of various behaviors that I newly implemented. I learned to check in with my body and notice how I responded to all sorts of stimuli. I formulated plans to execute new routines and personal habits and adjusted my new ways of life as I noticed the results supported or hindered my mental health.


In short, I began my own individual process of Applied Behavioral Analysis, long before I had heard of the therapy specialization. And the results were amazing. My life transformed in ways I had completely forfeited. I got a hold on my anxiety, depression, and obsessive thoughts. I overcame the self-defeating core beliefs that I held onto for 20 years and started an online trauma blog. I began making massive strides in my therapy; from driving myself across the city to making new friends to performing tasks outside the house on my own.


As a result, my abusive relationship came to an end. I finally found the strength and confidence to leave with two bags of clothing and a temporary living situation with another coworker. I broke free of the control that I had been living under and began focusing all my newfound attention and energy on developing an online support community for fellow C-PTSD survivors. Through my writing and community interactions, I found that so many of my traumatized peers were just like me. Overachievers with ACES who eventually became defeated by mental health battles, and subsequently stunted their own lives with avoidant patterns and learned hopelessness. I wanted to scream from the rooftops that the answer is so simple; start acting, analyze what’s working, and re-assess what would produce more beneficial results with them.


Throughout all of this, I also realized that I was in the wrong line of work. I always had been. Previously, I was a cellular biology researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, a peer-reviewed scientist, and a laboratory supervisor. At that time, in Atlanta, I was working in Logistics Management for a craft brewery. My professional career had been all numbers and stress, no heart or human connection. All along, I had been deeply interested in mental health and community outreach, but never felt as though I was “cut out” to be a good therapist, considering the myriad of personal challenges in my own traumatized life.


Instead, I began researching and applying to graduate programs on the research-side of psychology, certain that this was my next step in designing a life I wanted to live. This is when I stumbled upon Applied Behavior Analysis. With sudden clarity, I realized that this was exactly the process I used to create my own mental health and life recovery. The basis of my trauma and anxiety management had been modifying my own behaviors and readjusting depending on the results. Treating each activity as an experiment and leaning in, instead of avoiding, to new tasks that frightened me. It was the recovery journey that I detailed to my readers, and the way that I attempted to reach my hand back down for each one of them.


To answer this prompt more concisely; I know that ABA is the psychology field for me because of how powerful the therapy technique has been in my own life. It was the answer to my own self-defeat. It was the tool that taught me to manage my mental illness instead of wallowing in it. It was the topic I had already been exploring and writing about for 1.5 years. It was already my passion.


Similar to my C-PTSD diagnosis, I just didn’t have the words to give my own ABA experience context and realize its power until I was educated on the emerging science. Now that I’m informed in both, I aim to leverage my ABA academics and field experience to assist other Complex Trauma, Anxiety Disorder, and PTSD sufferers with the tools they need to stop living in the shadow of mental illness. I want to help them find the power and confidence to create lives they actually want to live, rather than hiding in self-determined trauma loops.


To this day, my online complex trauma support community is only growing. My message is reaching new folks across the world, with increasing interest and response. However, I lack the formal credentials to offer any sort of practical guidance. I ultimately hope my formal education and experience in ABA can be used to help more people in increasingly powerful ways where the fields of Trauma Informed Care and Behavioral Analysis intersect. I want to share my message of treating each day as an experiment in experience. Because in my experience, everything changed with my behaviors.



Traumatized Motherfxckers

Not doomed. Not damaged.

Not dead yet.

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