“It’s really nice to get to know you guys as people, not just as staff,” one of the girls said in a therapy group four or five days into our international service trip to southern Mexico. We were all sitting on a patio next to a gorgeous pool. We could hear the rainforest we were sitting in, howler monkeys and birds chattering away, from the safety of this beautiful hotel that had all the western amenities we were used to. This was a jarring contrast from the last few days, where we stayed in cots at the Casa Hogar orphanage in Tuxtla, Chiapas. For many of us, this was the first time experiencing a place where the water would make our bodies, softened by our American sanitation system, sick. And once we were sick, we couldn’t flush the toilet paper because the sewer systems did not support that.
What this girl was speaking to was the opportunity for the group of us, which included five staff, ten students and two parents, to enter into this experience all as people, equally vulnerable to exhaustion, mosquitos, Montezuma’s Revenge and the heartbreak that is the experience of really seeing that most of the world will never know the privileges we take for granted. The adults on this trip were no less prone to getting teary-eyed and having to turn away from one of the children at the orphanage and regroup for a moment or wishing that we could just skip the last couple hours of shoveling gravel.
For me, this experience of stepping into each other’s experience went even deeper. I was undoubtedly moved by the time spent at the orphanage, and the quick but deep connection I formed with a ten-year-old girl there named Naomi. But beyond that, this experience of traveling so far from Chrysalis with our students and experiencing the world with them, allowed me to step into the work they are doing in a more visceral way than ever before. As a Chrysalis therapist, every day I sit and speak with our students about their best moments, and more often, their worst. I hear them recount feelings and struggles in the past tense, noting challenges they think they will encounter “after Chrysalis” and supporting them through brave clinical work during session after session.
But this was different. This put it all to the test. We traveled to an orphanage very similar to the places that two of the students with us had been adopted from. We felt the collective trauma of 100 children, most of whom who had histories of severe sexual abuse, and it reminded many of us of our own upsetting histories. We encountered adults without clinical treatment experience, with the wide spectrum of histories, personalities, and intentions that humans come with by the dozens (thousands, if we consider walking through the busy town of San Cristobal or through the Mexico City and Salt Lake City airports). Some of these people held our gaze in a way that reminded us of a time, not so long ago, when something bad had happened. We sweated in the sun, all wishing while we pushed dirt that we could be in tank tops and shorts rather than the conservative clothing we were wearing out of respect for the children and the culture, but some of us were faced with the reality of the wig we wear to hide that we pull our hair out was extra hot in the southern heat, afraid we would faint, or worse, the wig would slip off. A scary reality that maybe we don’t belong out in the “real world.”
As a therapist at Chrysalis I knew all of these stories before Mexico. I have sat with these stories for hours on end. But with this trip, I was able to step into the world with these stories, and with the person attached to it. And conversely, these girls were able to step into my experience with me. They saw me take a moment, to stretch my ailing body and shake off physical pain as we built a garden from scratch, pain that normally I can hide in an office. They were able to see my tears as I said goodbye to Naomi, feeling helpless and ashamed to love quickly and deeply and then walk away. They saw my fear, when I knew that their trauma responses were not safely contained at Chrysalis and we really needed to not miss an international flight or I really couldn’t predict what was around the busy corner of a city. They saw my pride, when each and every one of them faced their demons, used the skills they have learned at Chrysalis and kept themselves safe out in the “real world.”
We all came back exhausted, and most of us with angry stomachs from the water we tried so hard not to drink. It took us all a while to find our feet underneath us, letting the support that is the Chrysalis structure hold us up again. I don’t think any of us will forget that experience, but I know for me, it left me that much more impressed with the young women we work with, having traveled the world with them, felt the weight of what they carry with them every day, and watched them work so hard to put one foot in front of the other and confront it all.