Suddenly I understood why Bridgette was freaking out.

Note: This email is about trauma. 

It covers incidents that may be hard to read.

It also includes a swear word.

It was the first month of the pandemic.

Our shelter had already lost three residents to Covid and had seven more confirmed cases.

The State of Illinois gave us a hotel to use for a month. The idea was to isolate every resident in a different room for a month to stop the spread of the outbreak.

In a caravan of buses, we moved 200 residents and 18 staff members into a closed Embassy Suites. (Note: The hotel left us the keys and one 40-hour a week maintenance personnel. It was surreal.)

A week into our stay at the hotel, I heard a call over the radio that Bridgette was planning on leaving. 

Bridgette was in her late 30’s. She had short brown hair and the deep leathery tan of someone who spends a lot of time outside.

I have known Bridgette since she was a teenager. She had been staying in our shelter off and on her entire adult life.

I knocked on Bridgette’s door.

She opened it.

Her pale blue eyes were frantic. She was almost screaming, and I had trouble understanding what she was saying.

“… have to leave…”

“… like being in prison…”

“…can’t fucking take it anymore…”

“…can’t even go outside for a smoke…”

I did my best to reassure Bridgette, but she was inconsolable.

Bridgette could survive outside.

She had done it before. 

One brutally cold January night I had looked under a bridge for people who were in danger of freezing to death. Bridgette looked up at me from under the bridge with a huge smile and yelled, “Heeeeeyyy Ryaaaaaaaaan!” She sounded like someone greeting an old friend who had just walked into her country club.

Everything was shut down because of Covid, though, and the streets were more dangerous than ever (most services had stopped).

I needed to talk her into staying.

In desperation, I asked Bridgette if she wanted to go out for a smoke break.

Outside, we sat on a concrete bench. It was a beautiful spring afternoon (Chicago’s weather is really nice about 15 days a year and this was one of those days).

Bridgette smoked while I wore my N95 mask and face shield.

Bridgette shared her story.

  • Her earliest memories were of abuse. Mostly her father… until he went to prison.
  • Then there was an uncle. He went to prison too.
  • She got married young in order to escape the family. Her husband put her in the hospital after a fight (and then he, too, went to prison).
  • She had two children who were probably adults themselves now. The Department of Children and Family services had taken them out of their cribs. She had not seen them since.

I have heard a LOT of sad stories over the years. Bridgette’s was one of the worst. She had experienced as much trauma in her life as anyone I have ever met.

Suddenly I understood why Bridgette was freaking out so bad.

Trauma and the Brain

If you read last week’s email, you know there are two parts of the brain that are important for de-escalation:

  • The Amygdala – It is the part of the brain most responsible for “fight or flight.”
  • The Prefrontal Cortex – It is the part of the brain responsible for calming down the Amygdala.

Trauma changes the brain.

  • It makes the Amygdala hyperactive.
  • It suppresses activity in the Prefrontal Cortex.

Trauma and Behavior

The changes to a person’s brain can change their behavior in some very unfortunate—but very predictable—ways:

  1. Hypervigilance – The person can be in a heightened state of tension all the time. Basically, their Amygdala is constantly scanning the world for the next danger.
  2. Misperceiving Threat Stimuli – The person can become upset much quicker. Basically, their Amygdala is so worried about danger, that it goes into fight or flight with minor issues.
  3. Emotional Dysregulation – The person can have increased anger and “reactive” aggression.
  4. Hyperarousal – The person can take much longer to calm down after becoming upset.

Back at the Embassy Suites

Bridgette and I sat outside for about an hour.

Slowly, little-by-little, Bridgette calmed down.

“Bridgette,” I said, “will you please stay?  You are safe here.”

She looked down and rubbed a jagged scar that ran from her wrist to her elbow.


The Rest of the Story

About a year ago, I saw Bridgette at the bus stop next to the shelter. She had all of her bags beside her.

Her daughter had tracked Bridgette down.

Her daughter had asked her to move to Milwaukee so they could try being a family again.

I wished Bridgette well in the next chapter of her life and started walking back to the shelter.

From behind me, I heard Bridgette yell “Heeeeeyyy Ryaaaaaaaaan!”

I turned around.

“Thaaaaaank Yoooooouuuuu!”

Have a great week!


Stay in touch

Receive weekly tips from Ryan about how to work with homeless, addicted and mentally ill patrons.