How Past Trauma Informs You as a Mental Healthcare Worker
Christa Godillot is a Registered Nurse at Montgomery County Emergency Service, Inc. (MCES), a private, non-profit crisis psychiatric hospital located in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Recently, she sat down with her friend and former colleague, OC87 Recovery Diaries editor Gabriel Nathan to talk about her career and her life. In Part two of her interview, Christa talks about her past and her experiences with trauma and how those experiences shaped who she is today. Please click here to read Part one of her interview.
GABRIEL NATHAN: I want to shift gears a little bit and go back a ways to some of your earlier years. When you were placed in the foster care system, how old were you?
CHRISTA GODILLOT: I think I was fourteen, but we can go back even further. My real father committed suicide when I was ten, and I have many siblings, but the siblings that are with my mother, I grew up with. We all have different fathers; the father — I guess my youngest brother’s dad was with us the longest. And that was a volatile relationship. He was always good to me, though, so there’s like some conflict there.
But he and my mother fought physically constantly. They both used drugs. My real father used drugs, everyone around us used drugs. But there was always a community where we lived. We had our landlord was really involved with us. He was like a single guy who grew up in Venezuela, his father was an engineer there.
And he used to take us for hikes in Fairmont Park all the time and we would just name different pools of water and we just – we did a lot with him and with other people including my mother and her friends. They were just kind of high all the time and kind of magical. Steve was never high, the landlord. He never used drugs.
But then things changed. I think as we got older or maybe my perception of it changed. Like it always felt like we were just in the middle of a story almost. You know, were we poor? Yes. Did we not have a lot of food? Most times, but we were surrounded by a lot of interesting characters and I guess either those characters changed, which is how I perceived it, or I just matured to the point where I could no longer pretend that things weren’t happening. I don’t know which it is, maybe it’s a little of both.
So, in answer to your question, I was fourteen, but that was — I don’t think I ever would have placed in foster care except for the fact that my mom linked with a really abusive person and that had never happened before. He wasn’t abusive to us. No one had ever abused us before, the children. So, my mom got involved with this man who was, I guess, like a sociopath. He really was very abusive and that went on for a while, I guess, I was thinking June when we moved in with him and I think I was fourteen when we left.
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But we only left because he beat my mother so severely that she was taken to the hospital and we had left him before and she’d always return and it just was such a — even as a younger person, I understood that there was more punishment in returning.
So, I would just stay so the police were sent to get us. And I really fought not to leave that house because I was terrified of what would happen to us. But then, we went to like a domestic private shelter and stayed there. And I thought that we were moving forward. It was about a week before Christmas that my mom just never came home. And I knew she returned to Jack, so I just — I don’t know. In my head, I was just going to stay with my brothers and raise them — I don’t know.
But they came to get us and it was a violent struggle and the police were called. And I ended up going to like a youth center because it was New Year’s Eve. I was there for a couple weeks probably in that place.
GABRIEL NATHAN: What about your brothers?
CHRISTA GODILLOT: They returned home and they were home for about two years before my mother just – well, she – so her boyfriend went to jail for a little bit for what happened. And she was caught smuggling drugs into him, so she went to jail. And my brothers were placed. My youngest brother went with his father who had become sober and was doing really well. And my other brother went into another foster home.
GABRIEL NATHAN: When you think about your history and where you are now, do you feel that what you experienced and what you were kind of surrounded by growing up, do you feel that gives you greater empathy for the people you work with? How does it color your experience now?
CHRISTA GODILLOT: I’m very thankful for my life. I really am and I think it’s not just empathy because I do have a lot of empathy. I have a lot of respect for the people I take care of. I know some of the things they’ve struggled with. I had — this is going off topic, but not — I had a patient come in who I had grown up with. And she was very mean to me as a kid, like really just a bully.
And through doing the work, I just learned a little bit about her, her childhood and I just thought, I’m so fortunate that my abuse didn’t happen at a time when — yes, it was horrifying — I’m not going to discount that, but I feel like I was formed as a person when it happened and even though it was horrifying and scary and it didn’t break me. I’m so thankful that I was then able to move on and I just looked at her situation and thought, “I have a lot of survivor’s guilt. Like why couldn’t someone have scooped her up?” She was just a little kid when that happened and it’s tragic. So, there’s empathy, there’s guilt, there’s a lot there.
GABRIEL NATHAN: And I think, so much of who we are today is this complex web of what we experience and who we meet and how they affect us. Whether it’s big things or little interactions along the way it makes us who we are. You always have to remember that that we have this profound effect on people. And I remember it, too, from the hospital, you make a choice, you can make a choice to walk down the hallway and look at your clipboard or you can make the choice to look up and say, “Good morning” to somebody and that’s – it’s a little thing, but it’s a big thing, too.
CHRISTA GODILLOT: Right. Let them know that they are human, that you see them.
GABRIEL NATHAN: I think that’s – that’s what we all want; to be seen, to be heard. Looking at nursing, do you see this as it for you career-wise? Do you think that it’s possible that there might be a career change?
CHRISTA GODILLOT: Well, I’m going for my Bachelor’s, I start in August. I really want to stay where I am but I like working in the community, too. So, I would love if we had a nurse navigator position there that I could do part-time. We’re trying to fill a crisis nurse position and we’re all kind of filling in for that.
And I only did it one time, about two weeks ago and it was — it’s a different flow to the day which was a struggle. But I loved that I was pretty much the first person that the patient saw when they walked in the door and from start to finish I was their interaction and he was a very paranoid patient and I think it made it a smoother transition for him to come onto the unit.
GABRIEL NATHAN: That’s great. I guess, my last question is, is there anything that you – everybody likes to talk about there’s mental health crisis in America and it’s a huge mess. And it’s a large question, so take it however you want. But what do you think would be most helpful to individuals with serious and persistent mental illness? Is it spending more money on crisis hospitals like MCES? Is it spending more time educating law enforcement? Is it developing better medication with fewer side effects or that people have some kind of incentive to take the meds? Is it making cheaper meds? What is it?
CHRISTA GODILLOT: For people with persistent mental illness, life-altering mental illness, I think we should protect them — and I say this carefully. I think Texas and Massachusetts are going back to state hospitals. I know that’s a touchy subject. There’s been a lot of articles written. I don’t ever think that state hospitals should return to what they were.
But when I think about the little farm where I used to work and right down the street, there’s a little community for people with intellectual disabilities. And they live on that farm, they work on that farm, they produce on that farm, and they make money for themselves. They have a beautiful life and I think that if you have people who want to live that way, they should be given the opportunity to because that’s such a beautiful existence compared to some of the other things.
If we could have a state hospital like that, I think that would be ideal. But people have to have a choice and obviously, not too many people are going to choose to be institutionalized. But living in poverty without access to services, without access to housing, sometimes the housing is in really bad neighborhoods and people are further victimized just because the people in that community know that they have a check coming every month.
I don’t know. I think, if anybody knew the answer, it would be fixed right now. It is a crisis. We want evidence-based practice so we have to do a lot more research. But I don’t think it can be sustained the way it is. I don’t think that, when they moved people out of the state hospitals into the communities and switched to community-based care, they understood the challenges associated with that. And there are many who the services that are there are seemingly taxed.
GABRIEL NATHAN: I think maybe there was an infatuation with the ideal.
CHRISTA GODILLOT: Yes, and I understand that. I do. You want something less restrictive. But some of these people don’t seem to be able to conquer that illness and it is — I don’t know if it’s possible to make it more navigable. I don’t know that that’s possible. I don’t know that there’s enough money to make that possible.
GABRIEL NATHAN: There’s a little bit of a disconnect in terms of where the funding priorities are. People say or politicians say they want to do something about mental health, but things like cancer research or heart disease or that gets a lot of the —
CHRISTA GODILLOT: Right. People want to feel sorry for cancer victims. They don’t want to feel sorry for people with mental illness. They want to say — and that’s part of the stigma for them to say — “Well, it’s your fault. You chose that.”
GABRIEL NATHAN: Well, Christa, there’s a lot of work to do, a lot of change to be done. But you’re doing it every day, so thank you.
CHRISTA GODILLOT: Thank you.