You can be the one!

(image source:

After learning about the ACEs Study of the late ’90’s, filmmakers Jamie Redford and Karen Pritzker decided to help share this incredible research in the form of a two-part documentary project. Right now their two films are helping ignite a firestorm of conversations on how we, as a country, need to overhaul our school, healthcare, and legal systems. Their films are highlighting the ACEs research and cadre of experts to promote trauma-informed care and remind us all that we can be the one to make a difference.

Part 1: Paper Tigers film

“Paper Tigers captures the pain, the danger, the beauty, and the hopes of struggling teens—and the teachers armed with new science and fresh approaches that are changing their lives for the better.”

(image and quote source:

Click for Paper Tigers Film Trailer 

Our Heartfelt Connection:

Dearest Friends, 

As you may know, Shira and Aitch adopted Aitch’s niece, Shakia, from foster care in Walla Walla, WA at age 15. 

Paper Tigers is a documentary about how we can effectively help teens in this country deal with childhood trauma and heal; it showcases a school in Walla Walla that Aitch attended as a small child. It’s also the same school that Shakia’s brother, Robby, graduated from last year. This was an enormous feat in our family. 

Cycles of violence and trauma are very hard to break. They have ripped through Aitch’s family for decades and likely done the same for families just like Aitch’s. Families you will soon meet in this documentary.  

Thank you so much for supporting us and this important film!

This documentary can only be seen at special screenings. So we need your help to get the word out and fill the theater! Thank you, again, for making this happen. Your support means the world to us (and we know you will LOVE the movie too).
–Team Paper Tigers (Aitch, Shira, and Joel)

Paper Tigers in SLC on Jan. 7th, 2016!

Thanks to our family, friends, community, and fellow Utahns, this grassroots initiative was a success! We sold 115 tickets for this special screening, and were able to share a film we all were really passionate about. (And you can too with Tugg.) 🙂 

#traumainformed (students and parents)

#betheone (who helps end ACEs)  

#traumainformed (communities)


#SLC (wants to learn more)  

#betheone (who helps heal ACEs)  

  #papertiger (is a film you NEED to see)



Part 2: Resilence film 

Lucky for us it debuted at Sundance in Jan 2016 and we were able to go! 🙂


Toxic stress and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) resources:

You can be the one!

Searching for Mr. Courageous.



I hope everyone can forgive me. If you are reading this then that means I have decided to bare my soul and come clean about my own Dark Passenger (but not in a murderous, Dexter sort of way).

The truth is that I sometimes struggle with having the courage to go on. Sometimes choosing life has been my hardest battle. Sometimes I feel completely alone even though I know that I’m surrounded by so much love.

These last few months, I have been lost in an anxiety-filled obsession, thinking that if I weren’t here, then the pain I’m causing others would just disappear. Intellectually, I know this is absurd, but emotionally, sometimes the Gremlins in my head win.

Through this distorted lens, I see myself as a Pain Maker. And that feeling is sometimes too much of a burden on my soul. I am someone who has devoted my life to helping others. I can’t stand hurting anyone or being the cause of someone’s pain.

At these times, the voice in my head doesn’t understand why it’s supposed to be a gift or a miracle that I overcame my odds and got out of the place that devastated my family. I think being the lone survivor among the siblings I grew  up with is more of a curse. A very, very lonely curse.

And to pull myself out of this dark make-believe, I recall all of the faces of the people who have become my family (Shira, Shari, Ilanit, Mis Profesoras Favoritas, Moho, Shannon, Asmita, Nat, for example), or those other family members who loved me just like their own (Nicki, Aunt Connie, for instance), and I remember that I am loved.

I remember that I do have worth. I remember that I am connected to the world. It’s just not in the traditional family sense. But screw the “traditional family” model anyhow!


As a young child, I used to get yelled at for feeling too much. My mother would tell me I looked ugly when I cried and to “just stop it!” or she would scream, “I’ll give you something to cry about!” My siblings called me a cry baby.

I was burdened with keeping the secrets of my family hidden — the drug use, abuse, neglect, violence. We subscribed to the family motto of, “what happens in this house, stays in this house.”

I learned to associate feelings, and especially tears, with shame and weakness. Eventually, out of shame, I started locking myself in the bathroom so I could cry and feel all by myself.

Our mother left us when we were 8 years old and didn’t return until we were 10 years old. I cried everywhere and anywhere. My aunt, the one who took us in, would find me in odd places sobbing uncontrollably. When she asked me why I was crying, I would simply reply that I didn’t know.  I just really needed to cry.

Rationally, I understand why my mother did and said these hurtful things. The child inside me who would try to snuggle up with my mother on the couch only to be pushed onto the floor, or the scared kid who cowered with eyes downcast whenever she yelled, or the one who started wetting the bed after she left, does not understand as clearly, however.

I think that to some people, drugs and disconnection may look like a choice for the weak. I would argue that sometimes it’s a choice for the strong too. I didn’t know this as a child, but I learned later that before my mother had me, she was a battered woman who had been viciously raped, abused, and oppressed for over nine years.

We all cope and protect ourselves differently. I hope one day we can start seeing each person fully by seeing who they were, where they came from, and how they got to where they are now. No small child wishes to grow up to be a prostitute, or incarcerated, or a drug addict. It wasn’t my mother’s dream to grow up to be a heroin-and-meth addict.

I used to cope with my scary world by crying secretly in hidden places, or if I did start to cry in front of anyone, I would run off to “fix” myself. I learned that crying was bad and I internalized that it meant I was weak. The problem is that I am a natural crier. I didn’t know it then as a child because I didn’t grow up with those family members, but I actually come from a long line of criers. My dad, my older sister, for example, are two of my greatest heroes and biggest criers I know. Meeting them validated my natural propensity to let out whatever emotion I had through crying.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I cry at corny movies, or even trailers, where it looks like the dolphin or the dog might bite it in the end. I cry at pet stores where it seems like the old, abandoned felines might not get a forever home. I will cry if I just met you, and we connected on a heart level, and then you tell me in great detail about your fallen friend or child or pet. I will cry with you and not because I want to. My soul just mourns when others mourn. On the flip side, it is lifted up with great joy when others feel joy too. I am a natural empath or Betazoid.

I also struggle with perfectionism, fear, failure, and anxiety too, though. I seem to spend more time numbing my feelings lately because I reached maximum capacity. I shutdown now at moments where I would have previously opened up. I turn into what I call, “Aitchbot.” I’m working on trying to permanently eliminate Aitchbot from me, but for now it is very much a part of my core.

The greatest villain in my life has been the shadowy phantom called Shame. It feeds on my lack of self worth and esteem like vampires or zombies do to fresh victims. It threatens my very life at times, or rather, it used to.

Now in my life, I have decided to declare war on the Gremlins hiding out in my heart and mind by shedding light on them, and speaking about my shame, just like Brené Brown, in her book, Daring Greatly, encourages. (I will write more about my sources of shame in another post/s.)


At 19, I thought about taking own life because of perceived failure in school and in my own body. I owned a gun and knowing that I had the ability to take my life, but also rationally knowing that I wanted to live, I spoke up to my best friend. I told her what I was feeling and why. By speaking up, I killed one Gremlin that day. The next day, I went into the recruiting depot and I joined the Navy.

Another time I was near the proverbial ledge was much later in my life in 2011, or what I call,”The Year of Suck.”

Here is a summarized series of the unfortunate events that happened in my life that year within a six-month period:

  • I went on an unpaid leave of absence to finish school
  • My marriage suddenly died
  • My wife fell in love with the man I secretly wished I was
  • I ended up hemorrhaging emotionally and dropping out of school (I’m normally an A/B student and what my chemistry teacher called “a grade grubber.”)
  • My mother suddenly died
  • I accrued debt to have a temporary income in order to live and pay for my mother’s funeral
  • I fake dated a real sociopath
  • My fucking cat suddenly died too

 R.I.P. Oden Growly Kitty

In fact, I sort of went full on batshit crazy for a few months, and even wrote to an online column for advice. They confirmed that I was a giant, hot mess. That may even be an understatement.

During this time, I really wanted to give up on life and myself right then. I didn’t know how to cope with the fact that my marriage had died and I didn’t have the perspective then to see that it had been slowly dying over a long period of time. I came from a broken home and the notion of divorce to me, at that time, was one of life’s biggest failures. It was one of those things I honestly took for granted and never really even envisioned as a possibility.

All my past pain also rushed in to drown me during this period. It was like a game of dominoes in my head with one trigger after another setting off the next trigger. Thankfully, my behavior was so unusually alarming to my loved ones that they stepped in to catch me as I fell into a heap of disaster. They saved me when I couldn’t save myself anymore.

A few months after the bottom fell out of my personal life, my mother was rushed to the hospital the day before Thanksgiving in 2011. My plane from Portland, OR, to Washington, DC, had just landed when I got the news. I crumpled to the ground when my aunt called to tell me.

These next three weeks that unfolded were so traumatic that I’ll save these details for another time. I haven’t yet had it in me to recount it all (i.e., the Walmart Bust, the Inappropriate Kidney Request, the Death Vultures, the Alcoholic Helper, the Butthole Doctors, the Missing Tooth, the Search for Pumpkin Pie, the Final Cuddle etc). 

All the things I had ever feared seemed to come true at once like an incoming trainwreck. I was haunted by my mother’s death and what felt like total abandonment by my spouse for months afterwards. One hurt bled into the other. I kind of became a bloody mess on the inside for a while.

It also didn’t help that my future-ex spouse kept our breakup a secret for almost a year. I would run into former coworkers of hers, or mutual friends of ours, or her old supervisors, and they would ask me how she’s doing. The first time it happened, it was really confusing. I didn’t catch on immediately that they thought we were still together. Eventually, I would give them all a standard, weighted line like, “You should ask her yourself, ” and then run off leaving the person confused. Moments like these continued to happen and each instance shot another needle into the wounds I was trying to heal.

In the end, I asked my ex wife (someone I had loved very deeply and had shared 7 years with) to give me space and to please have the courage to tell people in her own life that we were not together. The wounded part of me threatened that if I ran into one more person from her life that I had to tell, then I was going to lose my shit.

Needless to say, I ran into therapy, swore off romance, and finally opened up about some of the painful baggage buried away. I also started running again; I started dealing with my gender dysphoria; I started embracing the real me and even began going by a name that suited me 100 times better (Aitch).



Things started to slowly stabilize within me, too, as I began the long journey toward healing. Six months into my healing, I then met this beautiful, smart, passionate, and loving creature named Shira.

We had an AMAZING, albeit brief, whirlwind-love affair just between the two of us before WA State placed my emotionally-hurting teen niece in our care. I gave Shira an opportunity to leave, but she wanted to stick around to help raise my niece. Shira is the kindest, most loving person I have ever met. She gave up a lot of things when she decided to stay and parent along with me.

Eventually, we legally adopted my niece because that’s what she repeatedly voiced she had wanted. After 1.5 years of jumping through all the red tape that adoption entails and even moving from DC out west to UT, my niece did a complete 360. Suddenly, she began treating us like captors that were holding her hostage from her “real” family.

The morning she turned 18, she flew off to that “real” family and back to the ones that had caused her so much pain. She moved back to the ones we had saved her from. She moved back to the place that had contributed to so much of my own trauma.

We lost the fight to keep her here with us until she graduated high school but we didn’t give up easily. We wrote her letters, we told her that her expensive technology needed to stay here until she went off to college so that it was safe, we even tried family therapy. In the end, the therapy sessions helped us come to terms with the decision my niece had the legal right to make.

The unexpected parenthood on the coattails of my mother’s death and the end of my first marriage, has been another long, arduous road filled with occasional Dementors, boogeymen, and other Faceless Demons. On the other hand, this experience has also given me the gifts of joy, family, connectedness, growth, and love on a level I had never felt before.

After my niece left, I had the house to myself those first two weeks. It felt like a haunted house or as if my niece had died instead of just moved away. Do all parents feel like this? It also didn’t help that she chose not to be in touch with us and that she eventually unfriended us from Facebook.

All my friends who are also parents tell me this is normal. All the parenting books say this too. Teens grow up and need to assert their independence. I guess the part that hurts most is her pushing us away, while simultaneously pulling her mother closer. The mother who hurt her. This is the same person who stole my identity and got my license suspended when I was 3,000 miles away in the U.S. Navy. This is the person who was incarcerated when I told her that our mother had just literally died in my arms, which she quickly countered, “Why couldn’t she wait for me!?”

Maybe this all feels so much more like rejection and failure because of all that pain I have from my upbringing, and the healing I still have to do, or maybe this is just normal for all parents. I don’t know. But what I do know is that it still feels pretty darn crummy.

Searching for Mr. Courageous.

Facing Fear

In the fall of 2009, I finally mustered up the courage to introduce my partner to my family. As we packed for the plane trip, I tried one last time to talk her out of going. I reminded her that once she goes there with me, our relationship will forever change. I thought about how any “innocent” who’s ever gone to that place ends up seeing things they’ll never forget.

I still vividly remember taking my best friend, Shari, back to that place – my hometown of Walla Walla, Washington. It was the summer of 1999, we were both 18, and had just graduated from a high school in a tiny, historic town outside of Seattle, a town that was as abundant with coffee as it was conservatism. Shari was a blonde, blue-eyed Finnish girl from a middle-class Lutheran family. Her parents both worked exhaustingly hard, but miraculously, found the time to instill morals, kindness, and etiquette into their children. All four of the kids grew up with books as their companions, not television shows. As a child, my favorite pastime was daydreaming. I used to fantasize about having all those pretty, warm, and cozy things that other kids around me had – a father who wasn’t incarcerated on the other side of town and a drug-free mother who read us nighttime stories before tucking us lovingly into bed. I used to dream of having a family just like Shari’s.

Her parents always treated me with love and respect. They welcomed me into their home and made me feel a part of their household. They didn’t know any of the particulars about my Walla Walla family just six hours away on the other side of the mountains. They only knew that my mother, my fraternal twin sister, and my two older brothers lived there. That’s all I felt comfortable telling them at the time. I didn’t want to be judged, pitied, or shunned. Shari, on the other hand, knew the truth. It was one thing to tell the terrible truths to her, but it was another thing completely to take her on a journey to Walla Walla where my terrible truths roamed around like tumble weeds.

At 18, I naively thought I would have control of what Shari saw and experienced there. I would just briefly introduce her to my mother (hoping she was clean AND sober), to my grandparents (praying they didn’t invite my Meth-head brothers over), and cross my fingers that nothing too shocking happened. But then at the last minute I altered my plan. In addition to having Shari meet my relatives, I decided we should visit my best friend from middle school as well. He and his father were always my saviors in a time of need when I lived there. I considered them family.

We dropped by the father’s house and were greeted with warmth as always. I was completely surprised by what happened right after we arrived, however. I had thought of many worrisome scenarios that could play out with regards to my blood relatives, but I hadn’t given much thought to my unofficial family. This house had once been my home away from home. So, when the father offered my dear friend, a complete stranger to him, marijuana, I was instantly horrified. Wham-bam! Shari’s innocence gone! All I could think about was that it had been my responsibility to protect Shari; her parents had trusted me. This all weighed heavily on my conscience. I felt as if I could die from shame and humiliation. I hadn’t brought my best friend to Walla Walla for someone I loved to push drugs off on her. She was a middle-class girl from a well-respected family who had no previous exposure to drugs. Deep down, I knew Shari wouldn’t have accepted, but I didn’t even give her the chance to speak for herself. Disgust and horror took control of me. I instinctively responded, “No, she doesn’t want that! What’s wrong with you!?” Needless to say, we cut our little visit short. I thanked my absent friend’s father for his non-drug-related hospitality. We hugged each other good-bye.

This encounter had suddenly opened up a flood of conflicting emotions inside of me. On the one hand, I was extremely upset, surprised, and disappointed by what had transpired. On the other hand, I didn’t blame my friend’s father for anything. Despite his imperfections, he was still like family to me. He too had encouraged me to leave Walla Walla when the opportunity had presented itself. In fact, everyone there – my mother, my siblings, my aunts, my friends and their parents – all had helped me make my escape to freedom.

At 14, I was given a difficult choice: stay in Walla Walla with all the familiar yet damaged souls I loved, or reinvent myself near Seattle in a house full of strangers comprising my older sister, brother-in-law, and father. I had only met this sister once before when I was younger. Upon our first introduction when I was nine, I remember being in complete disbelief that this beautiful schoolteacher was my sister. She became an immediate hero of mine that day, which of course was aided by the fact she showered us with love, presents, and excursions to the county fair. Somehow this same wonderful sister had also just devised a plan with the authorities for my father, who had recently been released from prison, to live with her in lieu of going to a halfway house.

I went to visit this new family that summer after eighth grade. I wanted to get to know them all, especially my father. When I was nearing my time to return back home to Walla Walla, they surprised me with an invitation to stay. Indefinitely. My first life had offered little future, whereas the new one welcomed endless possibilities. After great deliberation and many tears, I decided to leave Walla Walla permanently. Moving away from my hometown as a teenager was undoubtedly the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. I had to leave behind everything known and embrace the unknown. Leaving behind loved ones is never easy, even if they’re wasting away on a tragic road to nowhere.

Once I left Walla Walla, my new life unfolded with love, safety, and success. This transition wasn’t immediate or effortless, however. What was immediate, though, was the fact that as soon as I moved away, I was able to be myself. I didn’t have to worry anymore about someone recognizing me as “Carol’s daughter” or “Heidi’s twin” or “Danny and David’s little sister.” In Walla Walla, I had never had the chance to just be me. The reputations of my family members in that place overshadowed my own existence. In my new town, on the other hand, I would never again have to sink into my chair when a math teacher accidentally called me by my twin’s name or when an art teacher looked at me with pity upon realizing who my relatives were. I would no longer be guilty until proven innocent. This new feeling was both exhilarating and healing.

I naturally feel very comfortable talking about my past, but I’ve learned over the years that others aren’t as comfortable. I’ve learned to hold back. Many seemingly innocuous inquiries into my childhood, if answered honestly, beckon an almost immediate and ubiquitous silence to spill over the room. W-h-o-o-s-h! Just like that and everyone becomes uneasy, flushed, and over-attentive to my every move. When I was younger, I had always, in a very matter-of-fact manner, talked about the irreversible realities of my life. As an adult, I now struggle with whether I should feel embarrassed or ashamed that I grew up on welfare, or that my mother, the first person I ever loved, is also a junkie, or that my father, the kindest person I’ve ever met, is also a convicted murderer. My family life has always been complicated to explain. Routine questions such as, “What did your mother and father do when you were growing up?” or “Did you ever go to private school?” have the potential of, as you can imagine, dampening the mood. I have actually had people innocently ask about my family history, and then immediately change the subject to the weather when they don’t like what they hear.

As I prepared for the inescapable trip with my partner, I wasn’t worried that she would find out about my family. I had already told her everything there is to know about them. From previous experiences, though, I knew that it was impossible to fully prepare anyone for the trip to Walla Walla. Keeping this in view, as we finished packing, the reality of taking the woman I fell in love with to that place sickened me. My mind spun out of control. Just one thought of Walla Walla, and boom, I’m there – melancholy and pensive. I worried that my partner would see glimpses of my former, fragile self. She might see me remain stoic as I spend time with my family only to watch me crumple to the floor in an emotional heap later behind closed doors. She might meet questionable friends of mine with whom I now have little in common, but we are forever bonded by memories or pain. No matter what she was destined to see, I secretly knew it would cause her to look at me and subsequently us differently.

“You’re definitely going to Walla Walla with me then?” I finally asked, breaking the worry-filled silence.

“Yes,” she said.

So, there it was. I had to accept that my hidden and former wounds would soon be on display. I had no choice but to unlock the door to my secret dungeon. The first person I had done this with was my best friend, Shari. She was the first “outsider” in my world of hurt. Even years afterwards, I used to beat myself up for taking her on that trip. That is until Shari made a confession. She admitted she had been upset with me that day, but not for what I had assumed. She explained that she had been hurt I didn’t think she could take care of herself. She had been offended that I had tried to shelter her. In the end, she thought the whole experience had actually made her and our friendship stronger. Just like those types of experiences had also made me stronger.

It was this last revelation that helped me understand what was really lurking in the shadows. This dark presence was the reason why travel to my hometown specifically had become increasingly painful – the reason why I questioned my own strength each time I prepared for a trip. I finally realized that I’m afraid to go there because I’m afraid of the day I’ll have to face my mother’s death. Over the last decade, I’ve watched a beautiful woman transform into a lost, shrunken soul who looks more like Tolkien’s Gollum than my mother. She’s not able to conceal her toxic lifestyle like she had previously; she’s slowly and visibly dying. I can’t detach myself from this reality any longer.

It appears that like many of my fears – abandonment, rejection, failure, driving, and public speaking – the idea of death also distresses me because it runs counter to my desperate need for control. All of these things fall outside my ability to process and organize chaos; they’re all unpredictable and all leave me potentially vulnerable – a feeling I try to avoid. I grew up in chaos and my Virgo personality helped me survive by controlling whatever fell within my means to control: morals, choices, friends, religious beliefs, school standing. For some reason, I find it difficult to resist the temptation to control because it’s been a comfort in my life for so long. I guess in many ways, I have been guilty of projecting onto others my own inner turmoil caused by a perceived loss of control. After all, I was once in their potentially vulnerable place. I used to be the “innocent” who even my flawed relatives had sheltered. Each time I returned to that place after moving away, I would find a family that was even more tragic than the previous time. There was no way to control what did or didn’t happen there. I always felt helpless and overwhelmed in their presence.

I now finally understand that I fear for everyone who goes to Walla Walla with me because I still fear for myself. I know firsthand that every visit to this town of sorrow promises an unpredictable and gut-wrenching scene. I know I have a lot to work on in order to find closure with my past, but it’s the unstable present and future that scare me the most. I hope I continue to be strong enough to face all of these fears, and that someday I learn to let go of my need to control. In the end, both fear and control are just extra baggage on my road to happiness.

Facing Fear