"We have all these wounds inside that need to be addressed and talked about and healed to have safe relationships."
Cassandra is a licensed clinical social worker in California and a conscious relationship coach. She has been counseling since 2006 in various settings from drug treatment to running a large mental health program serving the homeless and formerly incarcerated populations. She's been in private practice for 2 years, serving individual couples online all over the world to identify how their childhood trauma is impacting their adult relationships and to help them get clarity and the love they want. She is a sober mom of 3 plus one bonus kid, a survivor of childhood emotional abuse, domestic violence, and is remarried after struggling for a decade in her first toxic marriage. Cassandra approaches all her practices with a mind-body-spirit lens.
SWY: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your experience with childhood abuse and trauma?
CS: Hi, so my name is Cassandra Solano, and I'm a licensed clinical social worker right now in the state of California. I'm a conscious relationship coach and it's my life's mission really to help normalize healthy relationships because right now, they're just not the norm. I think so much of that is because of childhood emotional abuse and neglect that hasn't been healed and hasn't even been recognized. So, now we are coming into adulthood with unrecognized, unacknowledged, and unhealed wounds and trying to have relationships. So, my own experience with this was first intergenerational trauma, and it's real. Both of my parents experienced severe physical abuse, sexual abuse. My mom is also an immigrant. So there was the immigration trauma component. There's a lot of research now out there that talks about how if your parents have experienced trauma or a traumatic situation or all this stuff, their children are 50% likely to have PTSD, depression, and or anxiety just from being born from them. I definitely felt like just even as a kid, like when I was little, I had a lot of nervous system dysregulation, a lot of tantrums, and a lot of big emotions. My parents just didn't know how to handle it or what to do with it because of their own mental health struggles and their own trauma that they hadn't healed from. So what they did to like parent me, it may have been the best that they could, but it also harmed me too.
So it wasn't just from a biological component that inherited piece and how the DNA changes with trauma, but also how they disciplined me, shaped me, and impacted my nervous system, which impacts everything else like our other body systems and how we kind of handle stress and everything in life. So, during my younger years, my dad was sober. He had been an addict and then he got clean and met my mom they got married, but he still had a lot of anxiety and PTSD. My mom has had depression off and on throughout the years and PTSD. So when I would have these big feelings which toddlers do, I have realized through my own healing and doing and then also just asking and them telling me stories of locking me in my room or locking in a closet or just letting me cry it out, in these experiences are emotional neglect. While it doesn't seem obviously abusive, it really impacts us because it's isolating, and the nervous system doesn't really know the difference between emotional pain and physical pain. All it knows is like, Oh my gosh, I'm all alone. Our brains are still wired for preindustrial developed days of survival. So, my brain is just like, oh my Gosh I'm alone in the forest or you know without my caregivers and we're going die. I would experience all of that panic or go into that shutdown freeze response from it. So, by the time I was like eight, I had like crazy anxiety. I used to think that people were going to come in the house and kill all of us. I would get so worked up I'd be lying in bed, just crying, imagining these horrific things. I would duck under the front windows of my living room because I thought snipers are trying to shoot me. Just full-on anxiety.
My own dad had full-blown OCD, by Junior High he had to run home from school at recess and lunch to check the stove, check the locks because of his own trauma. So, I was already just wound very tight and then my dad unfortunately relapsed and went full-blown back into his alcoholism when I was about nine years old. That's when the emotional abuse became more overt. He would share with me all of our money problems and would cry to me that he wanted to kill himself. He was making me his emotional support because by then my mom went into full emotional shutdown and survival mode herself trying to deal with him. We also had a lot of financial problems at that time. So, then all of a sudden, I felt responsible and knew about things that kids really shouldn't have to feel responsible or to worry about. So, then I took it upon myself through my teenage years to be what's called the hero child in the alcoholic or dysfunctional family system dynamic. I was trying to function by overperforming, getting involved in as many activities at school as possible, trying to fix my dad in some way, or to make him happy so maybe he would stop drinking so much. In the meantime, just dealing with a lot of arguments that sometimes got physical with pushing and shoving between different members of my family. By the time I was a junior in high school, I had a stress ulcer because I was trying to deal with everything at home, and then be perfect at school and sports and everything else. I was so proud of being stressed out that I even carried my Tums around proudly. I would say I'm so stressed out because I'm doing all of this stuff and took it as a badge of honor. This became a perfect recipe essentially for me to become codependent.
After high school, I became an addict myself for a few years, but I've been sober for over 15 years now. But I really went through a rough patch, gotten out of two very abusive relationships myself. A physically abusive relationship and then marriage for almost 10 years with somebody who was a narcissist and psychologically abusive. I didn't know any better like when I turned 18 and graduated high school, everything about my childhood experience is and how it shaped my nervous system. How it shaped how I saw myself and the roles that I played, and kind of shaped me to be codependent as a way to survive. It totally dictated the type of people that I dated later on. So, I just think it's so important for us to really take time and find someone safe to talk to in order to understand your childhood dynamics because it has a huge effect later on in life.
SWY: You are a Licensed Clinical Social Worker - Can you tell us more about what you do and what inspired you to go into this field?
CS: Yeah, so I felt even as a teenager, that I really wanted to help other people. For a long time, growing up, I actually thought I wanted to be a police officer, which is kind of interesting now, especially with the political climate, particularly in the US with police officers. But at the time as a kid, I saw the police officers as people that were the good guys and had the power to help people and I actually became a police explorer. In high school, I volunteered in it for almost four years. I probably volunteered at least five to 10 hours a week doing that and I would go on ride alongs and I really liked the social work part of their job where if there was a domestic argument or a kid ran away from home or, somebody's home got burglarized and they're just really in their grief and panic and struggling, the police officers are the first ones there to provide that calming assurance; I really liked that part of the job. But I realized it's a social work part of the job. After I got out of high school, and I started to have my own pretty big mental health struggles, I realized, okay, I probably couldn't be a police officer even if I wanted to because I ended up in the psych hospital a couple of times, between 18 and 20. I realized that I liked the service component. So I thought, oh, maybe I'll be a teacher and helped shape and inspire young minds. So, I then started working in social services.
After I got sober. I started working in a group home with teenage girls, who were in the system, either through probation, they had to be placed there, or they were in foster care and couldn't be placed in a home. It just opened my eyes to this whole other world of people that needed support. This made me become a drug and alcohol counselor, so that was my first certification. That took about two years through community college, and I loved doing that. But I wanted more. I'm the second person in my family to have a bachelor's degree in any of my immediate and extended family. During my bachelor’s degree, I worked with all different kinds of ages and realized to do what I really wanted to do, I would need to get a master's degree. So, here I was married and had a kid, I was 28 when I went into graduate school. I still believe that it's never too late to be what you might have been. That's my favorite quote in the whole world by George Eliot. And I just went for it. I got a job in management right after grad school because I had so many years of work experience in the field by then. I worked in community mental health with people with really chronic severe, persistent mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar people who had been homeless for a long time, in locked facilities, or in jail for a long time. I loved doing that work working with like the most marginalized, neediest population. I was good at it, and I kept getting promoted. But then I started having some personal life issues with my divorce and having three little kids and I just couldn't balance that corporate responsibility with my home life and I started to get sick. I got vertigo, I got sick a bunch of times, I got shingles. I was like, Okay, my body's telling me I need to do something different.
So I left corporate management, I took a $30,000 pay cut about three years ago. Now I am doing my own business that I started full time for about five months now. I feel super passionate about it. I do one on one work and I do group work. I used to think in grad school, I wanted to climb high up in the system and change the system from the top. But what I realize now is I really like helping and supporting people that are the changemakers. So a lot of the people that I work with are other therapists or coaches themselves. I feel like by helping them, they're going out and helping to make the world a better place and I'm kind of behind the scenes support and it's like super, super fulfilling and of course, as we do this work, where we help other people we also like continue to heal and grow too.
SWY: Some of your work focuses on helping others who have suffered abuse create healthy relationships - What does a healthy relationship mean and look like to you?
CS: Oh, great question. So I use the word conscious relationship a lot, but it's really about having what we call in attachment theory, secure attachment. So a healthy relationship or secure attachment is feeling that the relationship is safe and knowing where you stand and where things stand in the relationship and feeling that the relationship is supportive, an open place where you have good communication and that you can be vulnerable. Some key things to look for with secure attachment is that you each have your own life and then also come together and share a life with balance. Another thing to look for, is there ease when you are coming and going? Can one of you leave for a business trip or somebody leaves to go have a girl's weekend, and we're not freaking out and having a panic attack or needing to control the other person all the time? Is there a respect for differences of opinion, and how is conflict handled? Lastly, if our issues are being swept under the rug or some person is just dominating the other person or are both people really being listened to? When there is disagreement or conflict because that's totally normal like a healthy relationship doesn't mean we never fight. But it's that we fight fair, that we know how to listen to each other and give and receive feedback.
SWY: Can you describe what the effects are of experiencing childhood abuse and trauma on one’s ability to have positive relationships with others?
CS: Yeah, so on a relational level, it really shapes our attachment style. This is kind of how we show up in relationships, how much we open up or not, or how clingy or not we are or how much we kind of inherently trust and feel safe in relationships. So, you can see if we're not on the healthy side of those things, how it can be really hard to have a healthy relationship, but also on a biological level. This is why I love just talking about the neuroscience side of things because if you have experienced abuse and neglect, and your nervous system is constantly in fight or flight, or constantly in that freeze shut down response, and you're taking that nervous system into a relationship, it's going to really impact the quality of the relationship, of communication, of how much you feel like you can trust that person. That's why it's so important to learn and implement tools to also help to heal our nervous system so we cannot be in fight, flight or freeze so much. We need to go there sometimes and that's okay. But many of us that have experienced this growing up, just live in that place, like all the time, and it has a huge effect on our ability to start relationships and be in one also.
"That's why it's so important to learn and implement tools to also help to heal our nervous system so we cannot be in fight, flight or freeze so much."
SWY: Can you go into more detail as to what attachment style is and its importance in creating healthy relationships?
CS: So in a nutshell, attachment theory talks about how your caregivers attuned to you, nurtured you, and responded to you. Took care of you connected with you. All of that shapes our nervous system on a biological level, and it also shapes our relationship style, for how we're going to be as adults later in life. So, if a caregiver is responsive and timely, makes eye contact, holds the child, plays with the child. They respond to the child's bids for attention or when the kids are like mom I need something, they turn towards them and are like, "Hey, what do you need, are okay? Give me a minute and then I'll help you with that." That child will grow up to have a secure attachment, and that will help them to have really healthy relationships. But what if you didn't have that because you did experience childhood emotional abuse or neglect or physical or sexual abuse that's going to shape your own relational style later in life. The good news is the brain is neuroplastic, meaning it can always be reshaped and new connections are being formed every day. We can reshape a brain to be more securely attached. So we can usually see that people go kind of one or two ways when they've experienced childhood abuse or neglect, they can tend to be more what's called anxious attachment later in life, which is kind of the person that we think of as more clingy, or having like a pervasive fear of abandonment or always waiting for the other shoe to drop. There's like this sense of hypervigilance and anticipating threat. Or they might be more of like an avoidant attachment style, which is somebody that kind of is to themselves doesn't really connect to other people because it's not safe for them because the last time they wanted to connect with people, which was their primary caregivers, they weren't connected with. They were left in the crib to cry for too long or, locked in a room. That's like part of my experience and I definitely identify more with having had that avoidant attachment as an adult, just cutting people off quickly, not really letting anybody get too close to me. Ultimately feeling like very alone.
Sometimes if there is somebody that you loved and connected with but then they also harmed you that could lead towards what is called a disorganized or mixed attachment style. I also identify with, having had caregivers that could be very loving and nurturing, but then also and this was when my dad was still sober, using a lot of corporal punishment. So, I remember being in first grade or second grade getting hit with a wooden spoon, hit with a leather belt and welts being left on the back of my legs and having to wear pants for the next couple of days at school to hide it. And again, the nervous system doesn't know the difference between I am having this extreme pain inflicted on me, but it's just discipline. It's just because I did something wrong versus I'm in extreme pain and I'm dying. That's why even the American Pediatric Association has recently said spanking is terrible for kids and we should never use corporal punishment because the nervous system doesn't know. As a child, you think oh, well, I deserve this so it's okay. For the people that are like, well, I got spanked and I turned out fine. I would really like to make a strong argument that your nervous system doesn't feel that way. We have all these wounds inside that need to be addressed and talked about and healed to have safe relationships.
SWY: What are some of your tips for maintaining and creating healthy relationships?
CS: So, the first one is improving our self-awareness. We can do this many different ways. Some people practice meditation, some people like doing yoga, some people will journal, some people find it helps to talk things out with a friend. Some people will cultivate mindfulness practice where you kind of sit and clear your mind. So, there's a lot of different ways we can increase our self-awareness. Second is that mind-body connection. That is like the first thing I always start with my clients because when we experience trauma and abuse, the brain does this brilliant thing where it cuts us off at the neck. It cuts us off from feeling what's going on from the neck down, so we don't feel the physical or emotional pain that we are going through. So, we can still keep going through life without having a total breakdown. I saw this a lot with the clients with severe mental illness that I worked with, they always had severe trauma. That switch never went off and they just got so overwhelmed by the trauma. It's good in some ways and some circumstances that we've been cut off but now we need to get that connection going again. The third thing is learning good communication skills and most people walking around this planet do not have communication skills. So, a great book to pick up if this is new to you is called Nonviolent Communication. It’s a great book that kind of talks about the basics of healthy communication. And lastly, the thing I would suggest for having a healthy relationship is really making your relationship a priority and seeing the relationship as its own entity or energy. So there's you, there's your partner, but then there's this relationship that exists between the two of you. If we think of our relationship, like a business and you and your partner are like, business partners trying to run a business, you want to both be showing up every day to the office or to the shop and putting in time and effort and energy. It's not going to be 50/50 every day, like one day someone's sick. Or one day somebody's parent passes away and the other person needs to like to do a little bit more of the lifting. But overall over time, it should be two people showing up and putting in the effort and thought, and energy into the business or into the relationship to make it a success.
SWY: If you could give one piece of advice to a child or youth who is suffering from abuse and trauma and is looking for a way to heal but does not know how to go about it, what would it be?
CS: I would say find someone safe that you can talk to if you can, and I know at least right now in the states, we are doing a lot of distance learning. So it makes it even harder to find safe adults because usually, we can find a safe adult through school. So, if there's like a teacher, even if it's not your current teacher, like maybe you just really love your kindergarten teacher or, you know a teacher you had last year or a school counselor, but just reach out to a safe adult. If you're worried, like, "Oh, well if I reach out to an adult, that's like a teacher or counselor, they're going to like to call the police because that's what's going to happen." Honestly, that could happen. But I have to say sometimes our parents need intervention, they need a parenting class, they need that support to help them because if they're being abusive, it's because they are traumatized themselves. They went through that themselves. That's what they know. They don't have enough support or are stressed out, and I'm not saying it excuses the abuse, but there's a reason why they're doing that. It's likely they don't know better and they need the opportunity to learn. Now there's definitely some parents out there that are just like, kind of evil, you know, and people that just even if they could get support, they wouldn't take it. But I think sometimes, because I've worked with teens, and that's something that I see is a concern is like, "Oh, well, if I talk to somebody, my parents are going to get in trouble." So just know even if you talk to a teacher or a counselor like that, you don't have to share anything you don't want to share, that it's always up to you to share as much or as little or kind of speak just in generalities or at least just talk about your own feelings about what's going on at home, or that you're feeling depressed or that you have no friends or you know, you’re having a hard time focusing and your grades are going down. But finding a safe adult, a family member, somebody at your church that you can just start talking to at least about your feelings is so, so key.
SWY: How do you think attending therapy can be used as an intervention in helping to break the cycle of abuse and trauma from being passed down from generation to generation?
CS: I think that so many people right now and even younger people like teens, I have a tween daughter and a tween bonus daughter and they're like, so freaking woke compared to me at their age. And I think like, Tik Tok and all this stuff is just really educating them about so many things about the world and how people think. And I think a lot of us on the planet right now are just being called to be what's called the transitional character in our lineages. To be the ones that stop these cycles to be the ones that say like, Hey, I'm not going to date losers as my parents did, or I'm going to be the first one to go to college or in my case, the first one to get a graduate degree in my family, and not treat my kids the same. But like I kind of shared that if we don't get some kind of help or intervention or support through having someone safe we can talk to our nervous systems are just kind of wired the way they are. Our attachment styles are just set up the way they are and whether sometimes even despite our best intentions, we're going to repeat cycles that we don't want to. On our own, it can be really, really hard to stop some of this stuff. Some people can, but most of us need at least one safe connection. A coach, a best friend, a teacher. It just takes one person that's a safe relief for you to be able to kind of start to heal on a biological level, to heal your attachment style, and to break those cycles. There's also you know, just with the internet a lot of free and online support groups, and depending on where you live, there are different ages of consent. So if you found the free support group, you could just kind of sign yourself up, but you have to, you know, check and see what the ages of consent, but there is a lot of support out there or even free self-help groups like Alateen, which is for kids who have parents who are alcoholics. That can be really helpful too.