Tonier Cain knew she was pregnant when she was incarcerated – but no one believed her. Treated for a urinary tract infection she didn’t have, Cain was five months along when she gave birth to a stillborn baby in a jailhouse bathroom.
“They allowed me to lay on a gurney, strapped down for three hours, because I was a prisoner … with my baby dead in between my legs, unable to fully abort.”
But this traumatic experience was only one of many for Cain. She didn’t even make it to age 10 before a range of abuse and neglect peppered her child and adulthood, setting off a chain of events that brought her to the brink of total self-destruction.
As a child, Cain said there were obvious warning signs that were never addressed.
“At age nine I started drinking -- there’s a problem with a child drinking on a regular basis! Or coming to school smelly, or crying all the time, just not being focused. I would do a lot of fighting when I got a little older and that was a result of me tapping into my survival mode,” Cain said.
She suffered cruelty not only from strangers, but also at the hands of those who were supposed to help and protect her, she said. Her mother forced her into marriage at an early age in exchange for rent money. Once, she said, her court ordered drug counselor raped her after offering her a ride home after their session.
Cain said she has been arrested more than 80 times, 66 of those arrests leading to convictions ranging from drug possession and theft to prostitution. Four of her children were taken away from her and adopted. She has not seen those children since.
For years she walked through the revolving doors of the streets, jail and drug treatments.
“I lived on the streets for 19 years and I always said I had lazy gardeners in my life,” Cain said.
“When we think about a lazy gardener we see the gardener going into the garden and he sees the weeds. And instead of getting down and pulling out the root, he’d just cut around because he just didn’t want to deal with getting down and get dirty and get it out,” Cain said.
“All the programs I was being sent to over 19 years, they were just cutting around the problem.”
But nine years ago, Cain was finally asked, “What happened to you?” rather than “What’s wrong with you?”
She said she was able to unpack years of untreated trauma and was able to overcome her 17 year-long drug addiction.
Cain lives in Annapolis, Md., and now travels the nation sharing her experience with untreated trauma. Cain proudly shares her new accomplishments: owner of two businesses, an author and television producer … and the proud mother of a young girl.
She recently discussed her experiences to a crowd of legal and healthcare professionals and students at Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston as part of the Naomi Ruth Cohen mental health community conference. She encouraged them to better recognize the signs of childhood trauma and how to treat it. An intervention at 9 years old, she said, would have prevented a violent and destructive adulthood.
And researchers agree.
Program Director Bradley Stolbach of the Chicago Child Trauma also spoke at the conference. In Chicago, out of all the children treated at his center, 45 percent have experienced more than four traumatic events. Less than a third experienced only one event.
Stolbach called gang-involved youths “child soldiers.” One hundred percent of these Chicago “soldiers” have witnessed physical abuse along with domestic, community and school violence. Seventy-five percent have witnessed a homicide. The median number of traumatic experiences in these children is more than 12.
Instances of neglect and violence left untreated, he said, create behavioral problems in the future. He said all facets of untreated trauma lead to an early death.
Also speaking at the conference, Cassandra Kisiel, assistant research professor at Northwestern University’s department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, agreed with Stolbach.
She said an official and precise diagnosis for some children suffering from the after-effects of trauma doesn’t exist. These children are in the gray area between post-traumatic stress disorder and a nameless, more appropriate identification.
Kisiel said treatments like child-parent psychotherapy and trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy are the most effective in preventing future problems much like Cain’s.
“Chronic interpersonal trauma in childhood has a differential impact … compared to acute or interpersonal trauma in adulthood,” Kisiel said.
Cain, although treatment came later in life, is grateful for her new life.
“I have days named after me in states and cities. Nine years ago I was eating out of trashcans and living on the street,” she said. Cain credits her faith for giving her these opportunities.
“I never could’ve imagined my life the way it is today.”