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Transcending a Different Type of PTSD -- Helping Children of the Night

Lately there has been a storm of publicity – and deservedly so – about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

The public has become better educated about this potentially disabling disorder and its symptoms, such as hypervigilance, an exaggerated tendency to startle, flashbacks, nightmares and emotional numbness, to name just a few.  

Mental health professionals have emphasized the need to diagnose and treat PTSD wherever it arises.  In this piece, I would like to draw attention to yet another group suffering from PTSD – child victims of prostitution who, against all odds, are trying to go straight and choose a different path in life.

I recently visited a home for such children in the Los Angeles suburbs, part of an organization aptly named "Children of the Night," which has been operating since 1979 under the guidance of its founder and director, Dr. Lois Lee. 

The organization is the most comprehensive social services agency in the country for rescuing America’s children from prostitution – a term Lee prefers to “trafficking,” which she considers too sanitized and not shocking enough for a problem that ought to be shocking but too often hides in plain sight of ordinary citizens.

The story of the young prostitute usually starts with early sexual abuse by a trusted care-giver, creating a trauma that continues to fester in the developing mind and brain of the young person, often resulting in emotional and behavioral difficulties.  

The young person runs away – or drifts away – from home and, vulnerable to entrusting his or her safety to untrustworthy adults, goes on to be re-abused by those who pretend to offer love and shelter.  

It is an ugly story that inclines us to avert our eyes, change the channel or click on a different web link.  I ask you to resist this natural aversion because these are our children and they can be helped with proper understanding and care. -- Lee estimates that her organization has assisted over 10,000 young people since its inception. 

In Lee’s opinion, all these children suffer from PTSD.  They are seething with rage, which they either direct outwards – screaming, lashing out, throwing things – or inwards by cutting themselves.  

Stressed out in body and mind, many complain of abdominal pains so severe that they need to be taken to the emergency room.  They suffer nightmares and sleep disorders that wake them up at all hours.  Sometimes their distress during sleep is so bad that paramedics need to wake them and help settle them down.

Consider one of these young people, “Annie,” an 18-year-old graduate of the Children of the Night.  When she first came to the program, Annie experienced many symptoms of PTSD. 

Like the other girls, she would panic when she saw a black limo driving down the street with its lights off, which reminding her of the pimps in her former life.  Triggered by all sorts of fears and memories, Annie would scream and throw things.  An apparently innocent TV show might remind her of evenings when she and her pimp would watch that same show together in earlier times.  One flashback would lead to another until her system was boiling over with intolerable panic and rage.

All the children in the program receive psychotherapy, but Annie did not find it particularly useful.  One thing that has made a big difference for her is Transcendental Meditation (TM), a technique that Lee has incorporated into her program in the last few years, with excellent results.  

According to Annie, TM has reduced the impact of her flashbacks, has made her less angry, and less likely to her take out her distress on others.  As she puts it, “TM helps me calm down and center myself throughout the day, and focus on my schoolwork and tasks. It has also helped me trace back my emotions to when I was really young.  I realize that I couldn’t cry or tell people they had hurt my feelings.  I chose anger instead of hurt.” 

The beneficial effects of TM on the PTSD symptoms of the Children of the Night have also been documented for traumatized veterans of combat, and are consistent with the known effects of TM in settling down fight-or-flight responses, which are exaggerated in people with PTSD.

Of Dr. Lee and Children of the Night, Annie says, “The program has done everything for me.  If not for the program, I would have died on the streets.”  

Annie’s words are all the more poignant as there are so many other children who have not had the good fortune to stumble across Lee and her program. Keep your eye out for them and spare a thought for how we as a society can prevent the horrible problem of child prostitution and take care of those who have already fallen prey to it.

Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D. is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School and author of "Transcendence: Healing and Transformation Through Transcendental Meditation" (Tarcher-Penguin, 2011). Visit his website: http://normanrosenthal.com/