Last Day Revisited: The Opioid Crisis

9: Kids at Ground Zero

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[01:34] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I’m just walking around outside of my house because I cannot stay on the phone in my house. It will not connect to you. So I’m reading through these interviews this morning and I’m like, I don’t know, I just feel like it’s like — it’s dawning on me that we’re doing, you know, a show about like my dead brother. It’s just like I’m on autopilot and I’m trying to do it and I feel like it’s —


[02:08] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: That is me on a phone having a fucking breakdown because for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks we have been thinking about and talking about and obsessing over this show that we’re making about opioids. And, like, not to get too inside-baseball, but the process of making the show amounts to a fuck ton of work. And I feel bad even complaining about that because I really love this work. But, like, when you’re working on something 23 hours a day, no matter what it is, even if it’s like manning Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and eating all the candy, eventually, like I would get a stomach ache because, you know, this is my job. And there is no line between my job and my life because my job is to talk about my life. And I know that I just basically said this exact same thing last week, but I said it then because it was a plot point that fit into the theme of the episode. But it’s still true this week. And it’s a show and I’m just like starting to really struggle with that dynamic because every episode I recite a new version of the same sentiment, which is this is the worst fucking thing that’s ever happened to me. And that is not a lie. That is true. That is 100 million percent true, as my daughter would say. But like this thing is happening now where I’m sort of standing outside of myself telling the story about myself. And the story is my brother died. He was exceptional. He is part of a larger epidemic. I met this woman named Jess. Her brother died, too. They’re not the only ones. There are lots of people who are dying. And here are the experts who are going to talk about lots of people dying. And now I’m just like a robot and I’m on autopilot making the show because the fucking show has to get made. And this week, for the first time in a long time, it dawned on me that the show we’re making is real. And I know this sounds maybe silly, but I am not a character. This is not fiction. And that hit me, like, really hard all at once. 


[04:27] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: And I was standing outside my house at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning because the stupid fucking phone kept dropping the call. And in the middle of this very routine story meeting, I just broke down. And Jackie, who was on the other line, like being stone-cold producer that she is, told me to hang on so she could record the call. 


[04:48] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I’m reading these interviews of these people who are, you know, adopting these babies who are born addicted to drugs and these kids who are — like elementary school kids, like my kids — who are being shuttled from foster home to foster home. And how these babies and these kids and these parents and educators have no control over any of this. And like I was thinking like, oh, we need to tie this episode to the Serenity Prayer, which has been a recurring theme in my life, which is so hilarious. I am like such psychotic control freak. But my mom used to do needle pointing, which is also really funny because she’s not a needle-pointer type of a person. But when I was growing up, we had like all of our places at the dinner table and like, you know, in a family you always sit in your assigned seat and then you get really pissed off if someone else sits in your assigned seat. And so I sat right across from Harris every meal I ever had and growing up. I sat across  and I looked at a face and you know, I know it so well. And right above his head was the serenity prayer that my mom had needle-pointed. And it says, ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’ 


[06:28] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: And I would look up at that and then look down at Harris and not know that this was like the most fucked-up foreshadowing of my entire life. Because ultimately, like, you lose someone you love and like you go why why why why why. And you realize like you have no control. Like I did everything I could do. We all did everything we could do. And he still is dead. He still died. And I just feel like connecting that with what we’re talking about in this episode. Like with all of these people who are part of the fallout of this and who have no control over a fucking thing. You know, and my — we don’t really get to do this show, but I’ve got like two kids with disabilities. And what’s amazing is that like everyone is always like, ‘I had no idea you. You would never know.’ And you wouldn’t know. You know, my daughter wears hearing aids and has since she was six weeks old and my son is profoundly deaf in one ear. But like my children have had early intervention. And people who have read to them every single night from the second they could, like, take a breath. And and they’ve been loved and attached and held and seen every specialist. And like, I think about these kids where, you know, they’ve been born into this circumstance that is beyond their control. And it’s just like a roll of the dice. It’s like, why, why are these kids set up for success and these kids aren’t? And there is no rhyme or reason for it. It just is what it is. And I just feel like as I was like going through all this today and trying to find the connections, I just like was overwhelmed with just like, just like very intense sadness about all of this. I don’t know. 


[08:39] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I’m Stephanie Wittels Wachs, and this is Last Day. You know who has no control? Babies. Babies don’t even know how to sit up. And they are born into the world, and they’re just like tiny and they’re crying, they’re crying so loud, and like just completely vulnerable. And I totally remember this moment when, you know, the nurse brought Iris to me and put her in my arms and she immediately started sucking my finger just immediately. And I died. Not in a bad way. I was just so overwhelmed with these feelings and, you know, I just loved her immediately. And I just thought, she’s perfect, life is perfect. And I, as her mother, will do everything in my power from now until the end of civilization to keep it that way. But pretty much immediately after this very tender Kodak moment — day one, literally 24 hours old, I have found out that I actually have no control over fucking anything. 


[10:11] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: They do something called the newborn hearing screening. So like they basically play these beeps and it registers a brain signal. And if like kid hears the beep, you know, there’s like a line that wiggles and if they don’t hear the beep and there’s not. And I’m like looking at the screen and it has to go above a certain level, a certain decibel, which is 35. But it didn’t. And I remember the day that Iris got the hearing aids. It was like once they were in her ears — I mean, first, really cute in them, but also like I was like, oh, this is something I can do to help her. Like this isn’t me just like sitting in her room at 3 a.m. spiraling and Googling shit that like is completely going to fuck my world up. But like I’m actively doing something that will better her life. And once I had that in place, I felt this relief that like, OK, you know, I can’t control the fact that she has this thing, but I can control how we respond to it. Which is just like as I was reading through all these transcripts of the people we interviewed, I kept hearing, you know, I can’t control blank, but I can control what we do. 


[11:24] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I feel like every single person who’s listening to this show has some version of what I’m talking about where, you know, you can’t control X, but X is still true. And I think it’s particularly profound when you’re a parent. There are just so many variables that come up. Like yesterday, my daughter fell off the monkey bars at school and fractured her arm. Like literally fractured her arm. And I had to drop everything and take her to the doctor’s office to get an x-ray. And now she’s in a sling for the next four weeks. And it just never ends. And that’s what kept popping into my head when I was trying to write the script for this episode. That needle-pointed serenity prayer. This idea that there are just things in life that we can’t change or control, period. We just have to accept that. It is what it is to be human. But also, there are some things we can control and we need to be able to step up and do that when appropriate. And then like the last part of it is that we have to be able to identify what things fall into which of those camps so that we don’t go completely bananas.


[12:43] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So today we are talking to a parent, a reporter and two educators from across the country who are dealing with the impact of the opioid crisis on kids. And how every day they are walking this line and trying to navigate the things they can and can’t control. All of this when we come back.


[15:10] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: We’re back. This is Last Day. If you’ve never been pregnant before, you may not be familiar with the rules. It’s this vast, ever-changing list of all the things you should not do while growing a person inside of your body. And depending on who you are, your list may look very different than someone else’s. 


[15:33] Peter Wrider: You know, it’s it’s it’s fucked up when you live in a world of Brooklyn where on the one hand all of your friends are worried about, like, eating sushi and brie. And then you step into the adoption world and you find yourself thinking like, ‘a little crystal meth never hurt anyone.’ 


[15:48] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Peter Wrider and his husband live in the world of Brooklyn with their three kids — a seven-year-old daughter, a six-year-old son and their youngest daughter, who is two. 


[15:57] Peter Wrider: So in all three of those cases, we knew that there had been drug exposure. For my two youngest, who we knew in advance of arriving at the hospital. 

[16:11] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Peter described his adoption experience in terms that really made sense to me. 


[16:18] Peter Wrider: An adoption is I mean, frankly, it’s like a apeshit-crazy world. And even after going through the adoption process now four times, there still is stuff that you’ve never seen before. And it is a process that you ultimately have so little control over, which in some ways is a good preparation for being a parent, ultimately, because I think we all overestimate how much control we actually have over the fate of our children. So I think in that ways, it’s not a bad process to go through ahead of time. 


[16:51] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: with adoption, with parenting, with really every single moment of life as a human being — the unknowns are plentiful. 


[16:59] Peter Wrider: So I think you kind of start to wrap your brain around what it is to not know. And the same is true for drug use. It’s sort of like you — there are some scenarios where, you know, like, yes, there’s active drug use involved. And then there’s some scenarios where you don’t know. And in some ways, the birth parents — who are very frank and open for whatever reason from the get-go — in some ways, that’s a relief because you sort of know what you’re facing, you know, not entirely. 


[17:32] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Peter and his husband weren’t just born with this magical sense of Zen. There is more to their story. 


[17:42] Peter Wrider: The other bit of context for our family is our first son, who we adopted in 2011, passed away when he was 6 months old due to a genetic disorder. So I never would have thought going in, like, I can, you know, shepherd a child through dying. And ultimately I was the thing in life I’m most proud of is the parent that I was to our son who died. I think I had some degree of confidence that I would be able to be the parent that my kid needed.


[18:21] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Confidence or not, they were still being thrown into a complicated situation when they adopted their second son. 


[18:29] Peter Wrider: We anticipated he would be born exposed. And actually his birth mom was arrested the night that he was born. She was arrested through some sort of drug buy. And so he was actually born in police custody. So by the time we got the call that he had been born and flew down to Florida, he had been moved to a different hospital from his birth mom and was in a NICU unit at a different hospital. He was in the NICU ultimately for 14 days. And as you can imagine, it’s a very hard thing to see anyone going through withdrawal. It’s very, very hard to see a baby going through withdrawal, a newborn. And, you know, he essentially, for the first three or four days of his life, essentially never slept. Anyone who’s spent time around a newborn knows that this is not what newborns do. He was not experiencing seizures, and that’s a great, important thing. He was taking some food, so that’s that’s a good, important thing. But he was as most babies going through NAS are, you know, very hard to comfort and to calm. 


[19:48] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: All right. NAS crash course — neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS, is what it’s called when a baby who is exposed to opioids in the womb experiences withdrawal when they’re born. But before we go any further, I have to call a quick — or maybe not so quick — time-out. At this point in the story, you might be tempted to judge the mother who put her baby in this situation, right? I mean, this is an infant in the NICU experiencing withdrawal because his mother used drugs during her pregnancy. And I don’t want the way that we tell this story to all of a sudden give us permission to slip back into this systemic belief that addiction is a choice and that people who use are bad. Because we have been so diligent about reframing addiction as a disease. So why does it feel different now that we’re talking about a pregnant woman who is dealing with this disease? Well, because mothers are expected to experience this instantaneous, unconditional love that is so powerful, so all-encompassing, that it should be able to counteract the disease altogether. Like we’re in some sweet little Disney movie where love’s first kiss breaks the spell. 


[21:16] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: That’s not real. And it’s a shitty double standard to put on these women. Women who are making the harrowing decision to put their babies up for adoption. Women whose babies have been taken from them against their will. Which happens, too, and something we’ll dig into later in the season. Women and men and parents who are doing the best they can with the supports that they have or don’t have. So as we talk to people like Peter, who are doing their best to help these kids — which is awesome — let’s all make sure that we’re not going back to our judgey place. Because there are no heroes and villains in this story. OK. Back to the NICU. The hospital uses this scoring system, so the baby basically gets points for things like excessive crying, inability to control body temperature, blotchy skin, diarrhea, number of sneezes. This is a real thing. I mean, Peter was basically in the NICU obsessively counting sneezes. Three in a row was OK, four in a row, you’re fucked. But whatever the number of sneezes may be, this is your baby. 


[22:33] Peter Wrider: And then, you know, when you meet this sweet little baby, you kind of are sort of a sucker after that. Like you’re kind of gone.


[22:42] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: If you’ve been listening to the show regularly, you know that medication assisted treatment is the gold standard. And for babies who are detoxing, it is no different. Withdrawal is managed with drugs — mostly morphine, sometimes methadone, which I know sounds wild and crazy for a baby, but that’s what happens. But a big part of the treatment is physical contact in the form of cuddles.


[23:10] Peter Wrider: We were lucky that the hospital we are at had this amazing program of cuddlers. Who are basically these like volunteer grandmas, which apparently — this is like in north Florida, definitely a big retirement area. So apparently the only way you can get into this cuddlers program — it’s got this huge wait list — is essentially if like a cuddler dies, like a spot opens up. 

[23:35] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I feel like we just need to pause to acknowledge this. That there is a league of geriatric cuddlers in Florida and people are literally dying to join them. And as crazy as that setup is, that is the level of commitment that I’d want for these babies. 


[23:55] Peter Wrider: So these are the sweetest old ladies who come to the hospital and their job is to just hold babies who are in the NICU. And we tried to be at the hospital as much as we could, but it was such a blessing knowing that literally any moment we weren’t there, he was being held and comforted. Because it really at that point, it really is like a 24-hour-a-day venture to try and provide comfort. 


[24:24] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: But he was there. A lot. And like any bleary-eyed parent who spends time in the NICU knows, myself included, nurses are basically why the phrase ‘not all superheroes wear capes’ exists. 


[24:38] Peter Wrider: So first and foremost, I just have like immense gratitude towards these folks, you know, mostly women. I think we also saw the reality that this was nothing new for these nurses, especially the ones who were in the NICU. You that, you know, this was something that they saw on a weekly basis. And I feel like anywhere you go, people are like, yep, this is ground-zero of the opioid epidemic. It’s like in Florida — yep, this is ground zero. And then in Arizona — yep, this is, you know, we got it the worst. It’s like everywhere it’s the worst. 


[25:15] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Like so many of these babies across the country, Peter’s kids had a rocky start. But it’s clear that they’ve had the best possible care from day one, and all in all, now they are doing pretty great. When anything challenging comes up, it’s hard not to question whether or not it’s normal kid stuff or related to NAS stuff. 


[25:38] Peter Wrider: It’s hard because you want to balance out talking as openly as possible and not stigmatizing — since I feel like silence so often stigmatizes. You want to balance that out with talking about things at an age-appropriate time and not having something like drug exposure define a child. And I don’t want that to be thinking of things as a pathology. Because there are, statistically speaking, kids who’ve been exposed do have higher rates of things like ADHD or sensory processing. And then some also some more serious developmental delays. But where I live in Brooklyn, it’s like every child has sensory processing disorder. So when my daughter has some trouble distinguishing between small emotions and big emotions, is that because she is seven? Is that because she’s in Brooklyn, where we’re very sensitized to thinking about and working our way through that? Or is that because she had some degree of drug exposure? And I think probably the last thing is the thing that is least helpful to thinking about how in the moment you help a child sort through the difference between big and small things. So, yeah, again, I don’t want it to be a secret, but I also it’s not something I ever want to lead with or have be definitive.


[27:15] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I get this. I so get this. I mean, not to bogart his experience or anything, but I could sub about my daughter’s hearing loss for any of these things that Peter mentions. And the main idea would have remained the same. Is that the hearing loss or is it just being five? Or is it just being a person in this cold, hard world? Which like the truth is, is far less cold and hard if you have a stable support system behind you. 


[27:46] Peter Wrider: It’s incredible just how much, you know, when you think about the crack babies and that whole narrative that was told in the ‘80s and ‘90s — how the narrative was around those children just being like irreparably damaged. And then the studies that have gone back and looked longitudinally over how those kids have fared, essentially when you’re able to control for things like poverty, for, you know, a stable family environment, for getting kids services when they need them, essentially, those kids have the same outcomes as kids who are not drug exposed. So I think, I hope the paradigm is starting to shift. 


[28:32] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Yes, the paradigm is starting to shift for some. And that is extremely positive because it means that in cases of childhood trauma, permanent damage isn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion. But — there’s always a but with this show — when we come back, we’ll hear what happens to the kids who aren’t given the same tools and early interventions. Stick with us. 


[31:21] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: We’re back. So I recently had a chance to jump on the phone with Claudia Rowe. She is a reporter in Washington and a few years ago she got assigned to a new beat. 


[31:31] Claudia Rowe: An editor said, well, what’s going on with the opioid crisis and kids? And I did that first story a year ago looking at a school in Everett, in Washington State, which is kind of our ground zero of the opioid crisis in Washington state.


[31:48] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Another ground zero, if you missed that. 


[31:51] Claudia Rowe: It’s in Snohomish County, which has a very, very high rate of addiction and overdose. After that story generated a fair amount of attention, we got interest from an outside funder, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which said, could you just do that more broadly? Could you report more on the fallout from the opioid crisis and the way it’s affecting children? And that was the start of the first thing that surprised me, when I had this assignment. Go figure out fallout from the opioid crisis. And the first thing I found was the real impact is on little kids, elementary school aged and younger.


[32:31] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So let’s dig into that. You’ve got the kids who are facing this gigantic stress at home as a result of parents using opioids, or caregivers using opioids. They may be facing separation from their parents, or neglect, or trauma of witnessing overdose. In fact, one sentence from your article that truly gave me chills — you said, ‘evidence shows up during the most mundane moments like recess when teachers at Hawthorne Elementary School watched seven- and eight-year-olds pretend to revive overdosed parents.’ 


[33:04] Claudia Rowe: Right. 


[33:05] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I mean, it nearly brought me to tears. Again, I just felt chills again. Can you can you talk about these kids and what symptoms they are showing of this crisis? 


[33:15] Claudia Rowe: I remember the teacher telling me that, and I remember writing that, and that gave me the same kind of chills that you experienced. And then I heard it again. I heard it again and again and again in the past year, doing other stories all over the place. Say in New Hampshire, you know, 3,000 miles away from Seattle, I heard almost the identical thing. It is quite shocking. And when I was in New Hampshire, which was just a couple of months ago, there were kids who say at periods where it’s like, ‘let’s all chill out and do some drawing now.’ I again was struck by in this period where they’re supposed to be kind of happy and feeling and doing some art, this little boy lying down in his classroom, kind of on his side, doing a picture of somebody in a straightjacket, like, their arms were bound. And then there was a stick figure being led to a car, like a cop car. This is a little kid, like seven or eight years old, drawing that same picture, which is what I heard, you know, thousands of miles away in Everett from a teacher. It was really chilling. 


[34:35] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So now you have more context for the downward spiral that I was experiencing at the top of this episode, because what she is describing is devastating. You’ve got some kids who are reviving overdosing parents on the playground and then you’ve got other kids who are now living in the world of Brooklyn with Peter and his husband. Another possible outcome for these kids is foster care.


[35:02] Claudia Rowe: Yeah. There’s been an enormous increase nationally across the board in the number of kids being taken into foster care. The number of kids has jumped almost seven percent between just 2013 and 2015. Just those two years. So there are, you know, over 400,000 kids in this country who are in foster care at any given moment. In 2015, it was like almost 430,000 kids. Substance abuse is cited as sort of the official factor — meaning parental substance abuse — is the official factor in about a third of those foster placements. And that cause is up about 10 percent from 2005. That doesn’t mean that it’s not a factor in the other 70 percent of times where kids are removed from their home. 


[35:54] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Like every other thing that we talk about on this comedy show, this is also complicated because, yes, of course, kids should be removed from environments where drugs and abuse and neglect are involved. But here’s the thing — separating kids from their parents can also be the root of the trauma. And since the dawn of CPS, this question of when and why to remove kids from their homes has been controversial. So I asked Claudia how it’s affecting them in the short- and the long-term. 


[36:32] Claudia Rowe: Well, the short answer is badly. You know, even the most well intended, the best supported foster parent — and many of them are not well supported. But even in the great cases, what the research is showing is that the trauma for a kid of being separated from their parent, no matter how neglectful that parent may be, or even abusive — the sort of developmental trauma of being separated from your family has really, really significant developmental effects for kids. And the sort of agency that has done the most long-term studies of kids in foster care is called Chapin Hall and they’re in the Midwest. And they did this thing called the Midwest Study, where they followed kids in foster care for many, many years after they were grown up. After they had left the system, aged out of the system. And so they looked at them as young adults. And how did these people do as sort of regular adults out in the world? And the answer is really, really badly. About a third of kids who have spent any time in foster care become homeless at some point. Thirty-seven percent attempt suicide. Thirty-three percent become addicted themselves to drugs or alcohol. Nearly 60 percent do some kind of time locked up in a county jail or a state prison, what have you. About 60 percent end up on food stamps or welfare or housing subsidies. You know, the takeaway, if there is one here, is foster care costs a lot of money and it makes enormous costs in other social programs that people interact with later as they grow up. So it’s like a stopgap, seeming to sort of put your thumb in the dike of an emergency situation, of a terrible situation with a little kid at home. Yes, it’s that. But the foster care system itself doesn’t function very well. It’s not giving the kids that it takes very good, say, therapy. Right? Yeah, put them in a quote unquote, safer family. But these kids have significant psychological trauma that’s not really being very well or consistently addressed. And the outcomes are what I just narrated to you.


[38:51] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So this sucks. I mean, in some ways, it just feels like a lose/lose for everyone involved. Like even placing a kid in some idyllic home could still result in lifelong trauma. And this is what I was thinking about when I got an email from my mother-in-law that in true mom fashion was followed up by this voicemail. 


[39:18] Ruth Wachs: Hello, my beautiful, intelligent daughter-in-law. I just wanted to wish you and Michael and the kids a wonderful Happy New Year and see if you had a chance to listen to that article I sent you about the opioid treatment in Ohio. I thought some way you could weave it in, but who am I? Anyway, love you. Love to hear from you. See you soon, I hope. Goodbye. 


[39:47] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So I looked into the program she was talking about. And you know what? We can weave it in.


[39:53] Ryan McGraw: Two years ago, it was a mass shooting at a school. And, you know, typically in education, when something like that happens, it causes everyone to reflect on what they’re doing, evaluate their procedures and so forth. 


[40:12] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This is Ryan McGraw and he is the principal of the school in Ohio that my mother-in-law called about. He was joining us from Minford Elementary School. And it was right at the end of the school day, so pardon and enjoy the chaotic school noises in the background. 

[40:28] Ryan McGraw: So in working through that and you know, all the research behind school safety and so forth. One of the topics came up that, you know what, if we can help these kids before they get to high school with the emotional issues that they’re having, with the depression and those type of things. What if we can help provide them with an education that’s outside of the curriculum that will help benefit them in a way that would help prevent some of these things later down the road? That was just an initial conversation. And so from there, we kind of built upon that. And just in a couple brainstorming sessions about what would it look like if we could actually teach that in class? And it’s, you know, a blessing that we were able to receive some extra title funds in the same year that we were talking about this. And so I approached Ms. Cram, who was a kindergarten teacher at the time, and said, hey, I’ve got an idea. 


[41:30] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Ms. Cram, or Kendra Cram, is the person my mother-in-law heard on NPR. 


[41:35] Ryan McGraw: And I knew in talking with her that she had a passion for this in her personal life and also in her professional life. Working with kids in trauma and teaching kids coping skills and working through the social emotional learning and so forth. And we kind of brainstormed what this would look like. And so the first year of its inception was last year. And we said, you know, if we want to start somewhere, we got to start in kindergarten because that’s where it starts. If you hang on just a second, Kendra’s telling me time out. Hang on. What’s up? OK. Hey, I’m gonna have to hop back on because we’ve got a bus emergency. 


[42:11] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: OK. See, I told you that this episode is about all the shit you can’t control when it comes to working with kids. I mean, a bus emergency, you couldn’t write that. Luckily, Ms. Cram was there to pick up where Ryan left off. 


[42:30] Kendra Cram: The truth of it is I was so excited on the phone that I knew before I hung up the phone that that it was a yes, that it was something I was interested in. And I said — I played it cool and said, you know, I got to think about it for a little bit. But I really knew, I really knew before I hung up the phone that this was exactly the something that I was very, very passionate about and something that I definitely wanted to do. And it brought me on this journey that has just been amazing and so fulfilling. And also at times very heartbreaking. Certainly very challenging.


[43:06] Stephanie Wittels Wachs:Trauma has a literal impact on developing brains, specifically in the prefrontal cortex, and it gets in the way of doing the thing you’re supposed to do at school, which is learning. So if you want kids to learn, it’s something you can’t ignore, which is sort of what a lot of schools have done up until this point. But any good teacher knows that on a fundamental level, you can’t just do reading, writing and arithmetic. You have to educate the whole child, which means adding social and emotional learning to the core curriculum.

[43:43] Kendra Cram: So once a week, every child — kindergarten through fifth grade — comes to social, emotional learning class. We call it SELF class — social, emotional learning foundations. So kids go to our class as a as an activity. They go to gym and music and library and social emotional learning class. So what that looks like is that the by the time that they go to fifth grade, our students have had a 135 hours of conversations about topics like coping skills, and managing your emotions, and how to handle anxiety and stress and anger, and conflict resolution, and growth mindset and all of these things that are just required for us to live and to navigate this world. So we’re talking about things that a lot of people consider soft skills, but they’re actually the hardest skills to obtain as a person. So we talk about managing our emotions and what to — how to handle anxiety or stress or anger, and how to navigate through that. We talk about conflict resolution and how to get along with friends and how to build safe, healthy relationships. What to do when we don’t feel safe. 


[45:12] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: SELF class. I want SELF class. I mean SELF class for the win. This is so good. And even though it’s not specifically about drugs and alcohol, that comes up a lot in class.


[45:26] Kendra Cram: This is Red Ribbon Week right now here at our school, which is focused on high on drug and alcohol prevention. And I had a lesson planned today for my fourth graders and I got through about an eighth of that lesson today because the children had so much. They just came alive with so much that they wanted to share and to talk about and questions. And more than any class that I’ve done so far this year, it was very alive and interactive. And just very much — the children were super engaged in wanting to have a conversation, desperate to have conversations about this topic of of drug and alcohol abuse. And a lot of times we give these very black-and-white answers of just say no. Just say no to drugs and alcohol. Or this is what you’re supposed to do or this is what you’re supposed to say. And the kids are raising their hands and saying, ‘yeah, but Ms. Kram, what about this? What am I supposed to do when it’s someone else in my home that’s offering me drugs or alcohol? What am I supposed to do when my parent is using drugs or alcohol? What am I supposed to do?’ These are the very hard questions that they’re coming up with and that they’re brainstorming with each other about what to do when a friend offers drugs, or what to do if somebody’s using that’s that’s close to you. So these are the kind of things that was derailing my lesson today, which is perfect. Exactly what we what we’re here for is to talk about these hard things.


[47:14] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: SELF class is a bit like AA for kids. It’s not about a right answer, or a solution, or how to do things better. It’s about getting in a room together and sharing and supporting and community. Because sometimes it’s just helpful to know that someone else is going through it, too. I asked Kendra what she’s seeing in terms of the impact of all of this. 


[47:42] Kendra Cram: I do see this work really paying off. I see it as vitally important, and I see it as the most important work that I’ve ever been involved in. We also have a check-in/check-out program that our principal has led. And what we’re doing with that is our children that we know are experiencing significant trauma, or have had significant trauma in their past, they are connected with a mentor that’s a loving, caring adult that works at our school. And what happens is, as the child that we know has experienced trauma that’s matched with a mentor, goes to see their mentor every morning for a few minutes and they do an emotional check-in of how are you feeling today? What’s going on? Is everything OK? Is there anything that you need? Is there any way that I can help you? And to make sure that they are emotionally set up for success for that day? Then at the end of that school day, that child checks out with their mentor again. And, hey, do you have everything that you need for home tonight? Do you have your homework? How was your day? How are you feeling now? So it’s an emotional check-out before they leave. So this is connecting the child that has been through trauma with someone every single day and building a deep relationship with a loving, trusting adult. And that is wildly healing, because we know that a lot of times kids in trauma have been hurt through relationships. So we believe that they will be also healed through relationships.


[49:23] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: As a parent, I’m just blown away. I think it’s just remarkable what you’re doing. 


[49:37] Ryan McGraw: Hi, Stephanie, this is Ryan. 


[49:39] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Hey, Ryan. All well with the bus?

[49:42] Ryan McGraw: All well. We found out we had a missing kindergartner who jumped on the wrong bus. 


[49:47] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Oh my gosh. 


[49:48] Ryan McGraw: So we had a, uh, a mom that was rightfully so panicking and but we found her. So all’s well. 


[49:56] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Ooh, bus crisis averted. Once Ryan was back, I asked him the same thing that I asked Kendra — is SELF class working?


[50:08] Ryan McGraw: I don’t have — this is our second year, I don’t have hard data. I just have observational data. And just — well, I do I can give you one hard data point is this year we have gone through — we’re starting our 11th week of school. Last Friday was the first office referral of a students that I received all year due to these classes and in our expectations and in the programs that we’re implementing, our teachers are more equipped to work with things hands-on in the classroom. And it wasn’t even a huge office referral. It was something that happened at recess with kids putting hands on each other that needed to be addressed. But that was the first one. So there’s there’s some good hard data right there. 


[50:55] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: To give this some context, prior to implementing SELF, Ryan saw three to five office referrals a week. As a former teacher, I can confidently say that fewer kids going to the principal’s office is a very good thing. I can also confirm that in education, professional development is real. You’re constantly watching TED talks and attending panels. And a couple of years ago, Ryan heard a speaker, Tim Kite, who offered this idea that has stuck with him. Here it is — E plus R equals O. 


[51:32] Ryan McGraw: When an event happens in your life, you have a response, and that response dictates the outcome. And I love that. And so I sort of grabbed ahold of that and working at that in our district and talking to students about it. And what I found was students didn’t know they had choices to respond to events. They didn’t know. This event happens, this is the choice that I can make. Now, are they going to make the right decision every time? Heck, no. We don’t as adults make the right decision every time. But we’re at least equipping them with the tools. And I can see it just in my daily conversations with kids, and observations in the classroom, recess, and the cafeteria, and in the hallways — it’s very evident. 


[52:16] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So here’s the thing. I don’t know if I knew until very recently in my history of being a grown woman in the world, that I have the sort of agency that Ryan describes here. That an event happens, I have a response, and that predicts the outcome. It’s not just the event. It’s not the event at all. It’s how I respond to it. That makes the difference. So I started this episode in tears because it all felt so hopeless. But the truth is that no matter what your circumstances are, you do have choices. Even if that choice is simply how you react. And this is especially important when it comes to kids, because kids are these tiny, brilliant mind ninjas who will pick up on and internalize all the stuff that’s going on around them. Which is why things like SELF class and Sesame Street are so important. And yes, I did just say Sesame Street because the other day exactly 200 people sent me this clip.


[53:23] Sesame Street audio: Hi, it’s me, Carly. I’m here with my friend Sylvia. Both our parents have had the same problem: addiction. My mom and dad told me that addiction is a sickness. Oh, yeah, yeah. A sickness that makes a person feel like they have to take drugs or drink alcohol to feel okay.


[53:48] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: That is Carly, the newest furry friend on Sesame Street, who in 2019 is talking about her parents’ struggle with addiction. And notice that she is not alone. The whole point of this segment is that this Muppet and this little girl are sharing what it’s like to have a sick parent at home. And again, this is not something that’s in their control, but it is something that doesn’t have to control their narrative. 


[54:19] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Next week we talk about activism, a.k.a. reclaiming your fucking narrative and wearing it as a badge of honor. 


[54:33] Garth Mullins: I just thought maybe I can forget about all this shit. Maybe I don’t ever have to think about death and syringes and all that. Like, maybe I don’t have to think about that every day. But I also at the same time, I just had such deep survivor’s guilt that I was making it. I would seem to be surviving and so many people weren’t that I kind of had to do something. So, I guess it’s all that mix of stuff, you know?


[55:03] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Last Day is a production of Lemonada Media. This episode was produced by Jackie Danziger. Jessica Cordova Cramer is our executive producer. Kegan Zema is our technical director. Samantha Gattsek helped to edit this episode. And our music is by Hannis Brown. Special thanks to Westwood One, our ad sales and distribution partner. You can and should find us online There’s lots of fun stuff there for you to dig into. That is spelled like L-E-M-O-N-A-D-A. And if you like what you heard today, you should tell your family, and your friends, and your neighbors, and the person at the grocery store checking you out that they should listen and subscribe, rate and review us on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, wherever you get your podcasts. That really does help. So we would appreciate it. And you should check out our show notes for a deeper dive into what you heard today and more about how you can connect with our Last Day community, which is truly an incredible one. I am Stephanie Wittels Wachs. See you next week.


[56:29] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So as you learn today, there is this whole other part of my own story that has to do with hearing loss and my kids. But what you didn’t hear today is how I took on the state of Texas and won. Like a lot of states, Texas used to allow insurance companies to just not cover the cost of hearing aids for kids. I mean, can you believe that? Yeah. Neither could I. And you can hear all about that on another podcast called An Arm and a Leg. The host assures me that there is more profanity on my episode than in all of the other episodes combined. And this is the beginning of season three. Fun stuff. It’s a story you do not want to miss. So head over to An Arm and a Leg today to subscribe. The trailer is out now and episode one, which is the one I’m on, airs tomorrow, November 14th. So subscribe now. 


[57:18] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: A while ago, I was on a podcast that I think you should know about. It’s called Dopey. The podcast about drugs, addiction and dumb shit has a unique ability to horrify the listener as well as comfort them through skillful interviews and hilarious, sober storytelling by people from all sides of the recovery spectrum. Dopey is a shame- and guilt-free space — I love that — that promotes sharing without judgment, where every debauchery as detail is encouraged and nothing is off limits. The only requirement for guests and listeners is brutal honesty, unconditional open-mindedness, and the genuine willingness to pee in your pants from the insane stories that remind us of what it was like to be in active addiction. Tune in and turn on to Dopey and you’ll hear guests like Marc Maron, Margaret Cho, Jamie Lee Curtis and Killer Mike. And when you listen carefully, you may or may not hear Artie Lange say, ‘I couldn’t have done it without Dopey,’ or Dr. Drew say ‘Dopey is without a doubt the most amazing podcast I’ve ever heard.’ Subscribe now. 

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