Abstract: The following article interweaves Stephen Porges Polyvagal Theory, emerging brain understanding, John Bowlby’s attachment behavior system’s theory, Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson’s psychosocial and attachment theory, interwoven with modern science of the human autonomic nervous system to understand the brain, trauma, behavioral decisions, and the effects of what is commonly known as marijuana and scientifically known as cannabis. The following theories are woven into a personal, vibrant, and refreshing story of an infant to middle childhood, and into a young adult.
Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol is known as THC and is cannabis’ psychoactive compound. The specific regions in the brain cannabis effects are called cannabinoid receptors. The human body evolved to respond to cannabis by producing its own chemicals nandamide and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol (2-AG) and act in the cannabinoid receptors in the human brain. The endocannabinoid system is the brains air traffic control monitoring and delegating incoming chemicals, receiving, and departing. Cannabis influences the communication between cells, the same as the air control tower influencing planes.
Stephen Porges Polyvagal Theory describes how human emotion, and neuro regulation of the brain are interrelated with social interaction. When a child is born only the amygdala is well developed. The hippocampus takes three to four years after birth to be fully developed, whereby an infant’s brain development is extremely vulnerable. Foundational infant capabilities emerge at twelve months of age. Infants who are raised in an environment of fear, anxiety, loud noises, domestic violence, frequent inattention to basic needs (“serve and return” parent infant interaction and affirmation), overproduce neural connections linked to high cortisol levels, with brain regions dedicated to reasoning, planning, and behavioral control producing fewer neural connections. Cortisol is a stress hormone our bodies release when we are afraid, anxious, in a hurry, in physical pain, and or are suddenly shocked or startled.
Executive function facilitates communication in neurotransmitters in the brain, like air trafﬁc control at an airport, whereby managing arrivals and departures of dozens of planes on multiple runways. Executive function is activated in the prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate, parietal cortex, and hippocampus. Infants, toddlers, preschool age, early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, and up to twenty-five years of age are vulnerable to neurological impairment because of toxic trauma, the overstimulation of the autonomic nervous system, and develop a traumatic disease with chronic perceptions of helplessness and hopelessness. The period of time from birth to twenty-five years of age the grey matter of the human brain is extremely malleable/ programmable.
Since infants have not yet fully developed their hippocampus the brain can become trauma wired for an emotionally unstable life, which makes them more susceptible to depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD, I prefer to call the diagnosis Post Traumatic Stress and drop the word Disorder because it is stigmatizing). Toxic cortisol levels produced when the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (HPA) system is hyper aroused/ trauma aroused, often results in depression, and reduce development in hippocampal volume.
My mother was raped at the age of sixteen and became pregnant; she kept her child, the result Jeromiah. My brother grew up socially awkward, not quit being Black, not quite Mexican. My biological father Jeff was never accepted Jeromiah as his son, beat him when inebriated, upset, and emotionally aroused.
A marker of group membership or family membership is race. When a person identifies someone as their own race in distress, the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex is strongly activated. This region in the brain strongly associated for empathy of others. Racism, prejudice, and fear of others is mediated by group identification, team membership, and common interests, which allows an empathic neural response to others in distress.– Jeff did not identify Jeromiah as a part of the family team, as the rest of the family is Caucasian. The result is a toxic non empathic neurobiological response in Jeff’s brain, which would have elevated Jeff’s cortisol levels, creating a toxic environment of fight, flight, and freeze in children. The children and mother then mirror and have to mitigate the toxic negative response stressors that produced high cortisol levels.
The first time my mother left Jeff when I was alive, I was one week old. I am the youngest of four in my biological family. My brother Kyle is a year and a half older than I, my sister Raelynn is three and a half years, and my Brother Jeromiah is nine years older. The day of my birth after my delivery, Jeff left my mother alone, withdrew all the money from my mother’s savings account, and spent everything on alcohol and drugs. Jeff did not hold a regular job, drank every day, communicated with shouting, gave negative praise, threw objects, and was physically abusive to Jeromiah. However, after a week of separation from Jeff my mother returned.
The second time during my life my mother left Jeff I was two years old. My mother had her own apartment, life became emotionally stable, for a short time. For nine months there was no emotionally toxic stress. However, Jeff said he could change and worked his way to living in our apartment. The toxic environmental stress returned.
My parents finally divorced at the age of nine, four and a half years after the death of my brother Kyle. Unfortunately the children were caught in the middle; one particular child, that child was me. After little league baseball practice when I was ten, my mother and father came to pick me up, both claiming it was their day to have me. My father snatched my baseball bag out of my left hand, embracing it over his right arm. My mother responded by attempting to grab my bag from my father, whereby tugging his arm. Watching this event was my coach and his son. I stood between my parents, confused, more than anything hurt, and embarrassed.
A day passed. My father had a bruise on his right bicep from my mom attempting to acquire my baseball bag. My father took pictures and called Child Protective Services against my mother. CPS came, I remember the woman, she was kind and had short hair, wore a badge too. I was extremely fearful when the woman from CPS helped me find underwear to pack, and told me I was going to my grandmothers. I did not understand why she was taking me from my mother. I felt awkward, disoriented, unaware, confused, upset, and extremely violated.
I would go from house to house hearing each parent’s point of view over court and custody. My father bragged about how he represented himself and how he was making my mother pay for lawyer’s fees, my heart ached. At a basketball game my father showed up drunk, shouting at my mother, and verbally attacking my mother’s boyfriend. I was grief stricken. In response to my father, my mother wanted me to write a statement to the judge. I felt torn, loving my parents equally. My mother had me stay with my Uncle Mark for a week, not informing my father of my whereabouts. In time, both parents wanted me to testify against the other in court. Fortunately, I did not. However, the fear, anxiety, self-hatred, and the delusion that somehow everything was my fault did not go away, I suffered. I wanted to die.
Over empathy occurs when the observer of a victim of trauma becomes more distressed than the victim. When a parent becomes more distressed than their child the focus becomes inward, in order to help themselves feel better, and therefore the parent does not think about how to help their child. The child then mirrors the emotionally toxic environment the parents create. Divorce is an example where parents can be unaware of the child’s emotional basic needs as the parent is focused on their own toxic stress. From infancy through late adolescence, I experienced toxic stress levels, which I mirrored in negative thinking, self-talk, self-harm, isolation, and inattention that all resulted in freeze responses to elevated stress in life. In “An Unspoken Voice,” Peter Levine quotes the neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti: “We are exquisitely social creatures. Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions, emotions of others. Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling-not by thinking.” Thus, when a child sees their parents arguing, domestic violence, hears shouting, experiences non empathetic communication, can result in sympathetic hyperarousal. A toxic stressful event can stimulate the right anterior insula, which is correlates to little or no body awareness, immobility, freeze, and dissociation.-
John Bowlby’s Attachment Behavior System describes how trusting emotional bonds can create positive and protective relationships. During infancy I received consistent love and affection from my mother. I developed a “secure attachment” to my mother, which likely allowed my hippocampus to develop to nominal volume, yet wired to be hypervigilant to stress, and result in slower stress hormone normalization. However, a protective factor to mitigate a slower normalization period in stress hormone levels is Hope. Secure attachment during infancy allows the adaptive character quality of Hope, and can be a positive foundation for relationships, and development of executive functioning. A secure attachment may mitigate the plasticity of negative mirror neurons, and the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (HPA) development, which may allow the infants brains plasticity to correctly rewire itself during periods of a toxic free stress environment. Therefore, my brain most likely developed to its nominal volume, yet was wired for depression, and helplessness.
Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson place emphasis in middle childhood/ school age for cultural competence and intelligence, which would allow for the creation of relationships. A child should be able to create and maintain positive relationships during middle childhood, from 6-11 years, and have acquired “Social Competence.” Social competence is regulated by mirror neurons, the parent’s behavior towards race, culture, as well as, demands placed on the child to conform in peer settings. My step father Ken is Mexican-American, which aroused jealousy, and racism in Jeff, yet also showed a cultural resilience and hope in Ken. I witnessed Jeromiah’s life turmoil, resiliency, and hope experienced as a non-Caucasian living in a white family, white church, white schools, and white community.
My biological father teased me and called me names. I remember all through my baseball experiences, especially Pony League when I was twelve my baseball coaches treated me differently and failed to protect me from bullying from my peers. I was already an isolated child who had no confidence to stand up for myself. I was an unwanted athlete, because my biological father would show up to games drunk and start conflict. Literally, I would be up to bat and the umpire could call a strike and my father would argue. In Little League, an umpire who was my friend’s dad actually threw my father out of the stands, because he was so verbose and drunk. I was stigmatized because of my father’s drunkenness and further socially isolated. I was a good athlete who could have been an amazing athlete if not rejected by coaches for fear of my father showing up to someone’s home, the baseball field, or social events drunk. I was a great kid, did as I was asked, followed directions well, and could absorb information when communicated to.
My mother worked three jobs, I shared a one bedroom with my mom and sisters. We took turns sleeping on the couch, bed, and floor. I visited Jeff living from motel to motel or sometimes living in the back of the camper on his truck. This phase of life was dominated in isolation, depression, helplessness, worthlessness, burning the backs of my hands with matches, splitting my hands open punching wooden boards, slamming my head against walls/ surfaces, sleeplessness, nightmares, and consistent thoughts of death and suicidal ideation. These negative thoughts were daily and consistent for periods of over ten months at a time. However, I emerged industrious, and socially culturally competent. The ages of 9-11 my best friend Ryan was the first generation not from the Philippines. Eventually, my mom received Section 8 housing. I became friends with refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran who lived in our apartment complex. I had complete freedom to make friends with whomever I wanted. I then adapted, through hope, and mirroring immigrant, migrant, minority, and refugee resiliency. My brain in this stage of life has successfully been wired for depression, post-traumatic stress, hope, and resiliency.
In light of emerging scientific evidence, traumatic events from infancy to the age of twenty-five in males, is not taken into consideration when exploring Conduct Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and many other behavior challenges. Continuous exposure to toxic traumatic stress damages a child’s emotional, cognitive functioning, and identity formation. Further, negative parenting techniques, shouting in the home, negative praise, often compromise the child’s genetic capability, epigenetic destruction, and pruning of mirror neurons, which compromises a successful adulthood transition. Dr. Bruce Perry details how “these crucial associations between positive human interactions, rewards systems, and the stress response networks are the neurobiological glue for all future healthy relationships. They are at the core of why empathy matters.” A family without empathy creates an environment of traumatic toxic stress, which alters emotional and social development. However, parent infant attachment can mediate at risk brain development, which if not mediated often leads to character development delays and mental illness. With continued brain development from infancy to late adolescence, with a decrease in toxic stress exposure, with increases in resiliency and hope, a child’s brain can rewire for positive health.
Therefore, if an infant has a secure attachment to their mother, enabled hope, develops healthy mirror neurons for empathy, the child has the ability adapt to others strengths and resiliency. With hope, mirror neurons, and resiliency a child can cope with depression and post-traumatic stress.
My brother Jeromiah and I grew closer as I grew up. He introduced me to martial arts through Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris films. Jeromiah taught me about exercise, nutrition, and philosophy. He also taught me to be mentally adaptive in order to absorb knowledge, physically, as well as spiritually. My brother grew up socially awkward, not quite being black, not quite Mexican – my mother never shared the race or identity of the man who had raped her. Jeromiah grew up unaware of his biological father and suffered from identity issues. My biological father was an alcoholic who never accepted Jeromiah as his son, and beat him when inebriated. Jeff found it entertaining to choke us children out until we had to tap out because we could not breathe. I often remember blacking out. Jeromiah attempted to escape his suffering through drug use. I attempted to escape my suffering through prayers and mortification of the flesh/ self harm, as a form to remove psychological and physical weakness in my life.
Throughout high school and into college I worked hard to encourage Jeromiah. He was the Hulk, and I was Captain America. During my undergraduate program in one my classes we hosted a dinner and speaking engagement for the Syrian Ambassador; there I was recruited by the State Department at the age of 19, and volunteered to work for Homeland Security to fight “The War on Terrorism.” My brother got clean for a time; I inspired him and he signed up with the Coast Guard. As fate would have it, my brother was sent to Guantanamo Bay. There my brother witnessed firsthand the treatment of our prisoners, our inhumanity.
When I worked for the Department of Homeland Security I met with persons from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the State Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency. I lived a life of secrecy. If I was in a bind I knew that the government would not bail me out. I was a volunteer seeking out threats for the government. I had no idea the level of responsibility I was asked nor did I understand the level of danger I put myself in. I did what I did because I believe I was making America safer, I was being Captain America, I was being a patriot. What I did learn was the majority of Muslims want to be left alone, live their lives in peace, distinguish their moral views from radicals, and praise God, the Universe, and love in their own unique way. I walked away from my spying experiences feeling a sense of guilt, shame, and responsibility, for the reporting of innocent people to the government of their views despite the fact they may not have been a threat. I cared about providing as much intel as possible on any Muslim they wanted information on. My anti-terrorism lifestyle further programmed my brain for post-traumatic stress. I felt totally mentally fucked after these experiences. But I loved the work, I was addicted to my high cortisol levels. I was addicted to suffering, to isolation, to a live of secrecy.
I wanted to attend the University of Beirut in 2007 and earn my Masters of Arts in Near and Middle Eastern Studies to follow the path of my mentor who was a Green Beret. However, Isreal attacked Lebanon and blew up their airport. I enrolled at the University of Jordan to continue my studies in Arabic to increase my espionage capabilities.
As I was in the Middle East I began working for the United Nations, in Amman, Jordan, while Jeromiah was in Guantanamo. I learned to see the world in a new way. I saw refugees, the displaced, the war torn, the persecuted, the forgotten, I saw suffering, I saw a dying culture. I worked alongside with refugees from Iraq directly affected by Blackwater a para military company, or mercenaries/ guards for hire. Blackwater would drag women and men out of their homes at night, or enter into homes without warning, at gun point, and with poor intel. From Jordan I moved to London to acquire my Masters in Middle Eastern Studies and then back to San Diego.
Upon my return to San Diego my brother Jeromiah’s life was spiraling out of control. He fell into major depressive episodes. He was tired of seeing suffering, tired of seeing the world tear itself apart. Guantanamo sent him to a darker place, compounded by life without a father, and abusive stepfather, not feeling his place in the world. One day, Jeromiah used crystal meth, and ran around until the police were called. He was shot and killed by the police. He got what he wanted – a police-assisted suicide. In their ignorance the police officers even received medals for killing my mentally ill brother, a veteran, a hero – a child of trauma and abuse.
I too struggled with thoughts of suicide in my life. Many times I have prayed to not exist. I am the product of a man who had no empathy for his son, which allowed me to be continuously traumatized, and an easy target for bullies. Yet, I have survived multiple attempts to kill myself through overdose, asking God to allow me to die. I never used a gun. Once my Brother Jeromiah died, I never again attempted to end my life even though the thoughts and feelings persisted. I did not want my mother to have to endure another death of a son. But sometimes I wished my mother would die that way it would be easier to kill myself.
My heart has always gone out to those who are mistreated, misunderstood, and marginalized. I tried to express this to Jeff. Many times during his drunkenness he would tell me I was going to hell for my beliefs, and that I was the anti-Christ, and God did not love me because I wanted peace and love on Earth for all beings. I was six the first time he told me I was a child of the devil. This from a man who took me to church on Sunday’s and Awanas on Wednesdays. All I ever wanted was to fee loved and cherished in God’s presence, the Holy Spirit, and thrive in a spiritual community. Jeff made me feel not worthy of church, and not capable of God’s love and not redeemable through belief and faith in Jesus Christ. He affirmed to me I was going to hell at the age of 6 on, how fucked up do you have to be to do that to a child. The verbal and emotional abuse from my biological father and its connections to the belief of so many others in society is still raw in my life.
In recent years, following my passion to help those facing social stigma and discrimination, I have worked with Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee, the San Diego Gang Commission, the San Diego Police Department (Mid-City), the LGBTQ community, the San Diego Center for Children, San Diego Youth Services, and permanent supportive housing for children, mothers, teens/ transitional aged youth, homeless adults and homeless veterans. I have volunteered to do nonviolent communication trainings with murderers, rapists, drug dealers, gang members, and youth. I decided to pursue a joint degree in law and social work.
During law school, one of my professors told me all of my accomplishments in life were because I was good looking and charming. She had no idea how I would be triggered. That semester I failed law school and lost my scholarship, because I fell into a major depressive episode. What the fuck. I relapsed, once again contemplated how to kill myself, but make my death look like a mystery disappearance so my mother would know nothing about it. I was ready to use a gun to end my life, drive to Mexico, and shoot myself in a remote area. It has been a challenging journey to navigate forward from the setback of dropping out of law school. Understanding my own trauma, back into childhood, has been part of that journey. Overcoming feelings of guilt and shame for my anti-terrorism work, and feeling guilty for the death of my brother and him being sent to guard Guantanamo Bay.
I worked with Casey Gwinn to author Cheering for the Children: Creating Pathways to Hope for Children Exposed to Trauma, while earning my Masters in Social Work Administration directly after law school. Casey provided me an opportunity to focus my pain and suffering, and to share with the world the dire need to understand the Adverse Childhood Experiences Index, and provide an opportunity for hope, to overcome the challenges, the toxicity, the pain, and heal, restore, nourish, and flourish.
I am not an expert, I am a survivor. I am not my stigma, and I will not continue to be stigmatized. I will not be defined by my trauma. I am not my biological father. I am not the ignorance of my species. I will not allow myself to exist in the depths of darkness, the hell inside myself, the waste dump of emotional chaos from childhood, the black hole devouring love in self-hatred and self-loathing.
I am the last son of my biological family, I have to remind myself to live so that my brothers did not die in vain, to live for my mother, and decide that my life can allow other children, and families to not suffer or persecute each other as I have been persecuted by others and myself. In telling the truth, there is love, there is forgiveness, healing, growth, and understanding. The journey is real, and there is a path to discovery that gives us the ability to love. I am learning to be more empathy, I am empathy. It is my hope that we all will learn to have empathy for those around us still held captive by the pain of their trauma.
Cannabis serves as a tool that assists in sleep, nightmares from childhood, anti-terrorism efforts, and the deaths of my brothers. Cannabis is a tool that relieves my physical pain, and has assisted in somatic experiences, and healing in my mind and body. Cannabis serves as a tool to not drink alcohol and enter into depressive episodes and normalize myself with a less toxic recreational substance. I don’t want to drink. I don’t really enjoy alcohol. But I do drink with others to fit in. I do appreciate the flavor of micro beers, whiskey, scotch, and tequila. The dangers of me drinking depressants are paramount to my mental health, and triggering my post-traumatic stress. Cannabis provides me an outlet to cope with this reality and not consume pharmaceutical antidepressants. I am thankful God, the Universe has provided cannabis to us because my quality of life is so much better since I was introduced to cannabis after my experiences with Homeland Security and child hood trauma. I am eternally grateful for the love of my mother, whom I have battled with to just accept me for my use of cannabis. As my mother has shunned, and shamed me for cannabis as a tool to cope with my mental health, and as a tool to not drink when I socialize with others. My mother and I have finally reached a point in our relationship where she unconditionally accepts me, and my cannabis use. To know she loves me despite her not understanding cannabis has lifted a great burden from my heart, and I share with you my journey. Thank you.
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