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The Burden of Trauma

16 Jul

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I have spent my entire life seeped in the landscape of trauma. After first-hand experience with it in my childhood and teenage years, I chose a career involving the study of it. I then spent two decades trying to help others get through similar experiences. And I now teach on the subject. Yet trauma still perplexes me. Every time I think I understand it, I’m struck by its tenacity and complexity. I’m surprised by how simultaneously fragile and resilient we are as humans.

I have learned that unless you’ve been through trauma yourself, people typically do not understand the experience. A person can say, “Don’t think about it,” or “be grateful,” or “don’t be so negative,” in an attempt to be helpful but when grappling with flashbacks, or emotional seizures that leave you in a state where you can’t stop crying, you can’t mind over matter the situation. Instead, you have to fasten your seatbelt and get ready to go on a ride. A ride that feels like death but that eventually comes to a stop- until you get thrust on the ride again.

The reason trauma is so damaging to the system is because the body registers it as the real or perceived threat of death. Whether violence, or an accident, or death, or a natural disaster, something heinous and uncontrollable occurs that warps our sense of stability and agency. Suddenly, we don’t have control. Terrible shit can and does happen and suddenly, all our thoughts of being in charge of our lives goes out the window. So much for “carpe diem” or “I’m the King of the world!”

I lost my mother to incarceration and suicide and my father to drug addiction. In the process of both situations, there was profound confusion, fear, abandonment, betrayal, shock, and abuse. Developmentally, I was young when these events occurred but when comparing these situations to children being torn from their parents at young ages or extreme poverty, I feel like my experiences reflect first world problems. Yet it’s all part of the same soup. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a school shooting or rape or incest or the Holocaust or poverty. Trauma leaves a scar that effects you whether rich or poor, privileged or not.

We all want to be connected; we all want to feel safe; we all want to experience love. Trauma threatens to wipe out these fundamental elements of human experience.

Humans crave stability, power, relationships, and control. Trauma obliterates all of that. And when you have few of those elements cemented regardless of trauma, a sudden tragedy threatens one’s sense of place in the world even more. Thankfully, we are incredibly resilient as humans. We can and do move on. We can and do thrive. We don’t stay stuck forever. Flowers can grow through a crack in the cement.

But even when doing well, the burden of trauma can rip one right back into the pain and the loss and the confusion. All it takes are a few elements that correspond with the original wound and ka-bang. Like ripping a bandaid off, we can find ourselves bleeding. Uncontrollably.

The only way through trauma is to keep tending to it. To respect it. And to connect with those who understand it. And when the moment passes, we have a personal responsibility to help someone else through the same tunnel because everyone has a story. Over and over, as I teach around the nation, I am shocked by how much pain and suffering there is in the world.

Recently, I had a philosophical cab driver from Nigeria remark to me, “The soul is meant to experience joy. When we cry, it is a moment of reflection.” Perhaps that is the essence of healing. May we use our tears as a period of reflection that brings us back to joy.

We Are Living In The Lord Of The Flies

12 Aug

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I was a sophomore in high school when I read William Golding’s novel “The Lord Of The Flies.” I hated it because it so accurately reflected the evil woven into human DNA. I was horrified and repulsed by the story. To me it wasn’t fiction because the author was revealing universal truths about humans’ propensity toward evil.

The plot depicts a group of British school boys marooned on an uninhabited island. The book takes place during an unspecified nuclear war and chronicles the boys’ immediate plummet into savage behavior and anarchy. Chaos and death ensue as the boys posture over who is in charge and how they are to have “fun”.

As I read accounts of white supremacists rallying in Virginia, I realize, we’re here. We’re living in the surreal reality that is the human condition. I am just as disturbed as I was when I was a sophomore in high school. Have we not learned anything from history or literature?