Working as a consultant for a local suicide prevention group, I have been exposed to harrowing stories and heartbreaking losses. Especially concerning is childhood trauma. The guru of this work is Bessel van der Kolk, whom I was lucky enough to meet in 2020 at Kripalu. He says ours is a violent country with a gun-loving history from the gun lobby's interpretation of the 2nd amendment, which says nothing about an individual's right to own guns (only a militia). Safety is something we cannot take for granted anymore. School shootings are a significant focus of our pathology as a culture.
1. Buckle up - if you asked me ten years ago if I would want to work in this space I would have said unequivocally, "hell no!" - it's scary. You need a sense of being grounded. I believe I have finally reached the right level of age and experience to handle it. Being practical in your mind is an essential skill. To weed through the stories to the steps to recovery takes mental discipline. Otherwise you, too, are lost in trauma.
2. Universal experiences - many people now (1 in 5?) are exposed to gun violence, even on TV. I have seen my own husband, a peace-loving person, watching movies where renegades tote AK-47s, whose only function is to mow down humans. I can't watch. Long ago I thought this could never happen here/be real - especially at such a beloved sanctuary as school. But war has become a way of life for our country. A war of authoritarianism and fear. Thank you Trump, the disrupt-er extraordinaire.
3. Connection to impulsivity - many people can delay their distress long enough for it to pass. That's why they have a net at the bottom of the Golden Gate Bridge. Just wait. If you can, perhaps the idea will pass. But those who can't wait, especially men, carry through at a staggering rate. Why are they so out of control? Alienation from society is the path for answers. It's systemic. Perhaps JD Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy and now a R Senator, had the right idea. The origins of male self-destruction are in systemic addiction/loss of employment/family breakdown and despair in the heartland. Nothing new here except now everyone is armed.
4. Survivors - living in a space where ordinary things freak you out, PTSD survivors have the daily experience of pain in the body - (The Body Keeps the Score). They cannot connect back to themselves after the brain goes offline. They can't shut down one part without shutting down another. Our treatment is inadequate for this experiential phenomena. Then the task becomes numbing. Too depressed to care. Take a pill, cut yourself, the past is over, but you don't know that. Like a train off the rails, you only know acceleration.
5. Listening for themes - in my survivor's group I begin to hear themes. The telling theme is: shock, fear, memory and paralysis. What is the meaning of life without the only person who ever cared? How can I come back to meaning? The first job is to surrender to the process. It is possible that only these people can understand. The client's whole demeanor changes once she realizes she is not alone. Of course this is true of ALL groups. We are fundamentally a species wired for connection.
6. Trauma/PTSD - You don't know the past from present - van der Kolk shows slides of MRIs of the frontal lobes of traumatized patients which highlight there is NOTHING lighting up. NADA. In other words, there is scientific proof that the part of the brain supposed to help us with higher level functions is gone! It's like trying climb Mt. Everest without oxygen! BY DEFINITION, you cannot utilize the very thing that's needed to survive. You split from your true self. Even Prince Harry said, I don't recall what happened. It's a zombie existence.
7. Hopelessness - the other thing that older members tell newer group members is that there can be hope. I told it to a client yesterday. She thought her life was over at 35 because she was not able to continue a pregnancy. I tell her there is hope (I should know). And yet, she cannot hear me. She is not fully back online yet. The therapy will be SLOW. Please remember this. If it took a whole lifetime to submit to the suffering, it will take some patience to release it. You did what you could. Emotions bubble up to the surface that have long been suppressed.
8. Self-care for therapists - some therapists say it's BS. Blaming ourselves for the failures of our institutions to help veterans, victims of gun violence and societal ills, and those that help them instead of laying the problem at the feet of the society that continues to stigmatize. I never made any money until the pandemic. It would be nice if we could acknowledge that the helpers need help too. We also need health insurance!! As an independent contractor, I don't need a manicure, I need a doctor!
9. History happens - van der Kolk says besides the lateness of the DSM-v to the arena of trauma, we have seen throughout history the devastation of PTSD. How about we start with the crusades!! As a Jew, I can tell you, we have been running our whole lives. It's no wonder we are anxious people! So when we see whole swaths of children who are crouching in the position of a wounded animal we should not be surprised that this is a natural response to terror, annihilation, shame.
10. Gun control - if it's the last thing I do with my passions it will be to somehow advocate more for gun control. Half the people in my group would still have partners/children/friends if it weren't for one bad decision and a gun. If only we could find a way to institute common sense measures. It's not that shocking!, as my softball coach used to say about catching the ball. Other countries have done this incredibly well. We just need a will and a way.