I don’t want to talk about 9/11. Not here, not now. Sometimes intense emotional experiences are so private, so personal, and when people around us launch into their own personal narrative of how it unfolded for them, it flavors it for us. And that is not what I want to do. It is not fair to you.
There is something pure about trauma for each of us.
I talk a lot in this blog about post traumatic stress and cancer because it is real. I know this personally and because I have spent years working as a trauma therapist. It never ceases to amaze me how vast and wide, how deep and burrowing trauma can be; the many ways it shows up in people’s lives. How even years later, tiny triggers, indeed the most innocuous of things, can launch the re-experience of the trauma.
With each person I work with, it is like putting a magnifying glass to a fingerprint; exploring the intricacies of the imprint left behind, its unique complexion, nooks and crannies, and singular nuances. Healing comes not so much in knowing what happened to a person, but in knowing how they experienced it, how they incorporated it emotionally, how it was recorded in their brain. Two people in the same room for the same terrifying event will forever experience the trauma a different way, causing significant lifelong issues for one, yet be but a glancing blow to another. Some prints are invisible to the naked eye, and some are clear and defined.
Trauma, our experience of trauma, is so personal, it is like a fingerprint. A fingerprint on our psyche.
Big experiences like rape, and war, and plane crashes are not the only things that traumatize us. The emotional devastation of intangible events, like divorce and cancer, and domestic violence also have the power to haunt us for years. Anything, anything, where we have lost control either physically or emotionally and have felt very afraid, very vulnerable is trauma. Anything where things don’t fit with the world we know, where things unfold in an unanticipated and erratic way, is trauma. Anything that has made us feel that we are in a place where our self of selves is threatened, that our future and all its hopes and dreams are threatened, and that there is nothing, nothing, we can do about it; that is trauma.
I avoid images of the towers. I don’t ever watch videotapes of my mom. At work, unless I have to I don’t look at pictures of abused kids’ injuries. Visual images have an ability to trigger something deep inside of me, to re-saturate me in a new way with the experience. Adding a new ingredient and stirring it emotionally.
My daughter wanted to watch a show on TV about 9/11. I thought I would try to watch it with her, to help her understand what happened. Just seconds into the program, a camera angle, one that I had never seen before of the tower being hit, was shown. Tears and terror and all of the internal turmoil came spewing up in me, out of nowhere. I fled. The new image has haunted me since.
A friend who had been through a very difficult divorce several years ago had to return to court recently to arbitrate something about it. He said, “I can’t believe what it felt like going back to the attorney’s office, into all that again, it started the emotion up all over again.” “It pulls the scab off,” I said. “It wasn’t just pulling the scab off,” he said, “It was sticking a knife in it and twisting it around.”
“Is that normal?” he asked.
In Baltimore this summer, every time I looked at the Bromo Seltzer Clock Tower I felt sick. It was how, from a hospital room view almost 20 years ago I measured the hours, and counted the minutes down until my mom passed. It was how I counted the long minutes after my dad’s bypass surgery, thanking god for every minute that ticked by and he was struggling but making it.
One night, while driving home alone in the country, a friend came across a naked girl sitting in the middle of the road. The girl was bleeding and high on drugs and was screaming and screaming and ambulances and rescue came. My friend said she was afraid of the dark for a very long time.
Over the last months, a co-worker and I talked endlessly about the details in a case where an infant had died. Yet, as we closed the case after all those very clinical conversations, and she discussed how a sibling had expressed his sadness at his inability to help the baby, she began to cry. And I, across the table from her, began to cry. The sibling’s words, a tiny fingerprint on our psyche, an imprint echoing ours of our sadness at our inability to help, to change things.
Our brain doesn’t always let us get away with ignoring trauma.
Triggers set it wild again, setting off terror and anxiety off like sparking a wildfire.
We all have internal recorders running in our heads and hearts. We aren’t conscious of the million little details that our brain has carefully scribed in an event; things that we don’t even recall, things we would swear never happened. Smells and sounds and tiny elements, such as a temperature shift in the room, the smell of a perfume, or the sensation of heat on our skin. But our brain knows. Our psyche will forever recognize and respond to these things, the triggers, the reminders, without us even being aware what is happening. Our brain sees something, or feels something, or smells something that is reminiscent and our hardwire says, “This is familiar.” And then automatically, a panic-like visceral response follows the seemingly silent alarm that our brain heard. And we stand there wondering, “What was that? Is that normal?”
Something as obvious as an image on TV, or a Bromo Seltzer clock or a gunshot can trigger it. Sometimes, the “familiar thing” is a bit more subtle, more stealth and whispy. Sitting in divorce court, stepping up for breast compression, the faint smell of alcohol on someone’s breath, the loss of another relationship, yelling, lateness, the wind, or the smell of band aids; our brain assesses the fingerprint to be an exact match to the old one, it sets it wild again.
And then, an instant replay of the reaction from so many years ago; the panic, the sleepless nights, the inability to focus or eat, the shakes. Our brain records these things that trigger us, whether we consciously remember them or not, and pairs them seamlessly with the terror and anxiety it recorded as well.
The most inconsequential can sometimes be of the most consequence to our mental health.
It feels familiar because it is.
When I see kids and they are having trouble figuring all this out, I ask them, “If your cat could talk, what would she say she saw happen or heard?” Perspective shines a flashlight into a corner of our psyche, and helps us remember a detail, a detail that triggers us. But only if we are ready.
I’d imagine a cat somewhere saw the plane hit at that angle. One child’s cat saw chinese food on the table. It explained a lot.
For me, the worst part of trauma is the loss of control; that something terrifying is happening to you and you have no power to change it or stop it. That is why domestic violence is so traumatizing for little kids to witness, because the grownups who are supposed to be in control and in charge aren’t; the grownup who they rely on for their security and safety is not safe, and is unable to protect them. And that is a scary. Core scary.
With cancer treatment, there are a million traumas over a long period of time. An astronomical loss of control; an exponential number of small silent terrors.
My story of cancer is not your story, what my cat saw is not what your cat saw; my fingerprint is so very unique, so very different from yours.
But all the same, it is indeed terrifying when the grownup who is in charge loses control; when we are vulnerable, and threatened with losing all that we know about ourselves and our future, and we can no longer protect and keep our selves safe.
And yes, that is normal.
Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence.
Sound of Silence ~Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel
Buzz: Sheriff, this is no time to panic.
Woody: This is a perfect time to panic! I’m lost, Andy is gone, they’re gonna move to their new house in two days, AND IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT!
Buzz: Mine? My fault? If you hadn’t pushed me out of the window in the first place…
Woody: Oh yeah? Well, if you hadn’t shown up with your stupid little cardboard spaceship and taken away everything that was important to me…
Buzz: Don’t talk to me about importance! Because of you, the future of this entire universe is in jeopardy!