What do you think of when you think of trauma? I work in a hospital, so I often think of things like massive car accidents or industrial accidents…things that bring people into a trauma center. Because of my interest in behavioral health, I also think of things that cause PTSD, which we most often thought of as being experienced by veterans of combat or survivors of extreme violence.
Trauma affects all of us, however. An example that my therapist used just last night was this one: Try to remember what you ate for breakfast on Friday. Anything? Any ideas? I don’t mean those of you who eat the same meal every day…I have a coworker who eats Cheerios and a banana everyday, so this would not be the right question for her. But there are other questions that work the same way. What shoes were you wearing last Tuesday? Did it rain three weeks ago on Thursday? The point is that it is hard to remember these things. They don’t tend to stick with you. Now, try to remember where you were when you found out JFK had been shot, or that the Challenger had exploded upon takeoff, or that America was under attack on 9/11. Or when you found out your beloved grandfather had died. Or that your spouse had an affair. Or that a parent had cancer. Or that your friend had died in a fire. Those memories are indelible. They will remain with you because they were processed through the emotional center of your brain and will continue to be retrievable throughout the rest of your life.
So it turns out trauma is more than what you find in patients in the emergency department. Seemingly small things can affect people in different ways. For some people, their lives are affected by one massive trauma, like surviving a plane crash or being in an abusive relationship. But some people have a series of smaller, more subtle, less obvious experiences that add up to a similar reaction.
When I first learned about this, I was deep in the shame that comes from eating too much and shopping too much and assuming that I did these things because I was lacking in willpower. And when this whole trauma thing was related to me (I don’t have a “big event” that ever made me consider the role of trauma in my life, although many of those examples I used above are my own), it was hard to swallow because those of us who do these things to excess have learned to blame ourselves for being weak. I eat too much because I can’t control myself. I shop too much because I am a shopaholic. It’s because of something I am doing wrong, so don’t try to be kind to me and help explain it away for me. That might not let me blame myself anymore. What would that be like?
If you have ever dieted and then “fallen off the wagon” or set a budget and then been unable to stick to it, you might have an inkling of what I am talking about. It feels like failure, and it is accompanied by plenty of negative self-talk and self-blame. But consider, for a moment, that it is not your “fault.” What would that look like? Would it be harder or easier to bear? How would things change?
What would it feel like if things were to REALLY change?
I have followed the plight of Syrian refugees because their story has captured me. I can’t imagine being in a position where the thought of placing my entire family, including small children, into a raft or makeshift boat and setting off across the Mediterranean with no real guarantee we will make it to the other side, seemed like a better choice than staying in my homeland. What could I be fleeing that would be so unbearable that it would make that seem like my only option? The image of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who washed up on the shore in Turkey when his family was trying to find their way to safety in Greece is burned into my memory. He is just one of the children that have become victims of the current refugee crisis…one of the millions of displaced people. And we have a presidential candidate who has compared these people to poisoned Skittles, suggesting that we should help none of them because there might be a couple of bad ones in the bunch. The trauma that these people are enduring will follow them for the rest of their lives. They will feel these effects forever. What small things can we do to offer help?
Remember how this country was made great. Don’t let hate inform your actions. Don’t let fear overrule basic humanity. Maya Angelou said:
“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
Now that we know better, it is time to do better.