Given today is September 11th, and it is 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, I figured it is as good a day as any to blog about trauma. This post is not about 9/11. Or where I was or what I did or some romanticized version of my experiences or actions on this day in 2001. My personal experience is not very important here. But 9/11, as the overall events as a whole have come to be called, was for MANY, including me, a traumatic event. Given that, I think it will be helpful to discuss trauma and it’s effects in a context that many people can relate to.
What is Trauma, anyway?
There are a number of ways that various organizations define trauma. In this case, I am not referring to the physical sense of trauma like a wound or injury. But rather, the trauma I’m talking about is more of an emotional wound or injury.
Trauma: a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury; an emotional upset; an agent, force, or mechanism that causes traumaTrauma | Definition of Trauma by Merriam-Webster
Trauma: a deeply distressing or disturbing experienceTRAUMA English Definition and Meaning | Lexico.com (Oxford)
The very succinct, but inclusive definition from Lexico above captures it best in my opinion. The key being that trauma is “deeply” distressing or disturbing. So, getting pickles on your hamburger when you asked for no pickles is not a traumatic event. But terrorists taking over commercial airliners to crash them into buildings most definitely is. Those events created a massive amount of distress, even for people like me who were very far removed from the events and had no particular personal connection to anyone involved. I’m confident that a lot of you out there who would say the same.
The 9/11 attacks are a great example of a point in time trauma. An event. A “flash-in-the-pan” if you will. This is similar to an assault, a car crash, or some other moment that happens relatively quickly, but then has lingering effects on you. Let’s call this BANG Trauma.
Some trauma takes place over a course of time and is more environmental, but still has the nature of being deeply distressing or disturbing. A great example of this would be the COVID-19 global pandemic. While this may encompass individual BANG Trauma events for people, like the loss of a loved one, getting laid off from your job, or some imbecile trying to give you horse medicine (WTF?), it also created an environment that was quite distressing over many months and is still going. Let’s call this WOOSH Trauma.
Honor Thy Mother and Father
It is pretty common that the impact our parents have on us is not all positive. Whether through their actions or inactions, their words or their silences, their presence or absence, we’re all going to have some shit to deal with that traces back to Mom and/or Dad.
The majority of my trauma comes from my parents. This is not uncommon. The cliché of going to a psychiatrist or therapist to “talk about your mother” is alive in well in popular culture, movies, TV, etc. But it got to be a cliché for a reason. Our parents can have an incredible impact on us. In fact, I would argue, that having an incredible impact on us is their job. Just like it is my job to have an incredible impact on my children. It’s just that this impact isn’t always positive.
My mom, Florence, suffered from Bipolar Disorder back when it was referred to as Manic Depression. People who live with this can have their mood swing profoundly between deep depression and the more high-energy, excited “manic” state. My mom had a pretty hard go of it with a husband who didn’t necessarily understand or support her, but was quite willing to put her in the hospital when it became too hard to “manage” her. Sometimes, during these manic periods, she would decided to stop taking her medication (lithium) because she didn’t want to go back to that more subdued state that the Lithium help put her in.
These experiences, in which my mom’s showing emotion tended to land her in the hospital, laid the foundation for the wall I ended up erecting between me and my own emotions. Except anger, that is. More on that in a future post.
When I was in my early to mid teens, I don’t recall specifically, my mom had a major manic episode in and around accidentally inhaling some chemicals at work. Looking back, that was around the time we lost Florence. I lost my mom. In her stead, we got Flo who took over Florence’s body. Unlike Florence, Flo was a woman who gave no fucks and was irreverent and sometimes really fun and funny.
At this time, my dad was not living with us (BANG and WOOSH; more on this in a later post, perhaps). My older brothers (Gerry and Ray) were long out of the house, Gerry in Minnesota and Ray in Massachusetts. So, it was just Flo and me. We had lost the house I grew up in to foreclosure (BANG and some WOOSH) and were living in an Section 8 (low income rental assistance) apartment as Flo was no longer able to work.
BANGs and WOOSHes Galore
Flo had her good side. We made a game of finding new and creative ways to give each other the middle finger, which was often pretty funny. The first time one of my friends saw me give my mother the finger, they were shocked, “Did you seriously just flip off your mom?!” “Of course,” I said. “Why didn’t you?” From that point on my friends were in on the game, too.
But, Flo wasn’t always fun. Sometimes, she would decide to “cope” with her own pain by causing pain for others. Not in a physical sense. But in terms of manipulation or “causing a scene” or getting someone else to have to drop everything they wanted to do to deal with Flo. Since it was just me and Flo, the most common target for this was me (plenty of BANG and WOOSH and more WOOSH).
How Do You DO This?
My oldest brother, Gerry, and I were pall bearers for my paternal grandmother’s funeral. We needed to go a bit early. The plan was for my other brother, Ray, to bring Flo and meet us there. They never showed up. When Gerry and I got back to the apartment after the funeral, Ray was huddled in a corner in utter anguish (BANG). Flo was sitting at the kitchen table with an air of profound satisfaction at what she had been able to do (BANG and some WOOSH). She had taken this man who was fun and funny and always had a smile or a joke or a positive thing to say and turned him into a pile of goo. She had broken her son. And she LOVED it. (BANG much?)
As soon as he saw me, Ray just asked, “How do you DO this?” I didn’t have an answer for him at the time. One possibility can be found in A Bully and a Hero: Depression and My Paladin » Can’t Juggle (cantjuggle.com). Flo was able to wreck Ray in a few hours. The fact that I spent years as her only target and am still here is pretty miraculous. Please understand that this is not about Ray being weak. He is one of the strongest people I have ever met. Nor is it about me being some sort of exceptional person. I’m really not.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)
EMDR is a psychotherapy treatment for trauma-related disorders like PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). In times of great stress or danger, our Amygdala, which controls our Fight/Flight/Freeze processing in our brains, can activate our OH SHIT! system. When that happens, our logical processing centers of the brain get shut out. A traumatic event which triggers this OH SHIT! system can cause our Amygdala to ring the OH SHIT! bell whenever it perceives a situation to be like the original event. For example, combat veterans suffering from PTSD can have their OH SHIT! processing triggered by a loud noise that has nothing to do with combat.
During the Fight/Flight/Freeze process, our body chemistry is altered to enable us to have the burst of energy we need to survive a deadly situation. After that burst, we can get super fatigued as that burst of energy comes at a cost. Having our OH SHIT! system activate a lot means we get that burst of energy a lot which means we have to pay that cost a lot. It’s brutally draining.
The goal of EMDR is to try to get our Amygdala to form a new pathway in place of the OH SHIT! one in response to events it perceives as similar to the original trauma. That is the Reprocessing. It is trying to train your brain to stop triggering the Fight/Flight/Freeze response in mundane situations where we really don’t need our OH SHIT! system activated.
To start the process, I spent several sessions with my therapist, Ashley, taking an inventory of the trauma I could remember and identify. Yes. It took several sessions to get through it all. We then worked to identify a theme, a feeling that formed the core experience with each BANG and WOOSH. I landed on “I’m trapped.” That is the one sentiment that fit perfectly in all the BANGs and all the WOOSHes. So much of my trauma involved events or situations in which I felt like I had no way out. I had no way to win. I just kept finding myself taking the fucking Kobayashi Maru test. Over and over.
Starfleet Academy’s Kobayashi Maru Test
The Kobayashi Maru Test first appeared in the 1982 film Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan. It also features in the 2009 reboot film, Star Trek. The test involves a distress signal from a civilian ship, the Kobayashi Maru, that has become stranded in the Neutral Zone, a region of space between the Klingon Empire and the United Federation of Planets. Starfleet cadets taking the test must choose whether to help rescue the Kobayashi Maru, and risk major diplomatic incident and attack by Klingons, or leave the civilian ship, and its crew, to fairly certain destruction. Any cadets that attempt rescue end up facing a battle with Klingons that is designed to be completely unwinnable. Starfleet uses this test to measure the character of cadets and assess how they will function in the highly stressful environment of a “no-win scenario.”
The goal with my course of EMDR was to reprocess these I’m Trapped situations into something more positive. Something that would not trigger my OH SHIT! system. Ray’s question, “How do you DO this?” inspired the more positive theme: “I’m strong.” We then had our course of action for my EMDR. We would reprocess “I’m Trapped” into “I’m Strong” and I’d be good to go. Simple. (sigh)
Physically, the process can involve actually moving your gaze side while doing this emotional work (hence the “Eye Movement” part). But that made me dizzy AF. So, we used little hand-held fobs that gently vibrate on and off and in alternating pattern.
Oh my god, you guys. EMDR is the most grueling thing I have ever done. By a lot. It is such hard, draining work to jump back into trauma (on purpose) with both feet in order build a new path out of it and make your brain choose this new path over the familiar one. I was on medical leave at the time and I can’t see how I could have worked and done EMDR at the same time. There’s just no way. Each one-hour session took 3-4 days to recover from. I was very fortunate to have a friend that would drive me to and from these appointments. Thank you, Megan.
While the “during” for EMDR suuuuuuuuucked, I have to say that the results, at least for me, were MAGICAL. I can’t promise the same for anyone else. Mental health, in general, doesn’t work that way. But this childhood trauma I had been carrying around my whole life got so much easier to carry, thanks to EMDR.
To Boldly Go…
James T Kirk is fabled to be the only Starfleet cadet ever to beat the Kobayashi Maru test. He did so by changing the simulation to make it possible to both rescue the Kobayashi Maru crew and defeat the Klingon attack. Kirk took an unwinnable situation and reprocessed it into a win. But he needed to cheat to do it.
Trauma can seem like a no-win scenario. It can seem like we are trapped. That there’s no way out. But there can be. It can take work, to be sure. But it can be done. I’ve done it. And I didn’t cheat once. Take that, Jim.