I just visited with a teacher friend who was telling me about his adamant opposition the the ad-hoc trauma counseling the public schools are asking teachers to perform on their at-risk students.
“First we have to sit in a big circle,” he tells me.
“Stop. No no no no sir. Not a circle. There is no safe place in a circle of peers.” I say.
Trauma is the flavor of the DSM V. Who isn’t talking about trauma? We’re all a bunch of traumatized zombies walking around, unstoppable force, inflicting and receiving trauma. Unable to zombie stumble ourselves into an effective treatment for our trauma on trauma on trauma.
Maybe trauma is the flavor of the century. This thing that was never really a thing in centuries past. Before, it was as inherent to living as breathing. Unremarkable. It starts to make itself known in the Western World after the great wars. Life settles, the middle class thrives, and a coherent nuclear family of two heterosexual parents and 2.5 kids emerges. Vaccines keep children from dying, sterile technique and antibiotics extend the lives of their parents. Union strength brings forth OSHA and safer workplaces, risky agricultural labor is given to 6-lane-highway sized air-conditioned combines, and the quagmire land wars in Asia make conscription a political nuh uh. The twentieth century American person is now safe. Safe enough for a man to concern himself with the perilous moments he has lived through. And now we live in enough comfort to reflect ourselves awake all night.
I’m flashing back to my greatest lesson in trauma. One I’ve written about before. Part of the advantage of having experienced the bulk of traumatic life events in short sequence as a full grown adult is your ability to remember them. Half of me records the events and their aftermath, the other experiences them. I’ll tell you my two big takeaways when it comes to managing life’s garbage:
- Trauma is not concrete. It is a thing perceived. You can live through an act of terror, loss of a loved one, life-threatening diagnosis, and come out the other side a well-adjusted and intact human. Maybe even more grateful, more god loving, closer to family, any positive thing. But like a kid with a skinned knee who doesn’t know to cry until he sees the panic on his mother’s face, being forced to re-tell your story to “debrief” or in crisis counseling may be the point at which you recast yourself in the role of traumatized person and become a victim to it. If people are fine, just let them be fine.
- People are excellent copers. Never take away a person’s coping mechanisms without their consent and a thought through plan to replace it. Clinically we categorize coping as either positive or negative. Positive: seeks assistance of family. Keeps journal. Exercises. Negative: Abuses drugs and alcohol. Isolates. Overindulges in TV. Doesn’t eat/eats too much. In real life, it’s usually a mixed bag. But either way–negative coping may be superior to no coping. No coping mechanisms threaten a victim’s survival.
The constellation of coping mechanisms put together by each person is unique. If they are maintaining a functional life, I think of their elements of coping as precariously balanced weights on branching wire arms, like a Calder mobile. Remove one element and you’ll destroy the whole delicately strung installation. Clinically, we’d call this decompensation.
My greatest public decompensation occurred in a literal circle of my closest friends at a mandatory mindfulness retreat in the very posh renovated barn/private events space owned by my prestigious southern university. For me, coping is dependent upon keeping my brain engaged in obsessive, hyper-vigilant work on 2-7 jobs or projects at a time. I also use humor and self-deprecation to be able to maintain a detachment from myself and others. (I’m a criterion D and E girl). The closer I am to my fear of dying, which is not lost on me as poetic and appropriate for a nurse, the harder I go into being a straight A student. I can box out the reliving of various death-sentences I’ve been handed by focusing on the esoteric, the academic, the political, the theoretical. Also, avoiding eye contact is key. Making eye contact is lethal. It is hard to deny your physical existence when you are eye to eye.
So the day of this retreat, waiting on a cancer diagnosis, knowing my marriage was caputskies, worrying about where the money for food would come from that week, the last thing I wanted to do was slow down. The last place I wanted to be was present in my mind.
I was barely through the authentic antique barn doors when I caught a picture of a patron of our University. Her bleached smile and tailored skirt-suit. The pearls. The goddamn real towel hand towel on the vanity beside the photo. The meditative music on the Bose surround. I decompensated. I started crying and kept it up all through silent yoga (drip, drip, drip, sniffle, mournful moan) slipping and sliding through my tear puddle on the rubbery mat. I stifled wails with the real towel hand towels in the bathroom. My psych prof asked me the mandatory question, “are you thinking about harming yourself.”
It took may face two days to return to baseline puffy.
Another salient point from my visiting teacher friend. One he got from a biology teacher in grade school: Species don’t occur in nature. Individuals do. I love a botanical metaphor so let’s work this one. What he was trying to impart, that I in my thirties and my friend a decade older are just now beginning to grasp, is that no individual tree or frog or dog meets all the criteria set for them in the key used to decode what species you is. They’re missing a whorl, they have additional spots, their eyes are too prominent. The the designation of species is arbitrary. The tree’s leaves curl under not over. It’s not wrong until you tell it so. We create a holotype to further our own scientific pursuits, which are noble and even useful at a population level, but the human experience can rarely be perfectly described by a text. Not even the DSM.
This failing to see the individual for the species problem is what makes the mandatory part of trauma counseling so worrisome. There are people in this world who do great work reading a person and healing them without the assistance of a marketed standardized trauma scoring system and matching intervention workbook. I’ve seen priests do it. I’ve seen wives do it for husbands, husbands for wives. Friends for each other. Parents and children. Strangers you meet on a train. Books. Poems. Singing.
The hubris to think you can heal trauma with a tool approved by science is so beautifully American. Intention so good, execution a mess, outcome pretty sad. Please give people the chance to manage themselves. Seek only to change behaviors that harm self or others. Never ask for a change without a replacement coping strategy. Move slow.
And never, ever make people sit in a circle.