In my new day job, I work tangentially with people in drug and alcohol recovery. I say “tangentially” because I do marketing and am not a therapist, but being around it starts to seep in. Most of us have either had some sort of trauma or have known someone close to us who has an addiction problem. One thing about trauma is that once you start to see it or recognize it in other people you begin to see it in yourself. Looking through the lens of trauma puts your own in focus. Most people have trauma – it is very hard to get through your life without an accident, bullying, the loss of a loved one, or psychological abuse. Trauma is part of the human experience, and only recently have I begun to give it the respect it deserves. Trauma is a worthy opponent for anyone who is leading the well-considered life. On television I was watching The Keepers, a 7 part series on Netflix about murder and abuse at a Catholic school in Baltimore and it hit close to the bone. I went to Catholic school in the same Milwaukee Archdiocese as the large-scale sexual abuse scandals that have been covered by journalists. While I was not involved in any abuse, it is amazing how triggering it is for me to watch.
Likewise, with every large-scale shooting I think of the one that happened on my college campus, The University of Iowa in 1991. I was supposed to be in the building that Gang Lu, the perpetrator, was in at around the same time. Why my French class was in a science building I will never know. From that experience, award-winning essayist Jo Ann Beard wrote the essay, “The Fourth State of Matter” which was published in the New Yorker. It is widely considered one of the best personal essays ever written and knits together the delicate strands of everyday life that come apart with the trauma of violence.
Communicating With Trauma
Those are just two examples that come to mind, but what I want to focus on is the artistry of communicating that trauma. We become so easily jaded – another shooting, another cover up of abuse – how do we keep these events from being “normalized” or forgotten while victims, responders, families are continuing to heal? These questions come up for me personally when I sit at my job. I think of the social workers, psychologists, nurses and teachers that do the emotional work of society. In graduate school training to become an MFT (Marriage and Family Therapist) or MSW (Master of Social Work) they teach methods for how to not to gain “secondary” or “acquired” trauma. With our sped-up and hyper-communicative society, I wonder how many of us are being repeatedly traumatized (and thus made to feel useless) over the many images we see of human misery. This can lead to what is called “compassion fatigue” the feeling of powerlessness that comes from being exposed to the horrors of overseas wars, famine, local misery.
Stories Save Lives
There must be a middle road between “ignorance is bliss” and extreme cynicism. I am curious about where you find that balance and how you handle writing about the trauma you have experienced. Dealing with trauma in writing is a very intense dance. I listened recently to Roxane Gay talking about her new memoir, Hunger: a Memoir of (my) Body she states, “A secret starts out small sometimes, but then it gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and it becomes scarier and scarier to imagine ever sharing it with someone. So the longer I kept the secret to myself, the more dire the consequences became for me, or the more dire I perceived the consequences of revealing my secret became.” I read an article today about Patriots and Chiefs football player Ryan O’Callaghan coming out as gay and what that experience was like for him. He states that his plan was to hide his homosexuality with football, and then commit suicide when he quit playing. Only through the bravery of coming out was he able to consider a life for himself. That is heartbreaking, but I truly believe that by telling his story he will save other men’s lives.
Grief and Getting Snagged on a Trigger
We don’t have to write about the grief life has inflicted upon us, but I do think that telling your story is part of the path to freedom – whether it is from an actual event, or peace in our own minds. In graduate school my teacher had a packet called “triggertown.” It was about how memories snag you, like how something pulls on you and you cease gliding through life and have to stop and think for a moment. It can be a little earthquake or a tangled piece of thread – but there is something that leads you to ask why does this trigger me so much? The journey often begins with noting your dis-ease, and circling around it until it is ready to come out onto the page.