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Trauma is Not a Steady State

A while ago I was in a serious car accident, saved by the Hand of God … and seat belts. ln the aftermath I’ve been traumatized along the lines talked about in the literature and our training program. Yet it’s become clear to me that I’ve previously misread the literature as if “trauma” is a single state in and of itself. Now I see it differently. Here are some notes “from the inside” that may be relevant to your work with traumatized congregants:

1. My memory can encode what happened just before and after, but the accident itself is a cacophony of sensations, sounds, and g-forces, not encodable in the usual way, therefore not exactly recallable, leaving the strange sensation that the most dangerous part can’t be mentally processed or “dealt with.”

2. Gratitude for surviving and the horror of the event itself are intertwined, creating a strangely “split” mental state that is neither one nor the other.

3. As important as it is to keep reminding myself that the accident is over, relegated to the past, this does not stop the involuntary eruption of anxiety spikes over otherwise innocuous moments. A glitch in the TV reception, a letter with an unfamiliar return address, or a cell phone ringing on the street all prompt a sense of “Uh-oh, this could be the start of something … ” Knowing it’s not true doesn’t stop the emotional spike.

4. Ordinary paranoia (the sense we all live with from time to time that external events mirror, explain, or are caused by our internal emotions) does not exactly turn into pathological paranoia, but the constant need to keep reminding one’s self that internal distress does not mean that external events are going wrong-well, this becomes very tiring.

5. It’s been helpful to focus on daily life and avoid deliberately going back to the event unless it comes back of its own accord. Yet ordinary concentration comes and goes, often in 10 minute intervals, creating a slew of minor errors along the way, like finding the electric bill in the refrigerator. It makes me feel not just traumatized but stupid (and embarrassed), just when police forms must be filled out and insurance companies are taping statements that are supposed to be clear and explicit.

6. Even a few days of being out of the loop (as when keeping medical appointments) means that tasks in the rest of ordinary life pile up, interfering with time for the sort of reflection and closeness that could enhance relaxation and stability.

7. The concerns of family and friends are welcome, yet keeping everyone informed piles up like another task that becomes work.

8. As important as it is to pursue self-care, including personal time off or personal pleasures, the mind can’t be sure what will help or hurt. Sitting down at a favorite restaurant seems like a good idea until someone drops a tray and the sound of breaking glass recreates the edgy sense of being trapped all over again.

9. Emotions come and go, as is to be expected. What’s unexpected is the difficulty of bringing stable meanings to feelings that aren’t stable in the first place. Thoughts that make sense one moment (“I’m lucky to be alive”) make no sense the next moment (“Talk about bad luck!”).

10. The feeling that God is active in all this is accompanied by a heightened sense of the puzzle we all wrestle with throughout life: God’s voice is a “still small voice,” requiring indeterminate time and struggle to understand.

I hope I’ve illustrated how being “traumatized” is not a single thing or a single state. It’s a mixed bag of fluctuating feelings and thoughts, fluctuations that don’t allow one to feel like one’s self or act like one’s self for more than 10 minutes at a time. Perhaps the only common denominator is this sense of “not being one’s self,” the constant shifting. Obviously this reaffirms the impossibility of any counselor’S knowing in advance the. “correct” thing to say. It reaffirms the importance of listening, since mental states may flip-flop in 10 minutes. Whether a counselor is commiserating or being encouraging, both fall flat if they are offered as formulaic responses that are out of sync, even 10 minutes out of sync. As the patient, I can tell right away whether someone is with me in my transitory feelings or just trying to find the correct thing to say. The former truly helps, the latter makes work for us both. And it was ever thus.