Saturday, July 30, 2011

Help for identifying our individual responses to trauma

It is an intriguing question. Why, given a vast traumatizing event – such as hurricane Katrina – will some meet the criteria afterward for PTSD and others, not. The intensity varies, but the question stands.

One possibility lies in genetic codes, still to be identified fully. Another variable is the social and psychological history of the individual. Out of my own reflections, I would like to suggest that the history of the individual shapes the way in which the person responds to trauma. We need to consider pre and post life style for clues.

The trauma for me occurred at Boy Scout camp. We loved to explore some lime stone caves. One afternoon I was crawling towards daylight when a rattlesnake went off in the dark right at the left side of my face. I froze. After an eternity, I raised a finger; the warning erupted. After two eternities I raised a finger, nothing. I got out of there. The following afternoon I was back, saw a snake, threw a rock – and thought no more about it. Until. I was researching symptoms of PTSD a few years ago and one night I woke up seeing that snake. He wasn’t in the dark this time, and he wouldn’t go away. Sixty some odd years is no record for the breakdown of denial, but it will do. I worked at it for months, and the image receded. I don’t see him now, but he is there if I let myself think about it, just a tiny, unthreatening face, but still there in the upper corner of my left eye. 

The story begins, as I retrospect it now, with my birth trauma. It was the coldest night anyone could remember, and the birth was difficult. In the frenzy to save my mother I was left alone. I was turning blue when my grandmother discovered me.

In early middle age I was experimenting with a radical massage therapy called Rolfing. It was a period of high stress for me. In the series I discovered that first my feet got cold, and the cold then crept up my legs. I was re-experiencing that birth trauma.

When my mother came to live with us, she told a lot of stories. One was when I was about two or three. A friend of my mother would bring over her daughter; she always took my toys away from me. One afternoon I picked up a wooden play hammer and hit her in the head. The mother laughed, “I wondered how long he was going to put up with that!” It was to be a life style. I habitually under responded to a critical event. Belatedly, I was apt to over respond.

When I faced that rattlesnake I responded true to form: it saved my life. Over the years, in a couple of instances, the instinct to play it cool was life saving, too. In other instances, terrible results: I did not do conflict management at all well.This leads me to speculate whether what we see as an illustration of PTSD does not reflect the life style, that healing lies in the direction of recognizing that life style – its positive, as well as negative effects – and committing ourselves to the process of growth.The hobbling and the stumbling? Just part of the journey.

Insight is not the beginning and end of getting healthy, but it surely does help in the middle.

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