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A Priceless Souvenir

Last week, I had the privilege to attend the Navy SEAL graduation ceremonies at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado in San Diego, California.  It was one of the high points of my life.  At the invitation of Admiral Ray Smith, USN Retired, former SEAL commander, I witnessed a momentous rite of passage for some of our country’s future heroes.  The event was marked, for me, by the personal connections I observed between the commanding officers and the newest members of this great branch of America’s military.  It was at this heart-felt occasion that I picked up the most valuable souvenir of my trip—something which required exactly no room in my luggage to be able to bring home with me.

Commander Jay Hennessey, USN, was one of many outstanding speakers at the graduation.  He spoke of courage and determination in the face of difficulties, a topic I will return to frequently in the near future.  He used a phrase which struck me and stayed with me, and I want to share it with you.  His phrase, which was my valuable souvenir, went like this:

“Adversity introduces a man to himself.”

How profound.  In six words, Cdr. Hennessey distilled an essential fact about trauma, hardship, resilience, and reinvention—other topics I will also be returning to—in language that cuts to the core of what I believe to be the common experience in our culture today.  I call this common experience “hidden trauma”.

What is hidden trauma?  Funny you should ask.  I’ve just written a book about it.  It was another red-letter day in my life, March 28, 2013, when my long-awaited, long-toiled-over book, Trauma: Healing the Hidden Epidemic, was published.  My goal in writing Trauma was two-fold: to distill and share my over forty years of clinical experience helping people resolve emotional and physical pain and trauma; and to expose the kind of trauma so many people are experiencing now but which isn’t on the media “radar”.

Most of us are conscious of the kind of trauma that makes headlines.  Terrorist attacks, bombings, battles and IED explosions, car accidents, sudden heart attacks, earthquakes or building collapses.  There have been too many tragic events such as these in the news lately.  Hidden trauma is just as real, can be just as devastating, but usually evades notice by all but some of the more observant helping professionals in the field.

A big source of hidden trauma is the economy.  How long ago did our recession hit?  Are we still in it?  We can debate these details endlessly, and experts do so, but one thing is completely clear to me.  People are still suffering significantly from our recent economic downturn.  Unemployment and underemployment, bankruptcy, foreclosure, tight budgets and reduced circumstances are still rampant in the lives of the people in my practice.

Constant financial stress has placed further strain on relationships between couples, between parents and children, and between coworkers.  Individuals under stress are reacting negatively by either being self-destructive (indulging in risky behavior, substance abuse, or suicide) or by being hurtful and endangering to other members of their families or communities.

I want to draw attention to these pervasive, pernicious issues.  However, most sincerely, I also want to give hope.  I am firmly convinced that we can have hope in these difficult times.  I know this, not because I read it in a book somewhere, but because I’ve lived it.  My story illustrates the need for continual reinvention in the face of adversity.  Maybe I would have preferred an easier life, but I doubt it, and that’s not what life had in store for me.  I included parts of my personal story in Trauma to illustrate that I know personally, as well as professionally, what I’m talking about.  I have hope.  My story, and the stories of my patients, can inspire you.  If you are experiencing difficulties right now, even crises in your life, you can have hope.

Adversity introduces men, and women, to themselves. More on that next time.