Tagged ‘trauma‘

Corvette Crash Course, Lap 2

Last week, I shared with you one of the most devastating traumatic events to happen to me in a long time.  On a summer evening two years ago, my wife Lynn almost died while I was virtually helpless to do anything about it.  The incredible men and women of the Two Rock Fire Department saved Lynn that night, she recovered very quickly, and my partner in love and life was restored to me.

I want to continue to share things I’ve learned in the aftermath of trauma.  Two weeks ago, following my post on an accident in which I totaled my Corvette, I mentioned five lessons I’ve been reminded of at somewhat great cost.  They are:

  • I am not in control.
  • I forget too quickly what’s really important.
  • “The Tortoise and the Hare” is not just for kids.
  • If I “know pain”, I can “know gain”.
  • I am human and mortal.

Today I want to add five more lessons from Lynn’s traumatic emergency episode:

1.  Life is fragile.

It was clear to me, as Lynn lay unconscious in my arms, that it could all be over, that she might be taken to heaven and I would have to say goodbye to her.  In that potentially disastrous moment, I recognized again how truly fragile life is.  One moment we can be alive and have the people we love with us, and in the next moment they, or we, can be gone.

2.  We are all dependent.

I also was forcefully reminded of how dependent I am on Lynn.  I like to think of myself as a strong, capable, and independent person.  In many ways, I am.  But Lynn takes care of so many things for us, some of which I’m aware of, and some I’m not.  She works very hard at maintaining our home and managing our finances, which are important and complicated right now.  The day after she went to the emergency room, she was taking care of some business matters from her bed in the hospital.  I had no idea about all the things she was keeping track of and staying on top off for us financially.  I am very grateful that she is so purposeful and committed, as I am, to our life together.

3.  Our lives have rhythm.

This lesson is related to the lesson from “The Tortoise and the Hare” – we tend to try to live our lives too fast.  We tend to overshoot that core, basic rhythm that each of us has but may be unaware of.  When we’re moving fast all the time, we can stop being tuned in to the pace of life that works best for us.  It’s a pace that allows us to accomplish what really needs to get done, while still permitting us to take the time to make wise decisions, pay attention to and discern what’s really important, maintain our health, and sustain our treasured relationships.  A traumatic event can strip away all that fast-paced, driven quality that keeps us consumed with all the things we’re so worried about.  As we recover, we can regain the pace of life that restores our balance.

4.  It’s harder to watch.

When my Corvette skidded out of control on Springhill Road, I knew what was happening to me and how I felt in each frightening moment.  I could tell whether the injuries I was sustaining were major or minor.  Someone looking on could not have known that I was only suffering a bump on the head and a slight neck strain.  When Lynn passed out and collapsed into my arms, I had no idea what she was feeling or what was happening to her.  I had no way of knowing whether she was in pain, whether she was suffering a heart attack or stoke, whether irreparable damage was happening inside her or if she would be able to recover.  There’s a helplessness that accompanies watching trauma occur to someone else, particularly someone we love.  It’s not just that we may not be able to stop what’s happening, we also can’t always know the extent of the crisis.  This helps make the experiences of secondary victims of trauma – the observers – so potentially shocking, overwhelming, and intense.

5.  Surviving can mean dissociating.

Dissociating is the capacity to distance ourselves from present-moment events and feelings.  Our innate, built-in survival mechanisms include the ability to dissociate during highly dangerous and traumatic moments.  This concept is valuable to a real understanding of trauma and the process of healing from it, and so I want to devote my next post to a fuller explanation of this aspect of our human nature.

My hope is that these lessons learned from my traumatic experiences will help and inspire you to better navigate these hard times we’re in.  As I do with my all my patients, I want to reach out to you where you are hurting and in need.  I want to  let you know you’re not alone and you can have hope as you learn and apply some of these universal life lessons that I too have had to learn so painfully for myself.

Not in the Driver’s Seat

For the last two weeks I’ve written about a recent accident that left me slightly injured and totaled my Corvette.  I experienced trauma that day, with its classic symptoms and aftermath, and I’ve shared some of my thoughts and realizations following the event.

Now, in order to give you a fuller understanding of the experience of trauma, I want to share another, much more serious traumatic incident that took place in June of 2008.  That may sound like a long time ago, but my memories of that night remain overwhelmingly vivid.  On this occasion, I was not the primary victim of trauma – not the person directly experiencing the crisis.  I was what is called the “secondary victim” – the person who observes someone else’s suffering – and who is connected to them either as a professional first-responder, or as a loved one or bystander who may be reduced to watching helplessly as horrific events unfold.

Late on a Wednesday evening, after coming home from a business meeting, my wife, Lynn, and I were relaxing in front of the television.  Lynn got up to leave the room and then returned shortly after, stumbling and semi-conscious.  As I sprang up to catch her fall, she collapsed into my arms.

As with so many traumatic events, it all happened so quickly.  One moment Lynn was fine, the next moment everything was completely out of control and I could tell she was near death.  I was terrified.  There was nothing I could do except hold her and love her in what I thought could be her last minutes of life.  The intensity of fear I felt inside was like normal fear times a hundred.  The velocity and intensity of my emotions felt like an engine that was racing with absolutely explosive power.

In that moment, I felt the full, overwhelming impact of the trauma.  I went into “hyperalert”; I didn’t disassociate, I didn’t mentally go away or numb out.  I needed to get help.  I couldn’t do everything myself, couldn’t both hold her and get to a phone and call 911, all at the same time.  I shouted to my son, who made the phone call, and within three minutes some fabulous people arrived to save us.  These fire and EMT personnel saw us in that naked moment, in our most vulnerable state, with tremendous compassion.  They did a wonderful, sensitive, and professional job of stabilizing Lynn and getting her to the hospital.

I believe in miracles, because Lynn came back to me as quickly as she started to go.  She went through all the tests at Petaluma Valley Hospital’s emergency room and she was fine.  What happened was just one of those freak medical episodes.  She recovered quickly and I felt such intense relief and gratitude to have her alive and with me. To this day, Lynn and I are very close friends with the Two Rock volunteer fire department crew who came to our rescue and who told us how very touched they were by the love and commitment they saw Lynn and I share.

Lynn’s emergency was a much more significant trauma than my car accident.  There is really no comparison.  But I want to use both these experiences – one in which I suffered the trauma, and one where I could only look on helplessly – to share some of my understandings about primary and secondary trauma and its victims.  I have other lessons I want to share from this earlier, most frightening and intense crisis.  I’ll make some of these insights part of my next post.

Corvette Crash Course

On the morning of April 16th, I lost control of my Corvette on the back road into Petaluma.  I was only slightly hurt in the accident – a bump on the head, a small neck strain – but my car was totaled.  As I stepped out of the wreckage, I stepped into the state of shock and loss that follows in the aftermath of a traumatic experience.

Like the calm after a storm, the time after a crisis ushers in a time of reflection.  It’s a natural sorting-out time, when deeper awarenesses and awakenings can emerge.  After our world turns upside down, we have the opportunity to decide if we want to turn it right side up again in exactly the same way.  It’s a natural time for choices and changes, for new goals and directions.

But the aftermath of trauma doesn’t feel good.  As great an opportunity as crisis provides for positive change, it’s still uncomfortable and scary to tackle putting the pieces of your life back together again.  Some people respond to the challenge with paralysis.  Some are able to go into action.  I want to share with you some thoughts and realizations, some things I’ve learned and relearned, that have come to me in the wake of my recent accident.

1.  I am not in control.

I only like to think I am.  I like to assume that I can predict the outcome of my decisions and actions.  I will take this turn, call this person, say these words, sign this paper, write this check, and I believe that rationally certain things will follow.  I will take this quick trip into town in my Corvette and be back in time for my staff meeting.  I can fool myself into believing that what I expect to happen will happen.  Sometimes what I expect does happen.  But there are no guarantees.  Control is an illusion.

2.  I forget too quickly what’s really important

Like being alive.  The things that really matter are the things you can’t replace easily, or maybe even at all.  The so-called “simple things”, like people and relationships.  Like health and moments of joy.  I could grieve the loss of my Corvette, but what I really miss are the moments I spent driving it, the freedom I felt rounding curve after curve.  I need to remember that the exhilaration and aliveness I felt doesn’t depend on the car.  I can feel that way again without it.  I can feel a thrill in just being alive, being in love with my wife, and embracing the next challenge.

3.  “The Tortoise and the Hare” is not just for kids.

Remember the fable?  The hare quickly goes out in front, but the tortoise wins the race.  I’ve been trying to live my life way too fast.  When I put myself under a lot of pressure and try to get too many things done at once, I can make mistakes or miss things.  I’m unable to give sufficient attention and time to important matters.  I can’t force an elephant through a keyhole.  I can’t ripen green tomatoes overnight.  Trying to get too much done in too little time is just like that.

4.  If I “know pain”, I can “know gain”.

If we give ourselves permission to go through our crisis and heal, we can be transformed in the midst of our trauma experience.  I can choose to respond to my accident in one of two ways: with resentment and bitterness, or by embracing change and growth.  I can remain stuck, angry that my Corvette is totaled, scared that if I get another Corvette I might crash that one too (and possibly suffer significant injuries), or I can go on from here into the unknown future, where there’s a whole lot more in store for me.  Where my story continues.  I want to embrace my life by going through my trauma, not going around it or stopping cold in my tracks.  I want to emerge a stronger, better person.

5.  I am human and mortal.

My life could end at any time.  An event like my accident urges me to remember that no one’s immortal.  I feel my humanity and vulnerability more now than I have in many years.  I don’t have that same feeling of security – physically or financially – that I took for granted for a long time.  And, just as quickly as it might have happened to me, someone I love could be hurt seriously or die.  I’m only human; I have no control over that (see Number 1 above).

I want to propose a somewhat radical picture of the lasting legacy of trauma.  I see the wound of trauma as a friend.  It is an uninvited, unexpected friend, to be sure.  But if I accept it and build it into my life, my life will be transformed in ways I can’t begin to imagine.  If I accept it, and share that with others – that this part of me is acceptable and so therefore this part of you is acceptable – we are drawn closer together.  We see we’re all the same: human, mortal, without control, but with strength and depth and intrinsic value.

This is living in what I call “extraordinary reality”.  It’s a quality you see in the lives of people like EMTs and other first responders to traumatic events.  Their experiences and the sacrifices they make in serving others make them different people to be with.  As a psychotherapist, I am a kind of “first responder”, too.  I help people survive and heal from trauma.  Experiencing trauma firsthand – as I did when I spun out of control on the way into town one recent fateful morning – and then embracing it, will only help me become more compassionate and skillful at the work which is my calling.