I have mentioned before in this blog that the circumstances that divided my life by zero have affected me in many unexpected ways. Realizing how seemingly unconnected events are connected is always fascinating to me and easy for me to see in other people but much harder to see in my own circumstances.
I used to be a voracious reader, both professional and personally. As an academic, reading is preliminary to writing and writing is the key to publications and advancement. In the past 7 years, since my marriage ended and through the years that I was involved with the abusive therapist, I have struggled to read. Why reading should be affected by those circumstances has been difficult to determine, but the result has been the same. I have struggled to read which means also struggling to write and publish in academic journals. I have however, for whatever reason, increased my grant writing skills so there is that.
I have several friends who know about this problem and they have wonderfully tried to help. My friends Tony and Jonathan have recommended books as well as helped me think through academic papers. Tony has co-authored papers with me. It has been a huge help. And I am finally understanding that I may never again read like I once did. I have changed. I am different and it’s okay.
I recently read a book that was recommended to me and it had a profound affect on me. It should be required reading for anyone who has ever had a traumatic incident that they have struggled to recover from, cares about someone in that situation, and for all mental health care workers. It is called Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder and portrays the story of Deo, a survivor of civil war and genocide in Burundi. Deo manages not only to survive but to make his way to the ghettos of New York and, without knowing English, gets a job as a grocery delivery person while living in Central Park. From there, he gets admitted to Columbia and then medical school at Dartmouth and becomes an American citizen before returning to Burundi to start a clinic to provide medicine, nutrition and clean water to a small village.
Deo’s amazing story of resiliency and courage is very profound, but what touched me wasn’t how he was able to come through things perfectly, seemingly without any difficulties because he didn’t. I was touched by his authenticity and imperfection. What touched me was seeing his changing emotions as he struggled with the memories. In his native language that phenomena of being triggered by memories of a traumatic event is called Gusimbura. To gusimbura someone means “that the individual, upon hearing the name of a dead loved one, is forced to relive the suffering and sorrow of that loved one’s death”. The idea is that it isn’t just a memory, the person who is gusimbura’d is actually reliving the events. I think in western psychology it would be called a flashback. But for Deo, it is culturally not acceptable to talk about the death he witnessed. Yet at the same time, as a survivor, it is profoundly necessary for him to bear witness to what happened by talking about it in order to heal the wounds of his soul.
Deo’s transitions between repressing memories and then having them come out in other inappropriate emotions when he was triggered, to facing the memories and seeing his rage and fear, to trying to move on from them explains a lot about the behavior of someone with PTSD. It shows the delicate balance between psychologically needing to remember yet simultaneously, needing to move on and not be caught forever in memories where you are only half alive.
Typically whenever I have read a book like this, the main character will be a person who survived significant trauma and then rose out of it in an exceptional way, seemingly perfectly “whole” and “normal”. What this book showed me is that, for all of us who have gone through trauma, we are irrevocably changed (although I would argue we are still “whole” and “normal”). We can’t go back. We have to find the strength in what remains. Those memories will always be there, like a disease which lives dormant in the central nervous system which comes out in times of stress. However unlike such diseases when society empathizes with the physical suffering of that person, somehow when it is the darker side of our emotions, society sees it as weakness in people and shuns them rather than empathize with them. Deo’s story which is so brutal makes it easy to empathize with him.
When you love or care about someone with PTSD or even just someone who is struggling to move on in their lives, or if you are suffering yourself, realize that sometimes emotions will come up in ways that you can’t anticipate and can be triggered by things that you don’t even realize until later when you are looking back. It can come out in simple ways like fluctuations in someone’s weight, overreactions to seemingly mundane events, substance abuse or more horrifically, in acts of violence. For PTSD sufferers it is imperative to stay as aware as possible, to realize that when you get that feeling in your gut, that churning that something is wrong or your don’t feel good… it is imperative to listen to what your body is telling you.
If you care about someone with PTSD, if the person is reacting in a strange way, don’t take it personally and don’t let their behavior scare you or push you away. The person close to you might not be reacting to you at all, but to a situation or circumstance from their past. I once remember being in a club at Whistler with some friends. All of a sudden, I had to leave, not in 15 or 30 minutes, but right at that immediate moment. I had to be outside. I had two good friends Kaare and Chris that recognized my panic and paid my tab and got my coat out of the coatroom for me while telling our other friends we were leaving. They didn’t judge, they just helped me. My friend Matt has done the same thing for me on countless occasions. I don’t think I have ever said thank you for that. I remember it took me a long time that night at Whistler, even in a roomful of my friends, to realize I was safe. My advice if you care about someone with PTSD is to be aware, be tolerant, just listen and accept them for what they are. Be patient while they find the strength in what remains.
If you get a chance, read the book “Strength in What Remains” by Tracy Kidder and check out Deo’s organization Village Health Works. http://www.villagehealthworks.org/