Sunday, May 5, 2013

Eyes Open or Closed on a Teeter-Totter?

Boston Marathon bombing. West Texas fertilizer plant explosion. Earthquake in China.
Did I say something a few weeks ago about chronic trauma exposure?  In today’s world of instant news, when every citizen has a camera in their back pocket and can post their pictures and videos on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube at the touch of a button…in this world, we are all likely victims of chronic trauma exposure.  One need not work in the medical field, public health, public safety or social work. One need only open one’s eyes.

I have spent a bit of time delving into Laura van Dernoot Lipsky’s book “Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others”.  It starts out with a very big picture view of society. At first this annoyed me…just tell me what I can do! I resisted my urge to skip ahead. In light of this week’s national and global tragedies, I am glad I did.

There are more than a few things bothering me about the past few weeks, but I want to focus on the response of our society. Or rather the responses that don’t sit well with me at a deep level, that seemed at best, inappropriate and at worst, dangerous and alarming.
For instance, why were people flooding into the streets to witness the final shootout between the police and the 19-year old gunman? Do they want to get shot? Do they want to see someone get shot? Why were people celebrating in the streets and chanting “U.S.A…U.S.A.” after he was taken into custody? We did not know the motives. We knew very little. Are accomplices still out there? Did the attackers leave bombs planted elsewhere? Were they mentally ill? So on one hand I might be calling it a ‘premature’ celebration, but actually it felt like an ‘inappropriate’ celebration.
Were people celebrating and chanting in the streets when the Colorado movie theater gunman was arrested? When the Sandy Hook Elementary gunman was killed?  What is it about the fact that someone is of a different nationality that gives cause for celebration?
3 people killed. 130 injured, most with missing limbs. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to celebrate here. Why is it always ‘us’ against ‘them’? Can we even be clear who ‘they’ are?

I wrote the paragraphs above two weeks ago and I am just getting back to them.  Last Thursday at 3:30 I approached a crowded and busy intersection in the city where I work. Traffic was already bumper to bumper before I could see why it was so slow. A Rite Aid on the corner. Five police cruisers and two unmarked police SUVs. As I came to a stop I looked in horror at a young man, early 20s, mixed race, standing in the parking lot with no less than  three of the officers pointing weapons at him and the others ready. I said quietly, “Oh dear god, get down.”  He looked either confused, high, or like he was thinking about running. It was genuinely hard for me to interpret his expression. The sun was in his face which may have been making him squint. What horrified me even more were the people streaming OUT of the Rite Aid and stepping OUT of their cars…cell phones in hand…to catch the moment on video. I rolled up my window and looked away. I desperately wished I were in the right-hand lane so that I could have driven through the Jiffy Lube and away from that mess.

After the longest 10 seconds, the young man lay down and put his hands behind his back. I honked at the woman in front of me to get back in her car so we could move, thank you. As I drove on to my visit my thoughts went in this direction. What is wrong with our society? Why does every tragedy have to be a public spectacle? Maybe we need a book about trauma voyeurism?  I might need to see if anyone is writing about that. This is the reason I changed my home page to cute animal pictures, don’t watch the news and don’t get the paper. I get enough negative information peripherally and I can look up news articles if I decide I need to. This is a sign of Trauma Exposure Response, ‘Inability to Listen, Avoidance’.

After my visit, as I drove back to the office, I had other thoughts. The young man in the parking lot was brown. The only officers I remembered were white, but I can’t be sure.  There have been some pretty public cases of police misconduct lately, maybe I should give the voyeurs the benefit of the doubt…maybe some of them wanted to capture the facts in case the officers did something wrong? Maybe they wanted to capture the facts in case the officers did everything right and they were accused of wrongdoing later? I cannot know the intent behind their actions. I cannot judge that. Perhaps they were bearing witness to those that they could not help, could not bring into their lifeboat. I did not want to bear witness.
I do know that I still believe that those with children needed to shield their children. Stray bullets happen. People resisting arrest get shot. Is that what you want your child to see, to have that vision imprinted in their mind? Or have they seen so much of it on TV and movies that they are numb? Because ‘Numbing Out’ is one of the 16 signs of Trauma Exposure Response.

As is ‘Hypervigilance’, which appears to be something I am well practiced at.  ‘Inability to Embrace Complexity’ explains so much of the response to the Boston Bombing. And perhaps to the utter lack of public response to the fertilizer plant explosion. Where were the protesters when it was learned that the plant was storing thousands of times the amount of ammonia products than it should have been? Where was the connection that if terrorists want to really mess us up, we need only have another idiot fertilizer manufacturer? Where was the compassion for the half dozen brave first responders who rushed to the fire at the plant and were killed in the explosion? No…every headline and photo is of the Boston bombing suspects.

It still is, two weeks later. And now I don’t see even smaller headlines about the fertilizer plant or the earthquake in China. Understanding people and society as they manifest signs of Trauma Exposure Response can be helpful in explaining the public response. Understanding how I manifest these things is critical to staying present in society and in my life. If I cannot be present for trauma, I may not be present for the healing, for the good.
Isn’t life such a balancing act? I doubt many of us manage it well all the time. We teeter and totter between the two ends of hope and despair, happiness and hate. Some do better at staying in the middle. This was not a post to make you laugh I’m afraid. I’m sitting further down on one side of the teeter-totter this week. I will rely on friends and family and our beautiful spring to add some weight to the other end. 

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