29 April 2014

Post-Dramatic Stress

Sometimes when I read the morning's news in the paper and on social media, I am also scanning for a current writing prompt, and this morning's leapt off the page at me: PTSD.

I wrote recently that we were like the vets returned from Vietnam when we returned to Colorado shocked and shattered. My father, mother, stepmother, sisters, aunts and uncles, grandparents – everyone in my family has suffered so much trauma, which means sometimes we still suffer from reactions to those traumas, just like those war veterans.

One of my aunts recently said she had no idea what we were going through when my sister died in California and we moved back home immediately. “I lived such a sheltered life,” she told me. She is right that I never shared that luxury, but the truth is: her life was sheltered in some ways, but not in others.

My daughter's life seems so sheltered now that it is painful for her to learn about some of the harsher economics of human transactions. I am grateful every day that she didn't have to contend with the hectic pace of change in daily life that I did as a child. Her life is so predictable compared to mine, and for her, that is a good thing.

Recently I learned of the experiments on fairness done with capuchin monkeys in which they give two monkeys grapes for doing a specific task, then give one monkey grapes for that task but the other monkey gets cucumbers, and watch how mad that second monkey gets about receiving a different and less tasty reward. As a child in school, I saw how my friends lived and knew something wasn't quite right in my world. Now I see I was always working on the trajectory of my life, trying to change its course, make it come out a little better.

All of which perhaps explains those episodes I think about – those things I had been calling tantrums but were more likely bouts of mania, in which I tried to blast past some apparent restriction. Why? I don't know how otherwise to explain my desire to get out of my house and ride to St. Louis on the back of a friend's motorcycle when I was six or ride to Poughkeepsie, New York with a dad and his two sons (I have good memories of that trip except for the one about maybe starting a brush fire by sliding down a grassy hillside on pieces of cardboard). I don't know how otherwise to explain my midlife-crisis-y need to go to London and go to Chicago to see my favorite band. There was something in me that Would Not Be Denied. 

I of course have seen this force in my parents, too, and my mother saw this in her mother, and so on, and so on.

While my genealogical research is helping me put some of this in perspective, it doesn't necessarily disappear the PTSD that lingers on. My child is sensitive to a whole other set of concerns and perceptions than I am, and has a lot to teach me a lot about keeping my inner self calm, getting enough sleep every day, and acting instead of reacting. When I'm hangry, though, all that good intention goes out the window and I am short-fused and reactive.

Every time I think about this and write about it, though, I feel more compassion for myself and for everyone who struggles with their feelings and reactions to trauma. Our culture often tells us to keep calm and carry on instead of letting ourselves feel our pain or grief or anger, which are bad enough on their own, without the frustration at the injustice of continuing to experience these reactions to wrongs done long ago. Breathing and noticing what we are grateful for helps, too, yes, but so does feeling our own feelings as they come, whether that means spending quiet time in nature, meditating and observing them, writing them down to pull them out from the dark shadows and into the light to be examined, or expressing yourself through some other medium that gives you peace and perspective.

The other day I heard an NPR story about the Sherpa community after many Sherpa died in a recent ice slide on Everest. One Sherpa said, "Normally, when we climbing, we just pray: 'Om mani padme hum.' That mantra is very powerful mantra, and that protects you [with] safety and long life. But ... if there's a wrong time, even the mantra cannot protect them."

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