Trauma, or at least stress, is something I think about a lot. My immediate instinct is to say that my job is not as bad as it could be – it generally involves me looking at or editing graphic images from war zones, filming, photographing or interviewing people who have undergone pretty extreme physical or psychological trauma, or on the “light end,” editing lengthy reports about issues like child poverty and child marriage. Because data and sociological reports are so much less taxing than the particulars of narrative work. I see videos of horror-stricken Syrian men holding children’s limbs in the aftermath of bombings – I’m not there myself. I meet children who will need physical therapy for years to come as a result of their traumatic injuries – but I’m not the one who was injured.
Which brings me to this quote I read recently:
“Almost every trauma survivor I’ve ever had has a some point said, “but I didn’t have it as bad as some people” and then talked about how other types of trauma are worse. Even my most-traumatized, most-abused, most psychologically-injured clients say this… What does that tell you? That one of the typical side-effects of trauma is to make you believe that you are unworthy of care.”
I don’t know that I get to use the word “traumatized” to describe what I feel. I think something along the lines of “chronic stress” and “moral injury” are more accurate. But the thing is, trauma is shockingly pervasive and common, and you don’t have go go through one single traumatic event like a bombing or a physical assault. It can be hundreds of little incidents, day after day in the course of your work and life – maybe you don’t feel it right away, because maybe you don’t want to take it home to your family. But it stays there and all adds up. For me, it’s seeing a 30-year-old man with Down’s Syndrome living in an informal refugee camp, most of his teeth missing, being cared for by his mother and sisters the best they can, and then having nightmares about my own disabled brother being in that camp. It’s being approached by a little boy who asks to see pictures of his brother, and realizing his brother is the “martyr” whose funeral you were covering. It’s seeing a 50-year-old man who looks closer to 65 break down and sob in front of his wife and kids because there are 15 people living in two rooms and he can’t provide for them. Finding out that a sweet young woman I knew who dedicated her free time to volunteering with refugees tragically died. Finding out – literally as I’m writing this – that another friend from my DC days is also gone too soon.
You don’t have to go through one single, horrific event to start having the same psychosomatic symptoms. Going into flight or fight mode because of a loud sound, heart racing for no reason, stiff neck, aching chest, on the verge of tears but being unable to cry, migraines for days on end, even developing asthma-like symptoms. I use an inhaler now and live in fear that one day my migraine meds will stop working. That’s where I’ve been for a while.
I’ve been slowly reading a couple of books before I nod off at night: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, and The Migraine Miracle. The second book largely promotes something similar to a paleo diet to manage chronic migraines; a lot of the book has helped me understand the condition better, and I’m trying to adopt parts of the diet. The Body Keeps the Score is an excellent read. Depressing, and the author’s approach to treating trauma has made him an outlier at times, but it’s one of those books where I keep finding myself highlighting nearly the whole page in my Kindle. And so many passages feel like I could be reading off my own medical chart or something.
All of these little incidents, all the testimonies we bear witness to – they stay in our minds, and if not dealt with properly, change the way our brains, and in turn, our bodies function. So the idea is, if traditional talk therapy is only going to make someone re-live a traumatic event, if you want to heal the mind, you have to heal the body.
When I did a HEFAT training, I remember being told that nightmares, or at least vivid dreams, can be healthy things, that your body and brain are processing things. I was taught the importance of grounding yourself – placing your feet on the bare earth if possible, or at least imagining it. Exercising mindfulness to acknowledge your emotions. Breathing exercises to calm your body and mind.
A week ago felt close to collapse – my heart was racing after sitting in a chair most of the day – a heartrate app I used a few times that day placed my heartrate at 87, 92, and finally 102 bpm. I finally dragged myself to a 90-minute yoga class that night, and just lying flat on the mat had me in tears from pain. But by the end, I could breathe again, and most of my pain had gone. I never managed to clear my mind in meditation, but the profound effect it had for me was enough to make me commit to go twice a week for the coming month.
I don’t know if that will be enough long-term for me. Right now it’s enough to keep the pain at bay and make me feel like a human being again. Some people run, do extreme sports, watch lousy reality TV shows, or have a treat yo self day at the spa.
Fatigue and burnout are real. I don’t think I’m there yet, mostly because I don’t know what else I would do. But continuing to think about this and write about emotions experienced in this kind of work are important, I think. And I hope it’s a conversation more people will have more openly.