“Memory & Resiliency: Traumatized or Trauma Grown?” led by Rev. Shayna Appel

“Memory & Resiliency; Traumatized or Trauma Grown?”

“Most trauma survivors…will suffer, sometimes for years.  But, over the last few decades, psychologists have discovered that suffering is not the end of the story: with the right circumstances and support, [some] survivors actually benefit in surprising ways…The suffering they endure actually acts as a catalyst, enabling them to emerge stronger, more focused, and seeking meaning in their lives.” [From “Upside” by Jim Rendon]

As we delve deeper into our monthly theme regarding memory, the practice of honest remembrance and honoring the shoulders on which we stand, we will explore together the spiritual dimensions of turning break-downs into break-throughs.

Sermon: “Memory & Resiliency; Traumatized or Trauma Grown?” by Rev. Shayna Appel

I hear a good deal of discussion these days concerning trauma.  For the most part, I think that’s a good thing.  God knows we are experiencing too much of it!  It seems to me that barely a week goes by when I do not climb into this pulpit in the wake of yet another catastrophe.  Two weeks ago we were all reeling from the massacre at Tree of Life Synagogue, and today we gather in the shadow of a mass shooting in an entertainment venue in Thousand Oaks, California. 

People are talking a lot about trauma and its impact these days, and in light of how much trauma we are all experiencing, for the most part, I think those conversations are a good thing.  My concern revolves around what I perceive to be the foregone conclusion that the trauma you, I, or the nation as a whole experience will leave us all psychologically, emotionally and mentally crippled by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  It’s the inevitable decent into PTSD part of the discussion that concerns me when what I know first-hand and in through some of the research I’ve done, tells me otherwise.

As many of you know, one of my previous careers was in pre-hospital emergency medicine.  For almost two decades I worked for both private ambulance services and the fire department first as an Emergency Medical Technician and then as a Firefighter/Paramedic.  My service in this capacity was provided largely in inner cities throughout New England – urban settings where the call volume was substantial and often tragic.

Now, back in the day, we did not have the critical incident stress management tools we now employ regularly with many in the uniformed sector.  There were no critical incident debriefings following particularly difficult calls.  If things didn’t go well in the field the expectation was that we would all just drink about it.  If alcohol stopped working one simply found harder substances to take the edge off.  

Obviously this was not a healthy or sustainable practice, and it cost the uniformed services a great deal over the years.  Suicide rates, divorce, alcoholism and drug addiction pointed most visibly at the impacts of post-traumatic stress.  Less visible were people like myself who, quietly, simply left the field all together…taking years of training, experience and expertise with us.

As Jim Rendon points out in the reading Orion shared with us a little while ago, following a traumatic event, most people experience a range of problems from the inability to sleep and intrusive images to anxiety and depression.  For most people, these responses fade over time.  For the special few, like myself, they do not and we wind up experiencing full-blown post-traumatic stress “response”.

You will notice that I prefer the term “response” to the more common “disorder.”  Allow me to explain.  The International Critical Incident Stress Foundation defines a traumatic event as any abnormal incident that is so severe, it overwhelms the individuals normal coping mechanisms.  In other words, we all have coping mechanisms and they are effective in helping us deal with most of what life throws at us.  But occasionally, we come up against an abnormal set of circumstances that are so severe, our normal coping mechanisms are overwhelmed.  One of the possible consequences of this exposure is what is commonly referred to as PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder.  I take issue with this, and furthermore find it less-than-helpful. Mostly because no one has ever been able to explain to me what a so-called “normal” response might be to an “abnormal set of circumstances.”  Lacking that discriptor of a normal response, I bristle at the notion that an individuals response would so quickly be characterized as a disorder and therefore use the term PTSR, or post-traumatic stress response.  

In my own case of experiencing this response, as I said, I left the field of Emergency Medical Services (EMS).  It took a twelve-step program of recovery, a Masters Degree program in Marriage and Family Counseling, the discovery of a community of support within my first Unitarian Universalist church home and a second Masters Degree program in Divinity to bring me back from the edge of anxiety, depression and the ever-present state of hyper-alertness that had become my life.

Fast forward a decade to the first day of my last year in seminary.  September 11, 2001.  Before I had even left Vermont for the drive to Newton Center, Massachusetts, a VERY abnormal set of circumstances began unfolding, first, for most of us, on our televisions, and then within ourselves, our communities, our nation and the world.  One week later I was asked to respond to Lower Manhattan  as a Fire Department Chaplain.

I tell you, I remember that train ride from Boston to New York like it was yesterday.  I spent the trip in a very intense and often heated conversation with God.  My time in the uniformed services of the fire department had taught me a thing or two about obedience and following orders.  I felt called to respond to the pile, as those who worked there called it…and I was terrified at what my exposure to the incomprehensible loss there might cost me.  I had suffered PTSR already, it had taken me nearly a decade to recover.  Then God had this crazy idea that I should attend seminary and become an ordained minister, and I went, even though I thought it was a REALLY bad idea.  During my three years of seminary I had come to see that maybe God had been right and maybe the ministry was for me.  And now this?  Now I’m getting thrown back into the sewer of man’s inhumanity to man and loss so big that it cannot be comprehended by a mortal mind?

Long story short…I wound up doing three tours at ground zero before the site moved from rescue to recovery and the bureaucracy that enabled the chaplains to work there went away.  AND, my PTSR was not reactivated. 

Until recently, the whole discussion of the human response to trauma ended on an artificially binary; return to normal or suffer in the depths of PTSD. “But over the last few decades a small but growing group of researchers has found that trauma is more complex than that.  A traumatic event, it turns out, is not simply a hardship to be overcome.” (Rendon)  Among other possibilities there is a recurring outcome that is transformative, and not always for the worse. 

Long before the work of this small group of researchers came to my attention, I was aware that the possibility existed for experienced trauma to build up rather than tear down.  Largely this experience was born from my work with uniformed personnel engaging in a rubric of interventions contained under the umbrella of practices known as Post-Traumatic Stress Management.  Shortly after 9-11 I and many others were trained by the Critical Incident Stress Foundation to facilitate these interventions.  (In case you’re counting, that was 17 years ago!)  

So, for the last seventeen years, I have had the honor and the privilege of serving those who serve by volunteering on a number of teams that do this work.  The work, on its face, is simple.  Think of it as CPR for the soul.  Emergency medical responders, firefighters and/or police officers encounter a traumatic incident. Generally speaking, any fatal call involving a child is considered, even by these traumatically well-seasoned individuals, a really bad call. Other factors that may turn the ordinary bad call awry are things like prolonged scene times, one or more of the rescuers knowing the victim, a series of bad calls running back-to-back, administrative betrayal, etc.

The group comes together afterwards, generally within 24-48 hours after termination of the call, and we talk.  We begin at the surface: “Who are you and what was your responsibility during the response to the call?”  We move a little deeper with a question like: “Once the adrenaline wore off, do you remember having a thought?  If so, what was that first thought?”  Finally, we get to the heart of the matter with a question like: “What was the worst part of this call for you?” or “What do you wish could have been different?”  I’ve begun adding a forth question to the process. Usually something like: “What is your hope now, for yourselves, other folks on this call, the family, etc?”  Then we wrap up with a short didactic on what to look for vis-a-vis indicators more help with this incident is going to be required.  And that’s it.  That’s a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing. Just one of the interventions available to us under the umbrella of PTS Management.

For the last seventeen years I have had the honor and the privilege of serving those who serve in this manor and I can tell you that the ICISF intervention works, when it is carried out as prescribed.  But about 5-6  years ago I started noticing something I hadn’t seen before.  Among the groups we worked with a number of times I thought I was seeing something that looked like “resiliency” bubbling up.  Groups that had experienced traumatic incidents, when those incidents were well resolved, encountered the next trauma with a little something more; more confidence, less fear, a blessed assurance that there was a process in place to help them through the aftermath of the event and that all would be well.

While a comprehensive analysis of what I think is going on here would not be possible in the time we have left this morning, I do want to draw your attention to one critical element I think is at play.  And it’s hinted at in our reading this morning from Daniel Matt’s ‘The Essential Kabbalah.’   Daniel writes: Nothingness is being, and being is nothingness.  The mode of being as it begins to emerge from nothingness into existence is called faith. 

While at first pass this short quote may sound like a critptic aphorism designed to cramp the brain, let me offer you a familiar image and I think it will make sense.  The phoenix.  When I say that, what comes to mind? For most of us it is the image of the phoenix rising up from the ashes.  But, what happens right before that?  It flames out and deconstructs into a smoldering heap of ash.

This is what happens to us when we are overwhelmed either by an abnormal set of circumstances or by circumstances that prove a core belief to be false.  We flame out and deconstruct into a smoldering heap of ash, otherwise known as the post-traumatic stress response.  A small number of us will get stuck there, in that smoldering pile of ash.  We will be called “those who now suffer from PTSR.”  

But – my friends, my beloved community of faith- hear the good news!  While all of us are changed by trauma, only a small percentage of us are changed for the worse.  Pushed by a brush with our own mortality, by the depth of our hardship or even the suffering of others there IS an opportunity to rise like that phoenix from the ash.  There IS an opportunity to find more meaningful and fulfilling ways of understanding who we are and how we want to live.  Trauma will change us, make no mistake about it.  But we can be changed for the better by it.  

I have lived this truism, I have witnessed to this truism, an increasing number of psychologists are now investigating and writing about this truism.

“In the beginning,” it is written, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.”  From this void, this “nothingness” God created. And I believe God is creating still. 

Over the last two years we have all experienced a good deal of trauma.  For some of us, our core beliefs in this nation’s very foundation have been challenged.  For some of us, the challenge came home over the last few weeks in the wake of a seemingly endless stream of violent attacks.  For some of us, the challenge awaits.

How did God create being from nothingness?  The human mind cannot comprehend.  For these matters we gotta have faith – born out of experience, emboldened by science, and affirmed by those we are in community with.  The nexus of nothingness and being.  That precious intersection where the phoenix begins her new journey, and where we might begin our own.  So may it be.