Yalom (gotta love him) refers to looking at death as staring into the sun. Hearing about the experiences of the Blanketmen last night and Father Gary’s escorting of the children to school and the death threats and real fear of bombing…I feel like I’ve been trying to stare into the sun. There’s an unreal quality to thinking of death and the threat of death. In the play The Wall, which is an account of Jews living in the Warsaw ghetto, one of the characters says something to the effect of the reason no one will believe that they will really be killed is that you simply cannot convince a healthy human being that death is really coming. It just goes against the grain. Part of the difficulty with repeatedly traumatized people seems to be this paradoxical relationship with repeated knowing that death is coming and the resistance to knowing it. The Blanketmen shared that they had developed a black humor that kept them going and some of the examples of this were morbid, gruesome, and simultaneously glorious. I am constantly amazed at the capacity for resilience in human beings. I am also amazed at how much horror we subject each other to. Talking to the Blanketmen and other Republican Irishmen over a couple pints last night, they described the splintering of the IRA into less focused groups of desperate people seeking some kind of purpose and how it has led to some seemingly meaningless acts of violence. I found myself relating it to what I have seen of the convoluted pathway that African Americans have traveled (and continue to travel) from slavery to freedom that has led to some finding identity in street gangs. The role of trauma, oppression, and violence in both had many parallels. I was especially struck by Philip’s description of how the youth in Northern Ireland have lost their sense of clear identity and cannot see a future for themselves. He could’ve easily been talking about some of the youth coping with community violence back home in the States. As I think about how I will take all of what I have experienced home with me and into my future work as a clinican, I find I am squinting and shading my eyes trying to see without being blinded and unable to see it all at once. I am overwhelmed by the enormity of the whole experience. I am in ‘the overwhelm’ (to use Bridget’s term) of sitting with trauma and I am trying to sort out the glints of hope and faith in the possibility of a better future as people here in Northern Ireland and elsewhere work to build collaborative communities and support each other in healing. I feel like it has been such a short time and also a lifetime that I have been in Belfast. I have gotten so much out of this and yet I know I haven’t actually gotten it all yet. Tomorrow I fly home and I know that over the next week, the next month, the next year, and beyond I will continue to find pieces of the puzzle. I know I want to do trauma work, and even if I never do more international work (and given how much difficulty I’ve had being separated from my husband and children, I may not), the universality of trauma makes it all applicable.
We had tea with the Lord Mayor of Belfast this morning. Meeting him was marvelous. He was very candid and funny and put us all at ease which was quite a feat since we were all balancing delicate tea cups and perched in fancy chairs. The city hall was unreal. I had never realized that marble could clash with anything but I guess when you get up to 3 or 4 different types of marble, stained glass, velvet, plaster molding, intricately carved wood, etc. it really is possible. The tour guide likened it to modern ‘bling’ saying anything can become tasteless when its overdone. It was like the fine details just kept getting added and added and reminded me of the lack of control iwhen people binge eat or drink in order to cope. Could there be such a thing as binge decor? Maybe it would be related to compulsive shopping…
After the city hall visit, we went to Lifeline where we had coffee and a long talk with Fergus about the challenges and joys of crisis work and providing 24 hour support hotlines. That conversation went everywhere and was so engaging we were late to get back to Bridget who was patiently waiting to do a presentation on her experience in trauma work. We discussed the impact of trauma on pre-lingual children and how the lack of language and episodic memory can prime a person for developing PTSD symptoms in response to future traumatic events. The events cease to be experienced as separate events and become triggers for the first event that the person was unable to create meaning for. It was similar to something I had learned about briefly in a neuroscience class but it incorporated some Gestalt and energy concepts so that it gave a nice holistic view of the healing process for people coping with developmental trauma. I also got the names of some researchers in this area that I will look up for further deepening my knowledge on some of these aspects of early childhood trauma.
Unfortunately, one of our classmates is in the hospital here because she developed an infection that will require an overnight stay in the hospital. She missed out on all of these experiences and I think we all felt her absence as an extra layer of sadness in this place that is so permeated with sadness and rage. We’ve worked out some shifts for making sure she has company and it sounds like she’ll be back with us tomorrow. I just hope her hospital bed is comfier than the beds here at the hostel.
In some ways, the whole trip feels like the city hall. The coping we’ve witnessed is full of distancing and putting pretty faces on layer after layer of emotional pain. There’s also so much going on every day that I don’t have time to fully process it all. I can only imagine how much more potnetially overwhelming it is to live here and cope with the trauma every single day. Bridget kept using the term “the overwhelm” and even though I’ve never heard of overwhelm used as a noun, it is so apt, there really isn’t another term to apply.
It was nice to feel like I could do something helpful today. The walk (read: hike that was crazy uphill) was physically challenging but at least it was a tangible thing that we could do. Thank you to everyone who sponsored me for the walk! I made it all the way up to the cave and then went back with a classmate who had been having trouble with the sheer cliff views. I regret not taking my camera, the views were awesome. We’re to meet the Lord Mayor of Belfast tomorrow and we’re all scrambling to make sure our nice clothes are presentable. We got to relax a little after the walk (again, read: crazy uphill hike) with Philip and learn a bit about local sports. Since I don’t really get American sports, I’m afraid I was quite lost so I have nothing to report on that front.
I feel like I am really connecting with the people here now, both my classmates and the Northern Irish people we meet. I am also missing my family a great deal. It seems now that I have allowed my awareness of missing my usual supports, I am more open to other relationships. At the same time, I feel myself withdrawing into myself more. I took a day of rest today and created a space to let the profound sadness of trauma sit inside me. I was able to take some time to really feel it last night and to care for myself today. I discovered a place that sells hot chocolate made with 85% cocoa and so I am taking in the tryptophan to make more serotonin so I can better adapt to the increase in stress. I have been eating a lot since I’ve been here and might come back a bit heavier….but stress eating is usually a healthier sign for me than stress starving ( I do both). It is a profound experience and I think I am finding healthy boundaries in response to my coping limitations. I am letting go of the need to fix everything. The sadness is becoming manageable without the distancing and dissociation that helped initially.
I am too full of today’s experiences to go to bed just yet even though I know I should sleep soon. We just had our first day hearing the stories of family members of someone who took his own life. Hearing how his mother coped and carried on with and for her family was a powerful experience. I could feel a lot of what she felt and yet I know that I cannot truly grasp the depth and complexity of her pain. It was humbling and, for me, a spiritual connection that tapped into my own experiences of loss. It was said today during the training that a problem shared is a problem halved but I don’t think we took on her pain so much as held it with her and were honored to witness some of its transformation into a source of meaning. This experience and the conversations I had during the training have helped confirm for me that post-traumatic growth is something I need to explore more. It occurs to me that the rainbow was a symbol for this family’s narrative of loss and is an apt metaphor for turning something horendous into something hopeful.