This is the 23rd year in a row that I have attended the annual professional meeting of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS.org). Among the members are world leaders in responding to disasters, addressing the traumatizing experiences of child abuse, of sexual assault, the wounds of war for soldiers and the people who live in war and civil conflict and all manner of traumatic events. This is the first year I have attended as a disaster survivor.
My colleagues are not unlike the others we know. When they find out what happened to us they are struck with the enormity of it. The people in our town know about it. There there are hundreds of fire-affected people. With that for insulation, I forget what it is like for people to first learn of the fire. I also forget to give people a moment to take it in. Today I was with a group of colleagues most of whom did not know what happened. We were discussing the effects of trauma and I casually commented on a point referencing my experience with our fire. The conversation stopped and looks of disbelief appeared. One colleague said with concern and with interest, “Really?” I said “Yes,” and then went on with my scientific point. I realized that I had been rude. I tried to incorporate an opening to let my colleagues catch up with my experience but the moment was gone. My rushing past the meaning of my experience to make a scientific point lay like lead on the floor.
I still cannot learn that just because I know what happened; that I am used to the idea of it having it happen, others are. We were surrounded by family and close friends who, with us, experienced the shock and sadness and even moments of horror of taking in the event that happened. Together we have lived with it for the past four months. We have gotten used to the idea that we have no home of our own, that we live in a rental house that feels like we are camping out and that we had to find underwear and socks after the fire.
Reflecting on this, I understand that people who know me, even if we only see each other once a year at a professional meeting, are connected to me. What happens to me affects them. When terrible things happen to a person, those around feel it. The point that I keep missing is how far the reach of our experience extends.
I have turned this over and over in my mind trying to understand it. When people hearing the news that someone they knew died the conversation goes something like this. “Did you know John died?” “No, I had not heard.” “It is a terrible loss. He had been such a great friend to so many of us.” “Yes, it is a loss. Do you remember that year when he played Santa?” and on it goes with people remembering things and sharing and in this making meaning of the event. Sometimes if it is a tragic death there is more in the initial dialog and a person may comment, “I cannot believe it. I saw him just last month.” Eventually the stories emerge about the person or the conversation closes with not much more.
I don’t know how to tell people about the fire. When someone I know walks up and says, “Hi, how are you! It is good to see you.” I don’t know what the socially appropriate response it. “I am great, my house burned to the ground along with 65 of my neighbor’s houses. How are you doing? It is great to see you.” I can respond with, “Fine and how are you?” This is a ritual greeting among some cultures. You are not being asked about how you are, it is simply a greeting and it has a prescribed form. How-are-you-fine-and how-are-you-fine. When someone deviates from the script there is a moment of confusion in the conversation. In this ritual greeting the person who asked how you were did not actually mean to ask how you were.
Each time today a colleague came up to say hello I was faced with the decision. I could stay within the ritual and thus not mention the fire or I could break the ritual and live with the confusion that follows. I found that I wavered through the day as to how firm my resolve was to be honest and tell people or to smile and just go on. I changed my mind several times. These are colleagues I see once a year. Why should my fire be of interest to them? Why would I want to distract them with my own issues? I wondered if I did talk to them and not mention it, there was another social contract broken and that is I had not let them know of a big event. That version goes something like this, “I saw Beth the other day. It was nice to see her. She gave an interesting talk at the conference.” “Isn’t it awful about her house?” “What do you mean?” “You did not know, there was a disaster in her community and her home burned to the ground along with 65 others.” “I don’t understand, she did not say anything about it.”
After experiencing this with others and then with my trauma colleagues today, I think there is no socially comfortable way to deal with telling someone that you experienced something like a death or a disaster or a trauma of some sort. I am not sure what to make of that completely but I believe it is one of the things that defines a traumatic experience. We don’t know how to talk about it or take it in. Knowing about and working in the field does not help us grasp casually or ritualistically what it means. I think that is a good thing.
Experiencing a traumatic event should not have a socially structured way of sharing. It should always cause a moment of confusion upon learning of what happened to a fellow human being. The message conveyed in the stumbling few moments in the conversation is that “what happened to you is important and it has meaning for me because it has meaning for you.” I close my day, as I close this blog, with thankfulness that terrible things have a shared meaning. It makes the burden lighter.