I said in my original post on Free Will that the one choice usually left to us was the choice to be kind. Usually means not always. Two things rob us of our kindness. One is the poorly understood way trauma changes our brain; the other, what the voices surrounding us preach that rings true with our life experiences. Today’s post will deal with trauma; tomorrow or the next day I will tackle the voices surrounding us.
Joshua was a sweet looking seven-year old, small, thin, quiet, polite, obedient, shy; a child who the aunt he lived with asked of him; at school, he was thought a model student. Then things changed, but only at school and usually late in the afternoon. He would be studying quietly one minute and the next minute throwing his books on the floor, turning his desk over, yelling unintelligibly, trying to run from the class room; kicking, punching, and biting anyone who tried to stop him. After three episodes, the crisis team I was directing then was called in.
My staff observed Joshua at school and at home. We explored his history, we explored recent events, particularly about school. We learned the following. He had been in the United States for two years. He lived with a maternal aunt, a quiet, caring deeply religious woman. His parents had been missionaries and were killed by a group opposed to their preaching. The boy and his sister were raped, beaten, tied to a tree and left to die. He was four at the time, and his sister was two. Members of the church found them in time to keep them alive, after several months both came to the United States to live with the aunt. It was suggested they get treatment for trauma, but the aunt did not want them stigmatized. Moreover, she believed prayer, would help more than talk. The boy’s classroom had been changed recently, but nothing else had changed. When asked about what was happening, the boy’s eyes would take on a far away look. he would start to tremble, and then whisper “I don’t know.”
My staff sat with him in the classroom for a week. The team observed that the days the boy had his episodes, a group of teen-aged boys passed outside the classroom windows. They were on their way to football practice and were loud and raucous. When they were first heard, the boy stiffened, his eye’s glazed and he began scrambling out if his seat looking frantically around, then overthrowing his books and desk trying to get to the door. We had our answer. The noise of the teens triggered a flashback to the horrors he had endured. His brain took over and said to him, ”Get away from those boys. They are coming to kill and rape.”
We arranged for the boy to have permission to leave the room and go to the principal’s office when he first heard the sounds of the teens. That worked to return peace to the classroom, but more was needed. We taught the boy and his aunt about triggers, about self soothing, and in particular an exercise I developed called Danger Then, Safety Now which he and his aunt both found useful. The aunt also accepted that the boy and his sister would profit from therapy.
Trauma saps free will. Essentially, a painful or frightening event sets in motion a chemical reaction. The body and brain go on an automatic survival status. Think fight, flight, or freeze. These are the actions the chemicals put into play. Fight tends to rule when the person is strong enough to fight the opponents; flight rules when the person sees the other is bigger and stronger, but a chance exists to get away; freeze rules when neither fight nor flight provide safety–fainting is the extreme form of freezing.
Once a traumatic memory is triggered, the person acts as if the event is happening again. Trauma rules and the person has lost free will.
Dreams can be a trigger. Once a foster child who was doing well in our care, woke up in a murderous rage, threatening to kill anyone who came near him. He had been badly abused as a child. He was removed from our care, but several years later visited us. He recalled the event, had no idea what drove him to want to kill, said he has awakened a number of times in the same state. I have no proof, but I bet dreams trigger him.
Some controlled by memories of traumatic experiences do not even recall the re-enactment and think those dealing with it or talking about are crazy. Trauma black outs are like alcoholic blackouts and indeed the chemicals released during a traumatic event are as powerful as cocaine.
I once explained the above to a group of murderers at New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility. One said to me, ”So I am not to blame and should be set free.”
My reply, “Sadly, prison may not be the place for you, but you have killed and that makes it all the more likely you will kill again if triggered. For the protection of others containment is probably necessary, but not punishment.”
James Garbarino, an expert on trauma and children, author of Lost Boys, a book about boys who murdered, suggests a monastic type of retreat with an emphasis on meditation, a contemplative life removed from the rest of the world might be restorative.
Sadly we are a long way from that humane an approach and the mental health field is a long way from an adequate treatment for the severely traumatized. Fortunately, many can practice kindness even when having lived through traumatic pasts, but because some can, does not mean all can. We have choice some of the time, but free will is more illusion than fact.
Share, care and stay strong.