January 1, 1970

Trauma and Helplessness

What happens in my brain when I see people holding their children, juggling meager belongings, their faces a mixture of fear, resolve, desperation. So called “hordes” “mobs” scrambling to get away -A sea of these faces short circuits my brain. When I see these desperate people I know what’s needed and I know what’s coming. And I feel desperate unless I’m working on it.

People will say these images are triggers or PTSD, or trauma. In the past I would do a big eye roll and think “stop using trauma for everything ffs. You big whiner.”

I felt some people were entitled to have PTSD, trauma – their lives have been threatened, they’ve nearly died. Seen everyone around them die. Had to kill someone to save themselves. Seen someone they loved murdered in the street. Fought a current while seeing their mother drown. Someone stole your child at the border. Been bombed, beaten, abused.

I know all of these things leave scars and wounds, not all of which heal. When these people described their triggers and trauma I listened and respected them. Accepted that what they report is the way it is. And after all I’ve heard and seen, I didn’t think I had any claim to “triggered, trauma or PTSD.” Just go to work, I told myself. Many people have experienced worse. Many more have seen worse.

Whether or not I’m entitled to it, here I am unraveled by these images and unable to resolve my own pain by working or helping. But my brain doesn’t know that. My brain can’t figure out why we aren’t working.

Once my brain flips into “let’s roll” mode, I start looking at everyone around me through the lens of “What use would you be to fix this?”

It makes me very very hard to deal with. The first thing that happens is unless you have a problem of some significant magnitude I am thinking “what is wrong with you? Can’t you see what’s happening? FFS – get to work.”

And the second thing that happens is my brain stops being able to work on anything that is not life or death. Even a trip to the grocery store becomes “I need to prepare by getting food.” Instead of “I have some chores to do today”.

I won’t call this trauma or PTSD. I’ll just say I become a pain in the butt. To self and others.

I’m told once brains go into this emergency mode, they use up full capacity on the agenda of achieving safety. Whether our own or for others. All the other programs shut down. I become poised for action or GO INTO ACTION.

Unless I’m in the arena, simple things become hard. (In the arena, very hard things become simple.) Because my brain is busy swatting away everything not related to alleviating pain and suffering. If it’s not directly tied to some form of relief, my brain is signaling “shut them up and shut it down”.

Years ago I worked with battered women and children. Any child repeatedly beaten black and blue is going to have a set of related strengths and problems. (We always ignore the strengths that develop from these brutal hardships) Of course they’ll have problems, we think.

But I had to learn that those watching had more problems. Those being beaten, attacked, abused have some sense of agency, maybe are even served in the moment by the feeling of being at fault, or proud of having fought, or gotten some satisfaction out of seeing their tormentor lose control, or feel relief that “at least it’s over for now”. Ending the dread by making the worst happen. Feels like control.

Bystanders, if they’ve not shut down and become callous, or been convinced of the culpability of the person being abused, or otherwise protected from feeling – suffer more in the long term. They feel the harm. Experience the violence. And feel helpless. Complicit. Unable to to intervene. But unable to look away. No escape.

Millions of people are watching. Helpless. Triggered. Feeling the harm. Frozen or furious. Despairing.

We have all held a baby and seen it’s face mimic our emotion, seen little features mirror exactly what our faces show and often what we feel. Even if we are faking, their faces will often look like our insides. We don’t lose that mirroring when we grow up. Unless it’s abused out of us, many of us feel what we see. Now I watch as all of our faces become etched in distress. Mirroring what we are seeing. And helpless.


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