Reflections give us pause, reminding us where we have been and the lessons that have learned along the journey. They are as important to our health as the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the conditioning our bodies are in.
All of us have experienced traumatic events in our lives and we do not have to be diagnosable for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder to be severely affected by it. Over time we develop radar to detect specific cues that are tied to the traumas that we have endured. When those cues are experienced, we can react. Reactions are autonomic emotional responses to triggers that are tied to past learning. They develop to keep us safe. For example: let’s say a little boy grows up with an abusive father. He has learned that his father is most abusive after he drinks, trigger #1. His father stays out late at night when he drinks, trigger #2. He comes home reeking of alcohol, trigger #3. He comes in the back door and it always slams, trigger #4. He always yells for someone to get him food, trigger #5. His tone is angry and impatient, trigger #6. When no one responds fast enough, he lunges at the first person that he sees, with his fist balled up and his arm raised, triggers #7, 8 and 9. The boy knows he is in trouble and runs to his bedroom to hide under the bed. Over time not all the cues have to occur to insight the same reaction. A neurobiological response has been created.
Now, each one of these cues become triggering enough on their own to create a reaction and emotional response because of their ties to this particular event in the past. The problem is that a lack of awareness of our own links between REACTIONS and past events makes it inevitable that we are judged by people around us who have no understanding and often no interest in WHY we emotionally trigger. They tell us the nature of our behaviors, and the reasons why we act the way we do. They can find diagnoses to pin on our behaviors and the more they assert our pathologies sitting behind their desks underneath the professional designations that give them the right to take away our connection to the truth of our experience, the more disempowered and submissive we become to their version of our truth.
So the little boy grows up and one night he is feeling antsy. His fiancé is late coming home. He finds himself pacing back and forth, the knot growing inside his gut. His cellphone rings and he picks it up to hear music and voices in the background…
“Babe, are you there,” he hears his fiancé practically scream in the phone, “we had a really good quarter so Doug decided to take us out for a drink to celebrate”.
The now grown man finds himself beginning to shake uncontrollably. “Why didn’t you call earlier” he says trying not to sound frantic.
“I got tied up finishing some last minute details on one of my files. I will be home shortly”, his fiancé said almost absent mindedly.
He could feel bile come up his throat, but before he could say anything, the cell phone cut out.
He went back to pacing and though he was unaware of his own body moving methodically back and forth from one side of the kitchen to the other, he pulled his cell phone out several times as he felt the anxiety rise in his throat, only to stuff it, like his cell phone, back into his pocket. As his hand slid by his pant leg he realized the dampness of his palm, and his own altered breathing pattern. He came into awareness as if he was drifting back to consciousness after dreaming. He forced himself to take a breath but felt no relief. The anger began to rise and his fists curled into balls, the more anger that he felt, the more strain that was unconsciously forced in the tightening of his hand. He vacillated back and forth; pacing, debating whether to call, shifting in and out of awareness and feeling the rising anger within.
He didn’t know how long it had been but he heard the car door slam and his fiancé’s voice, “Yeah, it was great…”
His fists immediately clenched and he gritted his teeth.
“Thanks so much for the ride. I will talk to you Monday.”
He could smell the booze even before she got to the door and his eyes widened.
She was giddy and called out to him… “Hey hun, I am home.” The door slammed behind her.
Already primed from learning that had taken place long before this night, he snarled and turned around the corner, “Where have you been all this time?”
She was startled by the gruffness of his voice and backed a few steps. “I just called you less than 30 minutes ago,” she said with a matching irritation rising in her voice, “Why do you have so much trouble when I go out?”
He looked at her blankly, the words not registering.
Her tone changed and she contorted her face as she spoke, “Honest to God,” she continued, “You need help… Didn’t you make dinner?”
He said nothing…
“What is wrong with you?” she said, the anger rising in her own voice.
His eyes widened as she spoke, feeling unable to move. Her words cascaded over him but lacked meaning. He was briefly aware of her tone rising and startled as he watched her move towards him and raise her arms.
It all happened in an instant, he took his hand and pushed her hard across the kitchen where she landed on her butt. She looked up, more stunned than hurt as he disappeared around the corner of the kitchen heading for sanctuary in the bedroom.
Now this scenario is one version of many that plays out in homes across the United States. Because our young man refuses to acknowledge the impact that his past has on his current life situation, he continues to be affected by autonomic responses laid many years before. Because he CANNOT articulate the WHY of his behavioral outburst, it will be judged and his actions pathologized. His actions have meaning but ONLY in the context of his own narrative. If he lacks a connection to his own life story, he is denied the foundational elements for his current behavior. If his fiancé chooses to evaluate HIM negatively from this one incident, he is victimized by her faulty perception, his self-esteem suffering needlessly. If the police are summoned and a court case filed, he now becomes victimized by a community that is more interested in punishing the act than understanding the nature of the behavior’s development.
Within the context of his life experience, his actions towards his fiancé make sense. His behavioral motivation needs to be properly understood so any intervention can be effective. If he consistently faces people who are negative towards him, he will be negative himself. Negativity destroys productivity and reinforces the fear and anger that lie at the base of all negative behavioral outbursts. Healing can ONLY occur with person-centered, positive motivational incentives.
Mental fitness MUST BE a personal journey in recovery. It is as different from one person to the next as the fingerprints and DNA that identify us. Our narrative is our connection to our past and provides the key for unlocking a future of hope. Right now our human service delivery is failing miserably. Now is the time to develop a person centered approach to encouraging appreciation and understanding of each of our storylines, free of bias and judgment. We need to start asking the most humane of all questions… WHY?! When each of us can articulate our life story honestly and forthrightly, without fear and shame, we begin to understand the most important questions needed to improve the social conditions in which we live.