Tag Archives: trauma

Finally Seeing the Forest for the Trees

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Maura Kelly | Longreads | November 2017 | 15 minutes (3,727 words)

Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I never got the whole nature thing. In my middle-class town, surrounded by neatly engineered housing developments, the little “nature” I knew was unnatural. The grass of the boxy lawns, stripped of dandelions, shined a uniform pesticide green. The most memorable tree of my youth lived like a caged beast in an indoor shopping mall; Shel Silverstein would’ve wept to see it, imprisoned between the food court escalator and a fake waterfall with wishful pennies glittering on its floor. In my state, even the ocean was tainted; the beaches of the Jersey Shore were a riot of oversized umbrellas and slick men in banana hammocks blasting their boomboxes. One summer, so much trash washed up on the sand that it made headlines, hypodermic needles and all. The Garden State, so-called, but it wasn’t exactly Eden. Since I never went to summer camp, since my parents had no country hideaway, I was a kid who thought the Great Outdoors wasn’t all that great. A tree by any other name was just as boring as every other tree.

All that began to change slowly during my undergraduate years in a postcard-perfect New England town. There I began to understand how beautiful nature could be. I still didn’t want to commune with it or anything. (Camping seemed like a fantastically bad idea; why anyone would want to sleep on the cold hard ground in a place without a proper toilet was beyond me.) But the trees surrounding my campus and the mountains around my college town pleased my eye in a way that was new to me. There, in New Hampshire, I also went on the first hikes of my life. But despite my burgeoning Romantic sensibility, I saw those excursions up the mountain as little more than a chance to exercise while hanging out with friends. As for opportunities to stop and smell the pine needles, I was determined to avoid them. All I wanted was to rush to the top of Mount Cube and race back down again — fast enough to burn some calories — and I got annoyed when anyone tried to slow me down to ooh-and-ah over some dumb mushroom.

After college, I eventually arrived in that city of all cities, New York. I loved it. I couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to get there — to the center of the world, so it seemed, with all the great art museums, the great jazz places, the great movie theaters, the great performances of Shakespeare. The city helped me to notice an aspect of myself, the intellectual epicure, that I’d barely noticed before. It was a thrilling discovery. In New York, my brain was fed the richest of foods, my ambitions were fueled, my expectations for myself raised. By then, I’d lived in four other U.S. cities, and I felt sure I’d found the place that beat them all, where I’d stay forever.

The years passed and I had what I half-jokingly call “my nervous breakdown.” Half-jokingly, though it was no joke. A perfect storm of events — a break-up, a career disappointment, a professional trauma — knocked me down. I couldn’t eat or work, I could barely read or write, and I especially couldn’t sleep more than three hours a night. I couldn’t go out in public without disintegrating into tears — on the subway, in restaurants, at the gym, during a friend’s book party — triggered by the least little thing, like a long wait or a sad song. I was frequently overwhelmed by vertigo that felt as much physical as metaphysical. It felt at times as if I was slipping down some vast mountain into the abyss, unable to stop my steady descent, like a character out of some Edgar Allan Poe horror story. This went on for months and threatened never to end.

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Take Me Home

Photo of the Victory Monument (Patuxai) by Dan Lundberg (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Kathryn Kefauver Goldberg | Longreads | September 2017 | 16 minutes (4,596 words)

 

I.

When I moved to Laos in 1998, there was almost no violent crime. The landlocked country had five million people, 57 languages, and 90 million unexploded bombs in the ground. In the 10th-poorest nation in the world, Lao people focused on food, festivals, and family. Buddhism thrived. In my house in Vientiane, the salty scent of the Mekong River drifted through my screens. I was 25, and my first six months there, I rarely thought of the killings that had launched me overseas.

I lived between a temple and a beer shop, the two great traditions of solace: the monks and the drunks. My excessive sleep, a portable artifact of PTSD, blended well in Laos. All around the partially paved capital, people napped in hammocks strung on half-built buildings, on tables of stacked silk at the market, and in tuk-tuks parked in the shade of banyans. My Lao colleagues at our United Nations outpost snoozed right at their desks. I did, too.

So the morning my boss, Patrick, sauntered into my office, he found me cheek to notebook. The monsoon clattered beyond the window. I’d passed out pondering the prospect of turning 26 in two weeks’ time. Birthdays, like rain, stirred up the muck. I was alive. Others were not. Read more…

This Is Rape

Do you remember me? you type. I have some questions. I would be grateful if you might be willing to answer them.

Why did you hurt me? is your question, the only one, but you do not write this.

Of course I remember you! he replies, almost immediately. I will give it my best to answer any questions you have. I hope you are doing good.

You ask if he might be willing to share his memory of that day at the mall. Your point of view would be helpful for my own closure, you say, no matter what that may be. You ask if he has ever thought of it again, if the experience ever held any weight for him. You tell him there are no right answers, because you believe this is true.

Gil responds from a different email address. His personal one.

Let me really think about it, he says, so I can give you my best recollection.

I want to help you, he says, in any way that I can.

You never hear from Gil again.

In Guernica, T Kira Madden tells the story of her rape, confusion, and redemption to show us what rape culture really looks like in this country. To help foster the transparency and responsibility necessary to combat it, Madden holds her own sexual assault and her assailants up her for all of us to see.

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The Science of Suppressing Traumatic Memories

I had come to his house, in this sunny spot between Ben Gurion Airport and the Mediterranean coast, for an unlikely reason: not long ago, after decades of unwavering silence, Sigmund Schiller spoke about his Holocaust experience.

“People talk about ‘Sophie’s Choice’ as if it were a rare event,” he said. “It wasn’t. Everybody had to make Sophie’s choice—all of us. My mother left behind a four-year-old with the maid. You don’t think I was beaten and shot at? There are no violins in my story. It is the most common thing that happened.”

Nobody moved in the Schillers’ living room while the film continued. At times, Daniela hid her eyes with her hands, and so did her father. For the most part, they were immobile. On camera, she asked him if he had consciously suppressed this information.

“Yes,” he said. “You must suppress. Without suppression I wouldn’t live.”

Michael Specter, in The New Yorker, on the neuroscience of our own memories.

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More Specter in the Longreads Archive

Scientists are trying to uncover why some people are better able to recover from trauma than others:

After Ebaugh crawled up the rocky riverbank, a truck driver picked her up, took her to a nearby convenience store and bought her a cup of hot tea. Police, when they arrived, were sympathetic and patient. The doctor at the hospital, she says, treated her like a daughter. A close friend took her in for a time. And her family offered reassurance and emotional support. ‘For the first month, I almost had to tell people to stop coming because I was so surrounded by friends and community,’ she says.

Studies of many kinds of trauma have shown that social support is a strong buffer against PTSD and other psychological problems. James Coan, a psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, has done a series of experiments in which women lie in an fMRI scanner and see ‘threat cues’ on a screen. They are told that between 4 and 10 seconds later, they may receive a small electric shock on the ankle. The cue triggers sensory arousal and activates brain regions associated with fear and anxiety, but when the women hold the hands of their husbands2 or friends3, these responses diminish.

Social interactions are complex and involve many brain circuits and chemicals; no one knows exactly why they provide relief.

“Stress: The Roots of Resilience.” — Virginia Hughes, Nature

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