Coping with General PTSD

Just about every day, Facebook pops up on my personal page a post & photo from this date some year in the past, as a memory.

What happens in Vegas–piling on a napping Grandpa February 2020. Happy anniversary?

The other day, a photo came up on FB of me,  taking nap recliner, while mischievous granddaughter, seven, piling stuffed animals and stuff on my torso to see how much she could  stack up on me before the weight woke me up.

This happened one year ago during a family reunion over an extended weekend in Las Vegas, where my daughter works as a nurse. It was silly scene, but showed we were having a fine time, so it was worth a passing remembrance.

Then I realized something else about it. That trip and gathering marked the end of the world.

Well, not the end of THE world, but surely the end of A world: the pre-pandemic world, the demise of what can be called the Good Old Days. And so that silly photo of me asleep with odds and ends piled on my belly in late February 2020, also marked the anniversary – better say the first anniversary — of the era of Covid.

After that family weekend, within just a few weeks, schools were closed, unemployment swept through us like a tornado, markets crashed, toilet paper disappeared and lockdowns were coming, and the last time I was able to worship in person at our meetinghouse until – when?

And on this unwelcome anniversary, I realized a couple other things: one is that it’s not over; far from it. The other is a strong suspicion, that even when it’s declared to be over, it may be impossible to go “back to normal.”  At least not entirely.

Surely there’s no going back for the 484,000 Americans dead from it as of the third weekend in February, 2021; or for many of their families.

Today’s paper said that’s 1 in every 670 of us.  And I doubt there’s any going back for the rest of us, the current survivors.

Besides which, of course, the virus is just one part of what made the upheavals of the year since that photo was taken so hard: how can we forget political and cultural polarization?

I’m not going to talk politics here, but do want to speak of trauma. We’ve had viral trauma piled onto cultural and political and racial trauma as well as economic trauma. Maybe since January 20 we’ve turned a corner on some of it. I sure hope so, but it’s not over yet. And after trauma, there comes post trauma stress or PTSD.

I had recently learned about this in another way. I had a stroke in October 2019, and it was surprising to me, because there was no pain. Yet the stroke specialist at Duke told me not to kid myself: it was a blow to my whole system, a serious trauma, and she said it would take months or even a year to absorb the impact. PSSD – Post Stroke Stress Disorder.

And she was right. Yes, I’m still here and still functional, but not the same.

And my sense is that many or most of the rest of us are facing PTSD over this awful combo of pandemic,  polarization, and personal dislocation in job or family or both.

I don’t have a fix-it list for this plight, or nothing except what might sound like banalities:

one foot in front of the other;
one day at a time; and
Spring is coming.

That’s about it. I’m not a therapist, or a political organizer. I have more opinions, but will spare you those, except maybe one: it’s important to face up to our situation.

To help do that, I want to cite a few passages from relevant articles. One is from a California family therapist, Mitchell Rosen,  from September 2019.

As odd as it may sound, many of my clients complain about having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD] from the politics in our country. Other therapists also have reported a similar uptick for this reason.

Mitchell Rosen, Family therapist

In 30-plus years of doing family counseling, I have seen political and social events affect clients: Challenger explosion, 9/11, impeachment of President Clinton and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to name a few.

However, I have never seen the political divide in our country cause so many patients to have sustained personal, family and emotional problems as I have during the past few years.

It’s not my role as a psychotherapist to advocate personal political preferences, and that is not what I’m describing.

What is seen are families, husbands and wives, children and parents, best friends and even siblings arguing about politics and many becoming obsessed with watching either Fox News or CNN [or MSNBC].

It is not uncommon for me to have marriage counseling sessions that focus on which of these cable news stations should be on in the house or whether to refrain from political discussions altogether.

The essential feature of PTSD is the development of emotional symptoms following exposure to a traumatic event—symptoms that that can include helplessness, fear or impairment of social functioning. Patients of mine will describe recurring nightmares, fear of divorce, and the loss of family and friends that they relate to the political divide.

Unlike most PTSD disorders, these clients complain not of a single event but ongoing reactivation of their trauma on either a daily, weekly or monthly basis depending on the news. Many of my clients have reached a saturation point and emotionally cannot watch the news or attempt political conversations.

I have written about the polarization in our country before, but now the accumulative effect is reaching more and more of the families I see. It appears to go beyond Republicans vs. Democrats. The issues that are surfacing involve fear of one’s own security and a sense of dread or foreboding for our country. Many men and women, of all ages, start to think about where the country is going and cannot stop obsessing about the most catastrophic of scenarios.

The word I hear most often is “helpless,” as in “I am helpless to change or stop what is happening.” Some might read this column and say, “Come on, we’re not in a civil war or under attack. Isn’t this a bit dramatic and overblown?” I am reporting what I and other therapists are seeing with increasing frequency, not judging if it is a mass distortion or delusion.

One of the cornerstones of mental health — whether it be in a family, workplace or school — is the ability to disagree, even argue without vitriol, mocking or hatred. More and more, I am treating clients who state they do not seem to be able to disagree or voice their political opinion without incurring an onslaught of dismissiveness or ridicule. For too many, this is resulting in a decision to withdraw, avoid interactions and live isolated with a sense of hopelessness or anger.

There are no simple solutions . . . .

That article is from almost 18 months ago; it sounds even more accurate today. It makes one wonder, Is American Healing Even Possible?

That’s a question writer Adam Harris put to Rev. William Barber in The Atlantic late last November, while the fallout of the election was still raining down around us.  Barber stressed that the dimensions of the problem go beyond an individual or family context.

Martin Luther King Jr. was on Barber’s mind that day. He was thinking about the March on Washington; everyone remembers King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but many forget its actual title: “Normalcy—Never Again.”

Rev. Barber: I was trained in theology that whatever you call your spiritual experience, if it does not produce a quarrel with the world, then the claim to be spiritual is suspect.

Over and over again in the Christian scriptures—in the Christian New Testament, and in the Hebrew Old Testament—the prophets were required to tell the truth in season and out of season, whether folk believed it or not. Oftentimes, they were castigated for telling the truth. . . .

People forget that when Jesus preached his first sermon [Luke4:14-30]—good news to the poor, healing to the brokenhearted, recovery of sight to the blind—he was doing that in the context of Roman oppression.

And Roman oppression had also infiltrated the religious cultures, and the religious cultures had begun to serve the oppressor rather than relieve the oppressed.

And when Jesus said he had good news to the poor, that was a radical statement—because in Greek, the word is ptochos, which means those who have been made poor by economic exploitation.

Then, when he ended by saying he came “to declare the acceptable year of the Lord,” that is a direct reference to the Old Testament concept of Jubilee. And Jubilee was when, in the 50th year [of a cycle], all debts were released, all slaves were set free, all oppression was supposed to be over. He’s basically saying, “I’ve come to announce that it’s time for this day, and those who are oppressed have the right, nonviolently, to stand for this day.”

And the Bible says, on that day, [after his very first sermon] they tried to kill him. See, oftentimes we don’t keep reading. He almost got killed for his first sermon.

And then [in] his last sermon  [Matthew 25:31-46], he says the nation will be judged—not people, not individuals—but the nation will be judged by how it treats the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the immigrant, and the least of these. By the deaths from public policy. And such deaths didn’t start with COVID. People were already dying because of the denial of health care  . . . .

When I was invited to preach a sermon at the National Cathedral, I entitled it “America, Accepting Death Is Not an Option Anymore.” Down through history, we’ve opted for all of these policies that will have what I call a DM on the DL—a death measurement on the down low. And we can’t ignore that anymore. That truth must be told.

There’s a scripture in Ezekiel where God says to Ezekiel, “I need you to tell the nation the truth.” And they may not hear you, because they are stiff-necked people. But at least they will know there has been a prophet among them. And then in Ezekiel 22, the scripture says the reason why there is so much [hurting of] the poor, poverty—and the poor and the immigrants receive no justice—is because the politicians lie. In the King James [Bible] it says “princes.” But the princes or politicians lie; your leaders lie.

And worse than that, it says the priests encouraged their lying, joined with them, and said things that God has not said.

We, as people of faith, may not be able to stop everything that happens. But we can make it worse, or exacerbate what happens if we join it, by telling a lie when we ought to tell the truth. But we also exacerbate it if we don’t say anything . . . .

The people I’m around didn’t vote for normal, nor are they ready to go back to normal. Yes, people did stand up in the wake of [George] Floyd’s death and Breonna Taylor’s death. But I think we have to understand that in a larger context. It happened in the midst of COVID; it happened when people were home & out of work; it happened on top of a whole lot of deaths, tracing all the way back to Tamir Rice. You have to ask yourself: What is it that caused such a movement in this moment, when we’ve seen people killed on camera before?

I wrote a piece saying that George Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe” became shorthand for how a lot of people were feeling—that the weight of the pressures of the state that’s supposed to help them were actually [standing] on their necks. That people were saying “I can’t breathe,” with all this pressure of being forced to go to work without the protections they need. “I can’t breathe” is what most people were saying even before they were dying from COVID in hospitals.

The police represented the state, and the state is not supposed to kill you. It’s supposed to ensure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The state is supposed to see to the establishment of justice and ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and guarantee equal protection under the law.

I’ve heard People say, “Well, last summer’s protests were the greatest, most diverse movement in the country’s history, but that’s not true. The abolition movement was diverse; the early labor movement was diverse.

There’s a place in which Rosa Parks says, “I’m tired. I just can’t take this no more. It may not change everything. But I’m going to do this.” And we never know when the spark is going to ignite. But we do know that there’s this sense in which folk have to, if you will, stand up in various ways.

The worst thing for people to think would be that folks just want to go back to normal. . . .

In our movement, we constantly challenge folk. We say there are five crises: systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation and the denial of health care, the war economy, and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism. Those are five interlocking injustices that threaten the soul of this nation.

[And I would add a sixth crisis, to include the rise of a culture & technology of big lies by media and politicians and even church leaders, a system of lies that has captivated millions. Yes, make it six. No, wait –plus COVID, to make seven, which after all is the Bible’s favorite number.]

I think Rev. Barber is right, and Mitchell Rosen is right. Again, I don’t claim to know how to fix this PTSD, again, or how to get through it, except one day at a time, one foot in front of the other, and Spring. (Well, vaccines, masks & social distancing too . . .)

But I’ll add one more suggestion: can we sit with this unwelcome anniversary, bring it into reflective silence, or fold it into whatever spiritual practice works?

That’s what Quakers do, and that’s what I am going to do now.

10 thoughts on “Coping with General PTSD”

  1. “And I would add a sixth crisis, to include the rise of a culture & technology of big lies by media and politicians and even church leaders, a system of lies that has captivated millions.” Just wondering, is this to be read as a blanket condemnation of all politicians and all journalists and all religious leaders? I assume not, but how do we support a culture and technology of truth. We need truthful politicians (and I believe they do exist) and journalists and spiritual leaders, and they need to be encouraged and supported. What think you?

    1. Hi Barbara,
      Good question. By no means do I condemn all politicians or journalists. I believe there are reliable practitioners of both, who do a tough job well (but not perfectly). I find them by checking statements and reporting over time: if a reporter or publication says X happened, does it turn out that X really did? And is this accuracy maintained over time? And if a politician says he/she supports policy Y, does their record show them acting that out? And if either sort makes a mistake (e.g., it turns out that X actually did not happen), do they admit it & make corrections?
      I’ve found some who have a good track record in these regards. So with my modest means, I support them: subscribe to their publications, listen to their programs, talk about & cite their work online (as in this post) for other readers, buy their books. It’s an ongoing & often uphill slog.

  2. Two comments:
    1. I once heard it said that an adviser told a potato crisp company “I can tell you how to make a profit in three words – don’t peel’em”. In the same way, one thing that can help with the ‘PTSD’ thing, in 4/5 words, is ‘Don’t watch the news’. (Or read it, especially on a mobile phone).
    2. On politicians and truth – I’ve just finished reading Kamala Harris’ ‘The Truths we hold’ – an inspirational read suggesting there might yet be hope (for America and so the world).
    She writes (p264) “(Words) can spur people to action, for good or ill. Words are incredibly powerful, and people in power, whose words can carry furthest and fastest, have an obligation – a duty – to speak them with precision and wisdom. Scripture tells us, ‘The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered’ “. And that was written at least two years before Trump’s words on 6th January ’21.

  3. Thanks for your answer, Chuck. The level of misinformation and mistrust we see circulating in the public sphere is disturbing, and, like you and many others, I am concerned about how we can identify and support fact / truth / right action.

    And thanks for your blog. I find much of interest to me. (I was a Quaker back in the day, actively from 1963 to 1974, then hardly at all from 1974 to the present, but Unitarian Universalist more or less since 2008), and my great-grandmother was a sort of free-lance Quaker preacher / missionary in California and in China mid 1890s to the mid 1920s or so. )

  4. Excellent post, Chuck. Good review of the combination of forces that impact so much today for all people and at many levels. PTSD most often is an aspect of an injustice, a trespass that wounds deeply. Much of today’s troubles remind many people of earlier wounds and hence a PTSD response – outsized fear, flashbacks, confusion, and pain. The overview of connected parts you offer is a good way to imagine a way forward. Overview decreases the power of each unnamed piece attacking each day. Thanks for such good work.

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