Boston Marathon. Explosion. Wounded. Amputations. Bomb. Dead. Chaos.
This is pretty much how my brain took in the information about the recent bombing of the Boston Marathon. The gaps are places where my brain was fighting over whether to take in the information or not. I wanted to know everything that happened so that perhaps I could analyze it, make sense of it, and make myself feel safe by reassuring myself that it couldn’t happen to me. And yet, I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to see the images – not even in my mind’s eye. I didn’t want to read about the terror or the devastation or the chaos. I didn’t want to think about what it would be like to lose someone I loved in a random, unexpected attack. I didn’t want to imagine what it would feel like to lose my legs or my ability to do something that I loved to do. I didn’t want to lose the illusion that I/we are generally safe as long as we take precautions and do the right thing. And I certainly didn’t want to feel fear.
I resisted looking up information, but there it was, Boston Marathon Explosion on my newsreel. The headlines were devastating. Not knowing was even more uncomfortable than knowing. So I read the reports that I’ll summarize here. Two blasts, one about 10 seconds after the first, killed three people including an 8-year-old boy and injured over 1oo (the number is now over 170) people. The bombs contained a number of fragments that in the explosion severed several people’s legs off and mangled many other people’s legs and other limbs so severely that they had to be amputated. Officials don’t know who is responsible.
In this sanitized account, which doesn’t mention names or provide graphic details, I can retreat to the safety of my head. This is a defense mechanism. It lets me stay a little bit numb. I’m guessing that lots of other people are using this strategy as well – hence the hunger for more and more information. The problem is that numb isn’t grounded.
Besides, the explosion wasn’t sanitized. The news reports and visual footage portray a chaotic scene. And my body (and your body) knows that. Our bodies, via our limbic system which has little recepters spread out around the heart and gut, tune into the fear around us. They tune into what it might be like to die, or lose someone else, or lose our own limbs. And for people who have experienced trauma in the past, feeling this fear can unleash all sorts of sensory memories from past traumatic experiences. And, because the hippocampus often gets shut down during a traumatic even, those old traumatic experiences don’t get fully processed. The elements of the memory – taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight, emotional response and thought – don’t get tied together in a neat little package with a time date stamp that tells us, when the memory gets evoked, that it happened in the past. That means that reading, hearing about or seeing images of another traumatic event can cue up elements of traumatic events from the past as if they are happening now.
You may find yourself feeling irritable or angry, vaguely uneasy or even full blown terror. You may feel numb. You may feel really sad – beyond what might be reasonable for the tragedy, and not understand why. You may even be flooded with memories of something awful that happened to you in the past. This is normal. It may not feel OK, but you are OK. It’s very likely that this crisis has ripped open some old wounds and that some of the numbness, anger, grief, and fear that you are feeling relates as much to these old wounds as it does to the present horror.
I’d like to invite all of you to look beyond the obvious reasons for your feelings this week and search your past. Try asking yourself, “What does this remind me of?” Going back into your past will not only help you to heal from past wounds, but it will also help you to better cope with your current feelings, whether they involve day to day issues or the recent tragedy. In the meantime, be gentle with yourself and the people around you. Give yourself time to heal from traumatic events and know that healing is possible.