Tag Archives: trauma recovery

Thoughts on dealing with post-violence emotional trauma

A post written in the aftermath of the El Paso and Dayton shootings triggered a significant response from my Facebook friends, including multiple shares, so I thought I would share the post on my blog. A link to the public post and comments can be found here, but the following is the text from the main post:

Like most, I am reeling from two days of carnage in El Paso and Dayton. What many of my FB friends might not know is that I am from Dayton. I know the part of the Oregon District where the shootings took place very well. I grew up the Dayton suburb of Bellbrook, raised my kids there, and was embedded in the community until moving to [Florida State University] 2011. Now, it turns out, the shooter may have lived one street away from the house where I lived for nearly 20 years. Needless to say, my thoughts and prayers go out to all my friends, relatives, and neighbors. (As far as I know, none of my family, friends, or neighbors were directly in harm’s way.)

These events are sad, tragic, and dispiriting to say the least. Everyone will be going through a difficult time processing the human tragedy, the apparent senselessness of the violence, and their implications. Finding ways to move beyond these tragedies is difficult, but essential work, and we all can play a part in the healing.

Unfortunately, I have found myself grappling with these types of traumas much more than I ever anticipated since I moved for Florida State and Tallahassee in 2011. Since coming to FSU, I have learned an astounding amount about emotional trauma from sexual assault survivors, but I’ve also worked (as a teacher, not a professional counselor) with my students to cope with the FSU Strozier library shootings in 2014, the Parkland high school mass shooting in 2018, the Hot Yoga studio shootings in 2019 as well as the aftermath of the devastation from Hurricanes Matthew (2016), Irma (2017), and most recently Michael (2018), which wiped out much of the Panhandle. Sadly, this seems to go with the territory when teaching at a large, urban university in the third most populous state in the nation that is also surrounded by large bodies of water. In each of these cases, I worked with students one-on-one and in group discussion.

I am not a trained professional, but I have learned we all have a role to play in helping others overcome these tragedies. This role includes helping those who may not have been directly effected but have important emotional ties to the people and events.

Here are a few initial thoughts based on what I have learned working with my students:

  • By all means, talk about it. Verbally articulating your fears, anxieties, and emotions is vital to processing these events. It also creates a firm foundation for the next step in healing. Create safe spaces for family, friends, and others to help them process their feelings without judgement. This is critical to moving forward. I have found our discussions in the classroom have helped students and families move forward in a constructive and positive ways. The feelings are real. They need to be named, discussed, and contextualized. Talking in a nonjudgmental space helps… a lot.
  • Don’t be afraid to seek professional help, even if you weren’t directly affected by the event. We are human. We are naturally empathetic. Part of they way many people process these events is by identifying direct connections to the tragedy to provide context for the hurt and pain. Just because I am 900 miles away from Dayton, doesn’t mean I am not struggling with how to connect to friends and family or experiencing other forms of anxiety, including guilt, fear, and anger. Professional counselors, therapists can help you process through this.
  • Remember the human toll from these events is vast. I know my community of Bellbrook is reeling from the knowledge that someone in their own community committed this horrendous evil. Many will be saying “why didn’t we know?” “Should we have known?” “What could we have done?” Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people will feel the tangible effects of these events and will be grappling with the aftermath.
  • The physical toll on the survivors is just one element of their personal tragedy. The emotional and psychological scars will be long lasting, and for many permanent. This event is an indelible part of their identity from this point forward. Be patient. Be supportive. Remember, everyone is on their own journey. As friends and relatives, our task is to help them get onto that healing path.

I have known many survivors of tragedy that have emerged as powerful, amazing human beings. These events, however, require us all to do our part in small and big ways to ensure a healing process and journey can begin.

One final thought (for those on spiritual journeys): I was in Orlando last night, but had the crazy idea to try to make it back to Element3 Church for the 11 am service. (I usually attend the 9 am.) These plans were made weeks ago. Today, our lead pastor, Lori Green, opened the service with a heartfelt and impassioned plea to remember why we were attending service today — because our Christian faith puts pre-eminent emphasis on love, community, and connection. This is where God’s love manifests itself in our daily lives. I have to admit that as she was talking about Dayton, I began to process El Paso, Parkland, Hot Yoga, Strozier library, Hurricane Michael — now hundreds of students where I have been privileged to lead discussions about coping with tragedy and trauma. I became overwhelmed.

I don’t know if anyone noticed my tears. But I realized I was in a community of people that understood the path forward is through love and compassion, not anger and violence. This is where the healing begins, continues, and leads to long-term peace. We cannot do it alone. Nor should we.

I am not sure why I was compelled to make it back to E3 today, and Pastor Lori certainly didn’t know what I was going through as I was listening, but I am glad I did. I am grateful this is my home Church and can testify to the power of its message.

For those interested in knowing more about my work on emotional trauma, particularly as it relates to sexual assault, here are a few links:

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Five life lessons inspired by sexual assault survivors

Most of the sexual assault survivors I have come to know in the process of researching and writing Unsafe On Any Campus? were teenagers when they were raped. For many, the assault turned their world upside down, sending them into a downward spiral of self-loathing, distrust, and cynicism. Fortunately, for most, resilience won out. In fact, a few have even found a new center, a renewed sense of self, and an element of peace.

This begs the question: What life lessons can we learn from these trauma survivors? Here are just five:

  1. Live in the moment. In all too many cases, the rape was so traumatizing that victims dropped classes, withdrew from school altogether, or completely shifted their everyday lives inward. Their depression was fueled by continually reliving the events and the assault. Their transition from victim to survivor often began with a renewed and deeper appreciation for the moments of support, beauty, and dignity they experienced each day rather than reliving the horror of the assault. This allowed many to reclaims their sense of purpose and recapture the dignity that makes them human. 
  2. Draw strength from community. Eighty percent of women who have been raped never disclose the assault to university or law enforcement officials. The figure is even lower for men. The trauma is so personal, so devastating, that many victims are afraid to tell anyone, even their closest friends and family. Reaching out to those cared for them most intimately, those who gave their unqualified support, started them on their path toward recovery. Without the support of those friends and family, survivors say they wouldn’t have had the courage to acknowledge let alone go public with their assault. This close knit group because their rock, their community, and a foundation stone for rebuilding their lives. 
  3. We each have our own journey. Each survivor has their our own personal journey to recovery. The more survivors I met, the more obvious it became that each rape (and assault) was different, each circumstance was unique, each consequence personal. I have met women who were able to move on quickly, and others that struggled to leave their home. The depth of their trauma is highly individualized, making their journeys equally diverse. Survivors are deeply respectful and tolerant of the importance for individuals to chart their own course, to discover their own path, to recovery. This inward reflection leads to a recasting of identity and understanding of self that is inspiring strong and purposeful. 
  4. Each journey has its own path. Not all survivors choose the same road to recovery or healing. The physical and emotional nature of a violation through rape triggers deep wounds that are often invisible, even to those that experience it. Thus, the paths are as varied as the journeys and require many more decisions than paths available. These paths can seem like they shift under their feet, and often become illuminated only after they have been trodden. Survivors on a healing journey are remarkably resilient. They understand the nature of emotional barriers and the difficulties of overcoming them. They are patient and empathetic. They persist with grit and determination. 
  5. Forgiving yourself is essential for healing and stepping foot on our path. Often, this self-forgiveness begins when we acknowledge the truth of a seemingly trite, but essentially true, mantra: “It’s not your fault.” Many of the men and women I came to know became victims through no fault of their own. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and unaware of the threat standing right next to them. Yet they blame themselves first and this weight drags them deep into depression. The path toward healing begins with forgiving oneself. Indeed, this may be the most important lesson of all because this self-forgiveness releases one from the self loathing and guilt that keeps victims in the past, focused on the past, and their paths dark.

These teenagers became women far too soon, their innocence stolen in a matter of minutes. They were forced to “grow up” and become adults far faster than any parent would want for their child. Fortunately, many survivors find a place where they can accept themselves again and embark on a path of self re-discovery. These stories—their journeys of recovery and healing—are almost never told. They don’t make it into make it into the headlines. Yet, as these survivors pivot on their path, they often find a light others may never know.

They also inspire me.

By bearing witness to their trauma, we can take inspiration from their journeys. By allowing ourselves to hear, we can understand the struggles that come with trauma. If we understand, we can support those who are on their path as well as those struggling to find it.

Perhaps, if enough of us understand, sexual assault and rape will become relegated to a dark part of our social history and banished from our present culture.

 

Permission to reprint and distribute this blog post is given with attribution to the author, Samuel R. Staley, Unsafe On Any Campus? College Sexual Assault and What We Can Do About It (Southern Yellow Pine Publishing, 2016)

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