Thursday, April 20, 2017

How trauma kills our storytelling abilities

I've told you why it's important not to make all your personal stories 'happily ever after' stories, and to keep in the messy parts. And I've shared here a real-life story about a cancer patient who was dying, and asked to speak about her treatment, clearly a difficult task.

But it's also true that some stories are just too traumatic to tell. I've seen many speakers overcome by the experience of trying to speak in front of an audience about a deep personal trauma. In effect, speaking about it is the equivalent of reliving the traumatic experience, or can be. But storytelling--whether you do it in public or in private--can be a path toward coming to grips with your trauma.

Here's a good example in a Chronicle of Higher Education article about a woman who survived the shootings at Virginia Tech a decade ago. Today, Kristina Anderson speaks to groups about her experiences. Here's what happened at one of them:
Ms. Anderson, a sincere 29-year-old with crystal-blue eyes, takes the hallway to the resort’s convention center. Two hundred law-enforcement officials, mental-health experts, and campus-safety officers have come for the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals’ spring conference. She takes a seat toward the back of a room and listens as the keynote speaker, Sheriff Jerry L. Demings of Orange County, describes the police response to the fatal shooting of 49 people at an Orlando nightclub last year. 
Soon, Ms. Anderson notices her heart pounding. She puts two fingers to her neck and checks her pulse. Fast. She breathes deeply, trying to slow the sudden creep of anxiety. She’s nervous about tomorrow’s presentation, but she feels something else, too. It’s the weight of an approaching anniversary. 
On April 16, 2007, a troubled student armed with semi-automatic pistols killed 32 people and wounded 17 others at Virginia Tech. Ms. Anderson was one of them. 
These days she describes her experience, in city after city, giving presentations about school and workplace safety. She did 86 last year. It’s a job, a way of reshaping the meaning of that terrible day again and again. Survival, she’s still learning, isn’t a one-time thing, a seam stitched and then forgotten.
That reshaping of her story is a key part of recovering from trauma. But first, the trauma kills off our ability to tell stories, as you'll learn in this interview by Krista Tippett with Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, an expert in how the body processes memory and trauma. From the interview:
MS. TIPPETT: Something that’s very interesting to me in how you talk about trauma, the experience of trauma, what it is, is how the nature of memory is distorted, that memories are never precise recollections, but that in general, as we move through the world, memories become integrated and transformed into stories that help us make sense. But in the case of traumatic memories, they’re not integrated, and they’re not even really remembered as much as they’re relived. 
DR. VAN DER KOLK: That’s correct. There’s actually a very old observation, and it was made extensively in the 1890s already by various people, including Freud. That’s really what you see when you see traumatized people. Now, these days, the trauma is a popular subject. People say, “Tell me about your trauma.” But the nature of our trauma is that you actually have no recollection for it as a story in a way. 
Many victims, over time, get to tell a story to explain why they are so messed up. But the nature of a traumatic experience is that the brain doesn’t allow a story to be created. And here, you have an interesting paradox that it’s normal to distort your memories. Like, I’m one out of five kids. When we have a family reunion, we all tell stories about our own childhood, and everybody always listens to everybody else’s stories — says, “Did you grow up in the same family as I did?” 
MS. TIPPETT: Right. There are five versions of every story. 
DR. VAN DER KOLK: Yeah. There’s all these very, very different versions, and they barely ever overlap. So, people create their own realities in a way. What is so extraordinary about trauma, is that these images or sounds or physical sensations don’t change over time. So people who have been molested as kids continue to see the wallpaper of the room in which they were molested. Or when they examine all these priest-abuse victims, they keep seeing the silhouette of the priest standing in the door of the bathroom and stuff like that. So it’s these images, these sounds that don’t get changed. So it’s normal to change. 
My old teacher, George Vaillant, did a study that you may have heard about. It’s called the Grant Study. And from 1939 to 1942, they followed the classes at Harvard every five years, and it’s going on to this day. Most of them went off to war in 1942, and almost all of them came back in 1945, and they were interviewed. And then they have interviews in 1989, 1990, 1991. It turns out that the people who did not develop PTSD, which was the vast majority, tell very different stories, let’s say, in 1990 than back in 1945. So now it was a glorious experience, it was a growth experience, and how good it was, how close they were to people, and how patriotic they felt. And it’s all sort of cleaned up. 
MS. TIPPETT: Right. But it’s become a coherent narrative. 
DR. VAN DER KOLK: But it’s very coherent, and it’s a nice story, and it’s good to listen to it, and relatives have all heard it a million times, but — because we make happy stories in our mind. People who got traumatized continue to have the same story in 1990 as they told back in 1945, so they cannot transform it. When we treat people, you see the narrative change, and people start introducing new elements.
Later in the interview, Tippett asks about Broca's area, a part of the brain responsible for processing language, and we learn a bit about what's going on in your brain when trauma interferes with your storytelling skills:
DR. VAN DER KOLK: Well, in our study and some others, I mean, for me that was really the great finding early on, is that when people are into their trauma, Broca’s area shuts down. That is something that almost everybody has experienced. You get really upset with your partner or your kid, suddenly you take leave of your senses and you say horrible things to that person. And afterwards, you say, “Oh, I didn’t mean to say that.” 
The reason why you said it is because Broca’s area, which is sort of the part of your brain that helps you to say reasonable things and to understand things and articulate them, shuts down. So when people really become very upset, that whole capacity to put things into words in an articulate way disappears. And for me, that is a very important finding because it helped me to realize that, if people need to overcome the trauma, we need to also find methods to bypass what they call the tyranny of language.
That says a lot about the power of speaking something out loud, doesn't it? It's useful information to keep in mind when you are evaluating whether to speak on a topic that causes or caused you great distress.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Zervas)
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