Monday, February 14, 2011

The Rest of the Story

I heard it last night.  I heard it again tonight in a different story.  I don't know why in two places I was that people were watching these stories, but I listened with interest.

The first was a story about a sailing boat that sank.  There were over fifty people on the vessel at the time, and there was great confusion and chaos and a long wait for  rescue.  Not all knew until the rescue if all had made it off or not.  In the end, all were rescued without one life lost and no serious injuries.  An incredible miracle.  (I missed the beginning of the show, so I don't know the details.)

What caught my attention was the people talking about what happened after - after the crisis.  A few said, "It has been a year, and I am still not always sleeping.  I still have dreams that I step on a boat and it immediately sinks.  I still am having dreams."  I nodded my head in understanding.  Those dreams.  It took me months to sleep without dreams of trauma.  Even now, I will sometimes dream and wake up with my heart pounding.  It is not completely over.

But as I listened, I heard even more interesting things.  A girl said, "When I first walked back into my own house after we got back, I went to my room, and I just lay on my bed.  I did not come out of my house for a week.  I just lay in bed and slept a lot and just stayed in bed.  I was so depressed and crying all the time."

I stopped stock still.  I think if I had seen this same show a year ago, I would have been puzzled by her response.  Depressed?!  Crying?!  She should be feeling so _________ (relieved, happy, thankful, amazed)!

The second story was a follow up on the Chilean miners.  They talked about depression, about fears, about wanting to hide, about not sleeping, being on medication.

This year, I understood them all.  I have been on this journey - from trauma towards recovery.  It is not the trip you expect.

After the crisis, during the initial days of recovery, I mentioned that I was not sleeping, that I was having dreams.  I mentioned that I was just not tired, even though I was exhausted.  I mentioned a few other things, too.  The people with me at the time actually handed me a piece of paper and said, "Here read this.  I think you will recognize a lot of your symptoms as being on here."

It was a list of common reactions to trauma.    Hmm....

Except that I was not doing a case study to present to the class for a mark.  I was living it.  My logical brain, usually quite capable of dissecting  a list and applying it to a situation was completely frozen.  My will which usually can kick in and make me focus was numb.  My emotions were the only thing left, and even they were making no sense at the time.

A list did nothing for me.  I stared at it and the pieces of letters broke off and formed chaos on the page.  I blinked and read the words, but they made no connection to thoughts in my brain.

I didn't need a list.  A list could not touch my heart.  I needed a story.  Stories can pass through our muddle and stick.  When I hear a story, my heart responds.  When I heard this girl's story of crawling in bed depressed after an amazing rescue, my heart connected to her story.  I got it.

The problem is that we don't often tell the rest of the story.  We tell the amazing rescues, the miraculous stepping in of God, the ability He has to carry us through the darkest days.... but we pass over the parts that don't seem to fit.  We end the story at the rescue and the hugs of the family again.  We just don't tell of the week in bed in a depressed fog.  It doesn't show off God in a good light, we think.  It doesn't really glorify God.  It was a momentary weakness, we say, not really a part of the story.

So when we face our own trauma, we expect to go on like those stories we have heard.  We expect the "happily ever after" ending.  And when people come to us and say, "You must be feeling so incredibly happy!", we paste on a smile and nod, yet feel incredibly confused and guilty by our failure to even enjoy the miracle we were given.

No one had ever told me the rest of the story.  No one ever told me what the valley between trauma and healing looked like.  I was not prepared for the trip.  Today, as I am climbing back out the other side, I hear others talking of that trip.  It seems, though, that I don't hear it much among believers.... are we worried about appearing weak?

I'm willing to be weak.  I'm even willing to be wrong, to have reacted wrongly.  I'm willing to have failed at some things.  I'll be all that if I can speak honestly about this valley.  Others will walk it after me, and let me be weak if it means someone will hear and remember that this trip is not the one you expect.

We need to hear these stories before we hit trauma.  When we face trauma, it is a bit late to begin learning.  We need to hear these stories so when we go through it, we are calmed by knowing it is normal.  We need to know these stories so that when our friends and coworkers go through it, we can walk with them instead of fearing that they may be losing it, having a breakdown, or not walking with God as they should be.  We need to hear of the deepness, the ruggedness, and the loneliness of the ravine that has to be crossed.

Then, perhaps instead of saying "You must be feeling so __________!", we will stop to ask, "What are you feeling today?  Do you want to sit on the bridge with me and throw sticks in the water and just watch them float?  I'm hear to listen."

Instead of saying, "So tell me the story - I want to hear all the exciting things!  I just can't believe how wonderful it all is!", we will listen to whatever is wanted to be shared that day.  There is a line between wanting to hear details for our own enjoyment and interest, and wanting to hear what a person needs to share.  Who are we thinking of - our interested ears or their bruised heart?  Our listening will reflect that.

Most, most, most of all... if we know of that valley, we will avoid criticizing or correcting those who are down in it.  That only adds guilt on top of their burden.

There is a road out.  I just don't think there are any short cuts.  At least, I didn't find any.  But the road will lead out of the valley again, and we will be changed for our experiences struggling through it.


Shan in Japan said...

Thanks for sharing this. On Sunday I just preached from 2 Cor. 1:3-11 about sharing the comfort God has given us. Your post reminded me. Thank you for the reminder to listen-to whatever needs to be shared and not just ask for the details.

Carrie said...

Makes perfect sense to me. I think you should write up a "hot to" pamphlet, explaining the best ways to help a team member during and after a trauma, and then send it to various mission agencies. As one who has lived it, your advice would be invaluable!

Ellie said...

Carrie - you'd think so... but I doubt it, really.

You see, those pamphlets exist. I know. I was shown one right after the trauma. But at that point, our ability to absorb, learn, and process information is low. It did nothing.

I think we need to do two things:

1. We need to educate people about trauma recovery before trauma. Like we do about cultural adaptation before we move - true, we don't absorb it all, but it is in there. A framework for later.

2. We need to talk honestly about our stories. We stop the story at the good news, or we skip over the valley altogether and tell only the recovery and the "happily ever after" part. We need to make a practice of sharing with each other the rough patches.

If I had known that my fellow missionaries also struggled with depression and confusing thoughts and total apathy after a trauma - if they had told me - then I would be more prepared to face it myself.

It is our stories that stick in each others minds, not our advice.

At least that is the way it is for me - I am a story learner. Tell me a story and I'll remember it twenty years from now.

Becky Aguirre said...

This is a great discussion, Ellie, and I think I agree with you that agencies and missionaries need trauma training...I also agree that there is definitely the need to be willing to be open and transparent about our stories and experiences. This is something I want to help my kids with, learning how to handle trauma and strong emotions because I think it would have benefited me so much when I was young.