Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Re-Telling Our Stories

I've had an interesting path recovering from a trauma a few years ago.  It's been a fairly solitary path - not by choice at all, but by neglect of others.  It wasn't at all what I expected to happen after a trauma like that, and the very neglect itself became a sort of secondary trauma that I had to (and still at times have to) sort through.  Added to that, just to make things more interesting, was an event that was almost an attack on us in the middle of the immediate recovery.  From a distance, I can see that it was the result of putting too many freshly hurt people in a room together with no competent guidance or leadership.  But it deeply hurt.

I think one of the difficulties about working in some areas of the world is that everyone is so closely connected to everyone - wanted or not.  One person's mistakes can cost another person's visa, career, or life's work.  Or life.  So tensions tend to run high when things go wrong.  And working in an area of the world that sees as many deaths of workers as this area of the world means that many workers are working with wounds.  Many of us have lost friends.  Some died, some were killed, and some simply disappeared and that awful unknown haunts us.  People like that should never, ever attempt any type of team debrief of any situation without competent guidance and leadership that is NOT involved in the situation.  What happens then is that the wounded attack the weakest - not perhaps because they want to, but because they are wounded and can't even cope with their own wounds.

But we did not know that then.

Others neglected us simply because they were ignorant.  They thought that narrowly averting a tragedy was good news.  That's great, praise God, all is well.  But they put no thought into the effect of the days of trauma.  They were just ignorant, focused on the end result and not on the journey.  Perhaps even thinking that because we coped well in a trauma that "they must be strong".  We are.  But even the strong need to bandage their wounds or they will not any longer be strong.  Often those who stay strong during a crisis need the most care afterwards.  They save all the emotions for dealing with when it is safe.  We've been able to communicate this to our leadership now.

But they did not know that then.

Today I was at work in the old folks home, my part-time side job.  We had some new health information posters put up, and I read one today.  It said that people who have experienced a traumatic event need to tell their story about eight or nine times to listening ears before they are able to begin to come to grips with it.

Eight or nine times.

  Hear that.

I stared at that poster and my eyes filled up until I blinked and turned away.  Eight or nine times.  All I wanted that first week was to talk, to tell my story, and I was told to be quiet, not to talk.  Then I was told to listen to other's stories, but not talk.  "It was their trauma, not yours."  I understand that. They went through what we didn't.  But I needed them to understand that we went through what they didn't.  Don't leave the family out.

The first time I told my story was all alone in a room.  Out of desperation, I grabbed a cup of tea and spoke into empty space, asking God to sit and listen to a story He already knew simply to let me tell it.  The second time was to someone I've never met.  Out of desperation, I wrote my story out to a blogger friend who volunteered her strong shoulders and listening ear.  For the first time, except for the empty room, I felt like someone listened.  What a relief!

Eventually, as best as I could without specifics, I blogged about it, and many of you listened.  That helped.

Later I wanted to talk, and finally, weeks later, someone listened.  But it was the weirdest experience I had ever had in talking to this person.  It was as if he was listening because he had to do a duty, to check it off his list, and wasn't listening with his heart.  It was hard for me.  Really hard.  Perhaps he couldn't.  Perhaps he was too close.  But it just intensified the loneliness.

But I still needed to talk.  And I felt bad about it.  I had talked.  Why still need to?  Even a few times, someone suggested that maybe I was just "stuck" and needed to put it down.  So I felt guilty about it.

When we went home, I was blessed by two groups that heard my story.  Not in all the detail - there was no time, but they HEARD, and that was what I needed.  Then I was really blessed by a friend and a coffee date.... and her poor sister who ended up babysitting for four hours!  I got to tell it again - for the first time face to face with a friend who listened and heard my feelings.

Shortly after that, I was able to spend a week at my Bible school.  I got suddenly dumped with a missions class to teach when there was a family emergency in a teacher's life.  I talked to them simply about what I wished someone had told me when I was sitting behind those desks.  Perhaps they had told me, but I hadn't listened.  I talked to them about the realities of life in missions, and simply listed the events we had been having to deal with as a community over the last year.

I was sitting eating lunch when the dean of woman came and grabbed me.  She stole my food and dumped it and took me out.  We ordered Chinese at a quiet place and when the appetizers came, she said, "now.  Talk!"  So I did.  This time was to an older woman who I respect, but who has also known me since I was 16 years old.

I slowly began to feel more normal, but this year a suggestion by leadership sent me back into a tailspin.  I was on my way to a friend's house - a retired worker who knew our field well.  She also listens well, and she listened as I shared the story.  By this time, I was moving on from the trauma of the actual trauma and starting to process the trauma of the neglected recovery.

But before this, we had a group here for a training session, and one of them who should know better said to me again that maybe I just need to move on and get over it.  I felt bad - both angry and hurt.  Why would people who did such a bad job caring for me in the first place get upset that the wound hadn't healed well?  I started to doubt myself - am I just a mess, not dealing with this well?  Am I just weak, not cut out for this type of work?

Today, I stood there reading our "mental health" poster of the month. My eyes filled up with tears.  They were both tears of pain and tears of relief.  Validation that I am not crazy or weak to still have needed to tell my story.  Relief that I now begin to feel whole.  Whole enough to be able to examine the reasons behind the failures and neglect at the beginning.  The best way to prevent it happening to someone else is to understand why it happened here.  Then to fix it.

I've told my story eight times.  I don't count the time telling it to the person who really only listened out of duty - that actually ached more than silence.... which ached enough on its own!   Eight times now, and I'm feeling better.  But, it's nice to have that ninth time in my back pocket in case I need it! ;-)

I may need to tell my story again.  And if I do, I will not cringe and think I am weak for needing to.  I will stand strong and realize that I AM healing.  I can tell.  I am re-telling when I need to.  Those are the steps to recovery, not the signs of weakness.

I could have just been silent because people told me to be at first or because people didn't care when they should have.  Then I would have been still wounded, and I wouldn't have understood what was needed to heal.  I wouldn't have felt the anger that I feel over a system that let down its workers so badly, and I wouldn't have fought to understand the reasons well enough to stop it from happening again.

Next time someone tells you the same story again, LISTEN AGAIN!  But as you listen, pay attention to listen carefully.  Hear.  Let it touch your heart.  And as you listen again, ask yourself, what are they telling this time?  Are they this time able to identify feelings along with actions?  Which feelings?  From what events?  And respond to those. It takes awhile to work your way through all that a trauma sends your way, and people need each other to hear those feelings.  This week it might be the fear.  Next month, it might be the confusion.  Please, please, don't say, "you told me that already, why are you telling it again?" The why may be different this time, so listen again.  Respond with questions.  Don't be afraid to let your heart show.  How does the story affect you?  How do you feel about the actions and feelings expressed?  It isn't all about you, but some of your reaction helps me feel heard.

Don't worry - we won't tell the story forever.  But we will keep telling it until we've sorted it out enough.  Or until we've been heard.  Please keep listening.

And if you haven't been heard yet from your trauma, please keep talking.  Some will not listen to you, but keep talking.  There are ears out there, keep looking.


Sandy said...

That is image of telling the story 8 or nine times really resonates with me. Leaving our foster son behind in China is a huge trauma and it's hard to find people to talk about it with.

Ellie said...

Sandy, that's a trauma that might take more than eight or nine re-tellings. It goes against every ounce of who we are as mothers to walk away from a baby (even though I understand and agree with your decision, as I think you would understand and agree with mine) that we've taken in and cared for as ours. I've been praying for you and Elizabeth these last months and hoping you are surviving it all. Hey, even I miss his chubby little face in pictures and the stories of his antics. You did so well with him!

(If you ever want to write about any of that, e-mail me some time.)

Ellie said...

Oh, the email is elliemarie4@gmail.com

Carrie said...

I understand this now more than ever.

Ellie said...

And I so wish you didn't, Carrie....

I'm sorry.

Shan in Japan said...

Thank you for sharing this! This helps me be a better listener and encourager as well as reminds me that it is important to share our stories.