Residue of Trauma

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“I dream about blood.” That’s how Erin Maynard, Acting President and CEO of PTSD Survivors of America, begins her tragic story, “I Killed a Man and I Want to Die.” In 2008, she unintentionally drove over and killed a pedestrian on the Long Island Expressway. Maynard was heading home from her job as an editorial aide when she felt a “thump” below her car. That “thump” changed her life. That “thump” reverberates throughout her story. Maynard tells it to us straight, bares her soul on the page with stunning courage. Her story is so powerful, and dense, with the residue of trauma – post-traumatic stress disorder, post-traumatic growth, survivor guilt, forgiveness, and identity – that it must be shared. It must be shared so that others can better understand life after trauma.

To learn how Maynard picked up the shards of her shattered life, I encourage you to read her full story in The Spectrum.

Click here for Erin Maynard’s full bio. 

Do you have a personal traumatic story to share? If so, how has it changed you? What can we learn from your experience?

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Stages of Forgiveness

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*Years after eighty-six-year-old Russell Weller ran me down at the Santa Monica Farmers’ market, I possessed enough emotional fortitude to unearth the new articles I had collected about the accident. It was then when I decided I needed to find a way to forgive him. I’ve been told that forgiveness is over-rated, that you don’t have to forgive to heal. While that might very well be true, my want to forgive others for any wrong committed is part of my constitution. So I had to at least make an attempt to forgive Russell Weller. Otherwise, I’d be infected with a case of chronic bitterness and cynicism, and worried I’d be contagious. Who wants to hang out with someone with a transmittable illness she has the capacity to heal?

To forgive, one must first assign blame. But, as in Russell Weller’s case, if there is no act of intentional harm, where do you place blame and, therefore, how do you forgive? To add an additional elusive layer, how do you forgive someone you’ve never met? Is it even possible to forgive someone you don’t know? I reached out to Russell Weller’s family years after the accident, but they refused my request to visit him. In 2010 he died.

The following year, I enrolled in an MFA program. During my third semester, still befuddled as to how to forgive Russell Weller, I wrote my critical thesis on the topic: The Face of Forgiveness. I examined how a particular writer, who had sustained life-threatening injuries after a car struck him, navigated the indeterminate nature of forgiveness on the page. Because each circumstance varies, forgiveness cannot be defined in absolute terms. **Since forgiveness is a process, I arrived at the conclusion that it can be charted in stages:

1) Understanding of the accident/incident

2) Transference of anger and other emotions

3) Self-pity

4) Awareness of others’ suffering

5) Avoidance

6) Surrender

These stages don’t necessarily occur sequentially. Like Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ stages of grief –denial/isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – the stages of forgiveness may overlap, or one may become stuck in a particular stage. For me, I became stuck in one or two, and skipped another one or two altogether. It’s also worth noting that the stages of forgiveness may not occur in a defined timeframe.

Stage 1: Understanding of the accident/incident:

I dedicated months to reading news articles and investigative reports, parsing out the details of the accident: What Russell Weller was doing in the moments before he sped through the market, his medical history, his driving history, what bystanders witnessed at the scene of the crash. Somehow, I believed by reading those articles I would get to know Russell Weller and, therefore, be able to forgive him, or not. But written words weren’t enough – they seemed static on the page. Even though some articles included his apology – “I’m deeply sorry for any pain that everyone went through” – I could not hear his voice, hear his remorse, anger, or fear. And with all the contradicting statements about Russell Weller’s character and what people saw or didn’t see, I only became more confused. I felt like a pendulum – swaying dizzily between sadness and anger.

Stage 2: Transference of anger:

As I read articles about the role the local entities had to play in running the market, any anger I harbored for Russell Weller quickly transferred to city officials who were responsible for ensuring the safety of pedestrians. I wondered why they didn’t have sturdy barriers in place, rather than wooden sawhorses. But, similar to my confusion regarding how to feel about Russell Weller, my feelings and emotions swayed – from judgment to understanding, from contempt to submission.

Stages 3 and 5: Self-pity and Avoidance:

I did not become victim to self-pity  – perhaps the perpetual warring dialogue in my head thrust self-pity aside. For the same reason, I skipped avoidance.

Stage 4: Awareness of others’ suffering:

As I continued my dogged search to find meaning within the chaos, I could not help but be lured into an awareness of others’ suffering.  I imagined the physical and emotional pain the other injured pedestrians endured, and the rage and anguish that tore into the families of the deceased. I viewed Russell Weller as injured, too – emotionally, mentally, psychically. I imagined Russell Weller’s grief: plagued by nightmares, isolated behind drawn window shades, sallow from regret.

The judge who presided over Russell Weller’s trial said he “lacked remorse” Because he didn’t cry? Why is it that we have a tendency to forgive others only if they exhibit unequivocal remorse: falling to their knees, drooping, sobbing? But a display, or physical showing, of remorse is not necessarily what matters to those harmed. Of course, a sincere apology does not negate the harm done, but sincerely spoken words of remorse are what matter. The quality of the voice matters: is it harsh, tense, creaky?

In 2011, I Finally obtained and viewed a copy of the videotape of Russell Weller speaking with police officers soon after the accident. I slid the video into the CD player, inched close to the television screen, so close I felt as if he and I were together in the same room. Though he did not cry, his full-toned voice quivered as he said, “I’m in trouble with my heart and soul.” He voice quieted to a whisper, as if he were in church mourning over the dead: “God almighty, those poor, poor people.”  That’s when I forgave Russell Weller. That’s when I surrendered – to Russell Weller’s remorse.

Is there anyone in your life you want to forgive? Have you forgiven someone who has caused you harm? How did you arrive at forgiveness?

 

*Originally posted at Speak Out! A blog about surviving traumatic brain injuries. Hosted by Donna O’Donnell Figurski.

**Stages of forgiveness conceived by Melissa Cronin

 

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Glassmusic: A Novel by Rebecca Snow – Review

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In her debut novel, Glassmusic, painterly prose brushes the page in sweeping greens and blues. Weaved throughout that lush 1920’s Norwegian landscape, is the heart of the narrative: A coming of age story in which young Ingrid struggles to come to terms with the sexual assault she witnessed against her sister, Kari.

Ingrid’s blind father, who relies on her to see for him, teachers her to play music on water-filled glasses. Those melodies, along with guiding her father, are what protect her from her secret and ground her through her tumultuous childhood. Her mother, who is jealous that her husband needs Ingrid more than her, looks away from her daughter in disappointment. And her sister, Kari, inflicts her with physical and emotional harm.

Ingrid seeks companionship, and quickly trusts Stefan, a Parisian boy visiting from France. It is this relationship, and their individual interpretations of faith and literature that spur Ingrid to become more aware of the world beyond her own microscopic one. Along with her newfound knowledge, she explores distant fjords, hills, and woods not only to escape the memory of her sister’s assault, but also to figure out who she is and who she wants to be. Is she a protector of secrets and lies or a teller of the truth? As she navigates her way toward awareness, slipping over rocky terrain along the way, she realizes that she needs her family, and that her family needs her. More so, as a reflective older child, she realizes she needs to tell the truth.

In Glassmusic, Snow creates palpable characters rich with universal emotions and conflict: anger, pity, empathy, loyalty, forgiveness, jealousy, and identity.

Ingrid’s father says, “Talking is like music, you must practice. (123).” Perhaps the same can be said for making sense of the unfathomable – it takes practice.

 

Rebecca Snow’s debut novel, Glassmusic, was released from Conundrum Press in November 2014. Her poetry has been published in Blue Moon, Pooled Ink, and was added to the Denver Poetry Map.  She won first place for narrative nonfiction in the 2007 Writers Studio Contest. Her piece was featured in Progenitor. Snow received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana and teaches English at the Community College of Aurora. Originally from Seattle, she lives in Denver, Colorado with her son and enjoys hiking the great Rocky Mountains.

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Walking Toward Understanding: A Review of the Movie Wild

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“I’m sorry you have to walk a thousand miles just to …” Cheryl Strayed’s ex-husband, Paul, tells her. But “just to” what? Early in Wild, Strayed finishes the sentence for her ex-husband: “Why do I have to walk a thousand miles?”

At mile one, Strayed is not sure why. She’s not even sure at mile eight, twenty-eight, or thirty-six. She lumbers around sharp curves and up and down rugged terrain in order to find the answer, or answers. Strayed’s father was an abusive alcoholic. Her mother, whom she calls “the love of my life,” died of cancer at forty-five. Strayed sought refuge in heroin, and sex with multiple partners, which is what led to the demise of her marriage. She finds the answers to the why part of her hike only at mile one thousand. Strayed hikes toward an understanding of her tumultuous life that seduced her into the woods. Much like how the memoir is structured, the movie depicts both her physical and emotional journeys, the present and past paralleling one another the entire one thousand miles. Of course, we can’t help but lumber along with her.

Wild is not only about Strayed’s yen to find the answers as to why she chose to venture into “wild” territory. It’s about identity, the body, forgiveness. Several tropes represent these themes: the heavy weight of her backpack on her shoulders and back calls to mind the burden of her guilt for past wrongs. The bruises she is left with remind us of the pain of her present, and past, life. Lifting herself up under the weight of the pack, then again when she slips in a river signifies perseverance. The pruning of the pack partway through her trek can be likened to the shedding of her guilt.

The sex scenes reveal Strayed’s confusion: she conflates sex, her body, with worthiness. When a reporter pulls his car over to the side of the road – Strayed is hoping to catch a ride – he interviews her for an article and calls her a hobo. Strayed is quick to clarify that she is not a hobo, that she’s simply hiking the PCT. But she has no place to call home, no anchor, no words to describe who she is. Strayed is not a mother or a wife, labels her mother once assigned to herself.

A series of metaphorical purges (guilt purges) take place: when strayed vomits after a night of drinking with other hikers, when she erases her ex-husband’s name from the sand, and when she finally breaks down sobbing, and says, “I miss you Mom.”

I could share more, but if you have yet to see Wild, or read the book, I don’t want to spoil the ninety-four day hike for you – the one hundred degree afternoons, the sweaty silences, the blue nights and sun-bleached mornings.

So, lace up your hiking boots, strap on your backpack, and join Cheryl Strayed at the head of the PCT.

 

Wild Director: Jean-Marc Vallee. Staring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, and Gabby Hoffman.

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