How our Own Healing can Support the Healing of Others
Updated: Dec 21, 2019
My family was an immigrant family to the United States of America from Guatemala. When they came over, it was not the ideal situation for them. Both sides of my family were very rooted in their communities with great prospects. Alas, the never ending civil war that carried on in quiet but still very violent ways into the 70's hit close to home and it was time to leave. I was one and a half years old when we first came to the USA. I heard the stories of what it cost my parents to get to the USA. They both lost quite a bit in status both socially and economically but were given a chance to move beyond the violence and threats and find a small sense of security. As a result of knowing this and feeling a sense of duty and honor, I joined the Army when I was 17 years old. Any Veteran will tell you that their reasons for joining change as their military career advances or finishes. For me, a sense of service and paying back a debt while leaving and participating on a marvelous adventure led me to volunteering to jump out of airplanes and go the way of the Ranger Regiment.
People have often asked me to speak on my experiences within the military and how it impacted me. Some people ask darker, more curious questions with an appetite for carnage. I have learned to give the same elevator speech. My military service has allowed me to witness the wonders and beauty of the world. I’ve been aboard an aircraft carrier as a huge pod of dolphins swam along side, leaving a surreal phosphorus glow in the dark water of their wake. I’ve gazed upon sunsets sinking behind snow-capped mountains, overlooking triple canopy jungles. I’ve touched the great pyramids and have pondered the significance of the Sphinx on camel back.
I’ve witnessed people pull together in refugee camps, consoling each other and rising above war in order to establish a new way of life where love might exist and feuds of old might dissipate through dialogue and mutual strife. I’ve protected holy lands, knowing that very few others would ever see these places. I’ve played with children in streets just secured by American soldiers. I’ve kicked soccer balls with children who might forget me, but remember forever that an American soldier was kind to them. I’ve held the hands of toddlers as they walked me to their mothers to introduce me as their new friend.
I’ve broken bread with peoples of every walk of life and learned the impressive histories of their families, tribes, clans, states, and nations. I’ve sat at the feet of elders, discussing universal beliefs about what it means to live on this planet. I’ve experienced the erasing of lines on a map. I have joined in the liberation of others alongside heroes of other countries.
My path also took me into the choicest places of hell on earth. I witnessed the evil of mankind, spit bullets into the legions of hell, and fought against powers and principalities of the world, both, physically and spiritually. I have seen the pain in the eyes of mothers and youth of nations at the realization that their fathers were forever gone. I have wept as I held the bodies of children and raged as I witnessed the dehumanization of my brothers and sisters of this world. I witnessed as innocent blood stood in the gap between colliding heaven and hell, as an offering for peace so that no one would die for at least one more day. But they died none-the-less. I have looked into the eyes of sociopaths and saints. I have felt the seduction of evil and the overwhelming power of the Holy One. I served in the military for 18 years: 57 countries, 13 deployments, 13 buried friends, hundreds of fallen warriors, and thousands of fallen innocents. I saw firsthand the underbelly of the world.
After my deployments, while my decorations were pinned on my chest, I was unaware my experiences were ripping me up inside and, at times, motivating me to rip myself apart. I failed to pay attention to what was really happening in those surreal moments of glory and infamy. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “experience: that most brutal of teachers, but you learn, my God do you learn.” I ignored that part of the Ranger Creed that said, “fully knowing the hazards of my chosen profession.” I failed to “keep myself morally straight and mentally strong.” (Ranger Creed) As a result of this failure, I found myself living in an existence tied to my fear, which I quickly turned into anger both outwardly and inwardly. Like many warriors before and during my time, I became a member of fringe motorcycle club life and totally withdrew from the rest of society. I surrounded myself with other like minded people who as I look back now, know were equally as traumatized and living on the useless side of life as I was. There was a point in time where I considered becoming a police officer and after interviewing, testing and undergoing physical fitness evaluations, found myself top on the hiring list for a town north of Chicago's police department. A part of me knew I couldn't do it. That part of me eventually led me into my own criminal justice intersection.
Not long after getting on that list for the police force, the United States was attacked. The infamous 9/11 attacks created in me a great unrest knowing that after having left the active duty component just one year ago and joining the US Army National Guard, I would once more be deployed. For many, this was a tragic day and it was their first encounter with first hand trauma. For some of us, the lights went out and we began to stumble around the room looking for hope but none was found. I fell into a deep, deep depression which coupled with my undiagnosed post traumatic stress began crippling me. Like many others, I gave up on things that might bring life back. I didn't accept the police officer position because my fears were validated. I realized on that day what I already felt I knew; that I might be more capable of hurting others while in a uniform than those that have not seen what my eyes have seen. The things that kept me up at night visiting with old demons were now beginning to haunt me during the day. The pride of "keeping it together" was beginning to diminish and it was on that first deployment post 9/11 that the most obvious signs of my trauma were coming out. My leadership was compromised by anger and rage. My platoon which was comprised of police officers in their non military jobs and I were not clicking. I take full responsibility for those problems now as I look back at how unhealthy I was.
After returning from my first deployment post 9/11, I moved to Minnesota hoping for respite and a new beginning but found myself back in the middle of the same problems. To bring us to the point of turning, on January 24, 2004, my symptoms and choices not to get treatment and isolate led me to the gravest dissociative state I had experienced up until that point and I found myself in an armed standoff with eight Minnesota police officers. By the time my dissociative state had worn off, no chemicals adding to the fire, and after realizing what was happening, my symptoms turned on me and I became suicidal. Somehow, that evening, none of us were hurt physically. All of us were, however, hurt psychologically and it will be a hard night to forget for many.
Those that aren’t mentioned directly in the story above are my son and my ex wife. My now 14 year old son, was one and a half years old at the time of the incident. He was staring out the front window at his father underdressed and standing in the middle of blizzard condition weather with many red and blue lights flashing everywhere. My ex wife was yelling out the window of the bedroom.
My now wife and I were speaking together at an event about five or six years ago and summed up the experience for family members when she said, “My husband has PTSD, but PTSD has my family.” My PTSD was holding my family then and even while going through graduate school to become a psychotherapist hostage. I wasn’t even aware of it until she said that. Back into the therapy room I went without any hesitation. There was no opposition and my reluctance to repeat mistakes of the past fuelled a vigorous undertaking to be mindful to all of my symptoms and the way that I was living life.
I’m a psychotherapist now and the focus of my practice is helping people become more relational by learning skills to be able to process their trauma without making life any worse than it needs to be. I’ve been trained by Fr. Michael Lapsley in the subclinical model of “Healing of Memories” where every “story gets a listener”. This workshop based event allows people who normally would not come to the same room to share with each other stories of what they experienced because of the actions of the very people represented in the room. The model was started as a means to reconcile the pains of apartheid in South Africa by a man who himself was mailed a letter bomb. As a result of his endeavours, many of us in the United States have made it our mission to bring people together to hear and acknowledge each other’s pain and struggle from the heart rather than from the analytical side of ourselves.
I’ve been trained in the adaptive information processing model that eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) works and operate as a certified therapist, consultant and soon to be trainer. This trauma focused protocol based intervention helps individuals move from reliving their experiences to remembering without reliving. The name is somewhat misleading in that one is not desensitized to the experience or memory, but that the information is reprocessed in a way that allows the client/patient to make sense of what happened while removing the negative beliefs that continue to perpetuate the avoidant life style. Many leading researchers agree that other modalities that incorporate the body such as EMDR does dramatically increases the potential to heal. Polyvagal theory endorses the potential as well in that it gives way and meaning to how the body operates and how we interact as complex organisms. Not to oversimplify any of the theories and ideas of these and many other modalities (i.e. somatic experiential treatments, equestrian, adventure based, acupuncture, chiropractic treatment, massage, etc.) but we are both herd and pack animals. We, as human beings are both predator and pack animals. When our safety as a herd animal is threatened by predatory behaviours, we all revert to a state of flight, fight or freeze. Imagine a whole peoples, a whole nation, a whole planet, living in a constant state of fear? We don’t have to go far to imagine it. Some of us live in nations and countries such as that suggested.
Evidence suggests treatment that is phasic is most effective. For example, teaching skills and gaining resources to stabilize life threatening and therapy interfering behaviours should be considered first. Second, calming the system down to the point of allowing the individual to enter into the window of therapeutic tolerance and begin trauma work. The third phase would then allow the individual to look towards their relationships and see where improvements need to be made.
Studies in multiple settings show that if individuals are not stabilized and resourced they have a higher likelihood of disengaging from trauma work as well as increasing in violent behaviours outside of the treatment setting. If the first two, stabilization/resourcing and trauma work are done effectively, the limbic system releases enough to allow for relationship work between couples, families, and communities.
The fourth phase is that between a person and their understanding of spirituality.
If the aforementioned is true, then what’s missing with our treatment of veterans who continue to engage in violent behaviour, such as the explanation of my behaviour? Why are we using modalities that continue to perpetuate operant conditioning based trauma treatments which helped us engage in combat without thinking, only to live with the scars afterwards? Is it only veterans of the armed services that suffer this way or do we see the same in our police forces? Does trauma permeate trauma? Does my country have PTSD or does PTSD have my country?
I was driving back from a date with my wife a couple of weeks ago from Minneapolis to Saint Paul, Minnesota. A trip that usually takes 15 to 20 minutes but, on this particular evening, it took more than an hour. On the a major interstate highway that goes through Minnesota, “Black Lives Matter” protesters had taken over blocking traffic in both directions. All traffic was diverted towards a single street that travels through the centers of both large cities. As we continued on our way home, we encountered police vehicles, angry and tired drivers, and disillusioned protesters. We went slowly past a parking lot where another group of protesters was forming. These were obviously white supremacist protesters. It was apparent that hundreds were forming up for a battle on the highway. There were reports of people throwing things off of bridges at protesters, people from within the ranks of the protesters throwing things at police officers in riot uniforms, and finally, police officers throwing things back to subdue the protesters.
I ask the reader, who were the traumatized peoples in this situation? I would reason that we all were and that each of us, in our own ways were reacting to our own traumatic experiences. Interestingly enough, things did not escalate to irreversible damage. This was a traumatized community of police officers. The media continues to report the violence happening in the wars of our streets. A battle between constituents who feel oppressed along with those who believe they have the right to use violence to quell a complaint and blame it on those waging war against police. Everyone was in their own limbic system with their amygdalae already having shut everything else down.
When this sort of behaviour is presented in a client, we introduce resources to increase effectiveness in dealing with what is happening internal to the person as well as external. We move the client from a state of internal crisis to a state of calm. We then introduce the trauma intervention, and hopefully it isn’t one that causes the re-experiencing of trauma in order to desensitize the individual to traumatic content. We then, after calming the person and removing the stimulus that traumatic content had over the person, we engage in rebuilding their community, however they define it. This transfers into the community they live within which continues to grow into more and more and more. That is, if the community the person lives within is safe enough to do so within.
In the United States, we have removed safety from the streets. We have brought war home and we cannot naively say it was unexpected. This environment along with a continuous state of hypervigilance and avoidance of engaging in peaceful and effective cross demographic communication, where one party cannot be heard by the other has led to the development of circles and silos that arm themselves for war. I would like to tell my countrymen, from a person who has seen war, who has fought its wars, ‘we are not at war!’ You are not my enemy, and I am not yours. Yes – black lives matter and I want to hear how I have wronged you and validate that which I have only knowledge of. This way I can hear that police lives matter and validate the fear with which you take the streets daily. I am on your side. For everyone else watching police officers, veterans and citizens fight each other, we matter also and as a community, we fear what you are turning our country into.
As individuals and as communities, we need one big Healing of Memories workshop. I need to sit across from a police officer, a member of my neighbourhood, my child, my ex-wife, my current wife, my fellow warriors, my community and hear their story. I want to hear your story. Will you hear mine? As I’ve recovered from my own trauma, it’s been a privilege to speak in front of hundreds of audiences where police have learned from me how to engage a veteran in mental health crisis. The truth is that this training could be generalized to anyone they encounter. At this point, we are all in a state of crisis. It is my goal to be the peacemaker that is willing to walk down the middle of a road into the middle of the fray, risking harm if necessary, and be the voice of calm and reason. I endeavour to help those wiling to fearlessly enter into the middle of a countries trauma and disarm it of its need to defend itself from those that are not its enemy. What would happen if there was indeed a place where the disenfranchised and the disregarded could meet to wave flags of surrender at each other rather than battle flags? We know what must be done. We know how to do it. Do we have the courage to?