Wisewomen and Trauma
My novel Stony Kill tells the story of a complicated family, opening with the revelation of a family secret—the tragic story of a long ago shooting. The protagonist Joss Ryckman, a thirty-something Brooklyn baker, copes with the mystery of this shooting— was it accidental or not? This revelation soon follows the sudden death of her mother, and Joss retreats to the upstate family farm to sort out her world. There is much to be remembered from her personal history: joyous childhood play, her wise and wonderful nanny named Miss Euphrates, and traumas she must reconcile.
Joss does what many people do when confronted with shocking circumstances; they deny and push back upsetting memories. It is only when her mother dies quite unexpectedly that the past comes roaring back. She responds by withdrawing and becomes mired in confusion and inertia—behaviors that upset those around her. Readers may wonder what is going on with this character, or why I wrote her the way I did. Is she depressed, or maybe mentally ill? The answers lie in human reactions to trauma.
Like Joss, and many others, I have experienced significant trauma, and wanted to write about loss in a non-clinical way; to illuminate the experience. In my view, writing or reading should enhance our lives, inform or charm us in some way that opens our minds to other possibilities. And so I write . . .
Seventy percent of American experience trauma in their lives—an auto accident, the death of a parent, coming home to a ransacked and burglarized home, physical or sexual assault, war, and so on. How any one individual deals with the aftermath of trauma is not predictable. A young person involved in a traffic accident may be reticent to get back behind the wheel, even it the incident was minor. The issue is not necessarily the severity of the event—one person in a fender bender can react more profoundly than another who barely survives a head-on collision. The reaction is about fear: what might have happened, or did. In fact, the slight fender bender might trigger older traumas, some barely remembered.
Fear triggers the fight or flight response that ensues—part of what is known as the sympathetic nervous system—that gut feeling that recognizes and responds to danger. Most people are able to carry on, even under extraordinary circumstances. The fear reaction subsides, and the average Joe continues on with life, engaged and productive. But approximately eight people out of one hundred develop Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Their ability to resume a satisfying life is impaired.
Clearly, Joss Ryckman the Brooklyn baker, suffers from PTSD, just as I did.
According to the National Institute of Health, “ . . . not everyone with PTSD has been through a dangerous event. Some experiences, like the sudden, unexpected death of a loved one, can also cause PTSD. Symptoms usually begin early, within three months of the traumatic incident, but sometimes they begin years afterward. Sufferers will experience symptoms lasting more than a month and severe enough to interfere with relationships or work. The course of the illness varies. Some people recover within six months, while others have symptoms that last much longer. In some people, the condition becomes chronic.”
PTSD affects octogenarians and preschoolers as well. A child, who has learned to use the toilet, suddenly reverts to wetting the bed, acts out frightening events while at play, or becomes unusually clingy, may be suffering from PTSD. In older adults the disorder may exhibit as sleep disruptions, loss of appetite, and memory problems and can coexist with other problems of aging: dementia, chronic and/or multiple health problems, and the death of a partner and longtime friends.
In any given year in the United States, approximately forty-eight million Americans are dealing day-to-day with PTSD, a group nearly equal to the population of Texas. One out of every nine women develops PTSD, nearly double the rate of men with the disorder. Why? Because sexual assault is more common to women and is more likely to cause PTSD than any other event—one out of every three women will experience sexual assault during their lifetimes—and too, because women tend to blame themselves for traumatic experiences more than men do. It is worth noting that women react to sexual assault much the same way men react to combat in war.
So what helps? Medications, psychotherapy, exercise, good nutrition, friends, social activities, hobbies, and relaxation; in other words, reengaging in life through baby steps. It sounds easy, but it simply isn’t . . .
In Stony Kill, Joss takes a different course; she seeks counsel from a trusted wisewoman—the route universally understood for millennia. For most of us in modern America, our roots have become fractured. Our great-grandmothers are in nursing homes, or are gone. Family wisdom and storytelling remain in fewer families. Instead, we hire seers in their many forms to help us navigate difficult times, perhaps turning less to those we know. We are a society of unusual boundaries—or oddly, none at all. Respecting age, and the wisdom that often comes with it, is certainly out of fashion. Modern culture emphasizes youth except for a piece on one of the Sunday morning shows featuring some old gal or codger who dazzles.
I sought counseling; as well. I wasn’t interested in medications, and was fortunate to find a clinician trained in Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), an integrative psychotherapy that has proven to be very effective in the treatment of trauma. It was an amazing experience—magical in much the same way Joss perceives her own memories and the wisewoman of Stony Kill.
Thankfully, most of us recover a little wiser. Joss Rickman can explain . . .