By Shari Botwin
Less than a month ago, the world was shocked to hear about the Paris massacre. For several days afterward, the media bombarded us with stories of loss and horror, and those affected by the terrorist attack are still reeling from those events.
Last week, I was sitting in a restaurant with a friend when breaking news flashed across multiple television sets. "Another mass shooting," headlined one of the channels. Immediately, those around me asked the staff to please "turn that off." Nobody wanted to hear about the latest mass shooting in the United States.
These days, with news of terror attacks all around us, the world we live in can appear unsafe and uncertain. Though the chances of being a victim of terrorism are low, most of us - up to 80 percent, according to the research - will experience some type of trauma in our lifetimes. Of those, at least 20 percent will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. And each time the media focuses on another tragedy involving deaths and injuries, some of those who have lived through war or violence and suffered traumatic stress can start to relive the events that caused them so much pain. Too often, the trauma can be a nightmare without end.
For 18 years, I have been counseling men and women who have survived natural disasters, combat, domestic and child abuse, and other related experiences. A recurring theme with patients is, How am I supposed to live with this nightmare?
Comprehending events like the San Bernardino tragedy can seem like an impossible task for family members, witnesses, and the survivors of the attack. What struck me the most were the calls home during the rampage, with moms saying "I love you" as they did what they could to stay alive. How will people go on after suffering such senseless losses? The 37-year-old father of six. The 42-year-old man who worked to keep that facility safe. The 27-year-old woman who worked for the county. Think of all the children who either lost a family member or are still visiting their loved ones in the hospital as they recover from critical injuries.
Where does one start to heal the wounds of such a profound and life-altering event? And as patients often ask, How long is it going to take to move beyond it? I can't give a date and time when the pain will end, but I do know the process starts by reaching out for help.
I got myself into therapy as a young adult after surviving multiple losses and childhood abuse. Early in the process, I felt hopeless. I didn't think I would ever lead a full life. What I came to realize, though, as I went through treatment, was that the more support I had outside of therapy, the better the chance that I would learn how to love and trust myself and then others.
On countless occasions, I called friends and told my therapist, "I quit." The agony and pain that came with my memories felt insurmountable and crippling. Some days, I would just sit in a chair and stare at the television. I couldn't express the pain I felt or even cry. Then someone would say, "Don't give up" or "Keep fighting for your life," and I would find a way to march forward. Simple words of hope gave me the energy to stay in the fight.
I run a therapy group for trauma survivors. Each person comes with a very different history and experience, but what they share are feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, and being overwhelmed as they try to rebuild their lives. Week after week, they share their frustrations with life challenges that are the result of their trauma and abuse. And despite it all, I am amazed as I witness the power they have in instilling hope.
When group members feel stuck or in pain, others remind them of why they are sitting in this group and of the importance of owning their experience. And that is exactly the kind of love and support that family members and survivors in San Bernardino are going to need. Creating a place where those people can process, talk, and receive support can make the difference between reliving the events of that day vs. navigating the grief and finding a way to live with it.
There is no such thing as too much support, and this terrorist attack in California is a reminder that there are millions of people who suffer awful losses and have no place to grieve and heal. Our world would be more connected if we all found ways to share our pain, even if each of us has had a totally different experience.
As difficult as trauma is, that's not what leaves us in shambles. The real issue is not having people to hear us out or tell us that we are OK, even when what happened isn't.