This is an excerpt from reporter Scott Johnson's blog, which focuses on the effects of violence and trauma on the community. Go to www.oaklandeffect.com for updates on his reporting.
I was recently asked by a reader whether I had any personal experience of trauma and, if so, how I dealt with it. So following on last week's missives about a conference in Los Angeles on trauma and mindfulness, I thought I would share one of my own experiences.
In 2003, I covered the U.S. invasion of Iraq. During the first week of combat, I was ambushed on a highway near the Iraqi town of al-Nasiriyah. The attackers shot up my car. I crashed, and for a while I thought I might die. But I escaped, and a few weeks later was back in Kuwait. One day I was sitting at a traffic stop waiting for the light to turn when a puzzling question popped into my head. "Am I dead?" I wondered. For several long moments, maybe about a minute or so, I wasn't sure if I was dead or alive. This continued for several weeks.
This may sound crazy to most people, but it is a typical outcome when the brain is coping with trauma. It's called dissociation, and it's a phenomenon whereby the only way to cope with trauma is to cut oneself off from it, in whatever form that takes.
"People take drugs to make their pain disappear, cut themselves, starve themselves, have sex once -- you have these horrible sensations just to make it go away," said Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world's leading trauma experts, on the topic during a recent conference on trauma and brain science at UCLA.
"If these last long enough, your whole brain reacts. People learn to shut off the sensations in their bodies. We're also beginning to understand why traumatized people have such a hard time with mindfulness, because they cannot feel. People think trauma has something to do with out there. But the only thing that matters is now. Trauma is the residue of what those experiences leave in your body. It's the physical sensations that become intolerable, and you fight to make them go away."
At the time of my accident, I had no idea about any of this. So it was puzzling to me that I would have doubts about my own physical reality. Am I dead? Am I alive? Outwardly, as van der Kolk points out, there may be no difference in appearance. But the body contains memories, holds them, processes them in what ways it can, stores them and remembers them. As this memory storage develops, the neurons associated with the memory connect to other neural pathways in the body.
The memories extend to other experiences. Seemingly unrelated events or situations can become triggers. In my case, for instance, sitting in a car became a trigger for a life-or-death experience. I surmise this is because the traumatic experience also took place in a car. But it could be something else. The brain works in mysterious ways.
The point is that it's a mistake to think trauma exists in a relegated and circumscribed time and space continuum. Rather, it exists in the body and in the pathways it creates in the brain's neural networks. So think of all the people in Oakland -- gangsters, children, parents, police officers, social workers, you and me -- who are in the path of violence. They may escape. They may not. But the brain is resilient and will find a way to incorporate those experiences into something bigger. But it may not always be easy, or fast. A teenager sitting behind the wheel of a car at a stoplight may look just fine. Unless you're in his body, you can't know.
It is now becoming increasingly clear that one effective way to deal with trauma is through the age-old practice of mindfulness. The imprint of trauma lies in the central part of the brain. Being mindful helps untangle the sense of disorganization, or chaos, in the brain's relationship to itself. It helps re-establish coherent connections between the prefrontal cortex, which is the most "conscious" part of our brains, with the other, more primitive parts where trauma is stored, such as the limbic system. In short, the act of becoming more aware of each passing moment, with whatever emotions it contains, helps us control our emotional responses -- which is what gets thrown out of line by trauma.
"Meditation and mindfulness can change all these things," van der Kolk said. "To feel yourself, to notice yourself."
To realize, in other words, that you are alive -- not dead.