5 Trauma Techniques

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This has been a week.

This past Sunday started off earlier than usual. About 5:45 in the morning the large wall calendar in the room that serves as office, play room and gathering spot just outside everyone’s bedroom fell off the wall. The glue strips holding it in place just gave way. It was like time itself had enough with 2020 and wanted to be anywhere else. 

I woke up and looked for something to put it back in place. One of the highlights of Justin’s day is looking at the calendar and seeing the picture for the day’s activity, and marking off each day. As I re-hung the calendar I thought about how nice it would be to stop time. At least for today.

Next to the calendar is the countdown board. There we wrote the number of days until Matthew leaves for Air Force basic training. And Sunday, it looked like this:

0. Zero. Zilch. Nada. No days. Suday was the day we dropped him off and said goodbye and that he began his journey in the world. We spent the morning helping him pack up. We all gathered to watch his favorite movie - Top Gun. There were some tears, but we were mostly holding it together. He had said repeatedly he didn’t want a big scene. Barb and I would sneak into the kitchen to hold hands and cry and then come out with smiles and snacks.

About 2:30 we finished the movie, and he made a final gear check. Then he walked out of the front door.

We drove to Raleigh, where we met his recruiter and handed Matthew over. He spent Sunday night in a hotel and Monday morning at 4am his adventure began. We heard from him Tuesday telling us he had arrived safely and giving us his address. We haven’t heard since, and we don’t expect to for a while. He is in it to win it now.

I frequently tell people that the hardest adjustment you make as parents in a large family is when you go from 2 kids to 3. Suddenly, parents are outnumbered. Parenting becomes triage. You help the kid that needs it the most. I often say that you switch from man-to-man to zone. Barb and I have been playing zone for 19 years.

Until Sunday. Sunday we drove home and there were 4 of us in the car. We had switched from zone back to man-to-man. 3 of our 5 kids are now gone. And the chairs at the table are slightly more empty. 

I was really doing fine until I was getting something from the kitchen and saw his Duke mug on the counter. He loved that mug. He got it at a football game a few years ago and drank everything in it. And there it sat. It will be a while before he drinks from it again. I lost it. I had to go to the bathroom and get myself together.

This is a good thing for him. It is his dream. It is what he has wanted to do for a long time. And he got his dream job. His life is beginning. He is so excited.

And…

I am gutted. I already miss him so much. Every time one of the kids has left it has been like losing a part of who I am. I am proud of him. And I am just so impossibly sad.

Both of these things can be true at the same time. And this feeling won’t last forever.

And I still feel sad.

For this week’s 5 things, I am sharing 5 Trauma Techniques. The good (?) thing about this situation is that it is not my first rodeo. I have had to deal with a lot of rough things over the years. These 5 things are the ideas and techniques for thinking about things that have gotten me to here. I am sharing these for me as much as you. 

I have used all 5 this week.

Trauma Technique #1

Don’t put a period where the universe has placed a comma.

A week ago Friday I was walking Bella. I was thinking about the upcoming weekend, knowing that goodbye day was looming. I was thinking about the last week and things done and not done. I was also thinking about one of my best friends.

This friend and I talk every week, mostly by phone, but also by text. We talk about kids and life and parenting. A lot of our time is spent snarking about the news of the day. We actually bonded over our shared love of snark, and the fact that we are both smartasses by nature. Snark is our friendship love language.

I called my friend on Tuesday just to check in and say hi. I left them a voicemail. I didn’t think much about it. We are frequently unable to talk when the other calls. Usually they will call back within the next couple of days, or send a text letting me know what’s up. But I didn’t hear from them. on Friday morning, I tried to call again. Another voicemail. By the time I was walking Bella I was worried about my friend. So I sent a text asking if they were good.

My friend texted back a few minutes later asking how I knew something was wrong. I didn’t know, I said. I just *knew* (if that makes any sense). My friend said they had had a rough week. Their dad passed away a few weeks ago, and they were getting ready for a virtual celebration of life. That meant my friend had to deal with their mom (who is a lot like mine). It also meant being reminded of the loss of their dad. All this on top of work and parenting and virtual school and community challenges and Donald Trump and a global pandemic and.... you know the rest. My friend was tired. And heartbroken. And that broke me a little too. I deeply love my friends. I hurt when they hurt.

I gave my friend some encouraging words. And I promised to check in on them later in the weekend. Through it all, Bella walked by my side, trusting me to know exactly which way we were going.

As I put my phone in my pocket, it began to rain. The shower was brief and not particularly intense. The kind of late summer shower that pops up in the south where the relative humidity seems to stay at 97% year round. As the rain cleared I looked up and saw this:

The United Church of Christ has a slogan that says never put a period where God has placed a comma. While I have strayed from the church (and the concept of God), I adore this saying. I truly believe in the idea behind these words.

Here I was. Wet from rain and sweat, with my wet dog, and my mind, heart, and soul heavy with the weight of change and loss and the challenges that come from the mere act of existing. And I looked up and there it was.

A comma.

Our challenges can feel so overwhelming that in the midst of them they are all we see or feel. Trauma breaks time. Seconds feel like years. It feels like everything stops. Trauma feels like the end of the story.

Struggle feels like a period.

The truth is that hard times are not all there is. Trauma is not the end of the story. Don’t put a period where God (for me, the universe) has placed a comma. 

Bella and I walked home under the comma. We dried off. I fed her dinner. I reminded myself to be mindful of the fact that the story is unfolding. I don’t know what comes after the comma - none of us do. All I know is that there is more to the story. There is a comma. 

I even have photographic proof.

Trauma Technique #2

Walk the mile you are in.

There is a beautiful black and orange butterfly called the painted lady (Vanessa cardui). This butterfly is fairly widespread and can be found in temperate zones from the west coast of North America to Europe and north Africa. The butterly has a notable migration pattern. While many butterflies migrate, Vanessa cardui turns migration up to 11.

The painted lady migrates enormous distances. Groups of them regularly travel from Baja Mexico all the way to Alaska. Researchers tracked one group that migrated from the Sahara Desert in Africa all the way to Iceland, and back. The butterflies travel on a northwest / southeast axis, and entomologists believe that they use some kind of solar migration to maintain their alignment. 

What makes this migration all the more remarkable is that, because of the distance traveled, it takes a while to complete a migration cycle from say, the Sahara to Iceland. One cycle can take 4 or 5 months. Then after a few months, the butterflies load up for another cycle. 4 or 5 months is a long time to travel under any circumstance, but what will really bake your noodle is that the life cycle of the Vanessa cardui is 3 to 5 weeks long.

This means that one migration cycle lasts 4 or 5 or even 6 generations of butterflies.

The butterflies leaving the Sahara will never come close to Iceland. The final arrival will be done by their great great great grandchildren. This is just mind warping for me. I can’t normally get my family to agree on a plan for dinner, much less commit to an arduous multi-generation journey across the world. 

Trauma is impossibly large. It can feel like a journey that lasts forever.

It can feel like traveling from the Sahara to Iceland.

How can we cross that gap? How do we summon the nerve to even try? The challenge is SO huge. Trauma feels so big.

The way you get there is to make like a painted lady. Walk the mile you are in. Do your part of the journey.

You won’t finish the journey of healing. At least, the person who you are right now won’t be the one who completes the healing. Along the way you will grow and change. Some parts of you will fall away. They will be replaced by new tools and ideas and feelings and skills that help take you on the next stage of your journey. YOU will go through 4 or 5 or 6 iterations before you get to the end of your journey.

The butterflies that arrive in Iceland look the same as the ones that left the Sahara. They are orange and black. They have wings. They look like, you know, butterflies. But they aren’t the same butterflies that started the journey.

You get to healing by walking the mile you are in. By focusing on where you are. It isn’t about Mexico or Alaska. It’s about being in Fresno when you are in Fresno. 

Eventually you will get to your destination. And you will be a new person. 

Trauma Technique #3

Look for the helpers.

There is a saying that has been attributed to everyone from Picasso to Faulkner to Steve Jobs. “Good artists borrow,” the saying goes, “great artists steal.” While I certainly would not consider myself a great artist, I do know a good idea when I see one and I happily incorporate it into my worldview. 

Look for the helpers is not my idea. It belongs to one of the best human beings to ever walk the planet - Fred Rogers. It is hard to overstate the influence that Mr. Rogers has had. When I was very small, and my world was very chaotic, the one time I would sit and pay attention and be quiet was during his show. Now, as a parent, his legacy is carried on by the PBS show “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” I have learned more about being a parent from Fred Rogers than I have from any book. HE was my template for how to be a dad. I had no others.

Fred shared this wisdom about difficult times:

Whenever there is struggle and strife and tragedy, there is always someone trying to help. They are trying - it doesn’t mean they are always succeeding. They are helping - they aren’t necessarily trying to solve everything or make everything better. They are just trying to help.

Fred Rogers’ genius was making complex, challenging, and very adult situations understandable for preschoolers. And sometimes we all need to be reminded that the things we make so complicated are really pretty simple. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Be kind. Look for the helpers.

Sometimes you may have to look hard to find them. Sometimes you will have to look in the mirror, because the simple act of looking for helpers - looking for hope - is in itself a helping act. 

I have told myself a lot of lies over my years of pain and struggle. The biggest one that I told myself was that no one cared. There were helpers all around. There always are. 

Fred Rogers taught me that. I like to think that he would be okay with me stealing it.

Trauma Technique #4

Laugh.

I am 48 years old. I have come close to death 4 times. I mean, legitimately close. Like it could have gone either way. One was my suicide attempt. The other 3 all came in Iraq. There was an ambush after a suicide bombing in Ramadi. There was an IED blast in the appropriately named village of Hit. 

And then there was the time I almost got blown up in a port-a-potty.

One day in spring 2005, our team returned from a full day outside the wire. I was tired and hot and all I really wanted to do was eat and join the Marines I was with to watch the latest episode of American Idol. Yeah. You read that right. American Idol aired on the Armed Forces Network and we had a big ass TV in our team area where our team would gather and watch American Idol. These big, mean, tough Marines would get in *passionate* arguments about the relative merits of the performances. It always made me laugh.

But there was an even more urgent priority than American Idol. I had to pee. I know this sounds like no big deal. But our team’s base of operations - Al Asad Air Base - had been badly damaged in the 2003 invasion. American bombs had done a number on the underground plumbing pipes. As a result, we could not use the indoor toilets. There were port-a-potties all over base. So instead of dropping my gear, I went out to the bathroom. Because of the forward nature of the base and the prevalence of indirect fire (mortars and missiles randomly launched into the base), you had to wear all your body armor to the bathroom.

So I went out to the port-a-potty and began the process of removing all my body armor, stacking it as neatly as I could in the limited space. I leaned my weapon against the wall and finally got ready to go. I had realized in the time it took me to drop all my equipment that I needed to more than just pee. So I dropped my pants and sat.

A few seconds later I hurt the high pitched whine of an incoming missile. This happened a lot on base. Most times, it was no big deal. The insurgents did not do a very good job of targeting. Most of the time they just randomly sent rounds in the direction of the base. Sometimes they got lucky. Once they managed to hit the fuel storage area and make a big fire. Most times they missed badly, often not even getting their rounds on the base. 

I heard the round hit safely in the distance, so I continued what I was doing. No way I was putting all that gear back on for a random shot. Then I heard another whine, and another. The second round was closer. It was louder, and I felt the impact on the ground below. Well shit, I thought, that one was close. I was wrong. The NEXT round was close.

The impact was loud enough to be disorienting, and the whole port-a-potty shook like it was coming apart. I heard the unmistakable sound of earth hitting the side and top. I was frantically pulling up my pants and grabbing my gear. I heard another whine. I remember having enough time to think, all of the heroic stuff I have done and my kids are gonna have to hear I died in a portable toilet, pants around my ankles, covered in blue water.

I opened the door to the port-a-john just as the round hit maybe 20 feet from where I was standing. The blast was strong enough to knock me down. I got up and ran back to the headquarters building, which had been reinforced for indirect fire. I needn’t have bothered. The shelling stopped.

I walked into the office, body armor in my hand, covered in dirt, still holding up my pants. Everyone turned and looked at me. After a couple of seconds, Rob B., a giant Marine (6-4, 260) from Iowa started giggling. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but you look fucking ridiculous.” Everyone lost it. They laughed for 10 minutes. When I finally started telling the story about what happened they laughed harder. They called me “blue water ranger” and said I must have some “bomb ass shit.” This passes for Marine wit.

After a few minutes I laughed too. The whole situation was ridiculous.

One of the interesting things about trauma is that it frequently ridiculous. It is almost like it doesn’t even make sense. How could the situation be SO crazy? How could something so simple go so wrong? I just had to go to the bathroom. And almost ended up dead in a port-a-john. Sometimes things are so bad they become almost farcical. 

When that happens, lean in to it. Laugh. Be able to see the silliness in trauma. Laugh at yourself. Laugh at the situation. Being able to laugh will make even the darkest days seem a little brighter.

And yeah. I still laugh every time I see a port-a-potty.

Trauma Technique #5

Breathe.

One of the things that you learn to live with in the military is that you do a lot of practicing. The fancy word for it is “training” but let’s just call it what it is. Practice. You do lots and lots of practice.

You practice shooting at the range. You practice doing your job during field exercises. You practice deploying with random alert phone calls testing how long it takes you to be ready to go. You practice jumping out of planes before you actually jump out of planes. It is a lot of practice.

One of my favorite practices involved going to the pool. Every year we had to do annual drown proofing training and, while I was in the 82d Airborne, an annual refresher on what to do in the event of a water landing. In the 10 years I was at Fort Bragg, I don’t know of anyone who landed in water, except for a few jumps where that was the whole point. And yet every year we marched to the pool to jump in with a parachute to better understand what it felt like to be in the water in full gear with a wet parachute. I loved this training. It was different, plus we got to go swimming which was decidedly NOT a part of our usual daily routine.

It looked like this:

(Photo by 10th SF Group)

While the training was interesting and fun, it was also dangerous. You are in the water. In full gear. With a wet parachute. The whole point of the training was to teach us that a wet parachute is heavy and difficult to control, and if you get caught underneath it, you can have a bad day. At least once or twice during this training, someone would get caught up and plunged underwater. 

One year one of my soldiers - Michael G. - got caught under his parachute. He was struggling to find a way out and we had to pull him out and give him a few minutes to cough up all the water. We actually thought the medics were going to have to do a full mouth-to-mouth CPR situation for a minute there. But soon he was able to gather his breath again.

“Wow,” he said, forcing a smile, “you never really know how important breathing is until you can’t do it.”

Breathing is something we take for granted. It just happens. While you *can* think about it, most of us don’t most of the time. Most of us don’t think about breathing until we can’t.

Sometimes trauma makes it hard to breathe. And I mean that literally. Sometimes trauma feels like being in water, covered by a heavy parachute, not knowing how to get out from underneath. There feels like no path, and everything is heavy, and suddenly you miss the basic things you took for granted. 

Like breathing.

I had a yoga teacher once who said that yoga meant focusing on your breathing. Why else are you here, she asked. Yoga without mindful breathing is just stretching. 

Trauma without breathing is drowning. You can go under, be overwhelmed. 

Breathe. Just breathe. In. Out. Again. And again. Simple, easy, deep breaths. In. Out. Again.

You have been doing it since you were born. The Bible tells us that we became living creatures when God breathed the “breath of life” into us (a concept that the writer of Genesis took from other religious traditions of the ancient near east). Breath is life. Breath is the path past pain and trauma. It is the key to survival.

Just breathe.

You can do this.

May it ever be so.

As always, thank you for reading. Be well friends. If you are not a yet a subscriber and would like to get the 5 things (and a whole lot of other good stuff) during the week, I can’t encourage you enough to become a subscriber. 

See you all soon. Keep pounding the rock.