More funny than serious. I was at a convention talking to an acquaintance in a busy hallway next to the hotel coffee shop. Suddenly, her eyes shifted to look over my shoulder and they went wide.
Without thinking, I drop-stepped backwards at an angle and spun towards the threat with my elbow. My normal counter-assault training for touch is to go directly into the threat, so I don’t know what was going on. Perhaps my hindbrain knew that since the clue was a look I had an extra fraction of a second and could afford to get off the ‘X’ as well as close.
The elbow missed, of course, but I brushed the arm that had been reaching for my neck and snatched it into a shoulder-and-wrist lock by feel. Then I noticed it was a friend playing a sort of stupid practical joke.
Psychological Aftermath (From “Meditations on Violence”)
What will it be like if you survive a serious encounter? It will be like losing a tooth and you can’t help poking at the hole. Whether it went well or not, you’ll be playing it back again in your mind, over and over. Months later you may come up with something that might have worked better or prevented the whole thing and you will feel guilty because it didn’t occur to you in the quarter second it might have helped.
Many martial artists change schools or styles, looking for the silver bullet that will work next time. If it is never tested, they have the luxury of becoming fanatical about the new school. Some give up training altogether because it didn’t work. A very few make the decision that they will be ready next time and start adjust their training to fit their experience. This is more rare than it should be. I have seen gifted martial artists teach that attacks happen in a certain specific and unrealistic way when they have actually survived assaults that were nothing like their models. I do not understand denial at this level, but it happens and is passed from instructor to student.
Another thing you need to know is that in a really bad situation (say someone dies or was raped), you will go through this no matter what you did. If you handled it perfectly and someone dies, justified all the way, you will go through this. If you made the situation worse, you will go through this. And if you did nothing, especially if you did nothing, you will go through this.
It’s no big deal.
That probably sounds cold. HUMANS ARE NOT MACHINES THAT GET BROKEN AND THEN GET FIXED. Humans are creatures and something happens to them and they grow. They can grow twisted, true. But most grow stronger if they are allowed to.
I part company with many researchers on PTSD here. This is from the heart, from my own experience. Take it if you can use it or see a counselor if that works for you. The events are what they are, and your initial reaction is what it was. The lasting effects, good or bad will largely depend on how you explain it to yourself. You can’t invent a story that ended differently or deny what you felt or did. Your choice is whether you will think, “It should have been me that died, I’m scum.” Or “I lived, I was lucky, I did okay, what will I do better if it happens again?”
Stories again. I use stories as a metaphor because I have listened to so many people rewrite their history and edit events and meanings. Not lying- usually the actual events were pretty much as described, but what the events meant and connections between events are artfully altered so that the story, the life made sense.
The world doesn’t care if it makes sense or not. The media’s “senseless violence” made perfect sense to the person who perpetrated it, yet was possibly a mystery to the victim. The world is big, and chaos is the soul of violence: but humans are the monkeys who must find a pattern. If we can’t find one, we will make one. A life story is one metaphor for the pattern we find and create. You could call it a ‘reality map’ just as easily, the picture we hold in our head of how the world works. It is the same- a picture of ourselves or the world often many steps removed from the reality. People will kill and die for their story, often more easily than they will kill or die for their reality. And damage to the story can be more shattering than damage to their physical bodies.
We are often helped in writing our stories. I talked with an inmate for hours one afternoon. He was a violent sex offender, a drug addict and a veteran of Vietnam. We talked about violence and how it changed the people who lived it and how people who had not experienced violence rarely understood those who had.
When he returned from Vietnam he was put into counseling with a state psychologist just out of college whose goal was to get him to admit that he had done monstrous things and was a monster. Think about that- for what he was trained, paid and ordered to do he was supposed to call himself a monster. It was supposed to help him. The theory came from someone who had no idea of his experiences.
I thought about it for a long time. Violence had had a profound effect on our lives and our personalities. I’m a stable family man. He was a violent addict. How much of that is because he had a state-paid counselor who thought he was a monster and I have a loving wife and a circle of experienced friends? Where would I be if I had been told I was a monster by the people trying to help (and no mistake, I’ve been called worse, just not by people who mattered to me). Where would he be if the psychologist had just had the wisdom to listen and help him sort it out in his own way?
There are big things and when they happen we expect them to have big effects. Death, life, heroics and cowardice, blood and piss and a grown man’s tears or screams. We expect these events to mean something, but they don’t, not right away. It takes a while, but the transition is when the event becomes a part of you. Not something that happened to you, but a part of you.
The transition can take time and it can look like depression or even obsession. It can become depression or obsession if you let it. Focus on living, stay busy, think about it but don’t try to hold the memory tight, and you will become much stronger.
What is your worst memory? How much impact did that event have on making you into you? Didn’t your greatest strengths come from your worst times? Didn’t your capacity for compassion arise from your losses and grief? Didn’t your courage come from pain?