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The Power to Choose

July 13, 2016

This column was written following the tragic events in Milwaukee, Wisc., Baton Rouge, La., and Dallas, as a means to answer the question, “After national tragedies, is there a space to build resilience?”

By Cheryl Sharp

Exclusive Consultant for Trauma Informed Care Initiatives, National Council for Behavioral Health

As a young girl of 13 growing up in the early 1970s, I found myself in a place of deep despair that led to much of the suicidal thinking and behaviors that haunted me far into my 20s. People didn’t understand why a middle-class white girl should be so despairing of life at such a young age.

The answer was that the world was just too painful a place for me to exist in and I didn’t have the coping skills to step outside of a country and a world that was divided by the Vietnam War. I couldn’t understand or tolerate the racism that I saw and experienced growing up in the South. I had no internal container to hold all of the pain and suffering I saw around me. I felt powerless to do anything. I couldn’t march. I didn’t have money to give. I couldn’t solve any of the world’s problems. It didn’t help that I was also a trauma survivor and much of the resilience I had when I entered the world was shattered by the time I began to understand that the world was not always a rational, logical or safe place. I didn’t understand that I could find safety within myself and could proactively participate in society.

I frequently reference the Viktor Frankl quote, “That which is to give light must endure burning,” in my “compassion fatigue” presentations around the nation. So many of us—providers, community leaders, therapists and anyone working in behavioral health—give and give until there is barely a wick left to light a candle. We give and don’t see the fruits of our love and compassion.

trauma-580x486Last week, my heart, along with the heart of our nation, broke. Dr. Sandra Bloom said, “There are so many traumatized people that there will never be enough individual therapists to treat them. We must begin to create naturally occurring, healing environments that provide some of the corrective experiences that are vital for recovery.” We all must create those naturally occurring and healing environments to begin to heal as human beings and as caregivers. We must pay attention to our own recovery from the tragedies we keep experiencing as a nation.

As my heart broke—and it has been broken many times since I was a young teenager—I recognized once again that over all of these years and the twisty-turny journey I took to living mentally well, I am a very resilient person. Resilience, even when lost, can be found and relearned. I have endured the burning; just as our country endures it now. We have a choice in how we respond to ourselves, to each other, to our communities and to our country.

As I consider the life Viktor Frankl lived when transported to Auschwitz concentration camp, to Kaufering and finally to Turkheimk, I think of what he learned in the midst of horror and tragedy: self-care is reliant in love, compassion, empathy and connection to others.

I recently read a post from a young friend who has been travelling the world. She currently lives and works in a Romanian convent after many months in India, Pakistan, Israel and many other beautiful and stricken places. She reflected on the Fourth of July freedoms we enjoy. What I know is that the greatest freedom we have right now is the power to choose how we respond to others, how we show up in our work and in our world and how we care for ourselves. We can either set the table for despair or we can choose to see that we are not alone and that we have work to do.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés asks us to look for each other and to recognize our greatness in trying times in her wonderful piece, “We Were Made for These Times.” There are so many trauma survivors; we are not fighting our battles alone.  We are in this together and every thought, act, word and deed makes a difference.

In “Healing Invisible Wounds,” Dr. Richard Mollica writes, “If empathy heals, then self-care is essential.”  How do you care for yourself? How do you support your staff to practice self-care?

The National Council is gifted with an intuitive leader in Linda Rosenberg. Her immediate action after the recent murders and shootings was to remind staff to do whatever is needed to take care of themselves, to use the organization’s employee assistance program, to reach out and to practice the things we work so hard to share with our others.

I realized last Thursday night that I was watching multiple channels and was tangled in the media hamster wheel. So, as a trauma survivor and trainer, I took a few steps to provide self-care.

  • I gave myself permission to take a time-out from media, with the exception of brief check-ins.
  • I connected with others who are of a like-mind and whom I trust with my deepest thoughts and feelings.
  • I did simple tasks that gave me a sense of accomplishment rather than giving into the despair of helplessness and hopelessness.
  • I spent a great deal of time in nature because that always brings me joy and a sense of belonging in the world.
  • I chose to listen to the kindness in others’ voices and to notice my positive interactions with others.

In this time in which we can feel hopeless, take the time to turn to those you love and allow them to love you. At this time of heartache, tend and listen to your heart, allowing the broken pieces to mend.  Remember that we are a community—a community of healers—and that none of us are alone.

It is sometimes the simplest things that refill our almost empty cups, but the one thing I know is that I have to choose what part of myself I am going to feed. We have the power to choose love over hate, hope over despair and peace over violence.