Pacino’s moment of compassion

Pacino’s moment of compassion

Another great restorative yoga class this week left me feeling calm and centered (thanks Lisa!). At the end of the class, we practice Savasana, a pose where we lie silently on our backs, eyes closed. This exercise isn’t a physically challenging one, but it is one where the mind tends to wander. During this part, our instructor played a wonderful rendition of the tune “Sea of Love,” the theme song from the 1989 box office movie sensation. In this moment, where we are supposed to be clearing our minds, I was replaying a scene from the movie involving Al Pacino, who plays the role of a burnt-out cop. He is part of a sting operation designed to apprehend people with outstanding warrants, luring them in with the promise of having breakfast with the American Major League baseball star Dave Winfield. Everything was going smoothly until one late-comer shows up holding the hand of his young son.

“Hey, am I too late?” he asks.

“You got an invitation?” Al Pacino demands. The father hands over a piece of paper.

“Ernest Lee, the invitation’s for you only,” Pacino asserts.

“I can hardly meet Dave Winfield without takin’ my boy”, the man pleads.

Not wanting to ruin what was clearly a positive relationship between father and son, Pacino decides to cut him a break.

“We’re all booked up.” Pacino discreetly flashes his police badge, signalling to the father that the baseball player event was a trap.

“Thanks man,” the father backs away with his son.

“Catch you later,” Pacino responds before driving away.

It’s a dark film, about a dark topic, but many years later that’s the scene I remember… someone in a dark place, showing an act of compassion.

Memory and association are closely related. It is not the actual events that create our emotions, it’s how we process and remember these events. If I were stressed out maybe I would have remembered the fact that Al Pacino was a drunk and that the movie was actually about a serial killer. Because I was relaxed, I just remembered the good bit… the compassion.

This is a reminder for me to take the extra time to care for myself. If I take this extra time the bad things I may have experienced don’t seem quite so awful. (And believe me, in my seven years acting as Chief Psychologist in a federal penitentiary, there was bad stuff). If I take the time to process these events, they don’t affect me as much. I am more able to remember the good aspects of my job.

Many of us have experienced or witnessed incredibly traumatic or dark things as a routine part of our daily work. Looking back, how we feel about them is largely determined by how we remember them. The lens of trauma only remembers things the same way, repeated over and over. By welcoming the perspective of others in a safe and supportive environment, we open ourselves to seeing things in a new light, often changing the way these events emotionally impact us.

Link to Al Pacino’s Sea of Love

The Strength of Community

The Strength of Community

This past weekend I was in Toronto visiting my brother, Martin, who also is the Artistic Director for PTSD Hero Comics. Together with his family, we enjoyed a lovely dinner at an outdoor restaurant at Pape and Danforth. We skipped our usual second stop of ice cream at a nearby store as dinner portions had been generous. Relaxed laughter and warm greetings were exchanged by strangers as we passed one another, mutually enjoying the beautiful summer evening.

On Monday, when I arrived home, I learned that there had been a mass shooting at that same location. The lives of 10-year-old Julianna Kozis and 18-year-old Reese Fallon were claimed. Among the 15 people injured was Danielle Kane, a 31-year-old nursing student who rushed to the aid of a shooting victim, with her boyfriend, not knowing that the pause in gunfire represented the shooter reloading. She lies in intensive care at St. Michael’s Hospital, uncertain if she will regain use of her legs. From this point forward, her life and all of those involved are permanently changed. For those first responders and individuals like Danielle who put themselves in harm’s way in order to assist others, the impact of this event will live on.

By what stroke of luck, I wonder, had we been elsewhere at the unfortunate time when things went so terribly wrong? My heart goes out to those who were not so lucky, and the families devastated by such senseless tragedy.

Landing Strong is a not-for-profit program and center designed to support military members, veterans, and first responders who have been injured as a result of trauma exposure. The goal is to have critical supports in place for people before they need them, acting proactively to mitigate the effects of trauma exposure. We want to be there for them when they need it, so they are not in a situation of scrambling for support after they are injured. Communities are only as healthy as the members who form them. We continue to do everything in our power to rally around those who have been injured, offering needed support.

Our thoughts are with you, our dear friends in Toronto. To those injured or killed and their families and friends. To the first responders who put themselves in harm’s way to assist with such a horrific scene, we thank you for working selflessly to make the world a safer place.

Surviving PTSD… like a fish out of water

Surviving PTSD… like a fish out of water

I remember when the kids were little, they had a pet Betta fish. For some reason, that only they would understand, they named it “Llama.” One day, I asked my son to clean the fish water. He happily obliged, but left the small round fish bowl on the bathroom sink (with the fish in it). We went out for dinner, and when we returned, the fish had jumped out of the bowl. A thorough search led to a ghastly discovery… Llama had completely dried up on the bathroom floor. So dry in fact that I could not pick him up by hand, and had to use a putty knife to gently chip him off. His poor dehydrated form came up in one piece, except for a small segment of his fin that remained cemented to the floor. I dropped him into the fish bowl, preparing to dispense of him.

To my surprise, when I picked up the bowl, I noticed that Llama appeared to be breathing. Watching intently, I saw him magically rehydrate, and slowly regain movement and life. By the end of an hour, it would have been impossible to know that he had been near death. The only telltale sign being a small piece of missing fin.

Trying to understand the miracle I had witnessed, I did some research and learned that Betta fishes were discovered living in puddles, drainage ditches, and rice paddies in China. Extreme changes in environment forced it to adapt, finding a way to survive harsh conditions. The instinct to jump, and find a bigger puddle had backfired on our poor friend. Natural survival adaptation, however, allowed it to shut down its metabolism and wait out the “drought” until the opportunity to rehydrate presented itself. Like a dried up puddle being replenished by rain.

Llama the betta fish dried up and came back to life.

Although he made a full recovery and lived for a long time after, he had a chip in his fin (a piece of the middle missing) from the rescue. It didn’t affect his ability to swim, but remained with him, an understated reminder of his resilience.

Recovery from trauma does not mean going back to being exactly the same person we were before our injury. It means learning to move forward: wiser, smarter, and better prepared to protect ourselves against future injury.