It was on the night of June 5, 1944 that Winston expressed to his wife that they were going to bed with the knowledge that by morning, 20,000 soldiers may have lost their lives.
He was referring to Operation Overlord, the biggest seaborne operation in history. An event that served to turn the tide of the Second World War as 156,000 Allied forces united to storm the beaches of Normandy in an effort to liberate the country from Nazi occupation.
More than 10,000 people lost their lives in an all or nothing gamble that paid off, but at tremendous cost.
When we run programs at Landing Strong, we spend quite a bit of time discussing how to create an environment that feels comfortable and safe. Participants tell me that it’s not uncommon to walk into a community coffee group where they’re initially having a good time, only to have the mood shift once the subject of politics comes up. Suddenly the tone is angry and loud. Instead of ideas and insights forming the discussion, hard opinions become the propulsion for discussion. Listening decreases as each person fixates on ensuring their “truth” is heard.
When this happens, I know it’s just a matter of time until the conversation shuts down, and the potential for insights and wisdom arising from the discussion are lost.
Speaking truthfully without hurting feelings, writes Cheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, is an acquired skill. It’s that wonderful balance between appropriateness and authenticity.
In her book Lean In, Sandberg notes “When communicating hard truths, less is more…The ability to listen is as important as the ability to speak.”
What if we all made it our mission to seek to understand the opinions of others, without needing to be right? How would the world change? We may disagree with what we hear, but at least by listening we are inviting an opportunity for dialogue. Sowing the seeds of change. If we are able to shift our focus from being heard, to accepting the uniqueness of each person’s truth, the discussion becomes richer.
I have to admit, I don’t always master this art. But I try.
Please join me in noticing the tone and manner in which we communicate with others. Is it inviting or overbearing? Welcoming or deflective?
As Sandberg confirms, being aware of the problem is the first step to correcting it.
Belinda Seagram, Ph.D., R. Psych. Founder, Landing Strong
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.
“Mom can we go to Italy?” my daughter called out to me when she was little. Wondering why she would ask such a thing, I enquired further, “Why do you want to go to Italy honey?”
“Because it would make me happy,” she replied.
“Yes happy!” she explained, staring at me like I was missing the obvious.
“But why Italy?” I prodded. “Because mom, that’s where they make Nutella, the Nutella Factory is in Italy, and Nutella makes me happy so we should go there.”
The basic wisdom of her logic touched me. So simple. Going to the people and places that make us happy. I’m not talking about quick gratification… the quick sugar high that comes from eating half a cheesecake in one sitting, or a buzz after too many beers. I’m talking about the pleasure of an evening spent with someone we care about, or doing something that fills us with joy. Mindfully constructing our day so that each contains an element of beauty.
PTSD, anxiety, and depression are all about avoidance. The only problem is, the withdrawal that is associated with protecting ourselves also eliminates new possibilities… like visiting the Nutella Factory.
It really stinks… a corner in the reception area of my office, that is. I can’t figure out why. I’ve looked everywhere for the source of the smell, but I can’t find it. Normally the waiting room area is a fresh sunny place where people comment on the pleasing environment and smells. Our yard is full of blooming lilacs, the apple blossoms are out, and the garden is wonderful. But this does not seem to be transferring to the inside. Not this week at least.
Emily Lane, our Office Manager, who works on this floor of the building has been great. With relentless good nature and patience she has been working to uncover the culprit.
On Sunday, I bought a huge number of gorgeous potted flowers that I left on the deck by the office. On Sunday night most of them froze with that unexpected frost. I took them inside and tried to resuscitate them. It turns out it’s not possible to do CPR with geraniums, but some of the pink did come back with the few blossoms I managed to save.
A veteran who has been working hard on his recovery was in the building yesterday. He was the epitome of optimism, noting that all those lovely plants inside helped hide the unwelcomed smell. There you go, a silver lining to every cloud.
I suppose PTSD and operational injuries are like that. The symptoms serve as reminders that there is something that needs to be addressed. It generally isn’t something we are eager to do, but the unwelcomed symptoms won’t go away until we dig down and find the source of the problem.
So I’m taking action, enlisting the support of professionals who are experts in their areas, confident that we will figure it out, together. Hoping warm weather and pleasing scents find their way back to us soon.
p.s. The day after I wrote this article I arrived at the office and magically the offensive smell was gone… a week after its mysterious appearance. Maybe talking about things does help after all.
It’s complicated… a standard line delivered in movies when someone is trying to gently tell someone else why they don’t want to date them.
Dating someone with PTSD for sure isn’t easy. Being married to, or a partner with, someone with PTSD also isn’t easy. Wanting to be able to connect but not knowing how, and feeling the burden of shame that prevents intimacy, can be a difficult road. It isn’t simple loving your family or being connected to your friends when you have PTSD. It can be hard not understanding what is happening when it all used to be so effortless.
Is that complex PTSD? It may seem so, but in fact complex PTSD is what happens when we are exposed to childhood trauma and then again more trauma later in life. We may have figured out how to manage the childhood piece, but under the burden of adult trauma exposure, the face of childhood trauma may rear its ugly head. The adult trauma exposure may not by itself have been enough to undo us, but compounded with the early life experiences, the combined weight might be too much.
As I mentioned earlier, it is indeed complicated. Trauma exposure is not something that happens in discrete units. It’s a cumulative thing.
In order to figure things out, we often need to go upstream, back in time. View ourselves as a whole person, in the totality of our experience. This, by necessity, is a voyage of compassionate enquiry. Something not meant to be done alone.
Any outdoor enthusiasts out there know these journeys are not for the faint of heart, and certainly not meant to be done alone. Please join us on this journey.
Connecting with Belinda
Founder Belinda Seagram, Ph.D. shares regular blog posts to inspire you during your journey.