When the stresses of life are ordinary and manageable, most of us feel we have it together. We have a cohesive sense of ourself and the world. Things are in place and we understand how they connect. But under the strain of trauma, this cohesiveness may be replaced by a feeling of fragmentation and anxiety; nothing safely fits right. The world is disrupted, suddenly dangerous and unfamiliar, and a dissociation, a spaciness sets in replacing the usual order and sequence. We startle and don’t exactly know where we are or what is happening. For a time, we look to ourselves and others as out of character.
Trauma disrupts, cuts and entangles the through lines that organize the drama of our lives. The patterns we were following, the improvisations we could enter are torn. Flexibility ends and for a time we are stuck. We need these through lines to be reknit, restored, and maybe rerouted. Our sensible and navigable world requires reconstruction.
When the trauma has been imposed by malevolence, the desire for justice, revenge, and retribution appears and is confounded by the helplessness left in the injury’s wake.
How do we get it back together? What are the parameters that define resilience and reconstruction after catastrophe and trauma? What is involved in the different ways we respond? Sleep helps, finding time to retreat and regather is a good idea, love and work help restore meaning. Seeking community is vital.
For some, a return to the normal is rapid, hours or a day does the trick. But for others, especially if a previous vulnerability, a vital unresolved injury is touched; it may take longer at times, much longer. Sleeping dogs we thought put down may wake up and howl.
The problem with reconstruction, of being made whole, naturally involves the extent that our relationships, social practices and memories are entwined with the damage and the loss. How significant is the damage to the person’s basic values, knowledge, and skills? The basic questions of significance and extent are fundamental. How extensive and how important is the damage to the person’s status, eligibility, world-view and self-concept?
In one way or another, everything in a person’s life is connected to everything else. These connections create a dynamic. Some aspects of our lives, some of our attributes, are in active conflict, others may be complementary or relatively independent, but a change in one aspect creates a change throughout a person’s life. In some cases to the extent that our actions no longer appear to be our own.
After significant damage and loss we often ask, out loud or through action, what can I still do and what must I do now? When we grieve we ask, what can I do with this terrible gap in my world? What is left to value? Who can I still depend on? Who can rely on me?
Adversity elicits resilience to the extent a person’s remaining attributes are sufficient. We would like to believe that adversity makes us stronger but we know all too well it often makes us mean, depressed, and anxious. Resilience involves the remaining values, knowledge, and competence a person and community can bring to bear on the reconstruction. We assess what remains intact and what wasn’t damaged. Is there enough we still value to have faith in the potential to regrow without undo distortion? Will there be anything left to notice besides the scars?
I have been sitting with a lot of people grieving or in mourning. In some cases, the distinction between mourning as a temporary state or as a more ingrained status is blurred given the time and work required for a person to reconstruct their world. It will complicate matters if they find they need to create a significantly different place for themselves given the vulnerability that came with their previous status. This may take considerable time to accomplish, the amount of time it takes to grow and mature.
Loss and destruction can be part of a personal drama that unfolds both in reconstruction and as the beginning of something new, an undesired opportunity as well as a dilemma. But it will take as long as it takes.
That said, reconstruction is reengagement.
Written By Wynn Schwartz, Ph.D.
Wynn Schwartz, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and research psychoanalyst on the core faculty of The Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology and on the faculties of Harvard Medical School and The Harvard Extension School. He is a coeditor of Advances in Descriptive Psychology. He has been a professor at Wellesley College and has taught at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Psychoanalysis. His empirical research has focused on dreaming, memory and problem representation, and on hypnosis and episodic memory. As a student of Descriptive Psychology, Dr. Schwartz has been especially interested in theory-free, pre-empirical formulations of action and responsibility, the concept of hypnosis, the status dynamics of psychotherapy and supervision, and the parameters of empathic action. Currently, he is exploring liberation, improvisation and play, and the behavioral logic of social progress and reaction. He maintains a psychotherapy and supervision practice in Boston where he works with individuals and couples.
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Resilience is a complex concept. Practically speaking, here are some of the major factors that are significant in a person’s “natural” recovery from trauma. By “natural” I am trying to get at what facilitates the average expected person’s average expected recovery from trauma. I believe it is useful to say that trauma disrupts, degrades, and/or distorts some set of significant “through lines” in a person’s dramaturgical pattern. I am suggesting that “through lines” is a useful organizing concept when employing the concept of “the dramaturgical pattern”. This comes from Peter Ossorio’s conceptualization that a person is an individual whose history involves a pattern of deliberate actions in a dramaturgical fashion. (See, The Behavior of Persons, Peter Ossorio, 2006/2013, The Descriptive Psychology Press).
As a clinical observer I think the following biological and social factors are important in the natural recovery from trauma.
1. Sleep is almost universally recognized as significant. The manner of recovery is different when sleep is accompanied with or without nightmares. It is harder when nightmares are present. Also important is whether the dreams involve successful story resolution. Successful resolution helps. The presence or absence of metaphor in the dream narrative is also predictive of whether the trauma becomes more tolerable and amenable to resolution. Metaphor is significant since it connects a variety of through lines in a common image. I think that metaphor connects themes in the service of mastery. On the other hand, direct representation of the trauma negatively correlates with recovery and impedes toleration of the traumatic memory.
2. The significance and extent that vital through lines have been disrupted, distorted, degraded or lost is central in assessing the damage to a person’s self and world. These can be extracted as developmental lines, role patterns, linked and valued social practices, the usual “done thing” and so on.
3. Parallel to #2 is the person’s remaining serviceable powers and dispositions available for effective engagement with the problematic circumstances.
4. Of further significance is the availability of communities to help the traumatized person reengage in valued social practices.
5. Engagement also involves the faith, hope and expectation that the communities “will meet the need and make the difference” and that the traumatized person believes they will recover with or without assistance.