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re-traumatization

I hope today can feel like a new day. I am up early, blinds drawn, sipping coffee from my favorite mug, the sun peeping over the foliage outside my window and landing on my tired face. I slept fitfully last night, woken by sirens and the sound of a helicopter hovering overhead. I wondered who they were looking for, whether that person was afraid and if they needed somewhere to shelter.

Shelter is such a simple yet powerful word. It is what we have been doing for three months now in the face of a virus. It’s what we stand under to protect us from the rain, wind, sun as we wait for a bus to take us where we need to go. It’s an act of kind offering to let someone into our homes when they are in need – come in, be warm, have my friendship.

I was moved by the story of Rahul Dubey, a DC resident who was sitting on his stoop on Monday night when protesters were cornered, police advancing on them from either end of his small street. He didn’t just watch – he saw their plight, the fear in their eyes as they contemplated their fate in the hands of police officers after the curfew had fallen – and he acted. He opened his home to 70 strangers. He gave them shelter. He ordered pizzas, he helped them to wash the tear gas from their eyes, they no doubt left the next morning rested and ready to continue their mission.

Shelter isn’t just practical – it’s emotional and spiritual. I’m sure his actions gave those 70 young people hope; hope in the inherent goodness in most human beings, hope in solidarity, hope in how society can be.

When I myself have offered shelter my overwhelming emotion has been frustration – that I could not do more. I’ve sat with wives facing demands they cannot meet from terrorists holding their husband hostage, mothers watching along with the rest of us a video depicting their child’s murder, casually and callously uploaded to YouTube by their captors.

What I have come to understand is just how simple yet powerful shelter is. It is the smallest and most heartfelt acts of kindness that are most gratefully received; listening, being present, trying to understand, finding a way to laugh at the appropriate moment to allow a vital temporary release of pent up energy. And asking for nothing in return.

I have found the last few days terrifying, confusing and also uplifting. I watched as protesters of every color, creed and background took to the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd, who died with his neck under the knee of a police officer. They took to the streets for George, for those who died before him, in the hope that no one would have to die or suffer in the future. They took to the streets because they want this to end. I have been moved by their bravery. On Saturday, we stood and watched hundreds of cars drive past our apartment building on the corner of Maine and 6th in SW DC, honking their horns, protesters spilling out of every window and sun roof with fists raised and banners flapping in the wind.

I was surprised by my own reaction – tears formed in my eyes, my arm lifted, self-consciously at first yet with passion and conviction soon enough. In the face of what these young people were fighting for, the very least I could do was raise my arm in solidarity.

I have watched in horror at the violent fringe of riots and looting – the stores in my old home neighborhood of Georgetown smashed, the contents plundered, often discarded on the sidewalk as an afront to the hard work and industry that went into their production. As if our communities weren’t suffering enough after three months of imposed sheltering, small business owners and shop workers about to return to work following the relaxing of lockdown must surely be heartbroken as they clear up this mess with the sound of broken glass crunching under their feet.

These thugs and fools not only bring destruction to communities, they sully the protesters and their cause as so many people fail to distinguish between the two.

And then on Monday night I watched the President send in the military to clear peaceful protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets to make space for him to visit St John’s Church for a photo op holding a bible.

In the preceding speech, he declared himself the President of Law and Order, name checking second amendment rights, threatening to overrule governors by imposing force and declaring a nebulous grouping a domestic terrorist organization.

I watched his speech with terror in my heart; these are the words and sentiments I have heard spill from the mouths of tyrants in “other” countries. With him on my television screen – his bile, hatred and division – my home no longer felt like my shelter.

On autopilot, we put on our shoes and went outside, standing on the same corner we had watched the protests on Saturday. At first we stood in silence side by side. I felt my eyes fill again with tears of worry. I instinctively turned to Paul and asked him to hold me. We stood like that for a long 10 minutes without saying a word.

When we came back in, I reached out to friends; I needed to connect. One immediately replied to ask if we could talk. It wasn’t enough to text, we needed to see one another’s faces, share our feelings, listen, check we really had heard the same thing. “This is what your family fled Poland for in the last century”, I said to her. She nodded slowly and silently. We took shelter in our friendship and one another.

As I lay in bed last night, listening to the sirens and wondering who was out there, who was worried about being picked up, I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach about where this goes, where this ends. I did not feel immediately worried for my own safety, but I had a deep concern about the implications of what I heard and saw on Monday night.

I was reminded of Martin Niemoller’s powerful words:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak up
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak up
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak up
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak up
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

On Monday afternoon, I spent an hour or so collecting together the examples of leadership I’d seen from governors, police chiefs, rappers who gave me hope. Leaders of compassion and connection, using their titles, offices and privileges as a platform for good rather than a barrier to shelter behind. I needed to do this to remind myself of the goodness in the face of division and despair. Erika Shields, Atlanta police chief who came down and spoke to protesters and heard their anger. Genesee County Sherif, Chris Swanson, who asked the protesters what they wanted and when they said “walk with us” he did. Killer Mike, a rapper who cried in pain and told his fellow Atlantans to plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilze. Atlanta Mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, who talked to her city as a mother and and told the rioters to go home.

There is a reason their words and actions have gone viral – we need them. Just like Rahul Dubey’s quiet act of leadership on Monday night, their leadership offers us the shelter we need right now. Just like him, the shelter they offer brings us hope – hope in the inherent goodness of most human beings, hope in solidarity, and hope in how society can be.

As we wake scared in the night to the sound of sirens; as we watch the news worried about our cities, our young people, our cohesion; let’s ask ourselves what can I do to offer shelter? Shelter – physical, practical, emotional and spiritual – is our most important currency in these difficult times.

Slowing down is the fastest way to get where I want to go

After stepping down from my busy, stressful – but rewarding – job a couple of weeks ago, I gave myself the best leaving gift: time. Three months, to be precise. A Quarter Gap Year. It’s the second time I’ve done it – the last one involved more long haul flights, scuba diving and temples; this time, the quarter gap year has come to me.

As I enter the second full week of the Quarter Gap Year, I’m learning an important lesson: slowing down.

Last week was a heady mix of feel-good productivity: a Johns Hopkins online epidemiology course, dozens of articles on managing pandemics, a couple of blog posts written, and a book on the impact of childhood trauma. I can think of worse ways to spend my days; in fact, it’s really wonderful to feel my brain stimulated, pinging off in different directions. I’m a strong believer in the power of intellectual free-styling.

It was too much too soon, and wasn’t helped by my over-enthusiastic (and age inappropriate) embrace of Peleton online HIIT classes. While Shakira may have warned us that the hips don’t lie, for me it’s all about the neck and shoulders. Thursday it was a slight twinge. Friday needed a husband rub. Saturday extra pillows for my neck. By Sunday the battle was lost and I spent all day yesterday with my left arm supported, sitting upright on the sofa doing nothing more taxing than TV.

Neck and shoulder issues have plagued me all my adult life. The time I almost had to cancel a holiday (and then spent the first 3 days in bed immobile); when I spent a couple of months with a bag of peas on my neck; the frozen shoulder that necessitated opioids and steroids; the countless other times I’ve had to carefully choose my sleeping position to minimize the stress on my neck. It comes, it hurts, I stop. Rewind and repeat.

Acupuncture, physical therapy, massage, sports massage, deep tissue massage, osteopathy, pilates, yoga. You name it, I’ve tried it. I even had calcium deposits extracted from my shoulders with a very large needle a couple of years ago. I’ll spare you the visuals. Some have helped – deep tissue massage and pilates are stand out stars – others didn’t do a thing – acupuncture and physical therapy were a waste of money (for me).

As good as any of these things are, they treat the symptoms not the cause: stress. Stress impacts my posture, which strains my muscles, which are then vulnerable to the slightest tweak, leading to a disproportionate strain, I compensate by changing my posture, and so the cycle continues until I’m in agony.

Meditation isn’t something you do to take you out of your daily life – it’s something you bring into your daily life to cultivate perspective

I’ve found meditation to be the only effective way to treat the cause. In 2017/18 when I was going through undoubtedly the most stressful period of my career, Take Five Meditation studio opened near my office in Washington DC. I’d wanted to try meditation for a while and spent a long time getting round to booking my first class. I hoped it would offer an escape from my daily stress. It did.

More profoundly, after a couple of years practice I came to understand that meditation isn’t something you do to take you out of your daily life – it’s something you bring into your daily life to cultivate perspective. When I feel my stress levels rising, when I have to make a difficult call, when a donor falls though; stop, breathe, focus inwards – and let go. Your mind is clearer, you can focus more easily, and your response is likely to be strategic rather than reactive. It’s something you learn in a meditation studio, but put into practice at your desk.

For me right now, the challenge is not stress as I’m used to – I’m blissfully obligation-free for three months. It’s the stress of change, transition, the unknown. It’s the task of letting go of many years of stress and finding what normal looks like again. Unwinding.

As week two of the Quarter Gap Year gets underway, I realize that slowing down is the fastest way to get where I want to go. Realistically, I know I won’t be able to sit still reading novels and watching Netflix for three months, but a little more idling might just be the most productive thing to do. And if all else fails, Omm…

 

“For the first time in my life, I have shed ‘survivor’ or ‘victim’ as my identity. I was having to survive on being a ‘survivor’, because that’s how I was making money, speaking about what happened to me. Now I want to talk about coding.” [Quoted in Wired magazine]

Catie Hart was 18 when she was coerced into being a sex worker by a man she met soon after arriving in San Francisco. She eventually broke away and now, aged 40, has a degree in Sociology from UC Berkeley, worked as an advisor on human trafficking for the San Francisco Police Department, Shasta County and UC Davis and is currently a lecturer at AnnieCannons, a Bay area nonprofit where survivors of human trafficking can learn to code.

Our adult lives couldn’t have started more differently; when I was 18, I was heading to Cambridge University and then on to a successful career in London and Washington DC.

Around the time Catie’s life took a turn for the worst, I had too had a formative experience: my uncle was kidnapped by terrorists in Colombia and held hostage for 7 months.

I spent the first two decades of my career dedicated to setting up Hostage UK and Hostage US, nonprofits to support hostage families through the ordeal and help returning captives rebuild their lives after they are released. I recently stepped down as Executive Director from Hostage US and would describe my time there as doing the right thing, in the right place, with the right people. Anyone who gets that once in their career is doing really well. I’ve had it twice.

There is no more effective way to convince people to donate or partner than to connect them with survivors like Catie. After hearing a hostage speak about their experiences, I have watched people instinctively reach for their check book or business card, moved to do whatever they can to help. These personal stories help build the infrastructure and resources that make nonprofits sustainable.

And yet, I always struggled to make the ask.

Telling your story can be therapeutic; one former hostage told me writing a book helped them to process what they had been through, ensure their story was told in their own words, and move on with their life. In every telling, it becomes someone’s else’s story until you can cast it aside entirely, like shedding a layer of skin. The late, great Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

For many, the telling and re-telling of the most traumatic experience of their life has a negative impact. In the most extreme cases, it can re-traumatize, triggering a range of symptoms, such as flashbacks and nightmares, anxiousness, trouble sleeping and concentrating, negative emotions and social isolation.

It can also lead to ‘identity groundhog day’. One former hostage told me she had stepped off the professional speaking circuit because she was fed up of being “hostage girl”. Everywhere she went – dropping the kids at school, attending church, over wine with friends – her identity was dominated by two months of her life five years previously. She just wanted to be a mom, wife, humanitarian, and bad karaoke singer again.

With care and thought, we can create environments for survivors to tell their stories in ways that have a net positive impact; let the survivor set the ground rules about what they do and don’t want to talk about and whether they will answer questions; ask if they would prefer to sit or stand, be interviewed or deliver a speech; help them to feel comfortable in the space by sharing photos of the room or arranging a visit beforehand; and designate someone to shield them from prying audience members afterwards. The best survivors’ organizations do this.

Catie’s quote struck a personal chord with me, too. Over the past two decades, I have told and re-told my own story countless times; to donors, partners, and bored conference attendees alike. Often, I felt good knowing something positive resulted from my family’s suffering.

At times, I resented it.

There were the times it seemed like ‘entertainment’ and left me feeling hollow knowing my story was little more than next weekend’s titillating dinner party fodder for audience members. What’s worse is feeling like I conspired in commoditizing my story; the same old patter, recycled anecdotes, and jokes in all the right places to ensure the mood didn’t dip into ‘awkward and uncomfortable’.

I also became “hostage girl” and watched the boundary between my professional and personal identities vanish. I’ll never forget sitting at a rooftop bar enjoying a balmy Washington DC evening, glass of red wine in hand as I tried to unwind after an especially stressful week at work. Introducing me to a new group, my friend said, “Rachel, do you mind if I tell everyone what you do for a job?” I wanted to scream “Yes I do mind – just let me enjoy my weekend!” I didn’t have the energy to object and inevitably spent the rest of the evening being asked questions about hostages.

I have no doubt that personal stories change the world. They help us to ‘cross the line’ as donors, volunteers and partners; they generate the compassion, energy and will to make a difference; and our instinct to share them helps raise awareness. As Dorothy Allison said, ‘…stories are the one sure way I know to touch the heart and change the world.”

There comes a time when storytelling needs to stop. We are more than our worst experiences and we cannot move forward if we can’t let go of the past.

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