I spent the first 6 decades of my life trying to figure out what was wrong with me and everything else in my life. When I finally started learning about post trauma stress (PTS) and trauma informed care, it was clear that empathy and compassion were possible once we changed the conversation to “what happened” not “what is wrong.” This seemingly basic concept allowed me to begin my own journey of healing in 2011 at age 64. Everytime I talk to a person suffering from PTSD, including depression, anxiety, addiction, and other mental health challenges, I try to find out what happened, not what is wrong.
Once we change the conversation to what happened, the talk shifts immediately to a greater mutual understanding of the roots of the emotional struggles of your friends, neighbors, and loved ones who are suffering from a past traumatic life event. Imagine a combat veteran who came home from war a different person because of being exposed to the terrible violence of war. Think about a child who suffers from persistent and pervasive emotional and physical abuse in a profoundly dysfunctional home. In all these circumstances of severe trauma, we know now that the human brain is rewired, the brain chemistry changes and adapts to extreme survival circumstances and danger to life in war or at home living in fear. Because we know this as human beings we can have more empathy and compassion for others who suffer for a lifetime. The emotional baggage of war, the violence and carnage, losing a buddy, seeing little children dead in the streets as collateral damage is too much for a once healthy mind to process and get past once home to resume life as a typical citizen.
It is far worse to see traumatized children grow up with serious mental illness, including PTSD and life long major depression, that must be treated for a lifetime. It is heartbreaking to know that too many people of all ages resort to suicide or overdose on opioids because there is no hope and the emotional pain is too horrific to live with.
The life long journey of healing takes a highly disciplined personal effort of awareness of one’s own symptoms and strong support from family, close friends and a sustainable clinical and community based peer support treatment/recovery plan. Even so, the 24/7 intrusive thoughts and emotional pain stick for a lifetime for those of us who suffer from a major depressive disorder. I feel lucky to have a strong support system in these later years of my life.
There are too many people in my community suffering from mental illness, including co-occuring alcohol and drug addiction, who are not as lucky. We see it in communities everywhere, the homeless and most vulnerable citizens who live among us. The way we treat the most vulnerable population in our community is a direct reflection of who we are, a loving community with great empathy and compassion.
So, with much empathy and compassion, reach out to the most vulnerable members of your community with kindness and love. Listen to them and help them find a safe place to begin living a healthy and happy quality of life.
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