I Can’t Imagine — Trauma, Depression, The Truth, African-Americans, and Travon Martin

I just finished watching the Rep. of Travon Martin’s Florida district, Frederica Wilson, speak about the tragedy that happened in her community.

Here’s the link to the speech: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/23/trayvon-martin-reactions_n_1376046.html?ref=topbar#s809240&title=Frederica_Wilson.  Once again, the press missed the boat on this one. The description of the link says: “Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) denounced shooter George Zimmerman as “a renegade wannabe policeman neighborhood watchman.”  I understand that this is the video equivalent of a headline, so they had to choose something to highlight, but it is not even remotely the point of her speech.

First off, the speech is not primarily about the shooter, it is about the victim. Secondly, it is not just about this victim, it is about a pattern of victims. Lastly, it is about the surviving victims who watch another victim die.  In other words, Rep. Wilson is a victim of George Zimmerman’s bullet, in a different way than Travon Martin, but a victim nonetheless. I, for one, cannot imagine the pain she, and others like her, are in. I would just like to give further value to her cries.

As a therapist, I see variations on cases like hers all the time. I frequently deal with what therapists call “trauma”.  Trauma in general usage means “tragedy”  — some God-awful thing that happened that shouldn’t have or is hard to watch.  For therapists, it is  a very specific thing with specific results and consequences. In individual therapy, I am most likely to deal with sexual abuse of a white person or a woman of any nationality than than anything else.  This doesn’t mean that abuse only happens to that group, by any means.  It’s just who I see and what brings people to my office. Other forms of trauma are more focused on violence without sexuality being involved — veterans, people in car crashes, natural disasters, and gang violence or other violence related to crime. Other therapists get more of those cases for whatever reasons.

When I was trained, but not much since then, clinical trauma was defined as an event having two characteristics:

1) Something happened  that threatened to disrupt bodily integrity (i.e. your body could come apart if this event happened and you were close enough to it)

2) You were (or felt)  powerless to stop it.

It takes both pieces to set someone up for psychological trauma and I usually stumble across it when a person’s feelings are all over the map — what we call “emotional dis-regulation” — or they are depressed but don’t know why.  I find that trauma usually has two pieces to it as well — the traumatic event and the “cap” someone else put on it that makes it explode emotionally later. Once the “cap” is removed and the explosion dealt with, the trauma can be processed and dealt with. Until then, bizarre or depressed behavior happens for no apparent reason.

It’s not bad enough that your buddy got his head blown up in the war. It’s that, for some reason, you were blamed for it. It’s not bad enough that a person was abused this way or that. It’s that their parent or parents said “you can’t tell anybody”. It’s not just that you witnessed the death of someone you cared about. Some system or agency or person said it shouldn’t affect you because it’s “not that big a deal” or because  you should be big enough to handle it because you’re … a marine, a man, someone who should be used to it, etc. This implies you’re a “whiner” or “too feminine” or “too emotional” if you complain. That piece — the shame, denial, guilt, or meaning placed by someone else — is the “cap” I’m talking about. It re-enforces or creates the powerlessness that psychological trauma requires.  Once that is removed, the traumatized person appears to go” nuts” for awhile — dealing with the anger, rage, fear, that has grown in the  fermenting parts of the person’s psyche.  That’s the scary part. Once that’s over, real change can begin to happen and the situation can really stabilize — in a deeper and more abiding way than the pretend  stability the person, family, system, or organization had before.

I’m sorry to get so technical, but it is this precise thing that Rep. Wilson is talking about when she spoke to the House of Representatives. In Travon’s senseless killing, she was reminded of another traumatic situation which had no resolution — and another and another and another. When she says she is tired of burying young black men, she is defining the trauma that is Black American life. She is exhausted and doesn’t want re-experience  the death of  one person again.  And she doesn’t want to feel powerless anymore if it does happen.

When she thinks of Travon Martin, she is reminded of the senseless and violent death of Martin Lee Anderson, a young black man who was beaten by authorities while at a “boot camp” for juveniles. The whole thing is captured on official footage from the “boot camp” and was probably played over and over until it was ingrained in the psyches of those who watched. Even one viewing was probably enough if you identified with the boy in some way. That’s the “traumatic event that threatened bodily integrity”. President Obama’s statement “if I had a son, he’d look like Travon” is just the kind of identifying that I makes it a traumatic event.

Regarding Martin Lee Anderson and Rep. Wilson, the hopelessness came later as “person after person was not punished”, and in fact were “promoted” by the system. Rep. Martin and anyone who identified with Martin Lee Anderson felt were reminded that they are powerless over their own lives. In short, if it could happen to him, it could happen to them, too. Rep. Martin stopped there, but made mention of other tragedies where authorities killed blacks for no particular reason than race.

As she talked of Travon Martin and Martin Lee Anderson, I was reminded of Rodney King who was clearly — on film! — beaten to within an inch of his life by police while posing no real threat to any one of the men wielding clubs, guns, and badges. Black America (and anyone who has dealt with violent policemen in L.A.), couldn’t help but identify  with Mr. King. When those men were found “not guilty of wrongdoing”, people watching it had two possibilities: Learn the lesson that they were powerless to prevent it and get depressed or express their reality and be out of control. They chose the latter, which, sadly, reinforced the image society already had of them. I suspect that they became further depressed, anxious, and\or “acted out”  in a variety of ways so the community looked… well, like Watts did in the 1980’s.

I can’t imagine living my life this way. I can’t imagine knowing — actually knowing — that if authorities chose to, for no other reason than the color of my skin, they could kill me or my children. I can’t imagine burying child after child, simply because they had my skin color. I can’t imagine having guns drawn on me for being “in the wrong neighborhood”, regardless of who I was and what I had achieved in life. When I lived in Bridgeport, I remember Alvin Penn — a state Senator!!!! — being pulled from his car by police in a suburb (where he lived, BTW) because they believed he “didn’t belong there” and “must have been casing houses”. I further remember him getting no justice on the matter and the police claiming they were within their rights to suspect him that way.

In a world where Alvin Penn is Martin Lee Anderson is Rodney King is Travon Martin, we have a problem. They have a trauma that I can’t even imagine. President Obama and Rep. Wilson don’t have to feel helpless. They have the power to get some justice out of the system regarding the events they have  witnessed. Wilson used Martin Anderson’s death to fund an agency to prevent it happening again, but here it is with another face in another body in another year. We’ll see how Obama does with it all.

The way to prevent trauma and the emotional chaos or depression that comes with it is two-fold. 1) Don’t have the event occur in the first place and 2)  Don’t reinforce the powerlessness of the victims to stop it. If we’re going to have a deep and lasting peace in this country between races, we need to do both of those things.

 

Peace,

 

John

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