Thursday, April 5, 2012

Traumatized By The Stories ...

I'm feeling just a little raw this morning. Last night, the word I used was battered. 

A friend invited me to a Lenten gathering at Christ Church Cathedral, a beautiful downtown Vancouver landmark built in the late 1880's. The evening was entitled, Sacrifice and Redemption: A Meeting With Canada's Modern Day Veterans, and included a viewing of Judy Jackson's powerful documentary, War in the Mind, which some of you may have seen on TV last summer.

A couple of hundred of us listened as Dean Peter Elliott welcomed the group and told of the connection between the Cathedral and the film we were about to see. ( Fourteen years ago, the Cathedral had offered space to hold the first, Veterans Transition Program, upon which much of the film was based. Today, they continue to support the program in various ways.) We then sang the national anthem, acapella, and settled down to watch the film, which was described this way in the evening's program:

War in the Mind, a documentary by Judy Jackson, follows Canadian soldiers returning from Afghanistan to civilian life. Along the way, it examines the issue of posttraumatic stress disorder and suicide in the armed forces and the stifling bureaucracy returning soldiers encounter when trying to find help.
The documentary features the Veterans Transition Program (VTP), a program developed at the University of British Columbia run by two psychologists, Marvin Westwood and David Kuhl, that attempts to help veterans rebuild their lives through a mix of group reenactments and skill development.
The program has been running for 14 years, and is now being expanded across Canada and in Australia. The BC program is funded by the Royal Canadian Legion's poppy fund, at UBC.

To say that the film was powerful is an understatement. It left me with a cascade of emotions that has continued through this morning. My heart was deeply touched by both the youth and vulnerability and the strength and courage of the young men returning home with "operational stress injuries". My anger and frustration rose in equal measure as I listened to the level of denial in the comments of the Canadian military official. My grief broke open at the pain, despair, isolation and hopelessness felt by these brave young men.  (I must also admit to some passing angst as, triggered by their stories, I remembered once again how vulnerable we are to being retraumatized after years of professional secondary traumatic stress.)

After the film, we sat in the dim quiet listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Pie Jesu and wiping away a few tears before breaking into discussion groups led by members of the VTP program. At least most of us broke into groups. My friend and I, and a few others, left at that point. I don't know what was happening for the others but my friend and I, both former trauma therapists who had lived with compassion fatigue, chose to limit our exposure to further trauma stories and to debrief quietly over a cup of camomile-citrus tea at the local White Spot restaurant.

So, why am I telling you all this? For two or three reasons, I suppose. First, as a reminder to us all to pace and limit our trauma exposure and to make space for debriefing, regardless the situation. Secondly, to offer you the opportunity to see this truly amazing documentary, if you haven't done so already (- keeping the aforementioned in mind!).  And, thirdly, to offer you these compassionate and hopeful words of blessing from Jan Richardson, one of my favourite writers-of-blessings. I see the words as a gift to all who, for whatever reason - combat PTSD; family caregivers' secondary traumatic stress; work-related compassion fatigue; the multiple losses of chronic sorrow, accumulated grief or bereavement - are feeling shattered during this season of wholeness, joy, and new life:

Blessing for a Broken Vessel
Do not despair.
You hold the memory
of what it was
to be whole.

It lives deep
in your bones.
It abides
in your heart
that has been torn
and mended
a hundred times.
It persists
in your lungs
that know the mystery
of what it means
to be full,
to be empty,
to be full again.

I am not asking you
to give up your grip
on the shards you clasp
so close to you.

But to wonder
what it would be like
for those jagged edges
to meet each other
in some new pattern
that you have never
that you have never dared
to dream.

Jan Richardson


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