So Many People Are Badly Traumatized by Life in America: It's Time We Admit It
Recently Don Hazen, the executive editor of AlterNet, asked me to think about trauma in the context of America’s political system. As I sifted through my thoughts on this topic, I began to sense an enormous weight in my body and a paralysis in my brain. What could I say? What could I possibly offer to my fellow citizens? Or to myself? After six years writing about the financial crisis and its gruesome aftermath, I feel weariness and fear. When I close my eyes, I see a great ogre with gold coins spilling from his pockets and pollution spewing from his maw lurching toward me with increasing speed. I don’t know how to stop him.
Do you feel this way, too?
All along the watchtower, America’s alarms are sounding loudly. Voter turnout this last go-round was the worst in 72 years, as if we needed another sign that faith in democracy is waning. Is it really any wonder? When your choices range from the corrupt to the demented, how can you not feel that citizenship is a sham? Research by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page clearly shows that our lawmakers create policy based on the desires of monied elites while “mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”
Our voices are not heard.
When our government does pay attention to us, the focus seems to be more on intimidation and control than addressing our needs. We are surveilled through our phones and laptops. As the New York Times has recently reported, a surge in undercover operations from a bewildering array of agencies has unleashed an army of unsupervised rogues poised to spy upon and victimize ordinary people rather than challenge the real predators who pillage at will. Aggressive and militarized police seem more likely to harm us than to protect us, even to mow us down if necessary.
Our policies amplify the harm. The mentally ill are locked away in solitary confinement, and even left there to die. Pregnant women in need of medical treatment are arrested and criminalized. Young people simply trying to get an education are crippled with debt. The elderly are left to wander the country in RVs in search of temporary jobs. If you’ve seen yourself as part of the middle class, you may have noticed cries of agony ripping through your ranks in ways that once seemed to belong to worlds far away.
I know that a serious illness could bankrupt me.
I am afraid I will never be able to afford to have a child.
My nightmare is to end up poor and abandoned in my golden years.
If you have fewer resources, the terror is even more immediate, the trauma more searing.
My father and brother are in prison.
I am afraid of being shot as I walk down the street.
I have never trusted any adult in my life.
A 2012 study of hospital patients in Atlanta’s inner-city communities showed that rates of post-traumatic stress are now on par with those of veterans returning from war zones. At least 1 out of 3 surveyed said they had experienced stress responses like flashbacks, persistent fear, a sense of alienation, and aggressive behavior. All across the country, in Detroit, New Orleans, and in what historian Louis Ferleger describes as economic “dead zones” — places where people have simply given up and sunk into “involuntary idleness” — the pain is written on slumped bodies and faces that have become masks of despair.
We are starting to break down.
When our alarm systems are set off too often, they start to malfunction, and we can end up in a state of hyper-vigilance, unable to properly assess the threats. It’s easy for the powerful to manipulate this tense condition and present an array of bogeymen to distract our attention, from immigrants to the unemployed, so that we focus our energy on the wrong enemy. Guns give a false sense of control, and hatred of those who do not look like us channels our impotent rage. Meanwhile, dietary supplements and prescription painkillers lure us into thinking that if we just find the right pill, we can shut off the sound of the sirens. Popular culture brings us movies with loud explosions that deafen us to what’s crashing all around us.
The 21st century, forged in the images of flames and bodies falling from the Twin Towers, has sputtered on with wars, financial ruin and crushing public policies that have left us ever more shaken, angry and afraid. At each crisis, people at the top have seized the opportunity to secure their positions and push the rest of us further down. They are not finished, not by a long shot.
Trauma is not just about experiencing wars and sexual violence, though there is plenty of that. Psychology researchers have discussed trauma as something intense that happens in your life that you can’t adequately respond to, and which causes you long-lasting negative effects. It’s something that leaves you fixated and stuck, acting out your unresolved feelings over and over.
Unfortunately, the cycle doesn’t end with you: trauma comes with a very high rate of interest. The children of traumatized people carry the legacy of pain forward in their brains and bodies, becoming more vulnerable to disease, mental breakdown, addiction, and violence. Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, an expert on trauma, emphasizes that it’s not just personal. Trauma occupies a space much bigger than our individual neurons: it’s political. If your parents lost their jobs, their home or their sense of security in the wake of the financial crisis, you will carry those wounds with you, even if conditions improve. Budget cuts to education and the social safety net produce trauma. Falling income produces trauma. Job insecurity produces trauma. Consider the following:
- Over 2.7 million children in America have a parent in lock-up, a situation considered traumatic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are twice as likely to develop mental illness compared to the rest of the youth population, and more likely to experience a host of problems, including asthma, obesity, and academic issues.
- Unemployment is increasingly linked to suicide, the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. Researchers find that losing a job is more likely to cause a person to take her own life today than in the past. Increased job insecurity and stagnant wages have heightened our sensitivity to economic distress over the last few decades.
- Up to 15 percent of adults in the U.S. over 60 exhibit PTSD symptoms. Homelessness among the elderly is increasing and is expected to leap 33 percent by 2020. Rates of economic hardship among elderly women, in particular, have leapt in recent years — up to 18 percent live in extreme poverty, and that number is expected to rise.
The effects of the misguided policies that contribute to these horrors ripple throughout our families, our communities, and ultimately, our entire society.
What then, are we supposed to do with our anguish? Part of our despair comes from participating in a system that is so damaging to so many, so brutal to our natures, both the physical environment and our internal selves. I eat a tomato knowing that the person who picked it may well have been an abused undocumented immigrant. I use products like Google knowing that my personal information is being used for purposes of profit and control. I vote for a candidate knowing that inaction and betrayal are the likely outcomes of putting this person in power. I can’t get away from it.
As I reflect on the scale of the trauma, I wonder if there is any point in writing about it at all. But isn’t part of our task as human beings to bear witness, to tell each other what we know? Talking about our feelings of guilt and helplessness reminds us of our connections to each other and our desire to confront injustices. It helps us to resist the temptation to withdraw into isolation and denial. Refusing to be silenced is one way to restore a sense of at least some vestige of agency.
I think we all have many selves, and I know that I have a self that is so angry and disgusted it simply wants to numb out, to immerse itself in the distractions of shallow consumer culture and look away from things it feels helpless to change.
But I have other selves, too. When I walk into Grand Central Terminal in New York City, with its soaring ceilings painted with the starry sky, I feel a sense of wonder at what Americans have achieved through common effort and recognition of our shared experience. I feel pangs, too, of the threats to those treasures, and the desire among many elites to privatize these public wonders and take away the hope that these spaces represent. But they remain, at least for now, as monuments of the possible. Their existence defies those who would subordinate and divide us.
When I hear the thunderous voice of the Reverend William Barber, leader of the Moral Monday Movement, I remember that outrage and anger can be transformative and help us to lift each other up and overcome our fears of taking on the powerful. Leaders like Martin Luther King are not simply voices from the past; they live among us.
When I do something as simple as nurture a friend in need, or let myself be drawn in by an artistic creation, or meet the eyes of a stranger with kindness, or plant a living tree, I’m intervening in the trauma and rewriting its trajectory — perhaps only a paragraph, but many paragraphs can make a page, and many pages, a volume.
The etymology of the word “trauma” is associated with the Greek word “wound.” To be human is to be wounded, and the ability to cope with our wounds is the essence of life’s journey. Without wounds, we can’t know our own strength and competence, and we can’t develop empathy for our fellow creatures. Moving from the static place of trauma to something fluid and transformative is the key. The trauma doesn’t go away, but it's possible to bring it along in a way that helps us witness each other, hear each other, and help each other.
In his recent book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk describes the concept that helped South Africans deal with the pain of their society as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was in progress. “Ubuntu” means shared human experience, the idea that “my humanity is inextricably bound up with yours.”
In the act of writing to myself and to you, I am reminded that we are bound, and that even if a dark age is looming, we can still pass the light between us. I can't fool myself into thinking that the ogre is not coming — but walking to meet him together is much better than standing alone. Connectivity is the only intervention I know.