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Dr. Ron Villejo is set to take RELATIVITY OnLine readers on an odyssey of experience and faith. September 11, 2001 changed so many things for so many people and this article is one’s man’s trek into the heart of trauma, fear and understanding. “The Psychology of Trauma” is the first in series of three articles from Villejo– the second of which will tackle his journeys to the Middle East, beginning six months after September 11th, for consulting assignments. Fatedly, he was selected to be part of a big leadership project for a major Saudi Arabian client. The third article will focus on a psychology of terrorism, as terrorist attacks occurred in major cities in the ensuing years and created new kind of psyche within many as a result.
Early on the morning of September 11th 2001, I was meeting with a client at our Chicago office. I was working for an international consulting firm, based in the US. I walked my client out, when we finished, catching a glimpse of my officemates watching TV in a small breakout room. Hey, weren’t they supposed to be working! Hmm, watching ‘Oprah,’ I bet. Maybe ‘Good Morning, America.’
It was not a good morning for America. And, work, well, it quickly became unimportant.
What happened that morning stunned one of the most powerful nations in the world, and knocked it to the ground. Literally.
The facts of September 11th are familiar to many of us already: Nineteen hijackers commandeered four planes that morning, and on suicide missions crashed them – two against each of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City; one on the Pentagon just outside Washington, DC; and one into the fields in the state of Pennsylvania. More information is easily accessible on the internet.
Let me walk you through that horrible day and the following days: (a) with firsthand account from the eyes, ears – and mind – of a Filipino-American who happens to be a clinical psychologist as well; and (b) with facts, experiences, and insights on a psychology of trauma, which I hope will illuminate something meaningful for you, dear readers.
Immediately, after walking my client out, I went to that TV room. It was surreal, even odd, to see a long-distance, holistic view of the Twin Towers from the confines of a small TV screen, then to see on live TV one of the towers crumble… well, unimaginable, unspeakable horror.
I didn’t watch for too long. I ran to my office, and got on the telephone. The lines were, expectedly, disrupted. I couldn’t get a hold of my family, and vice versa. There must have been millions and millions of calls happening all at once, turning fiber optic lines into veritable bottlenecks of communication.
One of my clients was a high-end commercial property management company (TzH), based in Chicago, and I thought that the World Trade Center was their property. I called my client contact, frantically, but couldn’t get a hold of her on any of her numbers. I thought, my God, what if she was actually in one of the towers!?! It was a couple of days later, before I could actually reach her, and feel a sense of relief. TzH had other major properties in New York City, but, no, the Twin Towers were not in their portfolio.
Trauma is a human phenomenon, more severe forms of which psychologists came to diagnose as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Soldiers of war, victims of heinous crimes, and other people in suddenly or persistently horrible circumstances are prone to suffer from trauma. They may be speechless at first, disoriented for a while, even lost in their behavior. It’s like being knocked hard upside the head, or even kicked in the gut so hard that you ‘lose your wind.’ Your sense of self may feel dissolved, or cracked, or simply and unexplainably out of whack. You may be physically injured, but trauma can occur entirely psychologically.
One hallmark symptom of PTSD is re-living the trauma. It’s as if the trauma were a videotape with an endless loop, so that it repeats itself automatically without your prompting it or expecting it. You have no choice but to watch it over and over, because it seems to be right in front of you, clear as day, even if you were to close your eyes. Swaths of images of those airplanes crashing into each of the Twin Towers were stitched into the psychic and neural fabric of Americans.
There’s a general state of arousal (i.e., wakefulness, alertness etc.) which makes sleeping difficult. Fear, anxiety, dread, horror, and worry are often part of the complex emotional tapestry of trauma. Some war veterans reluctantly admit, though, that part of such tapestry is a sense of euphoria, power, or enjoyment in the midst of horrible circumstances. We human beings are a peculiar lot, it seems at times, for we may feel genuine pleasure even in the midst of pain.
That’s formal PTSD – severe, pronounced, so incapacitating that the victim may not be able to work, go to school, or otherwise take care of family and relate to friends.
We were housed in a 40+ story office building, and our office manager said that there was no evacuation of our building just yet. This order didn’t occur until mid-day. In the meantime, after trying the telephone several times, I kept working that morning. Ah, work is one of the best coping mechanisms I know. It forces me to focus and set aside, mentally, the incident and its accompanying distress. Besides, I had a second meeting scheduled with that same client (from early that morning) later that day, so I diligently prepared for it.
There was another client in the office, and apparently he couldn’t concentrate on the task at hand. I encouraged another manager, obviously shaken up like the rest of us, to speak with this client – to see how he was doing and offer him to stop and leave if he so felt.
Anyway I peppered my work that morning with periodic checks on TV, with my officemates, and on the telephone. I think the office manager and I were the last ones to leave, once we got the evacuation order.
Trauma can be experienced vicariously, and through various forms of communications.
The Sears Tower – another super tower like the Twin Towers – was just half a mile away from our office building. I don’t think anyone was certain that the horrible attacks had actually ended. For all we knew, another hijacked plane could’ve slid by the marshaled air security and crashed into the Sears Tower. Thankfully, this was not the case. But while none of us were directly affected by the attacks, there was no denying that we felt some measure of trauma. Chicago is about a thousand miles away from all those crashes, but still we were traumatized.
I believe that media, for better or for worse, facilitates the experience of trauma. TV and the internet are the ‘worst culprits’ at spreading it through the country, and, I’m sure, across other countries as well. Think about where you were when those planes crashed. Think about how you felt, watching it that day and in the ensuing days. It’s possible you experienced some degree of trauma, in ways that many of us Americans experienced.
Trauma isn’t just the classifiable disorder that warrants the help of psychologists. Rather, it is also the minute but persistent things that happen to us, like invisible tears or breaks within us.
Downtown Chicago was a ‘ghost town.’ It was surreal to drive through this business district looking so ghostly empty, as this was usually highly trafficked and scrawling with hundreds of pedestrians. In my mind, it was as if everyone was somehow annihilated, pulverized somehow, disappeared into thin air. I was traumatized.
My client and I decided to meet at his hotel a few miles away. I got there early anyway to eat lunch at a restaurant, but more importantly to get my bearing. Thankfully, there was a smattering of people, in the streets and inside, going about their day. I needed to be around people.
After lunch, I sat in front of a big-screen TV in the hotel lobby. I was stunned, amongst a scattering of guests, similarly stunned. I needed to be not just around any people, but people in particular who were doing the same thing I was and feeling the same thing I was. There was comfort in watching TV together. Which made my initial thoughts earlier that day, when I glimpsed my officemates watching TV, seem like a cruel joke.
I was supposed to fly to Dallas that evening for other client meetings the next day. I spoke to my colleague, before I left the office, and said that I couldn’t. Remember, the US grounded all commercial flights. Apparently, they were going to press forward with those meetings.
I was also supposed to fly to Washington, DC, early the next week, for more client meetings. These, too, were expected to occur as scheduled. Flights were still grounded, as that horrible week wore on at a snail’s pace. As we were ‘diehard, true-blue consultants,’ my colleague and I strategized on how else I could travel there, from Chicago. Taking the train was an option, which I tactfully declined, as it would have meant leaving home the weekend after September 11th and thereby missing my daughter’s 3rd birthday that weekend. She pressed me to leave anyway, gently, and I, thankfully, kept to my decision to stay.
Trauma is not a one-time event that has a discrete beginning or ending. Instead it can happen unexpectedly and reverberate continuously for days on end or much, much longer.
The event of September 11th, itself, had a discrete beginning and ending. But well into the ensuing days, we Americans were still traumatized by its impact.
Downtown Chicago is populated with tall buildings. For weeks, as I walked the mile from the train station to my office building, I would look up at the sky – and at those buildings – and imagine an invisible plane crashing into them. I would see shards and shards of glass cascading down in slow-motion like a thunderstorm of destruction on the people below.
The funny thing, I didn’t really feel what should been emotions of horror, fear and dread. I just saw such images time and time again on that walk. I’m not an unfeeling sort of guy, but friends and colleagues know me as more of an intellectual, academic type. The route to my heart is often through my head, first. In my head was where the trauma most affected me.
In fact I had no emotional qualms, really, about going to the Sears Tower for meetings with my client TzH. Officials had erected heavy concrete barriers around the base of the tower, in order to hinder would-be car bombers from getting too close. Security inside was very tight, and they must’ve quickly set up X-ray screening machines at the entry points. Queues formed, where none existed before. Still, as I was ascending to the 60th floor (if I remember correctly) of my client’s office, I imagined what it must’ve been like being in the elevators of the Twin Towers. Again, I imagined an invisible plane crashing into the Sears Tower, while I was inside… unspeakable horror.
Trauma is a form of empathy with our fellow men and women.
I flew to New York City for another meeting with TzH in early November. I strained my head and neck, looking out the window of the plane, to see if I could catch a glimpse of what became known as Ground Zero, the site of the crumbled Twin Towers. The cleanup, as you can imagine, was a round-the-clock effort and it took months to complete. Another colleague told me, before I flew there, that he had gone as close as he could to Ground Zero. He talked about the horrible stench in the air. He didn’t need to explain. Smoke was still smoldering in November, and it carried exactly what he meant, which I understood perfectly. As he spoke, I could smell the stench of rotting, burning human flesh and bones.
I visited our New York office on that trip, and one manager said that some of his staff actually witnessed the planes crashing, while looking out of their office window. They were a few miles away, of course, safely tucked away by distance. But who’s to say that they were actually safe, psychologically speaking? In fact they needed time off to recover from what was obviously a more pronounced, close-to-the-incident trauma. As he spoke, I could see what they saw.
Over many years, as a clinical psychologist, I had developed my ‘empathic sense.’ No, I can’t read minds, as some friends either are afraid of or are curious about. But, yes, I have an ability to sense and grasp what others experience. To put myself – mind and spirit – in their body. This is an important means by which I can treat them. It’s not a perfect, foolproof method of empathy, but I can do it. There’s a kind of connectedness I can forge with people, that others can’t or won’t. It’s a privileged opportunity, for I can tap the very privacy of a person – with his or her permission – and speak to intimate things that even their partners, families, or close friends are not privileged to speak to. It’s almost a sacred privilege, really.
So when someone tells me what they’ve seen or felt, I can visualize it and experience it in some measure as well. A psychologist must bear that responsibility and burden with due care, professionalism and skill. But at the end of the day, we are human of course and what we see and feel become entirely our own. No longer the others’ sight or emotion.
Trauma paves the way for healing.
Amazingly, I think, that in the very symptoms of trauma are the mechanisms for its resolution. Here’s how it works.
You can ask, well, if TV transmits and perpetuates trauma, as I argued earlier, why were many people glued to it in the advent of a horrible incident like September 11th? Is it really some sick compulsion to subject themselves to the pain of additional trauma?
Those repeated images, like that of a videotape with an endless loop, are an attempt of our mind and body to come to grips with the trauma – more specifically its psychological impact. This is at the heart of why so-called repetition compulsions are the way they are. Why some of us repeatedly engage in seemingly self-defeating behavior or persistently painful experiences. It’s an attempt to cope with a trauma.
Some psychologists may be quick to point out that such repetitious behavior is pathological. Not so fast, I’d intervene. Yes, while long lasting such behavior can be formal PTSD – for the majority of us, with more minute forms of trauma, it’s actually an adaptive coping mechanism. It’s even more purposeful, if we can draw insight, meaning, and thus resolution from such repeated trauma.
I don’t know if anyone of us will ever forget September 11th. I hope not. I hope our memories are a reminder that in the aftermath of horrors that we humans subject each other to, we can treat each other differently.
Time passes. Healing happens. Horrible images gradually go away. As these things did, for me.
Ron Villejo, PhD
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