As a psychiatrist, my off-duty conversations with people can run the gamut from the mundane to the very personal. I was talking to a friend in town who described how he feels cut off from people he knows since the horrific tragedy in December.
“It hurts that some people I know really well, even family, haven’t reached out to me. Do they just not care?” We talked about how they may have no idea what to say that would be helpful and not sound empty. Not knowing what to say, they say nothing.
Then, he said, “People ask me how I’m doing. What am I supposed to say? If they haven’t been through it, there’s no way they can ever know. It’s superficial for them to even ask and I don’t know how to begin to explain.” So, the understanding and connection he wants the most he feels he can’t get. Either people don’t know what to say to him, and he resents their silence. Or, they ask how he feels, and he resents them for asking what feels is a superficial question. The whole thing is just bigger than words can contain. He feels powerless over emotions that are new, overwhelming, exhausting and frightening to him.
My friend is experiencing the isolation that is commonly felt after a terrible tragedy. The loss of the loved ones is the first circle of his searing pain. Around that is growing his sense of desperate isolation. Isolation that springs from not being able to explain his experience to anyone or to receive solace from those he loves. This sense of overwhelming powerlessness, and the desperate isolation breed most of the problems we see after tragic loss.
It’s our Fight or Flight response that kicks in to ensure our survival when we feel this kind of overwhelming powerlessness and desperation. This response flips on two survival emotions, fear and anger, that focus our attention on threat so we can defend ourselves. Now, besides grieving, my friend is overwhelmed, exhausted, isolated, at times fearful of an unfamiliar terrible loneliness and angry and defensive at the perception of mostly imagined threats. This is an unhealthy brew for relationships.
“I nearly bit the head off of, … at work today. Did the same to my wife last night. I shocked myself. That’s not me. I’m exhausted ‘cause I can’t sleep. My wife cries and is offended by everything. Me too, I guess. We’re fighting over small things. We argue up over old wounds that I thought we buried. Maybe the marriage is just a big mistake and I should just stop the pretense.”
His kids seem ok. They are in their rooms texting their friends most of the time, he thinks. He wonders if maybe they’d be better off if he just called his marriage a sham and moved out. There’s a woman he knows who called him last week. He complains that his wife has a drink or two when she gets home and is on Facebook the rest of the day.
“You and your wife are better than this. You’re both amazing people who are just ground down. It sounds like you’re breaking at your weakest points. But, you’re not your weakest parts. You are a whole person with weaknesses and strengths. When you guys are strong, you’re great together. Now you need to learn how to be great together at your weakest times. First, no messing around and she has to watch the drink and get away from the computer.
“There’s actually an opportunity here. This whole situation is asking you to become more intimate, to trust each other in more intimate ways you never had to explore before. You’re being asked to turn to each other in your vulnerability. Stop the hurtful stuff, of course. But, you need to make the choice to reach out to her and she needs to reach to you especially when you feel overwhelmed and alone. Forgive quickly and reconnect. This won’t go away by itself. It needs your active engagement.
“And what are your kids going through? Don’t you think they feel the same overwhelming emotions? They also have times when they have no words and need to reach out, but don’t know how? You’re the adult with the language skills. You’re better at this then they are. They’re going to learn how to navigate this kind of problem by what they see you do next. They need to see an example of their parents struggling successfully together with difficult emotions and becoming closer, not letting this cause a rift between you. Give that gift of a lifetime to them. Otherwise, they are learning how to be isolated and hopeless with shallow expectations of relationships when you need them most.
“Get them into some healthy activity where they are making the world a better place. Show them how to take the energy behind all this grief and turn it into care for others, starting in the family.”
I wish them well. The consequences of prolonged powerlessness and isolation will result in poor coping strategies like substance abuse, extramarital affairs, violence, gambling and divorce if we do not choose to start to learn how to become more intimate with those closest to us as a result of what has happened here. All of this pain can’t be for nothing. We must come out of this with stronger families, friendships and community bonds.
So, I’m calling for a moratorium on divorces this year. Some marriages are toxic and need to end. But, herculean efforts should be made this year to reach for that breakthrough in intimacy everyone wants. It’s not the time to quit. If we struggle together in our marriages through the uncertainty and confusion, we can find ourselves in a new place in the relationships we care the deepest for and need the most, an intimacy that is more fulfilling in surprising and richly nurturing ways. Our kids will be transformed as a result and have a shot at becoming role models of compassion and resilience and show others in our troubled world how it’s done.
(John Woodall, MD is a Board Certified psychiatrist who lives in Newtown. He is formerly of the faculty at Harvard Medical School and is the Founder and Director of the Unity Project, a resilience-building program helping thousands of children in New York after 9/11, New Orleans and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, former child soldiers in Uganda and now at Newtown High School. His blog, The Resilient Life, is at www.johnwoodall.net.)