Why I stopped treating trauma — and why I will march with our nation’s youth
Let me be honest.
I don’t know much about guns.
My only personal experience shooting a gun was on my uncle’s farm at a family reunion in South Dakota a few summers back. (My mother grew up on the same farm, but had moved to Colorado as a young adult, where she married and raised me and my siblings.) This trip back to her home state took some coordination, but we all longed to reconnect, and made it happen. In return, our relatives from the heartland planned an amazing reunion for us, our growing families, and all the local relatives to celebrate this rare opportunity to be together.
I loved visiting the farm as a child. I grew up in suburbia with track homes and shopping malls. There was a sense of space and ease in the country. The open fields, physical freedom, and endless opportunities to get dirty always appealed to me. I loved the unique personality of each family member, their high level of independence, and willingness to learn by doing. I felt liberated being around them.
When we got to the farm, my uncle and cousins had many guns laid out on a picnic table — with all sorts of targets for us to shoot at — a junk van, aluminum cans, and skeet. At first, my siblings and I were uneasy… we were used to family gatherings with lots of food, conversations about the “Good Ole’ Days” with my father’s elders, and maybe a game or two of poker with our uncle who was a retired military pilot. The only people we knew with guns were police and security — and we liked it that way.
But this extended family wanted to teach us “city folk” about their world, and thankfully, did so with high levels of caution and very clear instructions. They watched out for our children and set careful boundaries. It was obvious they understood and honored the serious nature of gun ownership. They were responsible and respectful.
Staring into the wide-open fields, I was keenly aware of how safe this activity was on the farm. I was also aware — for the first time it seemed — how isolated they were. Maybe it was the story my uncle told of shooting a wild boar before it ate through some exposed telephone wires in days prior. For the first time, I felt the vulnerability of the country — miles away from services — and the challenge of getting a repairman in their remote location. In my world, emergency repairs could be summoned in a day or two. Emergency services could arrive in moments. And there was no such isolation — my neighbors lived closer to me than my uncle to his barn. Country living was much different. My uncle’s reality came down to the boar or the telephone wires. It was easier to see why he valued his guns.
That day, I gained an appreciation for the different ways we oriented to guns. I could feel the pride, the need, and the respect inherent in their relationship to these weapons. They represented protection, prevention, independence, and hobby. It felt very “American” as the term American often gets used. I also stayed silent as I listened to my cousins gravely worried about “those dang liberals” who would “rob them of their Second Amendment Rights” — completely unaware that they were hosting many of those same liberals at this event. I don’t think it occurred to them that there was any other reasonable way to relate to a gun. They didn’t ask — and we didn’t offer.
While going on this gun culture journey, I felt deep appreciation for my extended family, knowing the quality of their character and the goodness in their hearts, and yet I was also acutely aware of why I don’t like guns. It unnerved me to be holding something that could take a life so easily — intentionally or not. It was a type of power that I didn’t want, never needed, and the outcome of those misusing this tremendous power had deeply scarred my life.
My relationship with guns was very different.
In 1999, it took 3 frantic hours to reach my family when the news of the Columbine shootings first broke. At the time, I was living in California getting my doctorate in psychology. On my way out of a supervision session, a close friend called me to ask if my family was okay. She had heard news of a terrible shooting in Colorado. I immediately turned on my car radio to get updates. At that time, the news only identified a “Jefferson County School” and a “mass shooting of students and teachers.” My father, a middle-school science teacher, and my youngest brother, a senior football player who regularly hung out in the library, attended schools in Jefferson County. The news shared such details of the dead. In the 3 hours it took to reach my family, the limitless range of my imagination showed me horrifying scenes.
While eventually comforted to learn that my brother and father were safe — the shooting was at a different Jefferson County school — a different horror grew. Others from my hometown community had died on that day. We had all been to Columbine for an event of some sort growing up. Me -for choir competitions. My older sister — for orchestra concerts. My younger siblings — for sporting events. My people, my community, my sense of safety was on the 24-hour news feed. The reporters were on the streets I drove. Far away from being able to physically hold my family or childhood friends, or even to visit the memorials that sprang up — I was in trauma, but without a community to share the experiences and journey through the pain together.
Years later, in 2012, I attended my youngest daughter’s preschool holiday performance the same night as the Sandyhook shootings. My phone had been off while seeing patients during the day and I learned of the horrors through news reports on my way home to join my family for the concert. My daughter was 4 years old. I was not the only red-eyed audience member as we watched our sweet babies awkwardly making hand motions to pre-recorded music while managing their first of many experiences in front of a crowd. I shared knowing glances with other parents acutely aware of other families on the opposite coast facing grief unimaginable after dropping their 6 and 7-year-olds cherubs off at school that very day. The contrast was devastating.
I have also watched my brother-in-law change over years of burying so many friends and colleagues as a policeman. One year, I think the count was nearly 10. That takes its toll on a person.
In my nearly two decades as a psychologist, I worked with many people who had been held at gun-point, people who lost loved ones to gun violence, and infinite terrified community members when tragedies across the nation hit too close to home. I have worked with peace-promoting Muslim American children and their parents equally outraged and pained by attacks on our shared nation — yet fearful of being targeted as terrorists, mothers of gay sons reminded by the Pulse shooting that some would target their precious children simply for who they loved, people afraid of going to a hair salon after a tragic shooting in Seal Beach just a few miles away, and people alarmed by the rising number of hate crimes towards immigrant populations in our communities as our current President linked all immigrants to murderers and rapists. Just the other day, I received a call for a young woman now motherless due to the Route 91 massacre.
This list does not even include the number of women terrorized by home weapons at the hands of their partners (and some killed by them), and the grief-struck families when a loved one ends their life through the quick opportunity of a bullet and trigger in a moment of despair or hopelessness. I have worked with emergency responders of all kinds dealing with the horrors they encounter on their jobs, trying to provide a way for them to walk through all their trauma exposure while still staying connected to their hearts, minds, and capacity to have meaningful relationships with others. It is harder to do than one might think.
I have shared countless hours in my professional and personal life grieving, sharing, comforting, processing, and healing with patients, colleagues, friends and family. Unlike my relatives on the farm, my American experience of civilian gun ownership has only been the source of pain and tragedy.
In my work and in my life, I know this. We are a nation of traumatized citizens. And I am one of them. It is getting worse. And trauma does not do well with easy access to weapons.
I will not forgive the gun marketing organizations nor certain media stations and personalities for the propaganda they preach of who I am (diminishing my lived experience to that of a frozen speck of water and distorting my critique of their message as “elitist”) or of the enhanced hatred they spew about the multi-cultural, globally-interconnected world I live in. I am not naïve to the dangers of criminal minds, authoritarians in government or private homes, and the severe societal diseases of paranoia, entitlement, and sociopathy. (Note — none of these are official mental health diagnoses.) No — while everyone else gets to shut off their media sources and go back to “regular life” where they may still choose to talk or preach about Amendments and Rights, my “regular life” is deeply intertwined with having to do the clean-up of tragedy from these supposed rights on the innocent and try to put people back together again. This is not done from afar. It is done with every ounce of my being. And I have secondary trauma as a result.
My daily reality is that certain men, void of access or a willingness to process difficult feelings and thoughts (possibly fearing being “a wuss,” or declared “over-estrogenized”); possessing a distorted state of mind, disdain for others, or a sense of entitlement; have easy access to life-determining weaponry. Such men, take the lives of the innocent — without care for due process, the reality of miscommunications and misunderstanding, a comprehension of valid yet differing points of view, and without regard for the rippling impact of devastation their quick trigger finger causes. Some are even so twisted as to delight in making such impact.
It is woefully unfair and makes me very, very angry and deeply, deeply sad.
I scream at the heavens and at anyone who can listen — what is this nation we are creating?!!!
The reach of their impact is growing. I now encounter feelings of defeat and heartbreak at every school drop off. Why is my daughter’s elementary school surrounded by heavy black metal gates and a buzz-in entrance at the front? Once an open campus where children, family, and friends freely gathered and shared the spirit of community and goodness, the “hardened” gates went up early this fall. My daughter now refers to her elementary school as a “boarding school.” The purpose is clear — even to my 9-year-old. The unspoken greeting encased in iron says, “Be Aware of Danger.” “This community is not safe.” As a parent, I must now show ID, state a clear purpose, and be buzzed through a gate. No more dropping off my kid’s lunch in her hanging backpack outside her classroom. Staff will take it to her. Despite administration’s efforts to voice their intention of creating a welcoming environment, the gates loom larger.
What we are creating is further loss of connection. The gates that protect us also separate us. Without connection to each other, we become more reliant on stereotypes and labels to determine entry into accepted groups. More people become isolated, misjudged, alienated and disregarded. This breaks down our health — not only as a community — but our individual health as well.
Those fortunate to grow up in unconditional love and secure belonging live more vibrant and meaningful lives and, as such, promote connection and inclusion. We should be fostering these values in our schools, families, faith-life and larger communities. Health — mental, physical, and spiritual requires it. In my profession, we know the benefits of secure belonging found through the work of integrating all parts of ourselves and our experiences (the good, the bad, and the ugly) into who we are — contrasted against the costs of cutting off from parts of one’s self to fit in. We know the benefits of increasing the release of neurotransmitters and hormones that forge connection and growth — in contrast to those living in fear and defense who must try to metabolize the constant dump of cortisol and adrenaline. We know the benefits of believing in something greater than ourselves that connects us and draws us deeper into states compassion, prayer, and peace — in contrast to those who fear and seek to have power over others or to appease a vengeful or angry person or God.
Unfortunately, the isolationists do not know about mental health. Isolation and loneliness are the leading causes and/or are highly correlated with nearly all mental health issues and with many medical conditions as well. You want to cure the gun violence disease in this country? You cure that. Many of the mass shooters were isolated — either felt as outcasts (often through histories of abuse or extreme hardship) or chose to become them. But we cannot cure that if we must always be on defense to weapons that flow far too freely in our society.
Walls and gates promote isolation and increase fear. The more isolated we become, the unhealthier we become. The unhealthier we become, the more at risk we feel. And the more at risk we feel, the more dangerous others feel to us. The more dangerous others feel to us, the more we will turn to weapons for defense or offense. The combination of this process paired with unchecked access to weapons creates increasingly reactive states — where split-second decisions end life.
I respect my brother-in-law in the police force. He has guns. And I respect my rural family members.
But while I am not an expert in guns, I am an expert at what trauma does to people. It is an expertise I wish had been harder to build. It has exhausted my heart and my mind….to the point where I no longer take trauma cases. The motherless young woman from Route 91 shootings? I referred her to a colleague.
The pain is too great. The work too monumental.
And yet, it is so important to do the work. I know that. Healing trauma saves lives. But it won’t be me doing the healing. I am worn out.
The fatalistic part of me says there will never be enough funding to match the amount needed to heal what is ripping this nation apart. Mental health is time and labor intensive and cannot be mechanized for efficiency. Human beings are complex and building meaningful relationships takes time. Change takes even longer. The public will simply not allow the uncertainty of outcomes nor have patience with a non-linear process around such crises.
Mental Health treatment can do a lot — but we need significant resources to reach the hearts of the afflicted — and even more to reach their families, communities and schools to invest in re-building my American Dream. Yet, even if every mental health provider had every resource needed at their disposal, it would still not be enough to turn the tide. To correct our national trauma will take the engagement of every American to do some heavy lifting to break out of our own fear and isolation and weave our trust in each other back together again.
While the politicians and pundits argue on the margins, I stand with all who seek to build a truly safe nation — where we take care of each other instead of killing each other. I want to build a nation where differences engage curiosity and openness, welcoming others into our American family, instead of casting them out. I want the criminal and the dangerous to have treatment and safe keeping until they are rehabilitated or remain under humane, but guarded conditions, until they can rejoin our loving, caring world — if they can. But I do not want the criminal and dangerous to rob the rest of us from secure states of belonging and vibrant living.
We are being taught to believe this is not possible in our nation. We are being taught to distrust, discount, and expect mal-intention as opposed to looking for shared beliefs or the goodness of one’s character. This does not match the character, resolve, and awareness of the people I work with every day. The people in my life regularly reveal their goodness and willingness to show up for what is hard because they know it is the only way to true health and belonging. Collaboration and innovation flow from secure connections. Fear mongering, arming-up, and propaganda reign supreme when there are none.
The isolationists are trying to teach us that the only answer for a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. I recommend we work a bit harder and more comprehensively to keep a bad guy from getting the gun in the first place.
Our nation’s youth have reminded me that sometimes the weak do lead the strong. I will back them with my worn-out, middle-aged self. I will rally to press our nation to spend more time in compassion, difficult engagements, and real problem solving, than in the easier — but ultimately more destructive — push toward isolation and more weaponry.
In other words, my America is not hardened and armed with AR-15s and high capacity magazines. I may not specialize in treating trauma anymore — but I will never stop seeking ways to prevent it. Instead, I will march.