seven months on

A lot can happen in seven months.

On February 22 the BBC reported that Australia was burning, Megan and Henry (Harry??) were leaving, and the following was written about a strange new virus that seemed to be spreading:

Outside China 1,152 cases of the virus have been confirmed in 26 countries with eight deaths, including one in Italy

Well that all sounds almost perfectly quaint now doesn’t it? On top of that, there had been ~75,000 cases inside China and ~2,000 deaths. The total number of known cases of this disease worldwide then was less than 10% of the current number of active cases in Florida alone. Late February is when we thought things may get bad enough to affect life in some other parts of the world, back when the total mortality worldwide for COVID was equal to the current death rate inside the US alone.

We were all still at work, kids were all still in school, and the only people who wore surgical masks were health professionals.

However, for our family, all of that honestly sits in the background for what the last seven months feel like.

Today is exactly seven months since the violent attack that we suffered in our home in Kibuye. Just over half a year has passed, since that night. In many ways, it feels like a distinct marker, making “before our attack” and “after our attack” the way we situate things in time.

I’ve learned a lot about trauma, not that I know a lot now, but ‘a lot’ only in comparison to the base line of zero that I had previously.

I have been reading and trying to learn some about the ways the brain and the mind deal with trauma, and it is absolutely fascinating. Also, for me, it’s actually very helpful to be able to learn something and look back on my own experience, and realize “oh…that’s what was going on.”

{note: if, unlike me, you actually DO know something about this topic, and I’m wrong here – please do drop me a line and let me know. I’d love to understand this better}

One thing I’ve found (both from reading and living) is that being hypersensitive, and hypervigilant are exhausting, feeling like you are always on high alert, and being startled by every sound. Not being able to close your eyes is a rough feeling. Having a sense that the world is not what you thought it was is quite disturbing. All of these things can be the daily reality of people recovering from some kind of trauma, and I’ve had/have each of them. The way the brain deals with this stuff really is (at least to me) bizarre. But, the reality is that the brain is struggling to deal with it, very often subconsciously. This means your brain is working hard, and you don’t really know it. It means your tired without knowing why. It means your mental capacity is diminished, your focus reduced, your concentration whittled away. Your brain so badly is trying to figure out what to do, but since it can’t use the normal operating procedures, it really is struggling hard to find some other way through (or more likely) around what happened.

One of the fascinating things about traumatic memories is how your brain actually processes them. When something happens to you that is too hard, scary, life-threatening or just impossible to understand, the event does not get processed like most life events. You don’t experience it, process it, and file it away, knowing how it relates to the rest of your life like you normally do. Your brain literally cannot process it, so it gets stuck in this ‘unprocessed’ state. That is why flashbacks are so weird. They are unprocessed memories, that you have not actually put into your memory. That’s why a flashback is not just ‘remembering something scary that happened in the past’ but you actually re-live it. The part of your brain that should be able to figure out what is happening right now, and when you are thinking about a memory you are recalling from your own past just does not work. The brain can’t figure out it’s a memory. It’s a recording of an event that your brain doesn’t know how to deal with, so it’s not associated with your own life properly because you can’t file it away with other memories.

Picture

This dissociation can start while the event is taking place, which is why people (like me) even at the time felt almost “out of body” like the event was not really taking place to them, but they were almost witnessing it from an outsider’s perspective.

This is why some people have ‘repressed’ memories. Some event was so traumatic that they couldn’t process it at the time, and have never been able to do so since. Now they literally do not have a ‘memory’ as such, of the event. Their brain has never been able to file that thing away amongst the other memories of life, connected to other appropriate memories.

PTSD, brain scan, mri

This is fascinating stuff. Well, at least I find all that fascinating, but maybe because I see it going on inside my own head.

I think perhaps the thing to remember from all this is that there are people around us who have gone through times that aren’t just hard but have actually rewired their brains. Parts of their brain now respond differently, there are changes to how they react to various chemicals the body produces, and even the function, shape, and the way neurons fire. They have experienced things that change how their mind deals with the past, and even the present. And that’s hard. If you or someone you love has gone through something that feels like this, get help. Modern psychology/neurology/counselling/psychiatry has actually developed an amazing assortment of approaches to deal with this issue.

I can’t imagine where our family would be right now if we had not been (and continue to be) taken care of by mental health professionals. I honestly cannot even picture what state I’d be in right now. So I guess this is just a bit of a wake-up call and a plea from those who perhaps can’t see they need help or can’t get it. Step in. Be bold. Make appointments for them. Tell them you’re in their corner. It’s not their fault. They’re not just ‘being a baby about it.’ They cannot simply ‘get over it.’ No one expects a person to recover from a car crash that leaves you with four broken limbs and internal bleeding without getting help from trained health providers with all the techniques and tools they have. It should be the same with mental health.

We’ve been told that 18 months is the typical time-frame for a full-recovery from the type of trauma we experienced. So we’re likely not yet halfway there. In some ways, that’s defeating, but it’s helpful to know there is an endpoint, and that we’re moving towards it. Our prayer is that somehow we come out of this stronger, bolder, braver. That our faith would be strengthened, that our family will be more resilient, and that we are better prepared to deal with the hard things that are part of life.

Where they’re from…

My daughter and my fake daughter just posted some poems on their blog that they wrote for school on the topic “Where I”m From.”

As Third Culture Kids, the answers are complex and layered, and they both do a beautiful job of allowing us who grew up differently, an understanding of what their life experience has been like so far. Click below to give it a read…

Where I’m From —- on Boarding Passes and Book Bags

Nine!

Well, our youngest turned nine. This birthday marks just the second time she’s been in Canada on the day of her birth. We’ve been in Canada for over 4 months now, meaning this is the second-longest length of time (and 3rd time ever) that little A has been here. Being born in France, and having spent {checks notes} over half her life in Burundi, celebrating in Canadain birthdays are few and far between, so it was nice to be here.

While trying to stay socially connected and physically distant we had a party in our back yard with some family.

The day before her birthday we got to celebrate with Grandma out in Camrose

Earlier in the afternoon, the girls went out and she came back pretty excited to have pierced ears.

Not surprisingly, as birthday wishes came in over the day, it seems like “fire-cracker” or something very similar is the most common way of describing Alma. I think that our job of raising a strong woman should not be all that hard with this one.

She is strong, fast, brave, really funny, and loves those around her well. She lights up the room (again, more fire-cracker, less flickering candle) and is always game for something.

Anyway, here are some pictures of what she’s been up to in the past 12 months.

fulfilling her “life-long dream” of actually seeing, touching, and riding a horse
just reading…. #KibuyeStyle
In the Rockies this summer
Church friends
She decided she wanted to see just how long she could keep a tooth that was just barely hanging on. Answer: too long.