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Lessons On Trauma Care From Humpty Dumpty

A trauma victim and life coach speaks out: how a nursery rhyme inspired a sense of agency and self-care that sparked trauma recovery, personal transformation, and even post-traumatic growth.

Credit: antonbrand
Credit: antonbrand

After taking a stroll in Central Park on a perfect summer’s day, I was returning home to my apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, when — quite unexpectedly — a detective approached me and informed me that — my wife had been bludgeoned to death with a large chef’s knife. Based on crime scene observations, while quietly resting in our bed, my wife was repeatedly and quite mercilessly stabbed by the violent hand of her tormented adult son until she desperately gasped to take her final breath. Years later, after surviving that big trauma and the multiple traumatic events that followed, while on my journey from successful wealth manager to NYC Uber driver, to life coach, I reflected on the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme and thought — “yes, I, too, had a great fall.”

Isn’t it wonderful how a silly nursery rhyme can take us to places in our minds where we can create profound meanings? While the earliest known version of the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme was first published in Samuel Arnold’s Juvenile Amusements in 1797, the verse that I am most familiar with is the modern-day version that I learned as a child: “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put Humpty together again.”

I was recently amused to read about the serious attempts that have been made to give deeper meaning, even historic significance, to the Humpty Dumpty rhyme. For me, it was always just a fun, silly, nonsensical nursery rhyme. How about for you? Turns out, it was my interpretation of this silly rhyme’s verse that helped me survive extraordinary tragedy. It empowered me by awakening my sense of agency (“or sense of control, the subjective awareness of initiating, executing, and controlling one’s own volitional actions in the world,” (Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org) helped me begin to heal; and, ultimately, led me on a journey from trauma recovery, to personal transformation, and onward to post-traumatic growth and thriving!

Trauma in Society. Trauma is an unexpected undoing of one’s world and one’s self — in the blink of an eye. A fragmenting. A loss of one’s footing. A loss of all sense of order and stability. A cruel shattering of one’s assumptive world. And, in that moment, everything changes, forever.

Trauma can happen to all of us and most probably will. Truth be told, trauma is quite common in our human experience.  Sadly, most trauma is caused by humans acting inhumanely towards other humans as a consequence of war, mental illness, depression, family dysfunction, out-of-control hatred, aggression, jealousy, anger, rage, disregard, or disrespect, or as a result of human suffering, loneliness, or greed.

In THEM, Ben Sasse, bestselling author and Nebraska senator, argues that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the current crisis in our nation is not about politics; rather, it is about loneliness. Sasse convincingly illustrates that malignant loneliness explains why local communities are collapsing and current discontents and dysfunctions are rising. It is our anger due to loss of human connection and loneliness that is behind our ever-increasing opioid epidemic; school shootings; hate crimes and hate-motivated mass shootings; domestic violence; and, hit-and-runs. (Sasse, Ben. THEM: Why We Hate Each Other— And How To Heal, St. Martin’s Press, 2018). Sasse offers a solution — a path forward that requires that we rediscover real places and human-to-human relationships — rediscover love of our neighbors and our community. In ENLIGHTENMENT NOW, author and Harvard professor of psychology, Steven Pinker, offers a bright light. Pinker’s longitudinal research (comparing 50-year periods rather than twitter milliseconds) shows that, when we take a longer view, the human condition is actually improving. “Life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise, not just in the West but worldwide.” (Pinker, Steven. ENLIGHTENMENT NOW: The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Viking, 2018). So, all is not lost; but, we all have work to do. We must become more vigilant in our intolerance of social injustices. Also, we must become better at managing the care of trauma victims by seeing to it that the trauma-informed care practices demanded of our healthcare professionals are equally demanded of our lawyers and financial advisors, too. Finally, in the midst of the disruption that defines the times in which we live, we must embrace rather than run from personal disruption, since “one of the best ways to cope with, and even harness the forces of mass disruption, is to become the agent of your own disruption — to disrupt yourself.” (Johnson, Whitney. Personal Disruption: What Is It and Why You Should Care,  October 1, 2015. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/personal-disruption-what-is-it-and-why-you-should-care_b_8219864). Since each of our behaviors have an effect on the rate of traumatic events in the world, each of us has the opportunity, even in the midst of mass disruption, negative news, and fake news reports, to reverse some disturbing short-terms trends through our own personal disruption. We are capable of creating a significantly different outcome by making a very small change in initial conditions, a rippling outwards from the core of our being, as in the butterfly effect. By spreading loving kindness and human connection through our own purposeful daily practices, we can and we must create positive changes in our world.

As all of us know too well, there are many types of trauma, including: genocide; war-related trauma; medical trauma; traumatic loss; sexual assault; child maltreatment; domestic violence; terrorist attacks; mass shootings; and natural disasters. Human-inflicted traumas, those that are a consequence of our own behaviors (or, more accurately, our mis-behaviors) are, perhaps, avoidable. But, that would require us to have a sense of agency — a willingness to take responsibility for our actions and inactions; our deeds and misdeeds, alike; and/or an ability to exercise self-control and intolerance. Far fewer traumatic events are caused by factors beyond our control than within our control. Those traumas that are truly beyond our control include some terminal illnesses and death. Poor nutrition; lack of exercise; smoking tobacco; over-eating; and over-drinking are behaviors that put our health at risk. Are these simply poor behavioral choices? Or, are they caused by what alternative medicine practitioners call dis-ease? Or, are they truly illnesses that are beyond our control? There is growing evidence that even some “natural disasters” are actually caused by humans (i.e., earthquakes caused by global warming).

We don’t want to face the reality of trauma’s prevalence in our society, but the truth of the matter is that most of us, far more than the majority of us, at one time or another, will experience some form of trauma in our lives. In any given year, about 20 percent of us will experience a potentially traumatic event. But, we prefer to walk around wearing rose-colored glasses. As Stephen Joseph, Ph.D. explains in his provocative and optimistic book, “deep down we all tend to believe that nothing bad will ever happen to us, so when we are faced with the worst, our assumptions about what the world is like and our place in it come under fire.” (Joseph, Ph.D., Stephen. WHAT DOESN’T KILL US: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth, Basic Books, 2011).

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put Humpty together again. Credit: soberve

Back to the rhyme. Once again, I reflected on the line — “Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.” “Ok, so what? … Shit happens. And, yes, it happens to us. But, where’s the wisdom in that?” The wisdom comes from the meaning that I’ve given to the next line:  All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put Humpty together again. And, why couldn’t they put Humpty together again? Because only trauma victims can fix themselves. That doesn’t mean that they have to do it alone. They can seek the support of expert companions, fellow trauma survivors, and family or friends. Survivors of trauma can also seek the guidance, treatments, strategies, techniques, resources, and practices of trauma-informed caregivers — traditional, functional, integrative, alternative, and holistic medical doctors and practitioners, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, social workers, and/or life coaches. But, trauma survivors must take charge of their own recovery.

For me personally, it was the meaning I gave to the Humpty Dumpty verse that squarely placed the burden of responsibility for healing on me. And, somehow, that’s what gave me the courage to take the necessary steps to overcome my tragedy and move on. It felt like, on a biological level, once I took responsibility, my mind and body somehow knew that it was time to kick into survival mode! It’s what Carl Rogers called the actualizing tendency, a natural and inherent driving force, a constant striving towards eudaemonic well-being. The time for licking wounds had passed. Survival and growth was “now, or never.” At that moment, I was on the cusp of surviving and healing.

Trauma Recovery. The effects of trauma are multi-dimensional. We experience trauma neurologically, biologically, psychologically, and socially. We experience physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral effects. Trauma is a soul wound, too. It triggers an existential crisis in our human experience, one that has effects on and is affected by our biology, culture, and politics. It tests our resilience and challenges our preparedness. At once — all at once — we are overwhelmed with feelings of shame and vulnerability.

Dr. Joseph explains that while the trauma industry mistakenly places doctor-like responsibility on therapists for their patients recovery, the very word “patient” is problematic, since “trauma is not an illness to be cured by a doctor.” Trauma victims are not “sick” in the traditional sense of the word. They don’t necessarily need therapy, since trauma victims are not experiencing abnormal reactions to normal events; rather, they are experiencing normal reactions to horrid events. Decades of research on trauma recovery indicate that while mental health professionals can offer guidance and support to trauma victims, “ultimately,” as Dr. Joseph further explains, “people must be able to take responsibility for their own recovery and for the meaning that they give to their experiences.” Perhaps the following analogy will provide further clarity. While a fitness coach can give you support, motivate you, inspire your self-confidence, show you the best exercise form and regimen, provide the best nutritional guidance, and help you build your strength and endurance, the bottom line is this: only you can do those 25 push-ups. That’s right. You have to do it! The same is true when it comes to healing trauma. 

As Dr.  Joseph emphasizes, scientific evidence shows that people seeking to recover from trauma need to: “1) confront reality; 2) accept their misfortune; and, 3) take responsibility for how they live their lives in its aftermath.” In the postscript of his book, Dr.  Joseph offers three important messages: “1) you are not alone; 2) trauma is a normal and natural process; and, 3) growth is a journey.” Additionally, Dr.  Joseph presents a six-step, self-help, THRIVE Model: “1) Taking stock;  2) Harvesting hope; 3) Re-authoring.; 4) Identifying change; 5) Valuing change; and 6) Expressing change in action.”

In response to the mental health crisis in America, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is making great strides in promoting recovery through Self-Direction, an approach that puts the client-in-charge of the direction and pace of his or her own journey and recovery. Today, more than 300 programs with over a million participants are self-directing, including: older adults with long-term care needs; people with physical disabilities; people with intellectual and developmental disabilities; people with traumatic brain injury; families of children with autism; veterans; and, more recently, people with serious mental health conditions and substance use disorders.” (Croft, Bevin; Gilmore, Briana; Aguiar, Keith; and Okpalor, Oyeama. Promoting Recovery Through Self-Direction: Strategies and Lessons from New York, June 26, 2018. www.mentalhealthselfdirection.org.). According to Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO, Mental Health America, “far too many … people are suffering — often in silence. They are not receiving the treatment they need to live healthy and productive lives — and too many simply don’t see a way out …. With 43 million Americans having a mental health condition and 57% not receiving treatment, “this country continues to be in crisis when it comes to mental illness.” (mentalhealthamerica.net/issues/mental-health-america-printed-reports, December 2, 2014). Therefore, self-direction (guided/supported self-care) is an especially promising approach to providing health and wellness solutions to people in need of, but not receiving, mental health assistance.

Personal Transformation.I would be remiss to broach this subject without first citing the wisdom expressed in one of my favorite Rhymes With Orange cartoons written and drawn by Hilary B. Price. The cartoon depicts a Zen Center with a sign in its window, “Seeking enlightenment? Inquire within.” A passerby asks, “Where’s the door? A guru sitting on the sidewalk nearby responds, “No door.” In the Buddhist culture, the spirals of the Unalome symbol remind us of the many winding roads, the twists and turns experienced by each of us, on our spiritual paths to personal transformation or enlightenment. 

Based upon my personal and professional experience, I recommend that trauma survivors consider exploring these healing paths and practices: 1) first and foremost, physical wellness is a priority, including treatments to release trauma from the body, physical activity, optimal nutrition, stress control, and sleep; 2) journaling, rebalancing and prioritizing, self-tracking, self-empowerment, self-efficacy, and self-education; 3) self-love, self-compassion, and self-forgiveness; 4) gratitude and appreciation; 5) forgiveness, kindness, love, compassion, and giving to others; 6) discovery and revering of the authentic self; 7) reframing and reauthoring; 8) mindfulness, reawakening awe, and shinrin-yoku (nature immersion); 9) meditation, yoga, sound healing, music and dance, creative stimulation, i.e., mandala drawing; 10) human and spiritual connection; and, 11) legacy writing. The importance of these paths of self-exploration, personal development, and self-care cannot be emphasized enough. It is through such deep exploration, self-discovery, and daily practice that true happiness can be found. The experience of personal trauma is painful; but, provides a unique opportunity too. Rumi, the 13th century poet, theologian, and mystic expressed it well: “the wound is where the light enters you.” It is the shaking up of our being and loss of our footing that opens the door to profound discovery. “The more you recognize the struggle for what it really is and the more you act in accordance with higher self principles, the shorter the crisis will be. In fact, the crisis will transform itself into undreamed-of bliss.” (Pierrakos, Eva Broch. The Era of the New Age and New Consciousness, Pathwork Guide Lecture No. 223, 1996. https://pathwork.org/wp-content/uploads/lectures/pdf/E223.PDF).  

In my own trauma recovery, I found that I desperately needed to acquire new skills to overcome feelings of powerlessness, shame and guilt, and distrust; reawaken my connection to humans by cultivating reciprocal, respectful relationships; re-establish meaningful activities through work and volunteerism; discover the healing power of reconnecting to my self; and avoid repeating past mistakes or patterns that no longer served me. 

My after-trauma journey, from trauma recovery to personal transformation, was prolonged and complex, as was my complex trauma disorder (C-PTSD). Ultimately, it was my choice to survive; guidance and support received from experts and important others; perseverance; self-exploration; spiritual awakenings; and spiritual revelations that helped me open up to the possibility of further growth — like a blossoming flower.

Post-Traumatic Growth. “Psychological growth arises whether or not we experience trauma. But what trauma offers is the potential to heighten the process of growth …. and,” according to Dr. Joseph, “people are capable of finding pathways to reverse the destructiveness of trauma and turn it to their advantage.” Here’s the good news! Despite how foreign the idea is to trauma survivors, the new science of post-traumatic growth (PTG) points to the probability that the outcome of their struggles through trauma and its destructiveness will, somehow, in time, create an opportunity for future growth and transformation. Rendon reports that “a traumatic event, it turns out, is not simply a hardship to be overcome. Instead, it is transformative.” (Rendon, Jim. Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth, Touchstone, 2015). As a result of having been broken by trauma, we are forced to put ourselves together again. And, in that re-assembling process lies the opportunity to re-evaluate what is important to us – our values, motives, and priorities. While the notion of something positive coming from our deepest wounds is counterintuitive (even guilt-producing) to trauma survivors, research is showing that, despite the psychological pain and struggles associated with trauma and the possibility of their life-lasting effects, there is another (and brighter) side too. Trauma survivors who report using active coping strategies also frequently report that, in the midst of great psychological pain and suffering, there are great gifts to be discovered — new perspectives on life. Amongst these gifts are a deeper appreciation of life, based upon experiencing the precarious fragility of our very existence; a sense of knowing ourselves better; and, an appreciation of human connection, perhaps because of our more sensitive understanding of the value of relationships in the wake of our traumatic experience. The new science of post-traumatic growth suggests that more than half of trauma survivors eventually realize “benefits” after their trauma. Importantly, these trauma survivors are not grateful for their trauma; instead, they are grateful that their wounds, somehow, opened a door to change — a door that permitted them to “grow” after their traumatic experience. Rabbi Leder poignantly conveys this message in his powerful book, “we can heal enough, we can somehow find our true selves again — or for the first time — and what we find really is often gentler and wiser and more beautiful than before.” (Leder, Steve. MORE BEAUTIFUL THAN BEFORE: How Suffering Transforms Us, Hay House, 2017).

Thriving. As I continued to heal and grow after years of trauma, I came to rely, more and more, on my self. I learned to trust myself. I began to trust that everything I needed was already inside me. I came to deeply understand the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the best-known Zen Buddhist teachers in the world today. “Most people are afraid of suffering. But suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow. There can be no lotus flower without the mud.” (Hanh, Thich Nhat. No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering, Parallax Press, 2014). Somehow, I came to believe that I would be “ok.” I learned to trust life again. I discovered that, beyond happiness, there is meaning. I devoured the message of Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl …“Nobody of us is spared suffering at one time or another. But everybody in the midst of suffering is given a chance to bear testimony of the human potential at its best, which is to turn a personal tragedy into a human triumph.” (Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search For Meaning, Beacon Press, 2016). And, I embraced international bestselling author Arianna Huffington’s impassioned and compelling case for redefining what it means tolive an abundant life and her suggestion that by remaking the world in our own terms, we can “thrive and live our lives with more grace, more joy, more compassion, more gratitude, and yes, more love. Onward, upward, and inward!” (Huffington, Arianna. THRIVE: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-being, Wisdom, and Wonder, Harmony Books, 2014). And, along my life journey, I also responded to Paulo Coelho’s beckoning us to be “warriors of light … to live out our dreams, to embrace the uncertainty of life, and to rise to meet our own unique destiny.” (Coelho, Paulo. The Alchemist, HarperOne, 1988).And, I took Madalyn Beck’s Tumblr message to heart, too: “start over, my darling. Be brave enough to find the life you want and courageous enough to chase it. Then start over and love yourself the way you were always meant to.” 

For me, in the wake of my personal tragedy, recovery, and growth, it slowly became obvious that I was destined to write a book in order to share the story of my almost unfathomable journey from pain, suffering, and tragedy to surviving, healing, growing, and thriving. Then, in the midst of writing my book, THE GIFT, I felt that my spiritual self was calling me to a higher purpose — to become a life coach so that I may help other trauma survivors move on with their own lives. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, it was exactly at the moment I decided to move beyond my own self-interests to the higher purpose of helping others that I began to feel my life after-trauma had real purpose. AH-HA. I was beginning to thrive.

Recap. Alas, a review of the lessons I learned from Humpty Dumpty: once I recognized and compassionately accepted that I did have a great fall; once I accepted the outcomes of my misfortune; once I trusted that I have (or have access to) all the tools necessary to fix myself and move on; and, once I was prepared to take responsibility for how I wanted to live my life in the aftermath of my trauma, — then, and only then, — was I able to move forward from victim to victor — from survivor to thriver! It was that simple; and, it was that complex.

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