THE BLOG
07/09/2013 09:49 am ET | Updated Sep 08, 2013

The Things We Hold Inside

· "Christine," a high school freshman, was recently struck with Guttate Psoriasis, a skin condition which causes scaly blemishes. When her doctor inquired if anything unusual had happened recently, neither Christine, nor her parents could think of anything. However, when asked when the rash began, (early January 2013) and where Christine resided, (Newtown, Ct.) the source became clear. Christine's doctor said the rash was undoubtedly stress-related.

· "Jeff's" 13-year-old son recently begun cutting himself.

· When 8-year-old "Phillip" became hysterical after a neighbor set off a firecracker last week, his mom was compelled to call in the police to help assure an inconsolable Phillip that it really was just a firecracker.

· "Susan," a Newtown sixth grade teacher, has recently observed among some students, abnormal weight gain, a drop in grades and also uncommonly mean-spirited and aggressive behavior -- particularly from those who were seen as "sensitive kids."

"Trauma is not what happens to us but what we hold inside us in the absence of an empathetic witness," said Dr. Gabor Mate

These kids are fortunate. They have that "empathetic witness" in the form of their parents and teachers.

Frank Hall also had one.

Frank, a football assistant in Chardon, Ohio fearlessly faced down a school shooter last year during a rampage that left three students dead.

"Keep an eye on him... he's not talking about what happened."

Such was the sound advice from one of Frank's colleagues to another.

Hopefully Newtown's "period of rest" will give residents a chance to settle into a sense of normalcy and to connect with any empathetic witnesses in their lives should forms of post-traumatic symptoms manifest.

Newtown's decision to enter into a "quiet time," meaning the town will not host any more events by outside organizers, is understandable. The overwhelming onslaught of "experts" and goings-on left many feeling "enough is enough."

Nevertheless, while reading a smattering of the Facebook comments in response to Newtown's period of rest ("Time to get back to normal"..."Time to be the Sandy Hook before the tragedy again,"...), it was difficult not to heed the words of Dr. Carolyn Mears on why such an outlook can be potentially pernicious.

Dr. Carolyn Mears' son, Austin, survived the Columbine shootings. Her book, Reclaiming School in the Aftermath of Trauma, recently won a Colorado book award.

"We all wanted to 'go back,'" Carolyn told me. "The reality, however, was that that goal was a myth."

Carolyn's mother would frequently ask about her grandson's expected progress, "Is Austin back to normal? Is he over it yet?"

"It's like asking me if I'm over being short," declared Carolyn.

Within our "quietude" no doubt remain individuals undergoing post-traumatic stress -- oftentimes unknowingly either to themselves or loved ones.

"Patty," a parent of a Sandy Hook School student told me she and her daughter found Amber Wright's Newtown's visit to be enormously helpful.

Amber Wright survived the Columbine shooting. Amber visited Newtown with the book she wrote for Newtown's children, It Gets Better.

"It was the most helpful thing we have experienced," said Patty. "Meeting Amber showed my daughter the strength that can emerge from something dreadful."

"The most traumatic aspects of all disasters involve the shattering of human connections." -- Dr. Bruce Perry

"When your surgeon offers you guidelines on what to anticipate following surgery," says Dr. Jill Barron, a child psychiatrist, "you are less likely to become alarmed if those symptoms emerge,"

"Similarly if people know what to look out for following a trauma, they are more empowered -- less isolated."

Because Amber Wright survived the Columbine shooting, her friends and family rarely spoke of the incident.

"All of a sudden a year later, I was terrified -- I thought I had a brain tumor," Amber told me.
She had no idea the startling symptoms that had befallen her were a direct result of post-traumatic stress.

Although Beth Hilscher developed rosacea on her normally healthy complexion shortly after her daughter was killed in the Virginia Tech shooting, it would be three years before she discovered that it had been brought on by post-traumatic stress.

Beth's husband was surprised to find himself suffering from cluster migraines and dreadful hives.

"He thought he was allergic to something at work," remarked Beth.

The connection to the trauma was not made until he and Beth took a few months off on their sailboat.

"Within two weeks the headaches and hives were gone," said Beth. "It suddenly dawned on him these ailments were grief and stress related."

"When we came home," continued Beth, "the grief came back but the symptoms didn't. We had learned a thing or two about self-care."

Columbine residents experienced an enduring and town-wide rise in physical ailments such as eczema, irritable bowel syndrome and a rising divorce rate that were directly linked to stress from the trauma.

Residents in a town inflicted by tragedy may be "just fine" right now, but may find themselves feeling differently next week, next month, next year or next decade.

Alternatively, those who have collectively suffered before us have demonstrated that when opportunities to understand and to share are seized, tremendous transformation and growth are possible

Jessica Stern's riveting memoir, Denial, is a powerful account of her own unresolved trauma.

"Denial is immensely seductive," writes Jessica. "It is irresistible for by-standers who want to get on with their lives."

"In the long run," Jessica concludes, "denial corrodes integrity -- both of individuals and of society. We impose a terrible cost on the psychically wounded by colluding in their denial."

Fortunately, "denial" has not gripped the leaders and residents of Newtown. The outpouring of support is omnipresent; and while some may see these as "reminders," others see them as examples of what is possible when a community openly shares in its resolve.

Dr. Carolyn Mears often quotes Holocaust survivor, Gerta Weissman Klein.

"Pain must never be wasted."

"While we do need to 'move on,' we must also find ways to accommodate to this memory as part of our life experience," Dr. Mears advises.