THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Counting My People

It is 1946, and I am three years old. I am standing in my crib surveying my world, deeply comforted by the soft sounds of the rhythmic breathing of my precious family. I am counting my people -- my mother, my father, my brother, and my sister -- with the deep sense of happiness and security that they are all there.

Then fast forward to the present. On the eve of my mother's 94th birthday, in my mind's eye, I can picture her as she is today: small now and frail, white haired, trying valiantly to muster a brave smile, and straining to look at me with her beautiful blue but unseeing eyes. I am aware of profound feelings of dread of my impending loss of her. My grandmother, my great-grandmother, and my mother's sister all died at the age of 94. When the telephone rings, my heart seems to stop, and I have dreams of the telephone ringing to give me bad news about my mother. Having experienced early loss, I am vulnerable to re-experiencing this old familiar state of dread, and I realize that while my memory of counting my people seems, even now, to be a comforting one, why was I needing to count? Already in the grip of anticipatory loss from an early age, I have always been drawn to the study of emotional trauma and toward helping those who suffer from it.

In my experience, many people understand the word "trauma" as only relating to catastrophic events, such as war or Hurricane Katrina, and don't realize that it resides in their own history. Trauma can be caused by anything that was experienced as painful yet was never fully understood or talked about. We appear now, as a society, to be in a new Age of Trauma. Collective fears about the global economy, the environment, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, loss of jobs and the astonishing collapse of formerly stable companies seem to be triggering old familiar anxieties in many of us. How can we understand this? Our world no longer seems stable. Dr. Robert Stolorow's newest book, Trauma and Human Existence, can help us to better understand the nature and roots of trauma.

My history provides a mirror of Stolorow's theories of trauma and illustrates how trauma intrudes on even the most solid of families. My problem was never one of abuse or intentional neglect. I am one of those people who can rightly claim that I have a loving family of whom I am very proud. Because of exceedingly painful circumstances, which many of you may have experienced as well, I was acutely aware of the meaning of separation and death at a very early age. It was the fact of having a loving family that made the potential for the sudden removal of a loved one so painful to not only actually experience but to anticipate.

My father was the son of John Davey, the Father of Tree Surgery, who developed the science of saving trees around the turn of the twentieth century. Following in his father's footsteps, my father and his brothers built the Davey Tree Expert Company, the first of its kind, and my father traveled the entire world in the 1920's and 1930's, researching trees, and became one of the world's foremost authorities on the subject. After his first wife died, my father married my mother. She was 23 and he was 51, a difference of almost 30 years. When I was just six months old, my father suffered a massive heart attack that nearly killed him, and the doctors, helpless at the time to help heart patients, predicted that my father would die with his next heart attack. Our lives became imbued with anticipatory anxiety surrounding the fear of his death, and my brother, sister, and I savored each moment with him. When my father died when I was eight, our family life was completely shattered, and none of us including my mother, had any idea how to mourn. We bottled up our feelings and rarely talked about him, concentrating instead on somehow surviving the loss of this man who was the idealized center of our world.

Upon graduation from college in 1965, I found a job that I could not have improved upon even in my most grandiose childhood fantasies. It offered me everything that my father had said would be mine, and that I had always dreamt about. The little girl who had gone to sleep at night listening to her father's glorious travel stories, with visions of foreign places dancing in my head, applied for a job as a stewardess with Pan American World Airways. From the moment I arrived on Pan Am turf, I felt like this new family was home, and it seemed to restore my sense of place in the world. The atmosphere of expansive optimism and bold self-confidence reminded me of my early years when my father was alive. Juan Trippe ruled the company with a patriarchal iron hand, and his power seemed limitless. I was convinced that Pan Am would forever be the world's most fabulous airline and that it would never, ever die.

But the grandeur of Pan Am, like that of my early family, ultimately shattered as well. Deregulation, politics, bad management, fuel prices, the introduction of the 747 that saturated the market, the inability of Pan Am to obtain domestic routes while "domestic" airlines were awarded international routes, and Pan Am's own legend all worked against its adapting to a radically changed airline world. For ten years my job was the best airline job in the world, but as circumstances began to change and Pan Am's decline became more evident, I unconsciously began preparing myself for its death, with a strong feeling of déjà vu. I was beginning to feel that Pan Am, like my mortally ill father, was becoming unable to protect me.

Having always known that I wanted to become a psychotherapist, in early 1986 I walked away from the Pan Am hangar in shock, numb with the realization that I had just handed in my Pan Am ID card, my passport to the whole world and to my Pan Am family. My sense of belonging in the world was once again profoundly shaken, but luckily I had begun therapy with my analyst two years earlier, or I could never have withstood the separation anxiety and depression that flooded me, as if I were again 8 years old and my father had just died. And in another stroke of luck, in 1992 I began supervision with Dr. Stolorow, for whom this was also a time of profound grief and self-exploration that set him on a path toward new insights about trauma. When it came time to write my dissertation, a study of the fall of Pan Am and the trauma to the employees, Stolorow was the perfect fit to help with what to me was a labor of love. Stolorow was actively developing his ideas about trauma and I desperately wanted to find a way to communicate what I was learning from him.

When Stolorow awakened one morning in 1991 to find Dede, his beloved wife and colleague, lying dead across their bed four weeks after her metastatic cancer had been diagnosed, he found himself in the middle of intolerable grief after years of helping others work through trauma. His book, Trauma and Human Existence: Autobiographical, Psychoanalytic, and Philosophical Reflections (Routledge, 2007), explores his own heartbreakingly sad experience, interweaving the personal with sound psychological theory and profound philosophical insight, to create a dramatic whole that provides the reader with a rich framework in which to reflect on his or her own experience of and reaction to trauma, which we all in some way have suffered.

I have a uniquely personal vantage point from which to discuss and apply Stolorow's ideas. At the same time that I was consulting with him and writing about the trauma to Pan Am employees, which reanimated my own early experience of traumatic loss, I was also witnessing up close the personal devastation of Stolorow's life, and his developing ideas about trauma just seemed to seep into my pores.

There are three main ideas in Stolorow's book on trauma that I have found extremely useful in analyzing my own life and those of my patients: (1) the concept of retraumatization, (2) what Stolorow calls the absolutisms of everyday life, and (3) the importance of being able to find a relational home for our feelings of loss and grief.

A traumatizing event like the loss of one's company is made worse for some people because it represents a retraumatization, a repetition of a childhood history of loss or pain that leaves them more vulnerable. Examples of such childhood trauma are the early death of a parent or family member, early separation from loved ones through divorce or tragedy, alcoholism, drug addiction, or mental illness in the family, or any form of abuse.

Retraumatization happens most often when there is a close replication of the original trauma, such as a loss of the way of life as one knew it, loss of a sense of power, loss of a sense of safety, loss of a sense of innocence, or loss of a sense of control. When it happens, it brings back the same old feelings, such as terror, horror, shock, panic, or helplessness. Retraumatization is the experience of a painful part of your life that feels like it's happening all over again. In my case, when Pan Am began to fail, I returned once more to those frightening days of my childhood when my world collapsed and everything seemed so uncertain.

Because we are all finite beings over whom death and loss constantly loom, Stolorow theorizes, human beings develop what he calls the absolutisms of everyday life. This means we all develop unquestioned beliefs and assumptions that we unconsciously live by, in order to flee from the uncertainties of life and to maintain a sense of continuity, predictability, and safety. For example, when you say to a loved one, "I'll see you tomorrow," it is taken for granted that both you and the other person are going to be around. Stolorow writes, "It is in the essence of emotional trauma that it shatters these absolutisms, a catastrophic loss of innocence that permanently alters one's sense of being-in-the-world"(p.16).

A powerful example of this shattering was the emotional reactions we all experienced following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. America was confronted with its vulnerability and lost its sense of grandiose invincibility. The fall of Pan Am had a similarly traumatic effect on its work force, and I am certain that the same feelings are being felt by the employees of those venerable old companies, like GM and Lehman Brothers, that everyone viewed as unassailably stable.

When we can no longer believe in such "absolutisms of everyday life," many of us feel that the universe becomes unpredictable, random, and unsafe, and it is especially traumatizing when this loss of innocence echoes what happened to us in childhood. This has certainly been the case for me, and my ongoing ritual of counting my people is a manifestation of "innocence lost." Often traumatized people see the world differently than others do. They feel anxious, alienated, and estranged in an unsafe world in which anything can happen at any time. Anxiety slips into panic when it has to be borne in isolation; hence, it is essential that there be a place where painful feelings can be verbalized, understood, and held, what Stolorow calls a relational home. As Stolorow points out, in the absence of such a sustaining relational home, emotional pain can become a source of unbearable shame and self-loathing, and traumatized people can fall into the grip of an impossible requirement to "get over it."

But there is no "getting over" trauma. As Stolorow evocatively describes, "Experiences of trauma become freeze-framed into an eternal present in which one remains forever trapped, or to which one is condemned to be perpetually returned ... by life's slings and arrows" (p.20). Thus one can be returned to an experience of trauma, triggered by a memory, a sound, or smell, or a change of season, or an old song. More disturbingly, it can bring on an intense traumatic state; for example, from the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, or from watching scenes of the collapse of the World Trade Center. The past becomes present, as if no time has gone by. I continue to count my people.

On a more hopeful note, Stolorow concludes that because death, loss, and the possibility of emotional trauma are fundamental to our existence, "we meet each other as brothers and sisters in the same dark night [and thus are able to form] bonds of deep emotional attunement within which devastating emotional pain can be held, rendered more tolerable, and, hopefully, eventually integrated" (p.49). We can help one another bear the darkness on the way to seeing the light.