Traumatic Anniversaries

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One year ago this past week, the nationally covered Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs claimed land, property (approximately 350 homes destroyed), and human life (2 deaths). It got me to thinking about the nature of traumatic experiences about which I wrote a blog entitled “Trauma!” This June, 2013–a year later–got me to thinking (again) about the nature of traumatic experiences – albeit “traumatic anniversaries.” Little did I—nor other residents of the Pikes Peak region—know that the “Black Forest Fire” would tragically and ironically claim even more land, property (approximately 500 homes destroyed), and human life (2 deaths) – around the same time as the Waldo fire.

In a recent eNewsletter (Value Options, June 2013) I receive, the lead article (“Phases of Traumatic Stress Reactions in a Disaster”) begins: “Many posttraumatic stress symptoms are normal responses to an overwhelming stressor which may change our assumptions and create distress, but will recede in intensity with time. Experts agree that the amount of time it takes people to recover depends both on what happened to them and on what meaning they gave to those events.” The article describes how reactions to traumatic events often fall into different phases: impact phase, immediate post-disaster period, and recovery phase. The recovery phase is that “prolonged period of return to community and individual adjustment or equilibrium.” “During the stage of acute danger the priority for all is basic safety and survival. Once this is relatively secured, other needs emerge that are both existential and psychological. And once manifest, these needs are typically left frustrated and unfulfilled for a prolonged period of time. And many times, through media, retribution or continued violence, the society in question is re-exposed to further traumatic events.”

One such “prolonged reaction” is the possibility of “anniversary reactions”; “certain so-called coincidences (where people) react to the fact that the date is the anniversary of some critical or traumatic event. For example, a family member might become depressed at the same time each year around the date when a parent or sibling died, even though he or she often makes no conscious connection.” (McGoldrick, 1999)

In his splendidly succinct book Healing Trauma (2005), Peter Levine, PhD, discusses anniversary reactions vis-à-vis the “compulsion to repeat” (“one of the more unusual and problem-creating symptoms that can develop from unresolved trauma”). Levine writes: “Reenactments may be played out in intimate relationships, work situations, repetitive accidents or mishaps, and in other seemingly random events. They may also appear in the form of bodily symptoms or psychosomatic diseases. Children who have had a traumatic experience will often repeatedly recreate it in their play. As adults, we are often compelled to reenact our early traumas in our daily lives.” Levine relates a story told by renowned psychiatric researcher Bessel van der Kolk. A PTSD veteran held up a convenience store on July 5 in the late 1980s at 6:30 a.m. – with only a finger in his pocket to simulate a gun. Returning to his car, he waited until police arrived. It was discovered that the traumatized vet had committed six other so-called “armed robberies” over the past 15 years, all at 6:30 a.m. on July 5. Dr. van der Kolk asked the man directly what happened on July 5 at 6:30 a.m. It was finally learned that a close army buddy in Vietnam had died in the vet’s arms at exactly 6:30 a.m. on July 5. The man had reenacted the anniversary of his friend’s death every July 5. The traumatized veteran spent the therapy session with Dr. van der Kolk grieving over the loss of his friend, having made no connection between his friend’s death and the compulsion to commit robbery. The connection between the robberies and the Vietnam experience? Staging the robberies meant re-creating the firefight that resulted in his friend’s death. The man’s annual, anniversary reenactment unconsciously enlisted the police as Viet Cong. Once the man became aware of his feelings, and the original event, he was able to cease the annual reenactment.

“Admittedly,” writes Levine, “the story of the man staging robberies every year on the same day is a rather extreme example. It serves the purpose of illustrating the fact that we can go to great lengths to create situations that will force us to confront and deal with our unresolved trauma. Unfortunately, the link between a reenactment and the original situation may not be readily obvious….Frequent reenactment is the most intriguing and complex symptom of trauma.” Levine concludes: “With this story in mind, you might look for events and/or accidents in your own life that seem strangely repetitious, as they may well show the mark of some unresolved trauma. Perhaps you have forgotten the original event that initiated the pattern of behavior you revisit through reenactment. Often, when exploring these possible reenactments, you’ll get a sense of both knowing and not knowing. As you work with these patterns and the memories that may awaken, trust your own felt sense and give yourself the freedom to explore the hidden connections.”

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

One Comment

  1. Wow, This paragraph exactly what I’ve been hunting for, I could not resist commenting. Very well written! bookmarked!!, I like your website!.

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