by Dr. Lenore Terr is this amazing book about childhood trauma. I heard about it at the Writing the Medical Experience Workshop summer 2008 at Sarah Lawrence College. It’s the story of these school children from Chowchilla, California who were kidnapped and then forced to climb down into the hull of a bus buried in a rock quarry. The kidnappers then covered the escape hatch with soil and debris. The circumstances are entirely bazarre. Dr. Terr was called in five months after the incident to work with the children, all of whom escaped. At first, it was thought that the children were ok and that to bring in psychologists would just further traumatize the children. But I’m learning (I’m only on page 40) that the kids were presenting symptoms of distress, just not the ones that were expected.
Here’s a quote that thrilled me because it connected my experience directly with what I was reading. Dr. Ter was giving some of the history of the research into childhood trauma: “David Levy, a gifted child psychiatrist who practiced in midtown Manhattan, observed in 1945 that youngsters fared after surgery similarly to American soldiers who had been evacuated because of ‘trauma’ from the European battlefields. The soldiers had experienced nightmares–so did the kids. The soldiers acted fearful–the youngsters did, too. Levy’s report of the traumatic responses in children who had undergone surgery led to an overdue humanism at the hospital” (40). I can’t wait to read about his research. I had a recurring nightmare in my early years from which I would awaken sweating and shaken emotionally. A low brick wall would appear in my dream. It was clear that this wall was a foundation holding up a house. The bricks were really large and more like cinderblocks. Suddenly, a brick shifted and dislodged, casting lots of dust and particles into the air. I awoke as the brick teetered and about to fall. Upon waking, the visual image of a dark hole in the wall stayed with me.
I’m beginning to realize that I’ve spend much of my life tense, scared and isolated and that my body has been hyper-tensed for decades. Hyper-vigilance is another way to describe it. I’ve been in freeze mode. Instead of fight or flight, I froze. Dr. Peter Levine talks about this phenomenon in his book Waking the Tiger. He says the choice is never simply between fight or flight; freezing is a third option. His book explains his theory beautifully, including a discussion of his observations of animal behavior, which helped him create his theory.
Dr. Ter’s book Too Scared to Cry is also an important work for those who want to not only learn more about trauma in general but for those who might want to further understand their own. I’ll keep you posted as I read on.