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What is the Temperature of Your Trauma?

BOOK REVIEW OF FIRES IN THE DARK: Healing the Unquiet Mind

Looking at trauma as if viewing a painting.

This morning, Tuesday, September 12, 2023, is twenty-two years and one day following the September 11th devastation of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I happened on the end of a remarkable radio interview with the author of Fires in the Dark: Healing the Unquiet Mind. What rose to the surface for me, is a comment she made about how “thin” the use of the word trauma has become in recent time. “It can mean anything from the loss of a cat to the firing of bullets in Baltimore,” she said. This got me thinking of what I hear others call trauma...She is so right, I thought. Just how do we measure the depth of trauma from one person to another? How do we gauge the depth, the horror, the weight, the impact of what has happened, what the long-term effects will be, and what will be needed for healing? The word “temperature” is what came to my mind. I’m not sure there is a simple tool for this measurement.


This is something I am interested in hearing from readers about. Today’s interview on WYPR Baltimore has piqued my curiosity, and I’ve done a bit more research into Dr. Jamison’s interest in how to treat trauma and self modulate one’s life, and it’s fascinating!

Dr. Jamison’s book traces the history of trauma treatment (and the lack of it) from WWI until today, using amazing stories to illustrate psychiatric history. She illuminates the fact that WWI and prior sufferers of “shell shock” were labeled “cowards” and often shot, pointing out that the roll of doctors and psychiatrists connected to the military was to get soldiers and officers back on the battlefield, to win the war! She is able to braid the line between patient and doctor, defining each dilemma as she speaks of her own dilemma facing Vietnam vets returning home with PTSD and very little resources to help them beyond medication, while giving credit to the VA Hospitals for continuing to develop and research new methods and treatments constantly in an effort to aid their wards. She is constantly compassionate and attentive to the needs of the many levels of PTSD we are becoming aware of in our evolving society.


While we often hear in course recommendations, retreat invitations and the like, about the need for creativity, role models and imagination. In listening to Dr. Jamison’s talks (see above), I found more clarity and resourcefulness in the way she spoke about the necessity of these tools for healing:

I would also say it’s not even that you have to be so creative yourself...It’s drawing upon the creativity of others, drawing upon the long history of our species, of how people have dealt with pain and suffering...when you begin to get better, you can bridge things over and make things more meaningful and put yourself in the company of people you admire by listening to their music or reading their books, realizing that not only are you not alone, but that people have given purpose to their lives...I think that one of the hardest things to do is to make that art...Step from being sick, psychotic, severely depressed, whatever, to feeling like you can take something from the awfulness and give back to society. And there’s just a huge...clinical literature on the importance of purpose, of having something that is larger than you are, that contributes to the greater good.

This means that to thrive and survive, we can call on not just our own inner psyche, but the psyche of others who have come before us. This brings to my mind what I have found in twelve-step programs about passing what one has found on to others. It seems like such a simple concept, yet there is so much depth to it. When we are immersed in our own mental illness, it seems impossible to do this, yet at the first moment we can, it seems to be a huge leap into health and even happiness. I think of my own recovery and how listening to music that moved me, or reading even one page of something uplifting in a day could bolster my desire to keep going. Dr. Jamison ties this distinctly to the healing process.


Hearing Dr. Jamison talk about her powerful book, a blending of history and psychotherapeutic techniques, I have spent this day pondering both the size of events like September 11th, and the fact there are many people already born and grown who did not experience it. They feel their own level of trauma in their life, based on things that changed after that day. People living in this day feel the presence of war and danger in daily life and around the world, the imminent danger of climate change and the collapse of the world’s natural systems, and the loss of an ability to interpret what is trustworthy or truthful in many societies. It makes me keenly aware that everyone's “Trauma Temperature” may be measured by many factors, and it would be unfair to set one against the other as more or less severe. Clearly there are some, such as face to face warfare and killing that measure high on the scale. But there are other factors, such as coping skills (ability to manage in the face of stress) that also contribute to what one’s trauma temperature is. What I’m about to say here is my own reflection, not a clinical scale. It’s based on my experiences working with others, but also my own reflections of dealing with my personal trauma. If you have additions or different experiences, please add them via the comments. I’m very curious about the ways others have measured their success in coping and recovery.


Resilience is an important measure in how well a person does with healing. What is resilience? There are a lot of definitions we could use, but the best for this situation involves a number of different factors. How well an individual can access and use these aspects or domains of themselves is a measure of how resilient they are. Here I’ve drawn from a colleague on LinkedIn, Jurie Rossouw: The six domains of resilience

If we use this model, then we have an excellent method to examine what Dr. Jamison is trying to get at: it is not that you can take a yardstick and lay it against each individual and have a perfect measure of what defines trauma. An incident that for some would seem mundane, might seem horrific to another. It is the traumatic experience laid against these measures of resilience that makes the difference, along with the sum of experiences up to the point of the particular incident.

You may be the person who was the hero, who pulled the person from a fire, never once questioning the moment, running into the house, running out carrying the child on your back, not thinking of the danger, and of course not thinking yourself the hero at all. You may not even know what made you think to run into the rescue. Looking at the diagram above, you may or may not see the elements that made you the candidate to be a hero. But what happens afterward? Do you lie awake repeating the incident, questioning the right or wrong of it, seeing the incident over and over again? Do you find peace in the act itself, thanking the universe or God that you were able to rise to the occasion? Again, it is a sum total of life experience, support, lessons learned up to that moment, and your internal ability to piece those things together that defines how you will survive or thrive.


Expanding one’s resources to include what already exists and what may already have been present in our earlier lives may be a relief or extension of hope for some. Dr. Jamison talks about poetry and music that were present in her home as she was a child, that she came to see as a resource at other stages in her life. Perhaps you recall a song, a lullaby, a poem or an image of a favorite place that can be a support to you in your recovery journey now. Listening to this interview, and another similar one, I recalled sayings by my beloved grandfather that I have carried in my unconscious all of my life. As I thought of his silly jokes when we didn’t want to go to bed or eat lunch, “Sure, why eat or sleep, it only takes away from the time to play, and that’s what’s most important, right? Plenty of time to eat or sleep another day!” We would all (the grandkids) come to see the frivolity of our pleas as he joked with us and told us to go away from the table -- “plenty more stew for the rest of us anyway,” he’d say with a half-smile on his rosy-cheeked face! My adult self could remember that there was a time for everything and that I had to do work sometimes that I might not want to, but that the rewards came after! It brought a smile to my face to remember that there were some good times, not all darkness in those days.

Similarly, I have begun to realize that when I was in the throes of healing, I could only remember the darkness, none of the light about the people I felt had harmed me. My father was only my abuser, my grandfather only my rescuer, and so on. As I found resources and recovery, I remembered that my father also was the one who taught me to garden, a resource that has carried me all my adult life. I remembered times in between the drunken rages that my father took us on “something rides” to unknown but wonderful places in natural spots to hike and discover nature with the whole family. He had some light inside, just like the rest of us, but it was so hard to admit that when I was trying to protect myself and felt resourceless. It was so hard to wrestle with the gray areas.

Recovery is not a finished product. It is a growth process, a journey. The more we incorporate into that process, the more we see the shadows, the gray areas as the subtle shading to our landscape. Instead of being fearful, the shadows begin to add depth to the whole picture. We see that each stage of our work, each resource we have added, whether internal or external, has dispelled myths and fears and strengthened us for the rest of our journey. We are no longer alone.

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