I (HEART) NYU: My day at a PTSD and PTG workshop

The Heart of Greenwich Village, Washington Square Park

The Heart of Greenwich Village, Washington Square Park

Today my lovely sister gifted me with a day for myself. She offered to take my girls on her day off from work. I, being the proud nerd that I am, excitedly planned for a date with my brain at my alma mater, New York University (NYU), for a workshop. From the moment I woke up I had a constant smile as I was overflowing with nostalgia.

Walking towards the train station, I reminisced being a young graduate student at the school of clinical social work. I dreaded the walk everyday towards the path – and needless to say – the feeling had not changed, which may very well be a result from the fact that I had to speed walk because I was late (as I always was as a grad student). Once in the station I felt like a child riding the train for the first time. I was brimming with happiness and anxiously waiting on the platform for the 33rd street train to come. As soon as the train came – it felt like hundreds of us collectively jammed into the little rail car and packed ourselves tight like sardines in a can. There was no ‘good morning’ (or talking of any kind) and eye contact was not an option – it’s just not done (as it would be rude to do so). So there I was, starring onto the floor admiring and critiquing the other passengers shoes as I found myself  plastered against some random persons’ ‘New York Post’ like a fly on a windshield. I honestly adored every single (un-breathable) minute – I knew I was in New York City and my mind was drifting away into memory lane of graduate school.

Unaccustomed to walking in Greenwich Village, NYU’s campus, as I did in my grad school days, I felt like a calf caught in a wild elephant stampede. I was surrounded by students going in all different directions. Some running, some listening to music, some chatting, some texting, and the newbies – as you can clearly read in their eyes that they are fresh to area– looking everywhere completely lost. After crossing Washington Square Park I finally arrived at the Kimmel Building where I found the conference room that was hosting the workshop. Once in the room, I glanced at the people around me and inside, my jaw wanted to drop as I quietly starred in amazement and in awe of the brilliant minds that encircled me.

The focus of the workshop I attended was “Shared Trauma, Resilience, and Posttraumatic Growth: Reflections on the Anniversary of 9/11”. In addition to the array of extremely intelligent and highly experienced doctoral professors from NYU, there were keynote speaks. Dr. Charles Figley, also a Marine and Vietnam veteran, is a trauma psychologist from Tulane University who spoke on ‘Shared Trauma, Shared Benefits, and Shared Research Agenda’. Dr. Richard Tedeschi, key researcher and writer of posttraumatic growth from University of North Carolina at Charlotte, addressed ‘Post-traumatic Growth in the Aftermath of 9/11’. Major Thomas Jarrett, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, a very seasoned active soldier for the United States Army, and Doctoral Candidate at NYU, bestowed us with his knowledge on ‘Educating Warriors for Combat Operational Stress and Post-traumatic Growth’.

Primarily talked about was how as therapists we should not accept Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a consequence of a traumatic or shared experience but promote Post-traumatic Growth (PTG) not only within ourselves but to our clients as we walk with them on their journey – at their own pace of course. PTG, as I understood it, was, in a nutshell, ‘meaning making’ of an experience. PTG is both a process and an outcome, transforming responses to adversity into a growth enhancing outlook to the traumatic event that has occurred creating a new level of functioning and perspective. The best approach is to guide our clients into narrative therapy and/or “story-telling” – allowing them to become their own author.

 Major Thomas Jarrett also introduced his “Warrior Resilience and Thriving” program in which he encourages soldiers and veterans to strive for PTG and fight their “internal insurgents”. He mentioned how in his work he urges military service members to not settle with their deployments as being only a traumatizing event but to transform it into learning and empowering experiences.

Additionally, Major Thomas Jarrett touched upon a topic more close to my heart. He openly informed the audience about how stigmatization remains loud and clear in the military with seeking guidance (as I prefer it called) from mental health professionals as well as mental health still being highly under-reported. Military service members fear being called weak or unable to proficiently lead, for example, if they are under the care of a therapist. This is no secret of course, and I know the military is consistently working towards breaking down the barriers to mental health and eliminating (or at least reducing) the stigma. A process I want to be part of (even if it means my beginnings are with this blog and/or speaking to individuals as I go along my journey of military life).

Even though I am a psychotherapist social worker, I am a military wife and mother first. I will admit that I constantly fight my own battles to suppress my desire to allow the social worker in me to jump out and counsel, advocate, and treat my husband during his deployment. (I can only imagine this getting worse when he comes home.) But I know that my husband needs me to just be his wife and the mother of his children. As Major Thomas Jarrett mentioned in the workshop, family resilience is even more so important during military deployments. “If one family member crumbles, we all crumble”.

I know that it would be of no benefit if I constantly diagnosed, titled, or named the situations or circumstances my husband is facing. The only best thing I can do for my husband is to offer a listening ear with constant reassurance and letting him tell me truthfully what he feels in his heart. I cannot ask my husband to tell my gory details if he does not want to and/or if he has none! Nor can I drag out of him weeping stories of how he would rather be home.  It has to be true – it has to be him – because frankly, his deployment and experience is not about me.

What I feel and what I experience through this deployment on the homefront is my truth to hold. Just as my husband – I can only speak for what is true in my heart and from what I am ready to share. And even though we are on this road together as a family – just as when we ride in our family vehicle – we are looking out of opposite windows. I cannot show antipathy towards him for what he sees and does not see just as he cannot do the same to me. The only thing I can hope for is that when we come to the end of the road – we are together and stronger than we ever were before.