It happened over dinner. My friend’s demeanor changed in an instant. A family member of my friend had made a comment, and that was all it took. My friend got up and left the table. I followed. Over the next few hours, I entered the sacred space of hearing the memories triggered by the family member’s comment. All the pain and shame had come rushing back and left my friend shaking with both anger and despair. So much of what I read in Bessel Van Der Kolk’s book, “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” was visible in my friend’s bodily responses to remembered trauma. Van Der Kolk notes, “…traumatic experiences do leave traces, whether on a large scale (on our histories and cultures) or close to home, on our families, with dark secrets being imperceptibly passed down through generations. They also leave traces on our minds and emotions, on our capacity for joy and intimacy, and even on our biology and immune systems.” YES!
Van Der Kolk’s book can be classified under a hybrid umbrella of social science and neurobiology. He writes his book in a five-part structure, with the goal of encouraging more and more people to face “…the reality of trauma, to explore how best to treat it, and to commit ourselves, as a society, to using every means we have to prevent it.” Amen! May it be so!
The first chapter of his first section, where explores his own learning journey through spending time with war veterans, most deeply caught my attention. His moving insights resonate with so much of what I have heard and seen as I interact with both US Iraq War veterans and Iraqis—both deeply traumatized by the US-led invasion of Iraq and its chaotic aftermath. It resonates with what I am seeing in Lebanese society as the psychological aftershocks of the August 2020 Beirut Port Blast continue to reverberate in the wider community and in the lives of individuals. It resonates with what I hear from Syrians who have lived with the awful impacts of violence in their communities over the past eleven years and counting. He writes, “Trauma, whether it is the result of something done to you or something you yourself have done, almost always makes it difficult to engage in intimate relationships.” This comes in a section titled “Trauma and the Loss of Self.”
I wonder, connected to the above quote from his prologue, how loss of self is experienced or identified at both a communal and individual level? The individual level may be easier to notice and address through the techniques and methods Van Der Kolk describes in part five (Paths to Recovery). But these paths are predominantly individual or small group in their focus. How does one participate in restoring the soul of a nation ravaged by trauma?
The best work I’ve been exposed to in this area comes out of Rwanda as the country recovers from the inter-tribal genocides in 1994. A reconciliation/restoration journey called Healing Hearts, Transforming Nations (HHTN) has emerged from Rwandan society, and they are now sharing this with members of other nations living with trauma—including the United States. I’m learning more about this process due to its relevance to my NPO journey and the practice of reconciliation I’m exploring. The Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa is another society-wide process that addresses trauma. For both processes, I am curious to learn to what degree they attend to the neurobiological impacts of society-wide trauma. This is something I will now further explore.
Van Der Kolk includes a helpful appendix where he and his colleagues propose criteria of recognizing and treating developmental trauma disorder. This will be a very helpful addition to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), used by mental health workers in the USA and many other places around the world to better understand and address the mental health challenges of their clients. He also includes a thorough resources section and recommendations for further reading. I’ve already ordered one book: “Collaborative Treatment of Traumatized Children and Teens: The Trauma Systems Therapy Approach.” As I’m receiving input on one of my prototypes that I’m testing this term (potential mental health challenges that might be a barrier to young adults participating in the practical work of engendering deeper justice, equity, reconciliation, and perseverance in their local community), it’s becoming clear that attending to mental health challenges will be an important part of my NPO initiative. This resource, along with Van Der Kolk’s book, may help me further identify how to develop a holistic initiative and who else I need to collaborate with as this initiative takes shape.
 Van der Kolk, Bessel A. 2015. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
 Ibid., 1.
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 13.
 Saxe, Glenn N., B. Heidi Ellis, and Julie B. Kaplow. 2007. Collaborative Treatment of Traumatized Children and Teens: The Trauma Systems Therapy Approach. New York: Guilford.