Cathy Ortiz (parishioner) and Dr. Brian Dickover (Michiagan City) I, along with a few other helpers, have been discussing mental health questions for years. Cathy coordinates mental health services for Sinai Health. Dr. Brian Dickover is a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary and an intensive care physician. And as you know, I’ve been a priest for a pretty long time. I think you already know that most of my priesthood has been spent in neighborhoods that suffered frequent gunfire and that I’ve buried lots of victims of violence over my career.
Cathy and Dr. Dickover and I all know that environments like ours can bring on PTSD. There are lots of environments that can bring on PTSD, so we are not alone. Really, the best thing you can do about ugly situations is to avoid them completely. But, sometimes you simply can’t avoid them. Think of all the paramedics, the police, the ER docs… think of the people living in dangerous neighborhoods all over the world. So, we’re not alone in this. Not at all.
The following pointers are the result of doing some research on the subject, talking to some experts, and our own lived experience. So, here goes!
- The experiences that bring on PTSD can be cumulative. In other words, things can pile up on a person. They may feel ok for a while, then all of a sudden they’re overwhelmed. They may feel sadness and anger, and a feeling of helplessness. They might get something like a panic attack. They might have all kinds of bad thoughts, and maybe feel like they’ve been grabbed up by something and are obsessing.
- Talking about these things can sometimes be helpful. Often enough it’s not possible. If you’ve seen some ugly thing, maybe you don’t want to tell your family about it! Maybe they don’t really want to know, and you don’t really want to hurt them, either. Maybe talking with one of your friends or neighbors would be helpful. Maybe not. The reason is that to talk about it, you have to re-live the experience. That drags up the ugly thing into the present and may not be helpful to you. It may be that talking to a therapist would be a good thing. Many people have been helped along by talk therapy. But, in lots of situations it is impossible to use this kind of therapy. Think of a whole city that’s been traumatized. There wouldn’t be enough therapists to talk to everyone. Or maybe a crew on a boat at sea for months. No easy way to talk to anyone. We understand these things.
- In case you might need them, here are some helpful things that are not talking.
- Looking at wood burn in a fire. This was St. John of the Cross’ favorite thing to do in the 1500’s. Maybe have a fire outside?
- Looking at water (lucky for us, water’s not so far away!).
- Being on the water (again, lucky for you, we have boats in Chicago!).
- Being in the water. Swimming is great because you have a limited sensory environment, you can find a mantra or a prayer to repeat and exercise is a mood elevator. Dickover and I both swim daily as a part of our self care.
- Rituals are very healing. Things like keeping a schedule. Keeping your personal space neat. Keeping your things in order. Making your bed.
- Mindless tasks are good, too. Things like polishing brass, cutting the grass, doing laundry. Tasks that are repetitive and help you feel like you’ve done something are great.
- Limiting your exposure to fast-moving images helps. Avoiding watching movies, avoiding watching the news, avoiding the internet, avoiding anything that overstimulates you helps.
- Be careful driving a car. The combination of fast-moving traffic, maniacs on the road, music or whatever other entertainment you have on, talking on the phone, and all the rest can trigger something not so good. Maybe keep the sensory load down by driving the car with the radio off? That’s what Fr. Mike does, but again, we’re all different.
- Staying off social media all together. For some people it’s good. For many, it’s not.
- Being in a small, controlled space is good. Mike likes being on his boat. He knows where everything is at all times. When passengers get on the boat he explains that this order is really a question of life-safety. It is! It’s also great for PTSD. There’s a lot to be said for having the order of having a chain of command. These things limit “randomness,” and really help with controlling stress.
- Some beauty is a good thing. Cut flowers help… they have both beauty and smell. Being on a beautiful boat is great! Even looking at one helps.
- Pay attention to your environment. Watch out for things like spending too much time in the dark. Pay attention as best you can to how your space affects your mood. Pay attention to your “interior castle.” That’s the little castle inside you that you have to sweep out once in a while. Theresa of Avila wrote a lot about that in the 1500’s. (She was a friend of John of the Cross).
- Some kind of creative outlet helps. Maybe carving scrimshaw? Maybe drawing or painting. Maybe music? Some kind of creative outlet. Maybe gardening?
- For some people, making good food helps. It’s great fun to take what’s at hand and try to make something that’s really great to eat. Maybe some of you learn to cook great food (we can arrange lessons on that if you want). A thing to pay attention to is what you eat, when you eat, and who you eat with. Eating alone is probably not the best option.
- Building a team is great for handling stress. A real team holds up the weakest player until they’re better. Think of a great basketball team. Somebody misses a 3 point shot and feels bad about it. Their teammates hold them up until they get over it. Over time you learn to count on each other and hold each other up in the face of whatever’s thrown your way. You can become tremendously resilient in the face of whatever life throws at you. Find some neighbors and start a book group, or a bowling team, or go biking.
- Of course, the threat to this community building is our temptation to find a person to blame and having a “scapegoat” that we can offload our bad feelings onto. You’ll have to work to avoid this plague. Imagine how the person you’re blaming might feel. At the parish and the hospitals we have all seen how this can poison an environment.
- Finally, keep friendships, family, prayer, and a sense of humor about all this. Life’s too short to be so serious, after all!
In closing, we hope these things help. We want you to know that it can be helpful to have a quiet moment with someone who doesn’t need lots of details but who can understand at least part of how it feels to see something terrible and be helpless to reverse it. We have all benefitted from people who listened but did not need to make our pain go away.
You can send a message to the parish to speak with Cathy or Fr. Mike at any time. We’ll try to respond within a day. If we don’t, please try again!
Fr. Mike Enright