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The Post Traumatic States of America and our communal fear

The tragedy in Parkland, Florida continued the recent trend of nearly one school shooting for every school day in America.

While suffering, pain, and trauma has always been a part of our human experience, it seems lately we are being constantly bombarded by bad news. Everywhere we turn there are scrolling headlines of hate and constant memes of misery.

This latest tragedy involved a known threat, who took the lives of 17 people with the use of an AR-15 assault rifle. Immediately, the trauma loop began. Denial and disbelief, prayers and condolences, anger over legislation, rationalization of the shooter’s background, review of lockdown and emergency procedures, political maneuvering, blame of authorities, and social media bloggers and pundits attempting to make sense of it all.

This cycle is all too familiar to me. I saw this exact story unfold in front of my eyes on August 5, 2012, when a white supremacist gunman killed six immigrants praying at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek.

I watched as an entire immigrant community was devastated. I watched as men, women, and children exhibited the criteria for trauma related disorders. Parishioners from our Temple who confided in me said that they experienced nightmares, flashbacks and all of the components of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) years after the shooting.

I also felt these same emotions during my own personal process. Over the years, as I spoke to the broader community, numerous citizens have expressed this same reality for themselves when they heard what happened to our community. It therefore begs the questions, is our society suffering from trauma, and do we all share a societal PTSD every time we get triggered by a tragedy?

Originally the diagnosis of PTSD was reserved for veterans and those who have directly experienced traumatic events and experiences in war, inciting in the person an intense fear and helplessness. Today, that definition has been expanded to include people who have witnessed or even heard about harm to others which caused them intense fear, helplessness, or horror.

This definition of trauma-related disorders within the DSM (Diagnostic Statistic Manual) was expanded due to the number of individuals who had PTSD symptoms: flashbacks, exaggerated startle response, insomnia, reduced concentration, anger, irritability, and detachment. The difference was that they were not directly impacted by the event or exposed themselves. This discovery proved that trauma can be communal and systematic.

American society has become a superhighway of informational overload, and when tragedy occurs our social media timelines are flooded. This constant exposure can reaffirm the belief that our world is a bad and evil place, and it creates a confirmation bias of misery. If people have preexisting trauma, this can trigger a very real physiological response. Even if we do not suffer, it can have vicarious trauma symptomology.

Consequently, where awareness and exposure should lead to productive action, this level of overexposure can actually lead to an overwhelming sense of societal helplessness, sorrow, grief, and anxiety. The result throws out the own ability to solve many of our most pressing modern day issues, including gun violence and white supremacy.

In short, we are suffering from communal PTSD and trauma that loops the “dangerous world” narrative.

It was when I understood all of this that I embarked on my own journey of healing. Freedom happened when I understood my personal efficacy in to both grow and change. From there, it was important for me to help others also understand that they possess the power to evolve and flourish. Communal growth can then occur when we all engage in this personal process of post-traumatic growth.

It seems that every time a mass shooting or tragedy happens, this scab is scratched wide open and exposed. Unfortunately, this is the way healing works. Because these wounds run very deep, we all need to play a role in properly scrubbing and cleansing these wounds.

Frustration is an incredibly healthy feeling that we need to harness. Our children are looking at us for leadership and guidance. They are not looking to us to pass on pain and trauma. If we become apathetic, then we will surely pass on this communal suffering.

Some families in Parkland have the unfortunate task of handling the logistics of death and mass murder while dealing with the emotional impact of loss and grief. Other families will live with the disturbing thoughts of “that could have been my son or daughter.”

The cameras will eventually leave, but the healing process for this entire community will last much longer. Over time, they will understand that vulnerability is the empathetic key to address suffering. They will be triggered by the next tragedy and the wounds will gash open again. They will terribly miss those that they lost, never forgetting the voids. But they will carry on in their spirits.

Eventually, if the thoughts and prayers everyone sends are accompanied by actions, we will also come to understand that there can be gifts and growth that result from these wounds.

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About The Author

Pardeep Kaleka

As a former Milwaukee Police Officer and co-founder of Serve2Unite.org, Pardeep is author of "The Gifts of Our Wounds," and a Licensed Therapist specializing in utilizing a trauma-informed approach to treat survivors of violence. He is also the Editor and a featured Columnist for Milwaukee Independent.

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