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Old 03-15-2006, 07:52 PM   #16
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Originally posted by dutchfan
My next question is: can you go back to "normal" ones you have been in this position?
While I can't speak to this from my own experience, and am not sure what follows really addresses what you seek to understand, I can offer a few things I've surmised about the difficult choices and compromises involved in "going back to normal" from growing up with two Holocaust survivors for parents. Keep in mind, though, there's no way for me to really know what was "normal" for them psychologically before this experience--and even if I did, I'm not sure how relevant it would be, given the very different version of "going back to normal" a hypothetical unaffected person might have experienced after going through some of the less direct consequences of that upheaval (e.g. less-than-willing emigration to a strange new place and culture, having to start over from scratch on making a home and a living, etc.).

Some of the things I've seen in my parents, and that many psychologists have noted in treating not only Holocaust survivors but other people with PTSD, etc., include:

--Repeated bouts of deep depression and/or anxiety. For some, this comes as an extension of all the numbing and shutting-down they instinctively learned to do when in crisis; for others, it can spring from pained awareness of their own inability to respond properly and proportionately to the more everyday crises life keeps throwing your way in the aftermath. Many psychologists have noted that the type of depression characteristic of PTSD and Holocaust-survivor patients differs strikingly from typical depression in that it is often associated with an increase in belligerent, irrationally persistent behavior--and, this, too, probably grows out of having learnt that as a survival skill.
--A grievance over, and sense of having been cheated out of, one's ability to mourn for who and what was lost in a "normal," healthy manner. When my father died, I was able to mourn for him in "normal" fashion, because we hadn't lost him to anything world-invertingly horrific or unspeakable--just plain old bad medical luck. He, however, never had the luxury of mourning in this way for his own parents, siblings, extended family and friends whom he saw gassed, shot, beaten or starved to death.
--Persistent feelings of alienation and isolation from the social world around you, even after "successful" re-integration is achieved. In part, this is a consequence of having been too overwhelmed at the time to cope with the bewildering array of (unhelpful) responses from your new fellow citizens towards you and the stigmatized identity you embody for them: avoidance, pity, fear, etc.
--Chronic bouts with disabling feelings of vulnerability, distrust, paranoia, etc. that are all out of proportion to what you are actually experiencing now. Most often, of course, these feelings are directed towards other people, but they can also manifest as reactions to sounds, smells, etc. My mother is hysterically afraid of dogs to this day because she saw a group of children she didn't know torn apart by a pack of them in the camps, and for whatever reason, this memory affected her more profoundly than many others that might otherwise seem more horrific.
--Inability to derive normal satisfaction from one's accomplishments despite relentless determination to succeed. Both my parents, upon emigrating here, threw themselves into education, charity, the civil rights movement, and other forms of community service and social engagement with a passion; and both of them saw this as, among other things, a way of fighting the temptation to give in to helplessness, insularity, and loss of faith in the value of social progress towards the greater good. But none of this was ever enough to enable them to surmount their feelings of...
--...Survivor guilt. If I had to identify any one from this list of obstacles to "creating a new normal" as the most costly, pernicious, and painful for children of survivors to watch, I think it would be this. And this, too, can be understood as a defensive reaction--against succumbing to feelings of powerlessness or ungrounded hysteria: when there's someone immediately present to blame, that at least gives you some kind of foothold, however much of a devil's pact it is.

And a final item, following up on anitram's experience: I remember one occasion, a family discussion about a troubled schoolmate whose family had survived Cambodia's killing fields in the late '70s, where one of my brothers offhandedly commented on how people who have survived such traumas are often "like zombies," struggling to relearn to function morally and socially after having "suspended" all such thinking during their trauma. My father immediately rebuked him, and said that this stereotype was never really true--that while people living through large-scale trauma and upheaval do engage in some numbing, yes, and do often fail to live up to whatever previously held moral or social convictions they might have managed to observe even under those circumstances, that does not mean that all moral and social thinking or feeling has been suspended. "You can no more turn off that need than you can turn off your need to sleep or eat," he said; "it's just part of being human, and it will follow you through everything you live through, whether you want it or not." I think he was saying that whatever moral and psychological warping people who've lived through trauma must contend with is not the result of having "shut down," but more of having failed to do that--with resulting permanent changes to their inner compass. You can't "go home again," but neither can you start from scratch on a new home...because so much of the wreckage from the old one rides with you into the new; it never really left, after all, because it lives on inside you.


It feels very strange, and in some ways deeply wrong, to me to lay all this out in such an objective, quasi-clinical way. I really wish I could put it all in some nicely lyrical, personal-testimony sort of fashion. Maybe someday I'll be able to do that, I don't know. Analyzing consequences is very different from coming to terms with them and the next generation (i.e. me) has their own mountain of baggage to contend with rising above all the unbridgeable silences and gulfs in understanding involved.

I do believe that "a new normal" can be created, because I've seen it happen. But I also suspect that in *some* ways, the whole premise of this question may be faulty, because it implies that you can draw a clean line between the situations people find themselves in--which often hinge on contingencies that can change overnight--and the actual people involved, whose selves are ongoing, cumulative, and not amenable to convenient rearrangement. For better and for worse.

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Old 03-15-2006, 09:06 PM   #17
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Originally posted by yolland

--Persistent feelings of alienation and isolation from the social world around you, even after "successful" re-integration is achieved. In part, this is a consequence of having been too overwhelmed at the time to cope with the bewildering array of (unhelpful) responses from your new fellow citizens towards you and the stigmatized identity you embody for them: avoidance, pity, fear, etc.
I think of all the things you wrote, this rings the most true.

When these sorts of traumatic events end, you are either dead, or you've survived. In the latter case, you have to be re-integrated into society and this is incredibly difficult. It involves getting up every day and having to function in a world where almost nobody else understands you or what you've been through, and you have to adjust to them, not the other way around. You have to adjust to the mundane way of life again, going to work or school, paying bills, having a mortgage, caring about shoe sales. All those things you did before without thinking but now they're somehow foreign to you.

And a lot of this also involves needing to let go of any anger and bitterness, because you really have to rise above yourself and elect to be human and humane. Sometimes I think that personality has a lot more to do with this than anything, because I know people who went through very similar or even almost identical experiences, even ones who suffered them together, and yet you have one person who managed to cope considerably better after it was over.

If anyone's ever read Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" - there was a passage towards the end where he said that he never bothered talking about his experiences in Auschwitz because the people who experienced it with him, he didn't have to say a thing, they just understood. And the people who didn't go through that could never possibly understand anyway, so he didn't bother. That's the sort of world you end up functioning in, I think.

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