My therapist once told me that trauma can physically reshape the brain.
One of the ways this works is that during a traumatic moment, as a survival mechanism, the brain releases a stress hormone called cortisol into a region known as the hippocampus, which is important for memory. But cortisol can kill hippocampal cells, thus shrinking the hippocampus and, ultimately, the brain. This is why people who’ve experienced traumatic moments can have poor memories.
For example, my teenage years are largely a mystery to me.
What struck me as interesting about this reality is that trauma is so diverse. You don’t have to be physically assaulted to be physically reduced. Laboring through a bowl of cereal while your parents tell you they’re breaking up is enough. And, knowing this as a writer and storyteller, started my thinking about how traumatic stories can be, because here’s another interesting fact about the human brain:
When merely presented with facts, like a shopping list, two areas of our brain engage: The Wernicke and Broca areas, which are used chiefly for language processing. However, when we tell stories, the sensory, motor, olfactory, visual, and auditory cortexes all light up like fireflies.
What this means is that if you read a well written story about a heroine slaying a dragon on the side of a mountain, neurologically speaking you’ve just slayed a dragon on the side of a mountain.
Yesterday I, yet again, caught wind of a story about an unarmed black American, yet again, being shot down by a member of a community sworn to protect and serve. But I couldn’t engage the story. Maybe it was because my brain had released some more cortisol. Or maybe it’s just because I want this bloodthirsty version of Groundhog Day to end. And I can have that, at least, neurologically, if not actually, by just walking away.
So, no links. No videos. No rants about how America is a traumatic experience.
Although, truly, thank you to those who still find a way to discuss, because these are vital conversations.
But my own disengagement had me thinking on this past weekend when I was talking with a friend about the kind of people I don’t interact with anymore, and the kind of topics which are no longer up for discussion — like whether or not America’s judicial system is structurally racist. And then we discussed how good it feels not to have those interactions. How uniquely healthy it feels while inundated with this narrative about the insignificance of our lives, brought to us via trauma porn disguised as the news.
But perhaps more important than the stories I don’t engage are the ones which I do, the stories which I hope are reshaping my traumatized brain.
I keep thinking about how my little brother graduated from law school this year, even while some days I genuinely fear for his life. My mother looks like she’s finally rediscovering her happiness after my father died. And last week I got some really good feedback on this novel I’m working on, and I’m actually feeling optimistic about some competitions I’m going to enter which is significant because, historically, optimism hasn’t been my thing.
I keep trying to focus on how my life is not insignificant, but rather a wonderful story. And how I have so many friends, and Facebook friends, and family, and colleagues who are worthy of so much more than this abomination of a narrative which America has tried to punch into their souls. And I just hope ya’ll know that. That even when I have no inclination to speak on these tragedies, your collective magnificence is one of the great stories of my heart and is, in some magical way, helping me to still crave life.
You all deserve better. And your pain is shared.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
And this time, his name was Terence Crutcher.