Post-Traumatic Stress and the Blame Game
As a trained critical incident stress management debrief-er, I know something of “the could-of’s, would- of’s, should- of’s” that are recited, ruminated, or replayed by victims of trauma (a natural response after a traumatic incident). Being diagnosed with a life threatening disease is considered a traumatic incident as is a host of others. Very few of us will escape this world without experiencing or witnessing a trauma. Helplessness and fear will come uninvited and we will be unhinged for a period of time. Although experiencing or witnessing trauma is all too common in our world, the severity or duration of the symptoms is very individualistic.
I was in the chemo infusion reception area with call beeper in hand when I struck up a conversation with a young woman. The young are a particularly disconcerting sight in this area of the hospital so I was drawn to her. Without probing she volunteered that starting 5 years ago she was diagnosed and treated for thyroid cancer, then breast cancer and now lymphoma. She talked for a while and just as my beeper went off she said,
“I can’t stop blaming myself because I smoked. I quit 7 years before being diagnosed with thyroid cancer but I can’t stop thinking how I should have never smoked at all.”
In other words, she shouldn’t have done something but she did it anyway. If she had only known what the ramifications would be she would have done something differently to keep herself from this situation. She believed that she could have prevented her illness. So, she has herself to blame and that torments her.
I had only moments as I was preparing to leave for my first infusion. I essentially told her what I just told you in the first paragraph. She thanked me. Who knows what relief, if any, was given. I would have liked to have talked to her more.
Having received a life threatening diagnosis myself I am no stranger to the “would of, could of, should of’s”. I unscientifically ruled out a genetic cause of my cancer. My 88-year old mother and care giver to my 91-year old father is as sturdy and illness-free a woman as you will meet. So, having ruled out genetics, I thought of ways to blame myself for my diagnosis. I began to think of all the things I should have done differently or would have done instead. The internal dialogue went like this:
“Maybe I should have eaten more organic foods or at least done a better job of washing the vegetables before consuming them. I should have not had a glass of red wine with dinner (some links to breast cancer in recent studies) or maybe I could have managed my life better so there would have been less stress from worrying about the family from which I lived so far away. Oh, and let me not forget the insomnia that I tried to manage on my own for 8 years before getting help. or the virtually forgotten phrase, “taking a vacation”. I should have, could have, or would have done something differently if I had only known that stress “might” tip my cancer fighting properties to exhaustion and make its break through.”
“The would-of, could-of, should-of’s” are Useless……….or are they???????
….after all there are some very definite links to cancer from our behaviors. Smoking leads to lung cancer. Alcohol abuse can lead to liver cancer and there are other harmful consequences to our behaviors that are not directly linked to cancer but to other human ailments. We are warned about these woes because the science is clear but many of us take our chances, especially when young and our mortality is irrelevant in eking out the best and happiest existence we can for ourselves. I personally may not have done those particular abuses but I have done other things along the way that I thought little of. My faith teaches me that there is an operating function in my soul that demands gratification or at least having it my way without the restriction of healthy boundaries or unwanted consequences.
Galatians 5:17 in the New Testament says. “What my corrupt nature wants is contrary to what my spiritual nature wants, and what my spiritual nature wants is contrary to what my corrupt nature wants. They are opposed to each other. As a result, I don’t always do what I intend to do.”
Copyright © 1995 by God’s Word to the Nations. Used by permission of Baker Publishing
My Christian faith not only gives me the diagnosis of the human condition but also insights and helps to deal with “the would-of, could-of, should-of’s”, when they come to accuse me after a trauma or bad news
First: I need to admit the possibility that some of my suffering (I am not only speaking of cancer when I reference suffering or trauma) may be my fault. As one friend said long ago, “there ought to be a support group for people who have no one to blame but themselves.” If we are honest all of us would be right at home in one of those support groups from time to time. But thankfully I am not left waddling in the miry clay of self-blame. No, in this grand cosmic meaning of life that I cling to accepting blame is not so demoralizing and debilitating if I accept the truth of God’s ready and willing forgiveness held out to me even when I don’t deserve it. This is the heart of God for me and for you.
Two: I try not to let the blame game distract me from a possible more important issue for which God is attempting to get my attention. Hyper-focusing on the current dilemma can be too narrowing a view of myself, creating a tunnel vision that precludes more expansive, reflective soul searching – reflection that could lead to depth of understanding that actually strengthens and enriches the fabric of life.
Three: Sometimes there is no personal fault in suffering or even deeper meaning to be found. We live in a broken world and that brokenness sometimes sweeps us up. My infinite God has not chosen to reveal all there is about himself and his purposes to my finite reasoning. But one thing I lay hold of is that I worship a suffering God. The late John Stott wrote in his book “Evangelical Essentials” that he could not worship a God who had not suffered in the midst of all the suffering to which humanity is subjected.
So what is my take home?
When the “would-of’s, could-of’s, should-of’s” accompany pain and suffering I will rely (I hope, I hope!) on trusting God for forgiveness and grace when it my fault. When personal fault is not found then I will trust (please Lord make this so!) in the inexplicable mystery of Jesus for redemption now and forever and trust Him for healing, maybe now, but definitely forever.