Omni was a hero. Sword in hand, and badly outnumbered, he didn’t shrink from brutal combat in defense of his people. His enemies were implacable. They invaded again and again and again, so that Omni summed up his life with this phrase: “I fought much with the sword to preserve my people, the Nephites, from falling into the hands of their enemies, the Lamanites.” Then he added a painful postscript, “But behold, I of myself am a wicked man, and I have not kept the statues and the commandments of the Lord as I ought to have done.”
My whole life, I’ve judged Omni as someone who missed the boat, who didn’t choose the better part. Never until this week did it occur to me that he may well have suffered from PTSD.
I know beautiful people with faithful, determined hearts who sometimes act in ways they don’t themselves understand; self-destructive ways that seem to be tied to traumas in their past. I see them picking themselves up over and over, and I ache when (just like Omni) they describe themselves as failures. Can’t they see that never quitting is the best definition of success?
“Pat” (name has been changed) is one such beautiful person in my life, with a tender-hearted, joyous soul and developmental disabilities stemming from intergenerational trauma. Personally and repeatedly abused in ways that Pat doesn't begin to know how to process, Pat’s unresolved anguish sometimes explodes outward in bursts of anger and verbal tirades that hurt the people Pat loves and wants to hold close. Some precious friendships have been strained while others have shattered. Pat desperately wants to regain their trust and has resolved to yell at a bedroom chair instead of at people. But in the angry moment, Pat forgets that resolution and the mountain of trauma goes as relationships fracture.
It was after one such moment that I learned to see Omni differently. I had been standing quietly, projecting calm and suggesting “yelling at the chair” while Pat hurled invective and a pair of shoes at me. I’ve learned that being non-reactive helps Pat de-escalate much better than a scolding, but de-escalation is just the beginning of the battle. Pat wants to learn not to escalate in the first place. But how? We’re hoping counseling will help, but I was searching for something I could do as well.
It suddenly occurred to me that Pat needs modeling. All of us struggle to do what we’ve never seen done. Yelling at the chair sounds reasonable (if odd) when you’re in a calm state, but it’s a foreign concept that’s next to impossible to access when irate. I kept modeling calm but that didn’t help Pat understand how to ride a tempest of emotion without losing control.
So then, when Pat threw another insult my way, I went to an adjoining room and started yelling at a chair. I told the chair I was mad and how unfair Pat’s comment was. Funny thing; all of a sudden, I started to feel emotions I hadn’t even recognized were there. And Pat listened to every word, then went on a walk and came back with an apology and a hug. For the first time that I can remember, that hug touched me.
I realized that my modelling yelling at a chair is something I need as much as Pat does. Then, when I prayed about what I was learning and opened my scriptures, I opened to Omni and suddenly saw that ancient hero with new eyes.
Here’s what I think I’m learning. 1. I think there’s a dearth of healthy modeling for dealing with emotions related to trauma. We tend to either push them down or let them carry us away, or switch back and forth between suppression and explosion. Each of those alternatives can become habitual and crippling.
2. There’s a lot of judgment directed at and internalized by people who don’t manage their emotions well and wind up doing or saying destructive things. This only makes their emotions harder to manage.
3. There’s a lot of admiration directed at people who manage to bury their trauma. But that is also destructive.
4. The Lord doesn’t want us judging -- each other or ourselves. He wants us to be compassionate, to treat ourselves and others gently, and to help each other along. “I will that ye should overcome the world;” Jesus says, “wherefore I will have compassion upon you” (D&C 64:2).
I find myself wondering what might have been different in my two failed marriages if I had learned this earlier. Could we have succeeded if I’d been able to model for either husband what I am now learning to model for Pat? But dwelling on that is a dead end. I didn’t learn it earlier. I am learning it now. And I’m excited to achieve healthier processing of my own emotions as I try to model that for someone I love.