It can be hard to understand how the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas students have rallied so quickly and so skillfully in the wake of the mass murder they witnessed less than two months ago. Their resilience in the face of horror reminded me of some things I know about how humans heal from trauma from my work with assault survivors. While any kind of physical assault is upsetting and traumatic when it happens, not everyone carries trauma with them afterwards. These students have demonstrated the importance of three things we know to be powerful antidotes to trauma: Voice, Action, and Community.
The first antidote to trauma is giving voice to your experience. This is the basis of modern psychotherapy. Freud, for all of his failings and misogynistic views later in his career early identified that his female patients who were sent to him for treatment of “hysteria” recovered to a remarkable degree when they were given space to talk about what had happened to them and have that information received by a person who listened and believed them. And it turns out that almost all of them had been sexually assaulted when they were young. But a sympathetic ear and space to tell their stories brought relief of many of their symptoms of what we would now call trauma. His approach was called “the talking cure” for a reason, and these students get it.
Sam Fuentes, one of the students who spoke at the rally in Washington, D.C., threw up while she was speaking, and then lead the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday” for one of her fallen classmates who would have been 18 that day. She refused to be silenced by her fear. Demetri Hoth, another Stoneman Douglas student, said at the march: “We have come here today to hold accountable politicians and their disturbing inaction. Never again will our voices — student voices — be shunned into silence.” (WaPo March 25, 2018) The students claimed their stories and told them while the world listened.
The second antidote to trauma is action. The powerlessness of victimization is what transforms into loss of a sense of agency, into a deep—sometimes subconscious—sense that you are unsafe everywhere, all the time. When you do something to protect yourself, to reclaim your sense of agency in your own life—during the traumatic event and/or after a traumatic event—you begin to heal trauma. Women who fight back when they are assaulted are far less likely to experience ongoing trauma. Women who learn to fight back after an assault often find that the embodied experience of fighting back, even years after an assault, helps them to heal.
These students didn’t just write letters or visit their representatives (though those are fine and good actions, too), they organized a nation to act. Emma Gonzales stood at the microphone in silence for six whole minutes, the length of time that the shooter was actively killing her peers. If you don’t think this is courageous action, look for an opportunity to speak to a group of any size and try to hold space in silence without yourself succumbing to the intense social pressure to speak. You can begin to imagine the courage to stand in front of perhaps as many as 800,000 people, with a microphone in front of you, not making a sound.
The third antidote is community. Trauma thrives in isolation. We are social creatures and we need connection with others to survive. With trauma often comes a sense of disconnection because we can’t belong socially if we distrust others on a primal level. If our fight/flight/freeze is stuck in the “on” position all the time, we can’t connect with others because we are too busy perceiving potential threats. Those people who have a strong community that stands by them in the aftermath of a trauma are more likely to heal and heal more quickly than those whose trauma has left them isolated by shame.
The MSD students came together in their own community and then stood up and asked others to join them. They have created a nationwide community that stands with them and supports their voices and their actions. They have created the conditions for healing—themselves and maybe even the country.
With one instinctive swoop, the students from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida are transforming their trauma with words and action and community. They have spoken loudly and without shame about their experiences, taken action, and formed a community of millions. They refused to be silenced or shamed into inaction and isolation. These steps are moving them past the trauma of their tragedy and in the process they are becoming the leaders of a movement that may yet reduce the number of people who will be exposed to this particular trauma in their lives. As Cameron Kasky, a Stoneman Douglas student, said on Saturday: “To the leaders, skeptics and cynics who told us to sit down, stay silent and wait your turn: Welcome to the revolution.”