Resilience Despite Trauma
In April 2015, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced its decision that, because of his severe dementia, they would not be prosecuting my late father. There followed a relentless and excruciatingly unbalanced and unfettered media attack on him.
My first method of shoring up my resilience was to continue with all public appearances, which meant that I had to dress up, put makeup on, face other people and try not to look as traumatised as I felt. In the same week, I was scheduled to attend a conference in Moscow. The timing of the conference was great as not only was I somewhat protected by its physical distance from the UK, but also because it’s subject, Judaism, is well within my comfort zone to teach about under stress. I was also cushioned from most people there by a useful language barrier and by being accompanied by my patient and wise Director of Public Affairs, Alex Fenton, who has put up with an enormous number of prickly, tense and unexpectedly extreme experiences over the last six intense years.
The second thing I learnt when the tsunami of media coverage against Dad hit, was that I needed to allow the shock to take its time to work through my body and soul.
Arriving at Moscow airport, physically away from the everyday stress that had become my norm, I entered a temporary, post-traumatic paralysis. Alex stayed gently alongside me until I could summon the emotional strength to physically move out of the airport’s protective membrane and into the real world. It took more than three hours — I just couldn’t move from the terminal. My extreme need for total quiet and repair continued for hours. I just sat listening to my own breathing.
The shock of what was happening to us continued to work its way through my physical and emotional system throughout the conference. When I wasn’t teaching, I was just in shock, sitting in a silent stupor.
I also became quite paranoid. I felt there were countless people who knew what was happening to me in the UK, and I found myself physically flinching when I met each person. I spent the first few seconds of each introduction girding myself, thinking, “Do they know?” In the Torah, the first instance of murder is of fratricide, when Cain murders his younger brother, Abel. God places a mark on Cain’s forehead which prevents anyone from killing him but which marks him out as different, endlessly carrying the stigma on his body. I felt as if I was carrying the burden of the mark of Cain on me, as though I had done something wicked. I was wrong. People in Moscow didn’t know and if they had done, they probably wouldn’t have cared. This was also true for so many other situations afterwards: that for the most part, people didn’t know, or didn’t care.
When you’re in the middle of your own maelstrom, it does not mean that other people see this immediately or even care that much, as they are in their own concerns. That’s a release. Slowly I came to realise that I did not feel as if I carried a visible, Cain-like, stigma on my body. Or, at the very least, that I had on enough great makeup to cover that mark on my forehead. I started to breathe again.
Caring for Carers
The most precious way in which people have helped me during crises is by looking after those whom I usually care for. In the midst of the worst days of the media storm against my father, I had very little capacity to look after anyone beyond my dad, my siblings and our campaign. Without the people who looked after David (my husband) and our children, I wouldn’t have had emotional capacity to look after anyone else at all, most especially not myself.
One simple lesson stands out from my experience of needing and appreciating support during a crisis: don’t hesitate to ask for help when you really need it. My recurring experience is that when asked, people find it a gratifying privilege to nurture others.
During COVID-19 lockdown, the practical ways in which people across the globe have been able to look after each have been significantly limited. However, humans are amazing — we’ve seen beautiful creativity and resourcefulness. Telephone calls, teaching friends’ children history through songs online, free highly-skilled financial and legal advice, shopping for vulnerable people are all perfect ways that people have looked after others. This, of course, doesn’t even start to recognise the brave and life-saving work of professional carers and key workers.
There is, rightly, an increasing awareness of the burden that carers carry, especially as people live longer and therefore need more carers. Many of us are simultaneously earning a living, looking after children and caring for parents. That’s potentially a great deal of stress. However, it’s important to remember that if you ask someone for help, you need to give them genuine choice. So you could start by saying: “if you can’t, please don’t worry but x, y, or z would be helpful for me today.”
Remember the vital get-out clause which means people can say no without feeling guilty.
When Being Well Meaning Just Isn’t Enough
While I greatly appreciate offers of support, sometimes the most well-meaning gestures are counterproductive. For example, if someone really wants you to lean on them, asking you to let them know in general “if there’s anything I can do” may convey that they’re not serious. It is the same with “if you need me, just call”, which might be too vague and places the burden of initiative on the person in difficulty. I learnt from my training in community work that what defines “distress” is when people are under so much stress that they don’t even have the capacity to identify what help they need or to be able to ask for it. In all likelihood, many people don’t want to ask and/or feel uncomfortable doing so even though they need it and you’d like to give it.
Asking other people for help may feel risky and this may make us feel more vulnerable. The risk is the possibility that the other person can’t or won’t want to step in, and this may make us feel rejected on top of whatever we’re struggling with. Acknowledging this, if you want to help others, you might want to proactively suggest tasks that you are able and willing to do to help. Suggest practical actions, like making food, giving a lift, or (when we’re not socially isolating, like during the COVID-19 crisis) popping in for a cup of coffee. These are all specific offers that the other person can say yes or no to. What’s imperative? Only ever say and promise things that you can deliver on.
Both times when one of my parents died, food appeared out of nowhere on our doorstep, as did offers of help with arrangements and people just arriving at our home to offer a hand and a hug. We needed all of that, especially the hug. Beautiful, simple resilience-building love.
Angles on Anger
It’s often the first instinct of rabbis, like most leaders, to close down angry conversations out of fear that allowing them to continue could legitimise and perhaps intensify the anger. But if we do this, the opposite happens. Shutting people down tends to increase anger and distress. However hard this is, when there’s an issue that provokes an angry response, it needs to be brought out to avoid it being exacerbated and potentially directed at the wrong person.
However frightening it may be (and, yes, I’m afraid of anger too), attempting to avoid or repress anger doesn’t make it go away, nor does it resolve the conflicts that come with it. Instead, we must ensure that people are heard properly from all sides of the discussion. Listening dissipates that extra layer on top of anger and acts like a slight lifting of the valve on a pressure cooker. In a family or team, being heard properly by a group of people whom you know well can heal anxiety and calm anger and most importantly, they may be right!