Everyone Has a Personal History That Led Them to Where They Are Today   

LincolnYou shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

On Presidents’ Day, I’m remembering the first book I ever read about Abraham Lincoln. I was a first-grader assigned to read a biography about a hero, and then write a report on it. 

The cover showed an awkward-looking boy in ill-fitting overalls. He was carrying an axe over one shoulder and a tied-up stack of books over the other.

I couldn’t believe this gangly boy would one day be the stately, top-hatted Lincoln familiar to all. While I wasn’t exactly “judging a book by its cover,” I’d only perceived Lincoln as a fully realized adult – and as a dignified president. I hadn’t focused on his life’s formative experiences.  

We might not think about Lincoln’s many disadvantages, setbacks and tragedies, such as his limited early education, his prior electoral defeats, the death of his 11-year-old son, and his battle with depression.

Similarly, we often judge people based upon their present status. But everyone has a personal history that led them to where they are today.    

Many people with fully developed cognitive skills overlook this. We judge a person based upon the way that person “presents” at this moment. Indeed, entire systems of care have done this for centuries. 

We set forth to treat people struggling with psychiatric challenges, with homelessness, with a criminal history, or with suicidal thoughts. But we so often don’t take into account the experiences that had brought that person here before us.

We zero in on the person’s shortcomings and failures. We start to think that their present travails fully define their character.

This outlook lowers our expectations for their future – and can perpetuate care systems that reinforce the cycle of adverse experiences people face.

There’s a different way. 

If we view individuals as the sum of their past experiences, if we take time to “read the pages of their book,” we may discover a history of neglect, loss, or other trauma that had never been properly worked through. 

This approach changes the way we “treat” that person. By focusing on healing from past trauma, and by harboring genuine hope for the future, we can move beyond the constraints of the moment. We can help people write a promising, new chapter in their life stories.

There was much more to Lincoln than the top hat covering his head. And when it comes to understanding someone’s life story, we should dig deeper – and not just “judge a book by its cover.”

Anniversary Reactions Are Real, And Common

Thoughtful man in the living roomYesterday, as we hit the one-year mark since the COVID-19 shutdown, I started to think about anniversaries. Have you ever felt a sense of sadness from out of the blue, only to look at the calendar and realize that your feeling corresponds with the anniversary of some unhappy or jarring event?

On March 11, 2020, the coronavirus outbreak was officially declared a pandemic. The twelve months that followed have been marked by uncertainty, fear, scarcity, and loss. We’ve been reminded that life is short and can change on a dime.  “How could this be happening?” and “When will end?” have been common thoughts.  Going to the grocery store, for example, quickly came to require various precautions no one thought we’d ever need. While the anxiety we were feeling had a palliative effect, an eerie sense of loss still seemed to somehow surround us.

During the first few months, I struggled to keep those around me feeling safe and productive. And I found some bright spots, and maybe you did too: more time with my kids, more walks to the beach, and less time in my car.

Yet those silver linings stood in sharp contrast to the emotional stresses that seemed to persistently arise from the odd spectrum of threats and disruptions all around us.

As we look back over the year, many dates along the way may hold significance for you. Maybe it was the date of a job loss, or the date someone you love became ill, or the time you had last spent in-person with a loved one. And merely thinking of those anniversary dates are all but certain to trigger a memory – and maybe a painful one.

Triggers may come from out of the blue around the time of an anniversary. They may happen while we’re at work, at home, or relaxing. On the anniversary of a traumatic event, people often experience a re-occurrence of some or all of the feelings they had experienced at the time of the event. This common syndrome is called an “anniversary reaction.”

Anniversary reactions can be initiated by anything associated with the original trauma, including the season of the year, a particular date, or even the hour of the day. These thoughts, feelings, and reactions can be upsetting, so it’s normal to have strong reaction. Healing from trauma takes time, and healing from COVID-19 is complicated by the fact that we are still living through it.

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or depressed, please know that this is a normal way to react to today’s often-unimaginable events. Healing can happen, but it takes time and support. If your reactions get worse or disrupt your life, consider talking to a trained professional who understands these reactions. They are skilled at finding effective coping tools – the kind of tools that will unleash your inner resilience.

The Association for Mental Health and Wellness, a NY Project Hope local crisis counseling provider, helps Suffolk County residents understand their reaction and emotions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through an emotional support helpline, educational materials, and trusted referrals, NY Project Hope provides support so that people can manage the changes brought on by COVID-19.  If you, or someone you know, needs help, call our helpline at 631-471-7242 ext. 1800.