My memory tells me that in October of 1989, I was in the passenger’s seat of my best friend, Cheryle’s car, leaving the Target in San Leandro, CA with goods for our first off-campus apartment on Tyler Street in Berkeley when the Loma-Prieta Earthquake struck. It was a 6.9 magnitude quake that destroyed any and every non-earthquake proof structure it could, including the Oakland Bay Bridge and the Nimitz Freeway which we needed to cross to get from Target back home. In my memory, the evening went as follows: we were driving on the San Leandro Underpass (or so I thought) and had just emerged from the bottom deck of the double-decker freeway when suddenly the car began to slide as if we were driving over gravel and ice all at once. I remember Cheryle had very little control of the car and couldn’t help it’s being forced over to the right shoulder. I noticed that the giant green metal freeway exit sign above was waving like the fabric of a flag in the wind and all the other cars in front of us were experiencing this same invisible force moving each one over to the right. We were like dominoes moving in succession. It was strange, funny, surreal– a real WTF moment. Cars stopped and drivers appeared standing on the freeway for a moment as if to take it all in. With little information in the eerie long silence that paused the evening commute, drivers dropped back behind their wheels and resumed their courses. My memory recalls almost instantly being home in our lower-level apartment on Tyler Street with the sunsetting through the window. Cheryle turned on the TV as we brought in bags and frightening images arrested our movement. Pictures of the freeway we were literally just on, showed the entire structure collapsed, broken, rippled. I remember the word “pancaked” kept being used: the top deck was “pancaked” atop the lower deck… the deck we had just exited. The reason for the car skating across the freeway was a monstrous quake that had devoured the space right behind our car. Strangely, I don’t recall ever looking backwards to see behind us while we were stopped in the line of domino-cars, but the TV news was showing me what we had just escaped minutes before we were forced over to the shoulder. My memory says, one minute we were driving on the lower deck of the San Leandro Underpass (or so I thought), the next we were forced over to the shoulder at the Tyler Street exit, and the next we were home in front of the TV taking in these horrific scenes of 1000-tons of cement “pancaked” on top of cars that we left in our wake. The freeway had ripples and waves in it! It looked like one structure now instead of the 2 pieces we used for getting into and out of Market Street. I was frozen in front of the TV screen and then it seems that friends started to arrive. School was closed for at least a week and people were camped out at our lower-level apartment for days, all of us glued to the tube awaiting new scenes and descriptions of devastation.
In my description of what I experienced in 1989, I use the words “my memory says” because what my memory says and what was real has significant discrepancy. Until writing this article and researching the facts of the October 17, 1989 Loma-Prieta Earthquake, I could not remember the date. I knew it was in October and that it stopped the ’89 World Series which was in progress, but I could not recall the date. Until researching the information for this article (and talking to Cheryle), I could not have told you that the freeway we were on was actually called the Nimitz Freeway or the Cypress Freeway (I-880); I always referred to this freeway as the San Leandro Underpass (that’s not its name). I actually needed to ask Cheryle to help me understand where I got that name. She tells me that we went to the Target in San Leandro to shop. Also, I recall everything happened almost instantaneously: One minute on the freeway, next on the shoulder, then at home, then in front of TV, and then friends camped out. But in actuality, Cheryle tells me that before we made it all the way home, we made a stop in Berkeley for some other errand. And according to Cheryle it is about 10-16 miles from where the freeway “pancaked” to our Tyler Street exit with at least one other freeway in between (I-580?). The images in my memory and the facts are so very different. Why is that?
To understand what happened to me and my memory, we need to know what happens to the brain when trauma occurs. Here are 4 facts about trauma and the brain that help in treatment and in processing traumatic experiences:
1. Trauma Happens TO Us—It’s a Power Differential:
We don’t have anything to do with it except that we are the victims of it. We cannot cause a trauma to occur, we cannot wish it or will it to happen, and we cannot stop it from occurring. Trauma is an example of a power differential that its victims cannot win over. During trauma, a force, a person, a circumstance wins out over the victim who cannot exert resource, strength, or reason in those moments. There was nothing that Cheryle or I or any other drivers or any other inhabitants of the Bay Area could have done to stop or hold back the force of nature that 6.9 earthquake wrought. There was nothing those 42 people sandwiched between those tons of cement and steel could have done to survive when the Nimitz Freeway collapsed. There was nothing that the 23 people who died on the Bay Bridge that day could have done to survive. This thing happened TO us and them; none of us were responsible for any part of it. This may sound obvious, but it’s a critical point when dealing with and attempting to process traumatic memory. There is nothing that a child can do to stop the violent assault by an adult (verbal, emotional, physical, or sexual); there is nothing a rape victim can do to cause or to stop a rapist from attacking; there is nothing a soldier can do to stop his Hum-Vee from exploding after it rolls over and detonates an IED (improvised explosive device); there is nothing an employee of color can do to stop the racially-motivated step-over for promotion by a boss of a dominant class/race. The key here is the power difference. An adult has power over a child and a child can’t outsmart, out-talk, or over-power an adult; the power differential enables the trauma to occur. The rape victim can be taken by surprise, rendered powerless by physical strength, weaponry, or threat to life, leaving him with little to no resources for escape, except to allow the experience to happen with little resistance in order to get to possible survival. The power of an explosive device is not matched by even the armor of a reinforced military vehicle and its occupants will be subject to the force of the explosion. Even the co-worker of color who perhaps you think should have stood-up for herself and made her case for promotion to her dominant-class/race boss, probably didn’t do so because the power differential was so evident that the fight/flight/freeze response took over her brain and she walked away without the position or status increase, stuck in her routine complaints. It is by virtue of power that these things win out and happen to us. And whenever we come up short on resources, strength, stature, class, or intellectual reasoning (forms of power) to stop a hard bad terrible outcome, we are likely to characterize the experience as traumatic.
2. The Brain’s Processing System Goes on Lock-Down during Trauma:
So, what is happening during these traumatic experiences? Recall my experience during the earthquake. Over the course of perhaps an hour (maybe more), events transpired that seem now to have happened within a few short minutes. I don’t remember making that additional stop that Cheryle reminded me of on our way home that day. I don’t remember that Cheryle just thought we had a flat tire. I couldn’t even recall the name of the freeway; I smashed together the name of the city where we shopped with the freeway’s name and turned the Nimitz Freeway in San Leandro into the San Leandro Underpass (again, that’s not a real thing). During trauma, the brain system that processes information locks up and basically turns off. It’s actually not the event itself that turns off the brain’s processing system; it’s our emotional response that shuts the system down. This is why Cheryle can recall things about that day that I cannot. Her emotional response and mine were quite different (they usually are; we complement one another that way). Apparently, Cheryle was cooler-headed and felt more in control, less worried than I did. I experienced the whole thing as horrific, scary, and confusing; later when the images of dead people stuck in their cars under cement structures appeared and talk of the stench of dead bodies was reported, I experienced horror and fear on a visceral level that included terror and disgust (all very big negatively charged emotions). Mine and Cheryle’s disparate responses are an example of why one person will say that something is traumatic, and another will be bewildered at that characterization of the same event. It is also why the terms “capital T traumas” and “small t traumas” is also not a thing. Trauma is trauma based on how one experiences an event. Perhaps because I was in the passenger’s seat and had less control over how I could respond to the shaking on the freeway than Cheryle who was driving and could wield control and more power, I experienced the scene very differently than she did. My feeling out of control, small and subject to the forces of others (the earthquake, other drivers, and even Cheryle’s decision-making), heightened my fear response. It is that very fear and confusion that would have shut-down my brain’s processing system, causing me to have muddled memories and garbled recollection. Our emotional response can be so charged with negative energy such as fear, terror, disgust, and rage that our brains’ memory systems will turn off and require a reboot to reorder the experience and adequately process it. I frequently use the example of going to brunch with a friend as an uncharged ordinary event that the brain files away without complication. I can remember details such as the food I ate, the address to the restaurant, what my friend wore that day, whether it was sunny or cloudy, where we parked, and what time we left. It was an ordinary, neutral-to-positive experience and the brain stayed booted-up, took in all the information, and filed all the bits where they go in the memory system. These bits are ready to be recalled when needed, say to figure out the best place to park the next time I go to that restaurant. But if my friend and I were to have a raging argument in the middle of the restaurant and even have the embarrassing experience of being ejected from the place by the police, then the details would surely become less clear. I might forget what I ate or how I even got back to my car that day. The charge of emotion will have done the work of rendering the brain’s processing system unavailable and my memory of the event will surely differ from many of the basic facts that actually occurred.
3. The Brain Has a Filing System—Trauma is Misfiled Information:
When our experiences are neutral-to-positive, and there are no organic memory issues present, the brain does its work without notice. It files bits of information away so that we can either put them far out of our minds because we won’t need them again (such as routinely crossing an intersection) or it places the information where it can be cued up and accessed at will (such as the best place to get a delicious osso bucco on the Vegas Strip). This system, according to Francis Shapiro and others who study trauma on the brain, is called the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) system. The AIP as it is called is part of the limbic system and its job is to take information and process it… duh! But during trauma, the brain does a quick dump into the amygdala and everything will be locked into the emotions of the event instead of in the elaborate filing system devised for our optimal functioning. The point here is that this system is like a computer’s processing system and it can work beautifully and allow us to access all sorts of experiences or it can shut down and cause problematic recall and mix up bits of information that can be activated like malware in a computer. These mixed-up bits of experiences can wreak havoc on our functioning, causing us to be startled at things that are not supposed to be scary (like loud noises, bugs, police, confrontational situations, or in my case, a heavy truck that passes by and shakes the house). When this system is malfunctioning and erroneously activated, providing misinformation at the wrong time, historical trauma may be the culprit. The traumatic experience can be old or recent, but the traumatic experience and emotional charge has caused the AIP to shut down and malfunction and our behavior and current responses can reveal this. This explains why we tend to cry or scare or become exceedingly angry when the situation clearly does not call for such response. Something about that situation has activated the malware, a bit of information in the wrong the place, at the wrong time, associated erroneously with the wrong object or person. But it FEELS the same. The key is often the feeling that comes from this current experience. This current emotion has the ability to unlock the old traumatic information and the brain will go backward, responding in that old way, with fear, anger, sadness, confusion, disgust, or whatever the negatively charged emotion was during that old familiar scene.
4. Treat Trauma with a Brain Reboot:
Because we know that the emotional charge is the reason for the brain shut-down, many treatment modalities suggest accessing and processing emotions in order to treat traumatic experiences. But this is only part of good treatment for trauma. Accessing those emotions and reliving those emotions is not actually necessary or sufficient for adequate treatment of trauma. We must also access images, thoughts, bodily sensations, beliefs, and other information that may have been present or occurring during the experience. We must open up the whole experience within the brain’s filing system and get the information surrounding the event filed appropriately. After all, if the emotional charge (fear, confusion, loss of control) of the 1989 earthquake has me calling the Nimitz Freeway the San Leandro Underpass, then how will I ever be able to resolve the experience? I’m trying to treat an experience in a place that I can’t even find on a map and convince others that it happened. This is not helpful as it will fuel frustration, confusion, and exacerbate my residual trauma around the experience. I need to open up the camera aperture on the experience and access what my emotionally shut-down brain has cut off. It is critically important that my brain get the opportunity to redo the filing on this experience. In doing so, my brain will place the correct time and date stamp on the experience and place the data in the parts of the brain that stores temporal information about experiences. By rebooting the brain around traumatic experience, it will adequately store the emotions in the amygdala and give distance between that experience and other newer experiences that come my way, alerting my body and brain that I don’t have to be fearful when it’s just a truck passing by and the house rattles a little. In fact, being able to say that the “house rattles a little” now instead of gasping, freezing, and feeling overwhelming fear is a big difference in the intensity surrounding the old event now compared to then. When the brain reboots the files on an experience, it can redo the storage of data such as place, names, people, time, bodily feelings, and emotions, placing them where they go and allowing recall as in a story instead of as if reliving the horrible experience each time there’s a reminder. We can put an end to operating with malware which interrupts functioning and constricts our ability to explore the world and new situations; we can adequately file and compartmentalize bits of information with control and intentionality, giving freedom to live without anxiety and fear.
There are many treatment modalities that attempt to get at this reboot. And most common therapeutic practices get at some or most of this work. Eye Movement Reprocessing and Desensitization (EMDR), Exposure Therapy, Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), Psychodynamic Therapy, and other treatment modalities all attempt to access the historical event, the aspects of the event in the brain that are misfiled, and then to restructure and reorder the information about the event that may or may not have been available at the time. Sometimes new life experiences occurring after the traumatic event can even be integrated into the old memory, giving space and new feelings of resourcefulness, confidence, and strength to deal with new similar events. Technology treatment of trauma has come a long way and is changing almost as fast as the technologies that support our computer systems. If you or someone you love struggles with the effects of traumatic memory and limited ability to live a full life, seek professional help from a licensed clinician trained in trauma-focused treatments such as those mentioned above.