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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Surviving Trauma

First the tingle, then a definite itch. Unbelieving, I looked down at my left arm last night, the inner elbow. There it was. The line of red welts of the worst of the seven jellyfish tentacles that had “stung” me eighteen months earlier in the waters of Hawaii. Eighteen months ago! I hadn’t been bothered by it for some months, but here it flared up again, and, amazingly, the welts were still active and doing their thing. Two things to note: trauma persists, first; and secondly, if we survive it, we have mechanisms to deal with it. Both are important to know.

Each of the red dots trailing around my inner elbow and lower arm represent a nematocyst “stinging cell” on the jellyfish tentacles, and what a witch’s brew of nasty molecules those nematocysts delivered there. As the tentacles’ nematocysts encountered my bare skin, molecules on my skin precipitated the removal of bound Ca++ ions in the nematocysts, triggering a sudden increase in osmotic pressure, and the resultant explosion outward of saw-edged threads from the nematocysts. The threads sawed their way into my skin and a mixture of toxins were injected into me through the threads. There’s a lot we don’t know about these toxins, but in general they are a mixture of hemolytic, cardiotoxic, and dermatonecrotic molecules (not encouraging, that list of suffixes: -lytic, -toxic, -necrotic!), including but not limited to catecholamines, histamines, hyaluronidase, fibrinolysins, kinins, and phospholipases. Well, you get the picture: a witches’ brew of nasty molecules.

I immediately knew something had hit me. I clumsily swam the thirty yards back to shore and staggered onto the beach, throwing my snorkel mask and tube onto the sand. Tammy and Heather could see something was wrong. Looking down at my arm, you could distinctly see seven lines of red welts circling my elbow and upper arm, representing seven jellyfish tentacles that had lashed me. I was hyperventilating and somewhat confused, but did know for sure that my arm hurt like hell. Tammy canvassed the beach and came back with instructions to get a lot of hot water on the welts. I stumbled to a public shower on the property, grabbed a towel going into the shower, and spend the next fifteen minutes in the hottest shower I could stand, pressing the hot towel onto the welts. My mental edginess slowly subsided, though the pain was unaffected.

I spent the rest of the afternoon in our room, exhausted. Sleep wouldn’t come that night, but over the next several days I calmed down and the pain subsided. The seven distinct tentacle lines were visible for a week, then they began to fade. Some months later, back in California, only the middle row, that had nailed me most seriously, were still visible, and they continued to itch. Over the next eighteen months these faded also. But every once in a while, usually during a hot bath, the welts re-appear and the itching starts. Eighteen months later!

Interesting, eh? I have a really healthy respect for jellyfish now. I’d always admired their beauty and “otherworldly” morphology (though, since they’re six hundred million years old and among the first multi-cellular creatures on the planet, I guess they have a pretty good claim to being as “this-worldly” as anything on the planet). But now I couldn’t help but grudgingly admire also the mixture of molecules they’d evolved to deliver through their nematocysts.

The nematocysts aren’t primarily defensive, of course. They don’t deter sea turtles, the main predator of jellyfish, a bit. The nematocysts are offensive tools to subdue prey, and man are they effective. My life was never in danger, but there’s probably more biomass of jellyfish than any other creature on the planet—all oceans are full of them, from top to bottom. So the nematocysts work, on their intended targets of marine fish and invertebrates. The occasional human fatality (from box jellyfishes (class Cubozoa) in the south Pacific to the Lion’s Mane (Cyanea capillata) in the north Atlantic) are accidents, so far as the jellyfish is concerned.

I survived, of course. On the one hand, I modified my behavior to lower the odds of such a thing happening again: you better believe I wear a long-sleeved “rash guard” top when snorkeling now. And my body fought off the nematocyst molecules at the time, and began a steady process of healing the trauma. True, it’s not 100% healed, as the welts on my elbow attest, but in fact it’s almost completely healed and quite functional now. The bulk of my body’s reaction has been quite un-conscious, of course, the result of build-in physiological and immunological processes honed to deal with trauma over millions of years. Thank goodness.

When you consider it, it’s nothing short of amazing what the body is capable of doing to heal trauma. And the same can be said for the mental aspects of trauma, the brain being just one part of the body. Along with my family, I’ve gone through the trauma of losing a daughter. “Trauma” is quite accurate in describing the occurrence. It still hurts. We still grieve. But we’ve survived it, and moved on, without forgetting, but still we’ve permitted life to keep going for us. In a real sense, we’ve learned to live with the grief, to hold it as we move forward into fresh life. We have the equivalent of the red welts from the jellyfish tentacles still cropping up, more serious for some of us than others, but basically I think we can say we’ve survived and are moving on. We survived the trauma and we let healing occur. And that’s what our bodies and that part of our body we call “the mind” are engineered and equipped to do: move on. Let life keep bubbling up and pushing us forward into more adventures and celebrations.

Sure, some people don’t survive trauma. We grieve them. We remember them. And for those of us who do survive, we let our bodies’ natural propensity for healing occur. We actively encourage that propensity for healing, and we move on. Because of the built-in, evolutionarily-developed processes for healing, you might say that the body (and the mind part of it) want to heal and move on. Most people do. Some, for psychological or physiological reasons, don’t. I know fellow soldiers with me in Vietnam in the late 1960’s who haven’t moved on, either unwilling or unable to move beyond the trauma. That’s unfortunate. But for me, I’m hell-bent for moving on beyond trauma. Yes, remember the trauma, learn from it, grieve for what was lost—then move on, letting life continue to amaze us.

You’ll note from the date of this posting that we’re in the first week after the shooting deaths of the children and teachers at Sandy Hook, Connecticut. That tragedy is much on my mind as I write all of this. Trauma. Some survive, some don’t. Those that do, many I hope, will grieve and remember, even as they move on. That’s the dance of life. Death and trauma are among the steps, but it’s not the end of the dance for us survivors.
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