Chaplain's Column: A Disturbance in the Force

One day last summer I was driving down a highway on my way to a meeting when I suddenly knew something bad--real bad-- was about to happen. You know the feeling, that instinct that puts you on "red alert" and raises the hair on the back of your neck. I quickly scanned around and saw nothing unusual. No drunk drivers or out-of-control semi-tractor/trailer rigs heading my way, no gunmen, no toddlers about to wander into the street, no airplanes falling out of the sky--and yet, the feeling was intense.

Over the years I have come to believe it is important to pay attention to those inner feelings. When a patrol car moving in the opposite direction (which just happened to be the same direction as a nearby hospital) passed me at a good clip, that was enough for me. I pulled off into a parking lot and called my police department. When the clerk answered, I identified myself and asked if everything was okay. "Why?" she asked, with sudden wariness in her voice.

"I've just got a bad feeling," I said lamely, feeling like Obi Wan Kenobi. ("I feel a disturbance in the Force...")

She said there was nothing in particular going on, so I told her where I would be that day and asked her to call me at my cell number if anything came up. I resumed my driving. I also noted the time, vaguely thinking that it might be something happening in the larger world, if it wasn't something happening locally. Listened to the news that night--no more trouble than usual, no earthquakes or tsunamis or hurricanes--and nothing at all reported as happening at that particular time.

In the following week, this experience repeated itself several times--a sudden feeling of impending disaster, with no apparent source and (thankfully) no ensuing disaster. I finally accepted that it was something going on within me and shifted my attention from the outer world to my inner world. I noticed I was always in the car when it happened. And then, in the midst of an episode, I noticed the music on my tape player: Pachelbel's Canon in D, played by the Canadian Brass, a tape my father had just given me that summer.

Suddenly, I knew what was causing my feeling of doom. In my training for chaplaincy, I have taken several classes from a particular teacher--a very good and effective teacher--who happens to finish his classes with an audiovisual presentation he's developed. It is comprised of video clips of disasters--one after another, people being assaulted, shot, blown up, run down, hit by trains, falling from high places, blown out of the sky--every sort of disaster you can imagine. All set to Pachelbel's Canon in D, that lovely lyrical piece of music. I had imprinted that violent and cataclysmic imagery with that music. Hearing the music was setting off my inner warning system because I "knew" what was coming.

I often tell people they need to pay attention to their instincts, and yet here was an experience of my own inner instinct being clean off the mark. I don't know whether or not I am more suggestible than the next person--I don't know why I should be--but I have heard of "vicarious traumatization" in classes for years and this was my first personal taste of it. "Traumatization" is too strong a word for what I was experiencing. Once I recognized the source of the feeling, I pretty quickly became desensitized to it--just kept listening to my tape and reminding myself of what was really happening when I had that feeling of impending disaster. It finally stopped happening.

My point in telling this story is that it brought home to me how intense the experience must be when someone has an authentic experience of traumatization and the memory imprints with a "trigger." For example, take an officer involved in a shooting. That intense experience could imprint upon that officer a reaction to the circumstances, the setting--any detail of the actual event can become a "trigger"--that could interfere with that officer's inner instincts and perceptions. When it happens, you really feel like something bad is happening--whether or not it actually is. No big deal in my case, just driving down the highway listening to my tape player, but if you are an officer responding to a call for service, having to make split-second decisions and wielding weapons, it may be a big deal indeed.

The ironic thing is this phenomenon is in fact part of our survival system, and meant to keep us alive by putting our system on "red alert" when we are in a threatening situation. It is just that; it works better in some cases than others, better with some sorts of threats than with others. Back in an age when a more typical threat was a cave bear, it was a useful thing to have one's warning system go off at a particular sound or smell or location--surviving a first run-in with a momma bear protecting her cubs might leave you with neurological "reflexes" that would help you to avoid a subsequent encounter. It's not a bad thing if one avoids all contact with such a creature.

But what happens when an officer's warning system is triggered by a particular location, or kind of call? You can't just avoid it; and sometimes your reaction goes beyond the reasonable alertness and caution that is necessary for officer safety into something closer to a state of panic. Anything that interferes with your accuracy in "reading" a situation is not your friend!

Well, these things can be dealt with. If they don't work themselves out with time, there are also very effective therapies for desensitization available these days, for example, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprogramming (EMDR).

The first step is recognizing what is going on inside. Your instincts are important tools, and need to be protected.