A Healer Helps Katrina Victims “Find Normal”
Lessons for easing into another traumatic transition: retirement.
By Carolyn McLuskie
Dr. Larry Shaw works on the front lines of trauma therapy— with survivors of the devastating hurricanes that ravaged the New Orleans area. His work with Katrina victims has given him some surprising insights into how to handle a different type of trauma that aging adults face: the difficult transition to full-time retirement.
The Los Angeles–based clinical psychologist spoke with the Journal of Longevity recently after returning from his latest trip—this time to help the archdiocese of New Orleans and 120 parish priests deal with the traumatized victims of last year’s hurricanes.
But the first responders themselves— the priests, the volunteers, the social workers—are still traumatized, Dr. Shaw said. “Imagine a priest standing on the front steps of the church, greeting parishioners as they go into mass and as they leave, saying goodbye to them,” he says. “The steps are gone. The whole church is gone. So they’re in shock, because their flock is gone. They’re devastated, and this is months later.
“The whole city is like that—wherever you go to eat, wherever you go to shop, everybody is bumping into people and saying, ‘Oh, you made it. You survived.’”
Mother Nature’s Wrath
Dr. Shaw considers the magnitude of the destruction to be on a level with the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. He visited Hiroshima 10 years ago and saw pictures of the nuclear aftermath. Now he is struck by the eerie physical resemblance— the annihilation of an entire city’s culture. “That’s what hit New Orleans,” he says. “It was Hiroshima.”
Some images of New Orleans remain seared in Dr. Shaw’s memory. Crisscrossing the city’s flattened remains, he saw a lone house standing in a mileswide sea of debris. Inside, an old woman searched the encrusted filth for something— anything—to salvage.
“She lived in this house for 40 years,” the woman’s daughter told Dr. Shaw “Everything that she was connected to is gone. She spent the last four days looking for her gumbo pot.”
A Whole Culture Uprooted
“The gumbo pot is the shrine, the altar of Louisiana culture,” Dr. Shaw says, noting that New Orleans was unique among American cities, in that 70% of its residents had roots there for more than three generations. “Now, a whole culture has been uprooted and scattered across the United States, from Alaska to Hawaii to Minnesota.”
In particular, Dr. Shaw is haunted by two wrenching phrases he repeatedly hears in his 20-minute therapy sessions with survivors. “Everybody says, ‘I’m trying to find normal.’ Those are the words they use: ‘Trying to find normal.’”
“I used to be” is another phrase he hears over and over. “I used to be a mother with four children and now I have two.…I used to head an organization, but now the building’s gone, the employees [are] scattered across the U.S., all I have is my laptop, and I’m still being charged rent on an empty lot.”
Dr. Shaw has been flying to New Orleans regularly as part of a team of therapists from TOP [Training Outreach Program] trained in Trauma First Aide®.
It’s his area of expertise: he works with survivors of intense traumas, including people who were in the World Trade Center on 9-11, adults physically or sexually abused as children, and even Hollywood elites facing the spiritual question, “Now what?”
Dr. Larry Shaw: Trauma Therapy in Action
Editor’s note: We asked Dr. Shaw to give us an example of how he uses Somatic Experiencing in the field to help Katrina survivors discharge the pain of traumatic events. Here, in his own words, is how he helped one anguished woman find peace.
I will never forget the woman who worked at Food for Families in Baton Rouge, a group that fed the poor. She grabbed me and asked, “Would you like a cup of coffee?” As we walked across the parking lot, she said, “Katrina meant nothing to me. Nothing, because one month before that, my beautiful son was murdered.”
He was the first of his family ever to go to a university, a gifted student who had written prize-winning essays and won every accolade and award—including one from President Clinton while he was still in junior high. Accepted at a fine East Coast university, he was shot and killed there in his first week, during a robbery in his dorm.
She had gathered all the pictures, all the awards, and all the papers he had ever written into a box to ship to the college, which was building him a memorial. She planned to photocopy everything first.
When Katrina hit, she put the box in the highest spot in the closet. She had been through hurricanes—she knew what they were like. But Katrina did what no other hurricane had ever done, and the box was washed out to sea. All that was left was a picture on her desk at work. “I have nothing left of him,” she said. “That’s what I’ve lost.”
This woman was stuck. There was no resolution. There was nothing she could do.
We never got the coffee. We sat down in that parking lot and started working. I had her feel that place of sorrow, and then I had her find a place in her body that was the opposite of that— that was strong or powerful. She searched and she searched. And then she looked straight at me and we locked eyes for about five minutes. “Right here,” she said, pointing to the upper part of her chest. “I’ve got Jesus right here.”
I said: “Okay. You hold Jesus!” I’m a Buddhist, but I became almost like a Christian preacher. “You hold on to Jesus right there, and you hold on to missing that box and the pain of that.”
She went back and forth between the pain and the strong place, and all of a sudden she looked in my eyes and she said, “I can do this. I know what I’m going to do. I can feel the box in my hand. I’m going to get a new box. I’m going to remember everything that was in that first box. And I’m going to get every friend he ever had to write about him and put it in the new box.”
A shift had taken place inside her nervous system. You could see it. And this happened 13 minutes into our session.
She called me a month ago. “I made a new box,” she said. “The memorial at his college is next week. And it’s all okay. Thank you, thank you. I’ll never forget you
At first, Dr. Shaw was overwhelmed by the enormity of the suffering in New Orleans and by how paltry his own efforts seemed. He conducted individual therapy with 25 people and talked to 120 others.
A practicing Buddhist, he remembered reading in a religious text that a change in the destiny of a single individual can change the course of the nation.
“Everybody had that same experience of grief and loss and trauma,” he points out. “If individuals can be given hope, then they can give that back to the community.”
Dr. Shaw uses two powerful new forms of psychotherapy: Somatic Experiencing and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to help people “discharge” emotional trauma and reframe and integrate the experience. He is an expert in how stress affects the brain and how the brain’s resilience and plasticity can be used to help people reorient and restructure their lives. In addition to his private practice, he teaches neurobiology and developmental psychology to doctoral students of clinical psychology at Ryokan College in Los Angeles.
Dr. Shaw focuses on the limbic system, the part of the brain that is most affected by emotional trauma. “The limbic system ensures survival and is the ‘fight-or-flight’ part of the brain,” he says. “It also tells us who to nurture and who to be nurtured by, and who to have intercourse with. That is about survival. If we pick the wrong person to be nurtured by, we will emotionally die.”
An Emotional Smoke Detector
Dr. Shaw likens the limbic system to a kind of smoke detector that scans the environment and decides what’s safe and what’s not safe. “This mind-body connection is crucial,” he says. “But the problem is that our limbic system has evolved to be on hyper-alert most of the time. Our society constantly bombards us with stressful information. If it’s not al Qaeda, it’s hurricane season, or drive-by shootings, or sewage spills.”
The limbic system keeps filing away the information, but “we need to find a way to download it,” Dr. Shaw says. “When our e-mail inbox gets full, we delete the contents, but we don’t do that with our own brains. We just keep filing and filing and filing, and then if there is severely traumatic material, that stuff gets stuck in the nervous system.”
Some of the newer therapies utilize brain scans to study what happens in the brain when a person is shown stressful material or when the brain is dealing with stressful material from their past history, Dr. Shaw says. “We’re seeing what parts of the brain light up and we’re watching certain therapeutic techniques that can actually decrease that [response].”
Both somatic experiencing and EMDR are neurologically based, and they work with the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems to have it discharge the energy that’s stored there, Dr. Shaw says.
It’s Critical to Discharge the Trauma
“The trauma can be lessened and also the physical symptoms of the trauma can be lessened,” he explains. It’s critical to do so, he says, because “the number-one thing that ages people, more than diet or disease, is stress—mainly unresolved stress.
“If you look at the Katrina survivors, there is a tremendous sense of loss in the whole area,” Dr. Shaw says. Those affected must find a way to release the trauma and seek healing, or they may face a greater risk later on of what Dr. Shaw refers to as limbic death. “Not from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], but later—because they’re trying to find normal. They’re going to die limbic deaths—heart attacks, cancer, depression, alcohol, suicide, accidents, and even violent deaths.”
Dr. Shaw sees an obvious parallel to people who go into retirement. “They’ve been locked into a routine and a certain way of being, and it had a sense of normalcy and rhythm to it. Then a heavy shock comes—they retire. Even if their system of living was stressful, it was still a system. Now the system goes into retirement, loses everything familiar, even the crabby boss and the traffic going to work, and not being appreciated. But it was part of a pattern. [Complaining] about it was a part of what made their lives normal. Now they’re trying to find normal, just like the Katrina survivors, and the theme that has them stuck is: ‘I used to be.’
“There shouldn’t be retirement,” Dr. Shaw says firmly. He sees a need to help people make the transition, people who are leaving their 40-plus years of employment and asking, “Who am I now?”
Five Keys to Healthy Retirement
Dr. Shaw believes that there are five keys to successfully making the transition and avoiding a Stepfordlike existence in the next phase of life.
1. Find and live your passion.
Commit to something that you care about, something that you love to do, that you are passionate about—whether it’s your local church or being with your grandchildren.
That is crucial. For Dr. Shaw, it’s flying down to New Orleans to do volunteer work with Katrina victims.
2. Activate your altruism.
You need to have a commitment to something outside of yourself, to the greater good of society. In Buddhism, this altruism is called the world of bodhisatva. There’s a quote Dr.
Shaw loves from the educator Horace Mann: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
3. Have a spiritual something.
You need a spiritual link that makes you feel inspired and connected, whether it’s a religious community or feeling a spiritual connection with nature. If you’re an atheist or an agnostic, your connection could be with the ocean. Or, for example, at age 61, Dr. Shaw has taken up yoga. “It’s not a religion, but it has a spiritual side to it.”
4. Nurture your relationships.
Dr. Shaw likes to recommend a wonderful book by Dr. Dean Ornish called Love and Survival, which is about the essential human need for intimacy. Call it the cuddle principle—you need loving relationships in your life. Look at the animal
kingdom: lions on the savanna always lie down as a group. They have a strong physical connection, and they literally have each other’s backs. You need to be connected in order to live a full and rich life.
5. Physical health.
Find an exercise— or, as Candace Pert, the biochemist who discovered endorphins, calls it, “body play”—that you genuinely enjoy doing and do it regularly for the rest of your life. That “God, I love this!” feeling, in and of itself, has a stress-relieving effect.
Making Sense of Change
The lessons of Hurricane Katrina will be far-reaching, and the importance of discharging emotional trauma cannot be overstated. Our lives depend on it. “We’ve only been a written society for 3,000 years,” Dr. Shaw says. “Before that it was stories, cave paintings, tales passed from one generation to the next. Stories are very important for the limbic system because they help us make sense of what happened to us—what psychologist Daniel Siegel called the coherent narrative.
If we can make sense of what happened to us, no matter how serious the trauma— whether it’s a terrorist attack, hurricane, earthquake, or sexual abuse—then there is the potential for healing.”
While retirement does mark a period of transition and can feel traumatic at first, it
does not mean that life has to become a series of “I used to be…” statements. By
embracing a positive attitude, supporting a healthy body and mind, and finding a way to release emotional stress, you can successfully enjoy the freedom of life after retirement.