Restoring Order to Post-Traumatic Stress

As the horror of April 15th recedes from the national news, we in Boston are still in shock from the senseless results of evil. It seems as if everyone in this city and surrounding areas is joined in a caring network of personal connections and we are all feeling a kind of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), similar to warfighters back from combat.

However, as my co-author Barbara Kivowitz and I learned in researching and writing our new book,In Sickness As In Health: Helping Couples Cope With the Complexities of Illness, trauma after violent catastrophe is a perfectly rational response to an irrational situation that will take months, if not years, to comprehend. In the wake of Boston, one positive step we can take now is to use this time of national healing to finally remove the concept of “disorder” from the conversation about Post-Traumatic Stress. It is not a disorder to experience stress as the result of violence. Rather, it is an expected, normal response of all living beings. We should react to violence in our midst by coming together to dispel chaos, fear and confusion by thoughtfully creating order in our community once again.

The families directly changed by the bombs in Boston remind us of the military service members and their partners whom we wrote about in our book. Like others, we did use the word “disorder” when writing about the warfighters’ experiences, in deference to their diagnoses and opinions of the treating clinicians whom we interviewed. The accumulated effects of months or years of combat exact very real health tolls that include depression, chronic pain, sleep problems, volatile emotions, and the risk of suicide, creating long-term challenges for both the wounded and their families.

And as observers of the Boston experience, we now see important parallels between wounded warriors and civilians. As a result, we think the idea of “Disorder” should be permanently removed from the diagnosis, treatment and discussion of Post-Traumatic Stress. Calling it a disorder does not help anyone heal, and puts an unfair stigma on a group of people who should be helped not judged.

The Boston victims also brought to light the important differences between military personnel and civilians: Soldiers prepare for combat with body armor. They are alert to danger, with muscles tensed, and ready to fight. In the sunshine of Boylston Street, the brutally unexpected explosions and shrapnel tore into people’s bodies as they were relaxed and cheering. Even those who were not in the vicinity of the bombs were vulnerable to the shock of that day, physically as well as emotionally.

Even with such differences acknowledged, the brave military couples we interviewed—along with the trauma experts who cared for them—have valuable lessons to share for civilian couples and families in the aftermath of sudden, serious injury. Among their insights were these suggestions of how to begin to restore order:

• Allow yourselves to experience and share your feelings with each other, even if they are painful.

• Talk about what brought you as a couple together in the first place, what bonds you together as a family, and what you admire in one another.

•  After you talk, sit together in silence. The air clears and anxiety is subdued. In that stillness, love and strength persist and can affirm your bonds.

• When the injured person comes home, set aside time to engage in any familiar family activities that are still possible and that bring you together.

• Be balanced about providing emotional support. One person has the injury, but others may be afraid, angry, and sad, and in need of clarity and compassion. Just as airlines instruct us to put on our own oxygen masks before helping children, couples must create order in their own lives and relationship to provide a solid healing environment for the family.

Make no mistake: those who face down trauma are the definition of brave. So, as our fellow citizens embark on their uncharted journeys to healing we think it is time to remove the stigma of  “disorder” from our vocabularies. Let us recognize them for the intrepid life explorers that they are. In the words of Anne Frank, “Where there’s hope, there’s life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again.”

We as a nation need to stand up and declare that there is nothing disorderly about that.


Filed under Healing, Health, mental health, Uncategorized

Pat Robertson is Dead Wrong

My OpEd in today’s Chicago Tribune:

A person with Alzheimer’s is not “kind of” dead. Not by a long shot. And televangelist Pat Robertson should know better than to speak flippantly from a position of authority on a matter that is complicated, nuanced and deeply personal.

As we learned through interviews with many couples, as well as with medical, spiritual, legal, rehabilitation and psychological experts, while writing “In Sickness As In Health: Real Couples and the Effects of Illness on Their Relationships,” couples find their way to deal with illnesses and catastrophic injuries.

We know what we are talking about when we say Robertson should beware of trying to make blanket statements without the benefit of knowing all the facts and issues. We have found that dealing with illness is a deeply intimate part of the couple relationship. What is right for one couple may be completely wrong for another.

When illness invades the couple relationship, partners ask themselves and each other some really hard questions: “What do I want to do for this person whom I have loved for many years?” “How much of my life do I give up to take care of my beloved?” “How do I sit by my beloved’s side and watch her suffer?”

Robertson’s assertion that divorcing a spouse with Alzheimer’s is justified because she is “gone” is more than simply callous and insulting to anyone who has ever loved another. It goes to the heart of both morality and medical ethics. Physicians struggle every day to counsel families about the right time to cut off life support. Ethicists struggle to balance the impact of devastating disease with the persistence of the essential self.

To announce that someone is “gone” when she still has an emotional life — not to mention sensation in her skin, organs and tissues — is to dismiss her as a human being.

For those who find themselves at the intersection of lifetime love and overwhelming obligation, the right path is often painful and difficult to find. Robertson should have counseled this husband — and all partners grieving over the illness of their loved one — to seek psychological support, medical information, spiritual guidance and ultimately to look inside themselves and their relationship to determine the right thing to do. Instead he advised the husband of the ill woman to make sure the wife has custodial care before divorcing her and starting all over again.

He presumes too much.

Barbara Kivowitz, a psychotherapist in Boston, and Roanne Weisman, a science writer and author in Boston, are co-authors of the forthcoming book “In Sickness As In Health: Real Couples and the Effects of Illness on Their Relationships.”



Filed under Aging, chronic illness, mental health

Amanda West: The Healing Power of Music

Early on in my journey toward healing, my daughter gave me a soundtrack to keep me company: CDs of a number of songwriters and musicians from her generation whose messages she thought would be useful for me in my travels. She was right. Through powerful lyrics, compelling melodies, and beautiful voices, I began to hear universal truths and realize how music—whether of our own time or of centuries past—cuts through our thoughts, assumptions, beliefs, to the essence of a humanity we all share. We are not alone.

There is truly a healing power in music, and Amanda West is one of these remarkable musicians who holds this power in her songs. She calls herself a “philosophical folk songstress,” and with good reason. As I listened to her songs, sung with a voice of angelic purity, I heard, with astonishment, lyrics that seemed to describe my experiences and feelings with eerie accuracy. How could someone so young (relative to me!) seem to understand just what I was going through, and to offer the wisdom of such an “old soul?” I had to find out, so I wrote to ask if I could interview her, and she graciously agreed.

Just a few of Amada West’s lyrics:

“Times like these I have to believe
That we are part of something grander than we’ll ever know
Maybe all I really want is all within me
And I think all I really need is already here

“There are two things every traveler must remember,” he told me
One, you will always return
And Two, you cannot fight the journey, so you gotta just let it carry you
You gotta just, just let it carry you

And I want to travel with you
For as long as it’s what we are meant to do
And I know a day will come when you or I must go
But for time in my life spent with you I am so grateful.”

© Amanda West: “Ready to Travel”

I discovered a profound and thoughtful woman, with a deep commitment to social justice, human rights, and the social struggles and health of women. She uses her music to convey messages of personal healing and hope, as well as to contribute to social change. Amanda sang before she could talk, and began playing the guitar and writing her own songs at age 11. Her degree is in anthropology and she traveled the world to study the human experience in other cultures. Her musical influences include the folk songs of the sixties that her parents played at home, as well as contemporary singer/songwriters such as Sarah McLachlan, Alanis Morissette, and Loreena McKennitt.

All of which is noteworthy, but did not quite explain how she could write such powerful lyrics about relationships: love and loss, trust and betrayal, and the triumph of faith and compassion:

All the truths

That created my wounds

Were dug out today:


You are as you are

And I am as I am

And to save us both we can only separate


And in the morning

I will turn your ring around

Your heart will be

Your own again

© Amanda West: In the Morning

Amanda has had her own suffering in life: she was struck by a car and severely injured in high school and, while in college, was mistakenly diagnosed with terminal cancer. Later on, she encountered aspects of human suffering in her travels that led to her song, The Age of Disillusionment. She also had her share of painful relationships, though she is now happily married. “I needed to be able to grasp and understand the dark side of life,” she told me. “And this understanding created an emotional space that has opened me up to work through suffering and hard times with compassion. I want to be able to do that for others, not just for me, and these songs come out of me through that space.”

“That’s why the world is on trial in my mind
and I just need time, to be, to see, and to breathe on this,
to know to hate to have to hold to love to be on this
to wander, to wander, and to be
on this side

Nothing’s looking like it used to…
Nothing’s feeling like it used to…
This is the age of…
is the age of disillusionment”

© Amanda West: The Age of Disillusionment”

Go to her website to hear some of her music and read her astonishing lyrics.

Some of my favorite songs, besides the ones mentioned above: Fantasy – a chilling reminder of the victimization of women; and In the Morning— the most heartbreakingly beautiful, and true, description of the end of a relationship I have ever seen.

1 Comment

Filed under Music

An Odyssey of Healing

It has been a long time since I have written here; I have been on a journey of healing, and have now assembled what I hope are useful facts and insights to report. Unlike the stories of physical recovery that I have written about in the past, this was an inner journey of emotional repair and rejuvenation, launched by a shattering of trust. On this voyage through my interior landscape, I have begun to understand more than ever the intimate connections between body and mind. I have also learned that when something shatters within us, it can create a spaciousness for joy, love, growth, even rebirth. It can also reveal one’s true nature. Like my recovery from a paralyzing stroke many years ago, this is a story that continues. Now, however, I can begin to report on what I have learned about healing from emotional trauma.

In future posts I will write about powerful mind-body modalities that include reiki, jin shin jyutsu, tong-ren, and trauma energetics; explorations of ancient philosophies such as the Tao te Ching, as well as more recent psychological teachings; and bodywork such as reflexology, craniosacral therapy, and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), just to name a few.

I will also write about the importance of community:  the small army of caring friends and family whose wisdom and love are like a rising tide keeps the boat afloat, buoyed also by the crucial ingredients of laughter and fun!

But first, I will write about the healing power of music – the subject of the next post.


Filed under Uncategorized

About Health, Life, and More

Whether you are curious about James Bond’s health secret, the need ( or not!) for vitamin pills, or the joys of playing the cello badly, you will find thoughts, information and tidbits to spark your interest in Dr. Alexa’s new blog about health, life and a whole lot more. Take a look!


Filed under alternative medicine, cold shower health benefits, complementary medicine, Healing, Health, Sebastian Kneipp

She Didn’t Have to Die

A close relative died suddenly last fall. She was a 79-year-old woman who was active, vigorous and full of life. She sold fine jewelry in a large department store, spending all day on her feet presiding over her adoring customers. She was clever, a voracious reader and had a wicked sense of humor. She died in her beautifully decorated apartment surrounded by the books she loved, the artwork and sculpture she had collected on her travels, and the boxes of beads that she used to create unique and beautiful jewelry. On a small table lay one of her last designs, an intricate black and silver cuff bracelet, half finished; a long, slim needle, jewelry wire, and piles of shiny beads nearby.

She did not die in a car accident. She did not have cancer. She probably died because she couldn’t get enough oxygen into her body. One of the causes of death was listed as “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease” (COPD) – a progressive disorder that damages the lining of the lungs, making it hard to breathe, even during such simple activities as walking or cooking. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD; she had been a heavy smoker all her life.

This woman lived long enough to see her grandchildren graduate from college and to rejoice at the wedding of her grandson. But she will never meet her future great-grandchildren. She will not be there to celebrate when her grandson receives his MBA. If and when her granddaughter gets married, she will not dance at her wedding.

Two thirds of all chronic illness in this country, including COPD, is caused by lifestyle and behavioral factors that are influenced by our mental, social or physical environments. (

One of my this woman’s favorite expressions was, “It’s okay to look back, but don’t stare.” One can never predict what would have happened, of course, but it seems an inescapable fact that smoking is what killed her long before she should have died. Her lifestyle choices were her own, and she knew the risks. She also knew how she wanted to live her life. All that is left for her family now are memories of who she was, and sadness that she is no longer in our lives.

Another of her favorite expressions was, “No one gets through this life alive.” It just wasn’t supposed to apply to her.


Filed under Aging, chronic illness, Health

H1N1 Protection: Simple Ways With Water

Here are some “water ways” to protect yourself from H1N1 and other forms of flu.  (As always, check with your doctor before doing anything that affects your body.)

First, the source: Dr Vinay Goyal MBBS, MD, DM 
is Associate Professor in the Department of Neurology
Neurosciences Centre at All India Institute of Medical Sciences. His areas of interest are movement disorders and neuro-infectious diseases. Presently, he is heading the Nuclear Medicine Department and Thyroid clinic at Riddhivinayak Cardiac and Critical Centre, Malad (W).

Here is his advice, which dovetails nicely with the water-based therapies already described elsewhere on this blog.

The only portals of entry are the nostrils and mouth/throat. In a global epidemic of this nature, it’s almost impossible to avoid coming into contact with H1N1 in spite of all precautions. Contact with H1N1 is not so much of a problem as proliferation is.

While you are still healthy and not showing any symptoms of H1N1 infection, in order to prevent proliferation, aggravation of symptoms and development of secondary infections, some very simple steps, not fully highlighted in most official communications, can be practiced (instead of focusing on how to stock N95 or Tamiflu):

1. Frequent hand-washing (well highlighted in all official communications).

2.  “Hands-off-the-face” approach. Resist all temptations to touch any part of face (except to eat or bathe).

3. Gargle twice a day with warm salt water (use Listerine if you don’t trust salt). *H1N1 takes 2-3 days after initial infection in the throat/ nasal cavity to proliferate and show characteristic symptoms. gargling prevents proliferation. In a way, gargling with salt water has the same effect on a healthy individual that Tamiflu has on an infected o ne. Don’t underestimate this simple, inexpensive and powerful preventative method.

4. Similar to 3 above, *clean your nostrils at least once every day with warm salt water. *Not everybody may be good at using a Neti pot to clean nasal cavities, but blowing the nose hard once a day and swabbing both nostrils with cotton buds dipped in warm salt water is very effective in bringing down viral population. [Easy instructions for saltwater nose rinses can be found in Health 2 0.]

5. Boost your natural immunity with foods that are rich in Vitamin C (Amla [Indian gooseberry]and other citrus fruits [e.g. orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit]. *If you have to supplement with Vitamin C tablets, make sure that it also has Zinc to boost absorption.

6. Drink as much of warm liquids (tea, coffee, etc) as you can. Drinking warm liquids has the same effect as gargling, but in the reverse direction. They wash off proliferating viruses from the throat into the stomach where they cannot survive, proliferate or do any harm.


Filed under boosting immunity, colds and flu, Health, Water