Each year on May 29th, I remember the day that my life took an irreversible turn. I tend to mark that day as the last day of my naiveté and the last day of my childhood. That was the day, I unexpectedly found myself in the Straight, Inc. program.
‘Anniversary Reactions’ is the name that social scientists have given the phenomenon in which many people experience intensified memories, and/or emotions on the anniversary date of a traumatic event.
According to an APA article (http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/anniversary.aspx)
Anniversary dates of traumatic events can reactivate thoughts and feelings from the actual event, and survivors may experience peaks of anxiety and depression, according to psychologist Susan Silk, PhD, of APA’s Disaster Response Network.
Around the anniversary of a traumatic event, people are likely to remember events clearly and many will feel emotions more intensely than usual. Reliving the sadness is a very natural part of the healing process. But there is no one right way to heal. Try not to compare your reactions to those of others. Each person is different, and each individual will find his or her own way of coping with the memories.
Some of the reactions those affected may experience as the anniversary date nears include difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite, irritable outbursts, nightmares, difficulty falling or staying asleep and feelings of detachment from others.
According to the Veterans Administration http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/research-bio/research/anniversary_reactions_pro.asp
Most people will feel better within a week or two after the anniversary. Over time, the stress symptoms will decrease in both frequency and severity. Providers can suggest strategies to help survivors through the anniversary period. For example, survivors may find it helpful to make specific plans for the anniversary day so that they have other things to occupy their time besides memories of the event. Some may choose to participate in a commemorative ceremony such as visiting a grave, making a charitable donation, giving blood, helping others, or dedicating the day to spending time with family.
It is common for people who did not seek help for the original trauma to feel ashamed that they are still suffering months or years later. However, the fact that someone did not seek help may itself be symptomatic of trauma-related avoidant behaviors and can be viewed as a signal that professional help should be sought.
Unanswered questions about the skeleton in the closet
Before I began to research the facts surrounding the ‘skeleton in my closet,’ my anniversary date was filled with questions about the how’s and why’s of the Straight, Inc. program, followed by anger towards my parents for initiating the action, then allowing the ordeal to continue. I was ashamed of the skeleton in my closet even though I knew I it was a ‘fake skeleton,’ placed in my closet by others. I couldn’t reconcile the feelings I had with the events that occurred. Nothing made sense.
The mixed emotions and confusion are (among other things) what propelled me to research the exact nature of the Straight, Inc. program and eventually work to expose the nature of the Straight, Inc. programs and other similar institutional or residential settings.
Acceptance, and planning for peace and gratitude
For me, learning the truth was the first step in my being able to make some sense of the conflict I would experience each year on the anniversary date of entering the program. Each year, May 29th, still makes its presence known in my life, even though it all began thirty-four years ago. I suspect it will always be one of those dates in which I remember each minute detail of everything that I experienced on that particular day in my life, and because I imagine that this date will always stand out above all others, I have made peace with it.
Each year I view the date as a day of gratitude. I make sure I plan activities that take me outside (to represent my freedom from a warehouse) regardless of the weather, though so far the weather has generally been very good on this day. I usually plan at least one solo action (which represents my freedom from being watched and controlled by others 24/7), and if at all possible I plan something that involves water—either going to a beach, swimming in a pool or walking around a lake. (This represents the trip to the beach that never occurred because it was the pretense under which my parents dishonestly lured me into the dreaded warehouse). I celebrate my survival, my health, my freedom, the love in my life and all of my good fortune.
Was it always like this? No. But it is today and has been for a while and with continued good fortune it will remain this way.
Everyone copes differently
I respect that everyone copes differently, but I also want to put this challenge out there for any willing takers: Each time the anxiety, anger, depression, etc. find their way into your life, go find a way to recognize the good in your life, perhaps help others who are less fortunate, or at the very least, do something nice for yourself.
This year on May 29th, I hope to visit the Korean War Veteran Memorial in homage to my father. I remember my father calling the Korean War, the “Forgotten War.” It was downplayed and considered a ‘conflict’ rather than a war. Because, according to a writer on this site (https://www.quora.com/Why-is-the-Korean-War-called-the-forgotten-war), Even though it was the first “hot” conflict of the Cold War, the Cold War was still young and not wholly appreciated for how it would grip American society.
I’ve been reading through letters that my father wrote while he was fighting in the Korean War. As I read them, I feel a deep empathy for this young man who found himself in a frightening, unwanted situation in a foreign land. I wish I could talk to my father about my own experiences and hear about his, and compare notes. But as you may have read in an earlier post he didn’t survive the program.
He turned 53 years old eleven days before he died on May 11th, just short of my one year anniversary in the program. I believe the excessive stress he experienced in the program put the final nail in his coffin. So to honor a man who gave a lot in the under-recognized (during his lifetime) Korean War and who gave his life believing he was saving mine in another under-recognized war (“the drug war”), I will spend some time contemplating our lives in the presence of the ‘Korean War soldiers.’ After that I hope to visit a nearby park with a beautiful lake and end the day enjoying my home and my neighborhood at the fourth annual neighborhood Memorial Day bash.
What will you do on your next ‘anniversary’?
Add your answers to the comments below, in case your ideas can help out another survivor who is reading this.
For further reading on this topic, search “anniversary reactions.”