So, a disclaimer. This isn’t my story to tell. I am not Maori. I have not experienced the death of a close family member by suicide.
But I was moved to read that new claims before the Waitangi Tribunal will argue colonisation is partly responsible for the high suicide rate among Maori (“The taniwha is with us today”, Saturday December 9). The tone of the Herald news story was admirably non-histrionic; no pearl-clutching and no talkback-baiting “PC gone mad”. This is an encouraging sign, I think.
The story merely noted the austere facts; the suicide rate for Maori last year was 21.7 deaths per 100,000 people, compared with 14.6 per 100,000 for people of European descent. In the demographic of girls aged 10-14, all who took their own lives were Maori. So although I acknowledge there are many people better qualified to write about this, I also have something to say. Only a few years ago I would have struggled to understand how colonisation could be responsible for modern day suicide statistics. Since then, I have been on a rambling journey of education and consciousness-raising: university, therapy, personal collapse, arguing with Don Brash. (I tried).
I’ve changed. But I still remember what stubborn resistance I used to have to acknowledging that the social problems we are grappling with now could be linked to the shame and trauma passed down through generations. We all know Faulkner’s famous quote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” So why is this so hard to accept? Maybe I was just an arsehole. But I think there are also other reasons.
There is credible research to show how genetic changes from trauma by Holocaust survivors are capable of being passed on to their children. But I am contending we have other blocks to accepting this truth.
There are powerful “just get over it” societal norms, which see any attempt to understand historical reasons for one’s plight as weak, dependent and sort of icky. There is also a deeply held code of loyalty to one’s parents (When you leave an abusive romantic relationship you are congratulated for your courage, but when you break off an abusive relationship to a parent or family member, you may find yourself shunned).
The main reason for the resistance though, I believe, is that in its essence acknowledging any kind of trauma means confronting our own wounds, whoever we are. This is not conscious. We have all built up defences so we don’t have to feel the pain and terror we experienced in childhood, so we don’t take kindly to being confronted with it. These defences (repression, denial, projection, splitting and so on) were useful to protect us when we were children and had no other escape, but can be deadening to our vitality and goodness as adults. But it is not easy to process your own trauma, and you can’t do it alone.
You’ve probably heard of the fight or flight response to stress, but maybe not the other, “F” response : to freeze. When a possum is attacked it freezes or plays dead and the predator loses interest and goes off in search of livelier prey. Left alone, the possum “shakes off” (this is important) this encounter and goes on its way, none the worse. But if an animal emerging from the freeze state (immobility) is restrained it is unable to discharge the trauma (the trembling and shaking is the physiological process of discharging the chemical manifestation of terror – in the same way, you can burn off cortisol by running). In this case the immobility is far deeper, lasting for a much longer time. This paralysing terror (known as fear-potentiated immobility) leads to PTSD.
“This is why the phrase ‘time heals all wounds'” simply does not apply to trauma, writes Peter Levine in his beautifully named book In An Unspoken Voice: how the body releases trauma and restores goodness. As traumatised individuals begin to come out of their frozen state, they frequently experience eruptions of intense anger or rage, just like a terrified animal. Dr Levine writes: “When one is flooded by rage, the higher-functioning executive parts of the brain shut down. The capacity to stand back and observe one’s sensations and emotions is lost, rather one becomes those emotions and sensations. Hence the rage can become utterly overwhelming, causing panic and the stifling of such primitive impulses, turning them inward and preventing a natural exit from the immobility reaction.”
This is a complicated process to understand, and a delicate one to unravel. It can only be done very slowly and gently, and in relationship. But maybe getting just a small glimpse into the mechanism of trauma might help to underline that the first step to healing is to feel safe, like the possum whose predator has given up. We are all that possum, in our own ways. So maybe this is a story belongs to all of us, after all.
Where to get help:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Samaritans 0800 726 666
• If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.