“How Do I Know if I am Traumatized?”

Leaving a massacre site while Guatemala’s civil war wounds were still raw was dangerous. I hadn’t intended to be this involved, but what else could I do? A thousand family community of squatters that I had visited periodically in the months prior had just been massacred by the Guatemalan government, supported by private security forces. 

The August 31st, 2004 Massacre at Nueva Linda, was a foreshadowing event in Guatemalan history. It was the first major sign that the 1996 Peace Accords had crumbled. 

Thrust on me by circumstance, conviction and ignorance of what I was taking on, the documentary I eventually made The Massacre at Nueva Linda became my first journalism project. 

The massacre has also shaped me in ways that I still struggle with. It has become a lifelong, hard-earned, grounding perspective. 

The killing of Black people at the hands of police always brings me back to the lessons of state sponsored terror at Nueva Linda. The Murder of George Floyd was no different. Living so close to what was happening really brought me back. 

In the days after the late May uprising, I was sitting with a buddy of mine who recounted what he saw and experienced on the 35W bridge, as a seemingly out of control tanker truck barreled toward protestors. 

As we continued chatting, he asked thoughtfully, “how do I know if I am traumatized?” As someone that is public about my PTSD, it’s a reasonable question from a friend. To my surprise, I had no immediate answer.

I started feeling a sense of urgency while I reflected. I know what PTSD looks like when a smell or sensation brings me back to a foggy, painful memory. I have learned a lot about the way my PTSD has affected my behavior, but I couldn’t answer that simple question. 

I eventually blurted out, “WATCH YOUR HEART RATE.” 

Here is a more salient response, long owed to a friend. 

We were in a hurry.  

Driving at high speed over the roads of Southern Guatemala could be treacherous. We sat on the bed of a truck on a rainy, foreboding night. Every bump, hole, and chunk of loose gravel shook us.  The roads were especially dark since there isn’t much light along the coastal sugar fields. All I could see was urgency.

We needed to hurry. 

We were a group of human rights observers and nonprofit workers. At that time, I had no formal affiliation aside from being a US citizen and therefore strategically useful.  Advocates wanted to take me to the local morgue so I could identify the bodies of the murdered at Nueva Linda and bear witness to the evidence of state-sponsored violence. 

I was afraid. 

By the time we showed up at the morgue, the bodies were already in unmarked graves. Things had been moving quickly. The disposable had been disposed of.  

We suspected that the local police had tried to sabotage our vehicle, as it began churning sluggishly down the road. We stopped at  a safe house provided by a friendly embassy. We finally had a chance to settle into our newly shared reality and tried to catch some sleep on whatever concrete we could find. 

Juan Carlos was my favorite and my confidant that evening. He had been a Jesuit priest swayed by Liberation Theology. His devotion moved him to leave the church, find love and became a land rights activist. I stayed close to him when we visited a funeral along the coast for a slain young man. 

After several weeks the community returned to continue the protest. They settled on the side of the road in front of the Finca for several years. I kept visiting as I pieced together the documentary. We had an unimaginable shared experience that was impossible to explain to anyone. I needed to keep visiting, to grieve with them. 

I felt shattered and was searching for a way to make sense of what happened to me. As I finished the documentary, I also started a PhD program in contemporary Guatemalan history at UC Santa Barbara near my sister. My eight years of study were a desperate attempt to understand the forces and technologies that brutalized a community of friends. 

The more I healed the more I realized that being a scholar of mass violence can’t be a lifelong profession because the pain of what happened would be lifelong. 

While I left the PhD program, I continued my devotion to telling the stories of those suffering harm and holding the structures that harm accountable. Over the last two years reporting full time, I have found my best voice, and I am not letting go. 

My devotion to the suffering and joys of everyday people weighs on me. It’s often the case that I am talking to folks about one of the most difficult things that they have experienced. I am trusted with their stories. 

I have also prioritized learning about how my trauma shows up and how to better manage it. If I don’t have a handle on what’s happening to me, then I can’t listen. 

Nevertheless, the more I understand and notice how my trauma shows up the more obvious it is that the strain of this last year has broken many of us.

I see you and I want to rap with  y’all about how I understand how my past shapes what I feel. 

How my trauma shows up is complex, not always linear or visible. I learned that lesson when my anxiety flared up going on hikes outside of the Twin Cities. 

I am a big dude, about 5 feet 11 inches tall, and 230 pounds. I developed a “resting hate face” as a young Chicano in the LA area circa 1980s, that still sticks unconsciously. In the spring, my arm-length tattoos depicting scenes of state violence in the Americas are very visible, and in the winter all you can see is my “resting hate eyes.” I realize I’m not the most approachable recreational suburban hiker, and for the ignorant or prejudiced, I’m outwardly terrifying. Nevertheless, I was a nervous wreck.

The reason I started hiking in the morning was that I was having trouble sleeping, and I decided instead of watching a movie at 5 a.m., I would enjoy the early morning sun and monastic silence of a trail. However, I found no calm. In the quiet of the trail, any sound that I couldn’t immediately identify left my pulse racing. I was brought back to my youth, assuming at any moment a gang member would attack me on my walk home. 

Every sound of cracking branches sending pulses of adrenaline through my body and leaving me nearly debilitated. I was on edge, tensed and ready to attack, to protect myself. I could also feel a slow decline in my thundering heart rate when I crossed through clearings, and I could see out to the horizon. 

Eventually, the suburban Minnesota soccer moms started showing up.The armada of Minivans was impressive.  It was weird to shift from my state of agitation to waving to a jogging woman with a look of confusion on her face. As I became more aware of the actual people on the trail, I finally settled down and enjoyed what I could of my hike. I felt my the pace of my breathing slowing, my heart rate decreasing, my perception resetting, 

One version or another of this trauma response has been going on likely all my life. It never seemed abnormal until I started going to therapy, and I gained a wider perspective on my behavior and what influences how  I respond to things.

As I took my therapy more seriously I realized that I needed to make some changes.  I started going to therapy a couple of years ago. I was feeling overwhelmed facing a lot of stress and strain professionally and personally . I was feeling unsettled all day, I couldn’t get comfortable easily. My chest felt tight. 

Eventually, I also starting seeing  a psychiatrist for PTSD support. 

During the psychiatric evaluation, I described dreams I have had all my life of militarized sequences that would include gunfights and hand-to-hand combat. I woke up feeling, tired and lethargic. As a child I  had a recurring dream that I was being hacked to death with an ax. 

At its worst, there are times when I am half asleep, or I wake up  believing that there is something in my mattress, that an intruder is in my apartment.

Eventually, when I calm down I understand what I was feeling and the conviction that it was happening, just wasn’t real. It’s confusing and has taken the better part of the last five years to explain coherently. 

I was officially diagnosed with PTSD. We agreed that I would begin taking an anti-anxiety med. We understood it would be a short-term support as I continued working with my therapist. It was clear that without the meds I would be too debilitated by my ever-emergent past. The meds helped to slow down all the thoughts swirling in my brain and allow me to function with more clarity and purpose. 

But how does this progress show up?

What does healing look like? 

While seeing a therapist and psychiatrist I also had sessions with a therapist focused on Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART). ART relieved the strain I was feeling. The technique is designed to reprogram  how the brain stores traumatic memories and imagery. It weakened the grip my past has on the present.  After a session focused on the massacre some of the fog was lifting and memories long submerged reappeared. I remembered the kindness of Juan Carlos. 

I hadn’t thought about Juan Carlos seemingly because the pain of the massacre was all encompassing. His support and tenderness when things were so confusing was lost in fog. The massacre itself is  easier for me to talk about because my memory anchors are folks like Juan Carlos. 

I look back at my hikes in the Twin Cities suburbs feeling simultaneously ridiculous that I was so debilitated by the tranquility of nature and excited that I could finally identify what was happening.  I now have more skills and techniques to soothe my fractured mind, body and heart. To regain perspective after feeling panicked. 

I can see now that sometimes I can get so elevated throughout the day that I am practically numb. My heart feels like the beats of a hummingbird’s wings, calmly fluttering. I take in so much that it’s like my body is quieting itself as much as possible because my heart feels like it will explode from the pressure. What people might perceive as being steady or good in difficult situations is numbness. 

And it’s always going to be hard. The recent deep freeze completely spun me around. I felt like I was losing perspective and feeling disoriented. When the wind chill gets to a comically low -50, it’s deadly out there.  As the worst subsided and the temperature kept diving, I was feeling like I had as a child trying to get home, unsafe.

I’ve had to settle into the reality that my goal isn’t to be relieved of my PTSD, but rather relief from feeling debilitated. 

Sometimes, it would take hours, even days, to recover from a deep emotional cut. It was a persistent feeling of never being at my best. My talent seemed fleeting and inconsistent. 

Now, things are different. In my mind and body things are quieter. The best of me comes to the surface more often because I am not spending my entire day immersed in the unease of my past. I can look hopefully to the future instead of always looking over my shoulder.

Filiberto Nolasco Gomez is a former union organizer and former editor of Minneapolis based Workday Minnesota, the first online labor news publication in the state. Filiberto focused on longform and investigative journalism. He has covered topics including prison labor, labor trafficking, and union fights in the Twin Cities.

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