I was a cognitive therapist. No, let me state that more clearly: I practiced Rational Emotive Therapy (RET), even attending a workshop provided by Albert Ellis, the real father of cognitive therapy! RET made sense for me. It worked for me and for most of my clients. It was not only the origin of cognitive therapy, as we know it today, it was also the first therapeutic model that allowed for targeted, brief therapy. Change the way you think and you can change the way you feel. Done. Learn how to identify and dispute irrational thoughts and you no longer need a therapist. I was using “cutting edge” cognitive therapy in the 1970s, combining it with Virginia Satir-style family therapy (mixed with a little NLP, Neuro Linguistic Programming, when that came around) and felt confident about my practice. Except when it came to trauma.
Fast-forward to the late 1980s when I was working as a clinical social worker in a California hospital and the work of Patch Adams began stirring up interest about “holistic healthcare” in hospitals. I managed to convince my director to let me attend a conference in Maui: “The Art and Science of PsychoNeuroImmunology: The Frontiers of Mind-Body Medicine.” I was mesmerized and blown away by lectures provided by O. Carl Simonton, MD; Candace Pert, PhD; Martin Rossman, MD; and their colleagues. Although as a social work student I never took a single course in anatomy or physiology (let alone neuroscience) I was fascinated by the discussions of neural, endocrine, and immune interactions, along with words and phrases like catecholamines and affect induced immunomodulation. I left there filled with questions, excitement, and a deep knowing that this stuff was real and was a world that I needed to know. For the first time, I felt this in my body— without any rational explanation.
Reality interfered with my professional idealism and I was unable to pursue an in-depth exploration of this new information for a few years. It remained in my awareness and I periodically found opportunities to read a bit more but continued to practice primarily from an RET perspective. I became more and more cognizant of the fact, however, that clients who had significant histories of trauma might seem to feel better when they left a session with me— but came back with little to no resolution of the trauma symptoms they were experiencing. I acutely sensed there was something more that could be done but I couldn’t find the key to unlock that door.
In 1996 I joined the American Red Cross as a disaster mental health volunteer. It became immediately clear to me that working with disaster survivors and their trauma was the most rewarding work I had ever done. I had begun to integrate some guided imagery into my work and found it to be sometimes surprisingly effective, especially soon after a disaster experience. I had no idea I was beginning to touch on somatic techniques as I began including suggestions that clients imagine physical sensations in guided imagery exercises. I was intrigued with the way this seemed to get to feelings and information much more quickly and showed significant improvement of some physical symptoms.
On September 14, 2001 I was deployed by the Red Cross to the Pentagon where I lead a team of disaster mental health workers doing outreach in the Washington D.C. area for two weeks. At the completion of this assignment, I was asked to coordinate Red Cross disaster mental health services at the Pentagon Family Assistance Center (PFAC) for an additional two weeks. The PFAC was where family members and loved ones of those who died at the Pentagon and on American Airlines Flight #77 came to exchange information, obtain support, and to make arrangements for additional family members to attend the Pentagon Memorial Service. After a month in D.C. on this deployment, I should have realized I had more than filled my capacity for secondary trauma. Due to my own trauma history and lack of insight about it at the time, however, I was unaware of how impacted I was— so I volunteered to go to New York in November of 2001. I spent another two weeks supervising disaster mental health volunteers on Staten Island. By the time I left New York and was heading home, I knew I was on unsteady ground. I was emotionally volatile, had no patience, could barely ride in a car driven by someone else without freaking out, and could not sleep through the night.
Nonetheless, the National Mass Fatalities Institute, which I co-founded, was “coincidentally” funded by the CDC at 11:00 AM on September 11, 2001. As the new director of the institute, I had work to do. I was immediately traveling (flying) and lecturing about planning for mass fatalities incidents. (Great therapy for my own trauma!) During the next few months it became obvious to me that I wasn’t functioning well. In addition to the previously mentioned symptoms, I was having difficulties concentrating (even more than usual), was tearful when I would see/smell reminders of the Pentagon and New York, and, most telling for me, I developed tunnel vision. After a couple of incidents in which I attended meetings, found my seat, and then realized I had walked by friends or colleagues without seeing them, I became concerned. My RET skills were completely ineffective. I experienced tears without a thought or an emotion to identify. I was having physical reactions without any identifiable cognitive or emotional triggers. I was concerned that I may have crossed the line that I had talked so much about with first responders over the years while conducting debriefings. I was afraid I might be unable to continue my career as a clinician, as a social worker in any field, or even as an instructor.
Seeking answers, I attended the annual Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists conference in early 2002 and found myself listening to Peter Levine’s lecture about Somatic Experiencing®. He showed the video of Sharon, the World Trade Center survivor, and I knew, with even more certainty this time, that working with the body held the answer to resolving trauma: that of my clients and my own. From that point on, I delved into learning as much as I could about the mind-body connection of trauma. I attended one of Bessel van der Kolk’s Cape Cod Institute workshops and immersed myself in learning necessary neuroscience concepts and vocabulary. I registered for the SE Beginning I class held in Maui, taught by SE faulty member Raja Selvam, PhD and began the painful, rewarding process of addressing my own trauma and learning how to help others relieve their suffering. The training allowed me to grasp the concepts and context of SE™ while fellow SEPs Lori Parker and Tom Amberson and SE faculty member Abi Blakeslee were instrumental in helping me find and access my true strength and abilities as I progressed through the SE training.
SE changed my personal and professional paths in ways for which I will always be deeply grateful. I no longer feel powerless when I encounter acute or chronic trauma responses in people seeking my help. Nor do I feel terrified when I experience my own survival responses. SE has given me the skills to increase my capacity as a therapist, social worker, disaster responder, and instructor. Six years ago I chose to become a volunteer firefighter— offering some of the most intensely challenging physical and psychological experiences of my life. SE allows me to continue laughing and loving, while living fully, deeply, empathically, and committed to helping my fellow humans. My SE practice contributes to my capacity to fight fires, respond to accidents, assist paramedics, respond to the needs of disaster survivors, and teach others to be present, authentic, and loving in their work.
I have endless gratitude for Dr. Levine’s genius and his life’s work. Additionally, I will never be able to sufficiently thank Raja for all that he gave to me. Not only did he advocate for me to be a member of the first “Trauma Outreach Team,” sent by the SE Trauma Institute to Thailand after the Indian Ocean tsunami, Raja taught me most of what I know about SE, both in the classroom and as a co-leader of his first team to India after the tsunami. I am very honored and grateful to have the opportunity of joining the SE Trauma Institute and the SE faculty— individuals for whom I have tremendous respect and admiration— in offering disaster-related trainings to the SE community.
Lisa LaDue is a mental health clinician and volunteer with Team Rubicon and the American Red Cross and a volunteer firefighter in her mountain community. She also serves as a supervisory mental health specialist in the National Disaster Medical System with the DMORT Victim Information Team and directs the National Mass Fatalities Institute. She lectures internationally and has published several works in her field. This year she will be the primary instructor of “Foundations of Disaster Response for SE Providers,” a new SE course she was instrumental in researching and developing.
Photo courtesy of the author, used with permission