Globe & Mail

 

Struggling for a way to 'just get over it'

GERALD HANNON
August 4, 2008

We all know that life can change in a flicker, that we live but a glance or shrug or step away from horror or from bliss - yet we're blithely secure in our ordinary lives, where nothing really wonderful and nothing really horrible ever happens. Then, the day comes. It came for thousands, on Sept. 11, 2001. It comes regularly for soldiers on the battlefield. It came this past horrific Wednesday for more than 30 bus passengers travelling between Edmonton and Winnipeg.

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Ute Lawrence is sitting at a table on the outside patio of One, a restaurant in Toronto's Yorkville neighbourhood, where a bottle of imported mineral water will set you back $9 and perfectly complement your $29 salad. She fits the scene well, or seems to. She appears to be a fine exemplar of that cultural phenomenon, the Lady Who Lunches: late middle age, dark glasses, slightly clumping mascara, an adornment of bangles and sparkly bits, a slight English accent (born in Germany, she moved to England at 18), a cigarette and - you might guess - not an awful lot of ways to fill her time. You'd be wrong. Ute Lawrence has a great deal to fill her time, and has since Sept. 3, 1999, when, blithely secure in her ordinary life, the day came.

She and her husband were driving from their home in London, Ont., to Detroit along Highway 401. They were just east of Windsor when a combination of dense fog and tailgating precipitated the worst highway pileup in Canadian history - 87 vehicles in a chain of twisted metal, flames and carnage. Forty-five people were injured. Eight people died. One of them was a 14-year-old girl, pinned by a van against the passenger window of Ms. Lawrence's car. She burned to death, while Ms. Lawrence and her husband watched. They were eventually pulled from their car, and suffered only a few minor cuts.

Today Ms. Lawrence, 60, is, with her husband, the founder of North America's first civilian Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Association. In April she published a book, The Power of Trauma. She lectures frequently on the topic, and maintains a list of sympathetic and knowledgeable professionals to whom she can refer those who contact her.
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People often come to her late - it took Ms. Lawrence a while before she realized she needed help, before she realized that a phenomenon she thought could apply only to battle-scarred military men might apply to her as well. When we spoke about last Wednesday's violent murder and beheading on a Winnipeg-bound bus, she was adamant that "each and every one of those people need to go their hospital trauma centre. They've got to realize that an event like that can have long-term effects on their lives. They may think they're okay, but symptoms don't always appear right away and they should be on the lookout for them."

She had been a journalist for much of her life after she and her first husband moved to London in 1970. She became a well-known and well-connected member of London society and was publisher of London magazine. After the magazine's demise in 1991, she started her own company, specializing in annual publications. That was her job when the accident happened.

When she went back to work the Tuesday after that Labour Day weekend, things had changed. "I used to get up every morning full of excitement about the day," she says, "and the wonderful things it was going to bring. All of a sudden you have an event like this, and it destroys everything - your belief system, your self-esteem. You can very easily get to the point where you don't want to leave the house. I used to be a very aggressive and decisive business person and that person, two days later, was no longer there." She soon found herself almost unable to work, alternating between states of numbness and near hysteria. Two months later, she consulted her doctor, who immediately referred her to the trauma centre at the local hospital.

It was the first step in a long recovery process. She would try everything from "eye movement desensitization and reprocessing" to a flakey-sounding system called HeartMath, to Buddhism. She would learn that PTSD is an affliction not confined to shell-shocked soldiers - according to the U.S. National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, about 5.2 million American adults have PTSD in a given year (though it afflicts only 8 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women after a traumatic event). She would see that friends and family contribute to PTSD because "all they really want is for you to be back to where you were, to your old self. I tried for three years to get back to who I was ... until I realized I'd better get used to it."

She never went back to work. She spent time "rediscovering herself," taking courses, developing a self-help program (called The Power of One Discovery). "People would come to me for guidance on PTSD," she says, "and all I could say was 'get help.' My husband and I were discussing this a few years ago, and he said we should really find an association and help raise funds for it. So I spoke to my doctor, and she said there weren't any PTSD organizations. Next morning, when I woke up, I shot up in bed and said, 'That's it! That's what we should get into!' " She and her husband founded the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Association in 2006, attracting an impressive list of board members and clinical advisers.

Most people who experience trauma do get over it without special help, although Malcolm Gladwell, in a November, 2004, New Yorker article, identified a cultural change over the last half century in which "we no longer think that traumatic experiences are things we can get over;" that there has been a profound shift in perception "because we have become blind to the fact that the past - in all but the worst of cases - sooner or later fades away."

Certainly, the temptation to tell someone to "just get over it" is strong. Ms. Lawrence admits that, if she hadn't had the experience she's had, she would probably have been one of those who would think, and possibly say, "just get over it."

There are those, perhaps still a small minority of trauma victims, who can't get over it - not, at least, without help. "You reach a fork in the road," she says, "where you make a decision. You're either going to be a victim and live a life certainly not to its fullest, or you're going to choose this huge opportunity for growth. You've had a horrifying experience, and the more difficult it is to get over it, the bigger the opportunity to grow into a more compassionate, giving person."