Farm life carries a unique set of challenges and loves to remind The Husband and I that we, in fact, know almost nothing about almost everything. On the upside, life on a farm accustoms you to death in ways that are equal parts hard and instructive, both about the value of the foods we eat, and the natural cycle of animal lives. We do our best to safeguard the sheep and goats and cows and hens and cats and dogs and so.many.children in our care, but it is the nature of Wild Things everywhere to eschew safety. Boys break bones whilst launching themselves off bikes and into space. Turkey chicks waddle directly into the open and ever-ready mouth of an otherwise resting German Shepherd. Guinea fowl flap hysterically into the pond, only to learn they can't swim. Vigilance is necessary.
Recently while rounding on evening chores, we stumbled upon a chicken who’d opted to roast itself half to death in the eleventy-billion-degree August sun rather than seek the accessible, ample shade and water mere feet away. Flopped over, eyes closed, agonal breathing. My thought: “Damn. We were just a couple weeks from harvesting him, too.” The Husband's thought: “Damn. I can save him!”
As we all learn at some point in our adult(ish) lives, every conversation involves simultaneous running commentary: What we choose to say out loud AND a private, inner dialogue. The Husband (out loud): “He's just hot, let’s give him a soak. Maybe he's only mostly dead… we’ll give it a try. Won’t take long!” Me (out loud): “Oh honey, that is so sweet. You’re an amazing cardiologist. But that is a DEAD chicken. Let’s dispose of it and get chores done.” Dunk. Dunk. Sternal rub. Experimental lifting, manual flapping, and pouring of water under the wings. Dunk. Dunk. Sternal rub. Me (inner dialogue): “Are. You. Kidding. Me. I’m coming off 12 straight hours, have another 2 waiting, kids who need dinner and bed, and a literal metric ton of laundry threatening to bury us alive. Toss the damn thing on the burn pile and move on, Goldstein!” The Husband (inner dialogue): “Today was hard. I need the W.” As he hosed down and gently dipped the bird in a feeder filled with fresh water, I sat on the hard ground, dutifully making Supportive Spouse Sounds and digging through the recesses of my memory for college-freshman animal biology tips. Me (inner dialogue): “It hasn’t moved. Its respiratory rate is two. This is insanity.” Me (out loud): “I think chickens have some kind of counter-current conduction that helps them cool. Hold the feet in water.” Dunk. Dunk. Sternal rub. Experimental opening of the beak and rubbing of the throat. Dunk. Dunk. Sternal rub. Me (out loud): “Hmmm? What? Oh yes, honey. He definitely is perking up.” Me (inner dialogue): “I wonder where this falls in DSM5…” The Husband (out loud. To the CHICKEN): “Open your eyes, buddy! Open your eyes! Live Dammit, LIVE!” Me (inner dialogue): “sigh. The Husband sure is cute…” Chicken Coding continued for somewhere between 30 minutes and forever, but the punchline is that our mostly-dead chicken lived. I named him Lazarus (which required an explanation for my Jewish city-boy-turned-farmer husband) and granted a lifelong stay of execution. Lazarus will be free to roam and crow until natural death - or more likely the local coyote - claims him.
What’s the takeaway? Our processing may look a little … weird … for a while. And humor helps. The penetrance of trauma in the human population at this point is 100%. Whether it's Big T events or the compounding, inescapable, cumulative impact of chronic, little t exposure, all of us are carrying places of harm. Primary, secondary, vicarious – we have all been impacted by the pandemic, the violence, and the unrelenting toxic stress. That harm demands one of two things: Mitigation or Discharge. Chicken revival was, at least, micro-mitigating. Exasperated though I was, I also understood The Husband was processing a very hard day as a physician in a VERY hard year. When asked later, he noticed that my presence, nonjudgement, and encouragement (a testament to keeping one’s inner dialogue, inner) probably helped more than did the successful outcome. In the absence of mitigation, trauma will discharge disguised as behaviors that further amplify harm: Anger. Aggression. Apathy. Avoidance. Disdain. Disengagement. Self-injury.
Clearly, mitigation is better.
Sometimes mitigating for each other means recognizing and acknowledging that things are hard, shrugging our shoulders, letting go of our scheduled To Do, and sitting on the hard ground in solidarity. “Coding a chicken is definitely odd, and I’ll hold space for it because you matter.” Sometimes it looks like recognizing someone's overblown reaction is likely the result of something else, taking a deep breath, unclenching our fists, and getting curious instead of activated ourselves. “May I ask what happened? How can I best support you?”
The good news is there’s no doctorate required to perform basic trauma-mitigation. Once we are willing to acknowledge we all carry places of harm (trauma-informed), we can begin tuning in to how and when it presents (trauma-aware), get curious rather than reactive about what is happening, and choose responses that mitigate rather than amplify the situation (trauma-responsive). Real-time recognition and mitigation are skills that will benefit us all in the months ahead. The brief, early summer respite wasn’t enough to allow for meaningful recovery from Tridemic trauma. Across America, nearly everyone I know and work with – from the service industry to the classroom to the ICU to the C-Suite – is feeling brittle, embattled, and exhausted. We trauma-mitigate when we hold space. When we get curious. When we allow others to tell us how they’re making sense of their lives. When we actively listen with the intent to connect. You say you want to revive a mostly-dead chicken? Ok. I’m here with you. What do you need? How can I best help?
If you find you're struggling in ways you never have before, you aren't alone. Connect with someone you love. Connect with someone who listens well. Make space for others to connect with you. Practice listening deeply. Get sun on your face.
Extend Grace Rest when you can. Stay hydrated… …and don’t give up on the idea that we can fix anything but dead. Even a mostly-dead chicken. More soon, Dr. K