S1: I kind of just got out of the hospital and my hands in this like crazy cast my legs and like a crazy cast and there’s this guy on the elevator. We’ll call him Chad because he was he was kind of bro. And Chad has like a cast on his risk. And so his friend asked him, oh, how’d you get that? And he goes, oh, it was attacked by a shark. And I was like, Oh, no way. Me too. And then both him just like looks terrified and, like, realized I wasn’t kidding.
S2: Welcome to How to. I’m Charles Stewart. If you’re anything like me, this is the time of year when you go to the beach and you surf and you swim and you hang out in the water. And my wife, while we’re in the ocean, she loves to mention to me how much she likes the movie Jaws, which I point out to her every single time, is a totally messed up thing to say. Well, we’re in the ocean, but at the same time, it’s not like I really need to be worried about a shark attack. Right. I mean, how likely is it that I will be attacked by a shark? Well, meet this week’s listener, David.
S1: I went on a family vacation to Hawaii, and my dad and I, you know, about nine a.m. in the morning when standard paddleboarding and something hit the back of my board. And there’s usually a lot of, you know, dolphins and whales and things like that. And so I thought maybe a whale at fraiche or something. But my dad, who is.
S3: Plus yards behind me yelled Shark and saw that there was a shark. And so I scrambled as fast as I could. Get up on a board. I was mostly out of the water except for my right leg.
S4: Then David looked down and he couldn’t see his right leg.
S3: And the shark came from below, and so right leg went down its throat and then it started pushing me away from the board. And it was kind of thrashing and I was trying to hit it and punch it. And my dad was hitting it with his paddle to try to get it to let go of me.
S4: And. When I went to punch it one time, my right hand went into its mouth. And so then my right hand and my leg where its mouth and it was thrashing. Back and forth at this point, I’m like pretty certain that the Shaka’s is going to die, like the shark is going to eat me completely. I’m like halfway down. It’s through.
S3: At some point, it thrashes hard enough where my leg breaks off and I’m no longer in the shark’s mouth and I’m just floating there on my back. There’s like a dark, maroon colored blood everywhere. I looked down at my arm and I can see the bone in my wrist. And I looked down at my leg and I can see that my foot in a lot of my leg is missing. And.
S4: At this point, I’m certain I’m going to die. My dad is on his board.
S3: On his hands and knees with his paddle. Kind of worried that the shark is going to come back. And then we had a conversation where I just thanked him for everything in life that he had given me. And I said by to him and told him that I loved him.
S5: The shark at that point had swim away. Luckily, there were some people on the beach who saw what was happening and they got in a canoe and they started paddling towards David and his dad.
S3: They pulled me out of the water and then they could see that my arm was messed up and my leg was, you know, partially missing. And then fortunately, there was somebody on the beach who was a fireman in Hawaii. And so he kind of took over the situation and used rigging rope and surfboard leashes and whatever they could find to make turn tickets within 10 minutes.
S5: A helicopter landed and they loaded David on and then immediately took off, headed to the hospital.
S3: Things were starting to become like fuzzy. And I was like extremely light headed. I’d lost a lot of blood. And I just I remember when they picked me out of the canoe, I was like, still thinking I was going to die. And I was like, a poor guy’s like, they’re going to be traumatized for life because I’m going to die in this canoe. And then I got to the beach and I was like, oh, my gosh, it’s like kids around and families on this beach. They’re all gonna be traumatized. And they watch me, like, die in this canoe on this beach. But then one of the guys in the helicopter, he said this thing to David. The guy in the helicopter was like, I’m not going to lie. I’m not going to sugarcoat this. This is really bad. You might not make it. It’s like a 20 plus minute flight to the hospital. Like, I can’t give you any pain medication because you’ll you’ll go under. So just keep your eyes open and breathe and, like, try to stay conscious. And so at that point, I felt like I need to, like, prove this guy wrong.
S6: David somehow survived the flight. And when they got to the hospital, he was rushed into surgery.
S3: And I think my dad had, like, lied to my mom. Like, I think she knew there was a shark attack but didn’t know quite how bad it was because she looked, like, mortified. Like, I don’t think he mentioned the whole thing about, like, my leg missing or anything like that.
S5: After multiple surgeries to repair his right hand and severed leg, David miraculously pulled through. It took months of work, but doctors were able to essentially save his right hand. Though he lost everything under his right knee. And so you might think. And the story. Right. He’d gotten past the worst of this experience and he’s still alive. But surviving the shark attack, it turns out, wasn’t the hardest part of this ordeal. It was just the first step on his road to recovery. On today’s show, we’ll learn how to grapple with trauma and not just shark attacks, but also the kinds of traumas like divorce or an unexpected death that many of us, unfortunately, experience at some point. How do we make it to the other side? Stay with us.
S7: Let’s take a step back. Tell me, like if I had met you before that, that shark attack. Like, who were you?
S3: I was your typical, like, young, ambitious ladder climber, you know, like trying to go to the best schools, get the best jobs, like working crazy hours, running a software development team at a at a startup. And I was also, you know, working for a venture capital fund. And how old were you? I just turned twenty five a couple days before this happened. What was the lowest point in your recovery? I think particularly like when I was in a wheelchair, just every little thing, like, annoyed me. Like I go to a restaurant and there would be stairs and no, like, ramp. And so I just was like, so angry and pissed off.
S5: It’s taken, David, a full year of occupational and physical therapy. But today his body works. He’s regained most of his right hands, mobility. And with the help of a prosthetic, he can walk. He he has some scars. But if he was wearing pants and you saw him walking down the street, you’d have no idea that he’d been attacked by a shark. But inside his head, things haven’t recovered quite so quickly.
S3: I had become this like bitter, angry person who on one level was like very grateful that they were still alive and had been so lucky. But on the other level, just like didn’t have a lot of patients for other people because it was like they were complaining about something they had just gone through. That was probably upsetting to them. I, like, couldn’t care less because I was like. Trust me, it’s not as bad as like what I just went through, which I don’t think is like the right attitude. But I think at a subconscious level, that’s how I was operating for a pretty long period time.
S5: And so we brought in an expert who has written the book, actually several books on how to overcome the emotional followed from severe trauma. To help us understand what David went through.
S8: My name is Pestles Undercook. I am president of the Trauma Research Foundation, and I’ve been studying the effect of trauma on my brain and body for the past 40 years or so.
S5: Bessel grew up in the Netherlands right after World War Two, which is what got him interested in trauma in the first place. And you were born in The Hague in 1943, right. Which is three years into the German occupation of the Netherlands.
S9: That’s right. I have quite vivid memories of bombed out cities and also of a relative’s who came back from Japanese internment camps in Asia and people coming back from German concentration camps. It is a very vivid part of my experience.
S10: That’s all I was really interested in these experiences. And so we studied psychiatry here in the U.S. and then began working with Vietnam vets who had recently come home from the war. This was back when PTSD was barely understood.
S9: And there was this one soldier in particular who really stood out, very smart guy and capable. And he gets drunk all the time and he can’t stand being with his kids and his wife. And so he has a dual personality. On the one hand, he’s very, very intelligent, capable. On the other hand, he’s just haunted by the death of his friends and has nightmares about it and continue to connect with anybody. And over time, we slowly learn the very core issue of recovery from trauma is the cultivation of self compassion.
S7: Let me ask you, David. Does this film sound familiar?
S3: I think what he’s saying really resonates with me in the sense that it was hard to find self compassion. And so I had become like kind of a jerk, but I wasn’t aware that I’d become a jerk. And so, like, my mom is like doing everything. She was cooking every meal, like for a long time. I couldn’t bathe myself. And you could imagine, like I mean, it’s still it’s still is upsetting me, as you can imagine, that, like, I was kind of rude about it. Like I was kind of like not thankful and gracious for all of the things she was doing. And so I think that I was being an asshole, like there is like there’s no kind of way around it. It was just like I would just like pick fights about random things. And that was just ultra intense about everything.
S10: This intensity also spilled over into David’s work, which started causing some issues.
S3: I was just like ruthless. Like I the nickname at work was like a robo shark where I would be like this. This is the rules. These are the way it’s supposed to be. And so I had like zero empathy or zero understanding because I just was like so brutally, you know, robotic and mechanical about things that I think a lot of that comes from disassociation of of my emotions and emotions of people around me. And the thing that’s hard to understand is I wasn’t aware of it. Like, I was so blind, like to me it just felt totally normal.
S10: David found this intensity and this inability to connect. It made it hard for him to get back to normal, which is what he desperately wanted but couldn’t seem to achieve. But whenever someone would invite him out or try to be nice to him, David would lash out without really understanding why people would say, hey, you want to go on this ski trip?
S3: And you’re like, you had not. Not really. It’s like I can’t ski or, you know, hey, you want to go for a jog? It’s like maybe in a couple of years. So on one level, you know, there is a logistical like physical disability that makes it so you can’t do things. And then on another level, you’re unable to emotionally connect with these people in the first place. And so that can result in being really lonely.
S5: Which brings us to our first rule to help your recovery. It’s critical that you make connections with other people, that you try to rebuild a life that isn’t based entirely on thinking about your injury or your trauma.
S11: We all need friends and communities that can be really hard, particularly after something happens to you, because your friends and your family, they’re trying to learn how to treat this new you and you yourself. You’re trying to work through these frustrations and challenges that didn’t exist before. And so you have to draw on your compassion both for yourself and for others to find some way to connect.
S3: I had many conversations with my mom, but I think the one that really stood out to me was like her just telling me that I had been kind of a jerk and that I was being kind of a jerk and that I was unaware of that. That was both difficult for me to hear. And I think a big turning point for me, because then I had to really work to try to connect with other people and really be aware of how I’m making other people feel and not just about myself. Then all of a sudden, you know, work started going better and friendships started going better and, you know, dating started going better and everything just sort of started to improve. And so I think my mom really pushed me to help understand that, like, generally the world kind of gives you back what you give it.
S5: When we come back, we’ll look at how any of us can connect after a traumatic experience. Stick around.
S10: We’re back with our expert, Bessel Vandar Cook. And David, who survived a shark attack. One of the things that Bezzle most tries to get across his patients is that even after your body has recovered, even after you’re out of the hospital, that doesn’t mean that your brain realizes the trauma is over. And so you have to think about your recovery is two fold. There’s the physical aspects. And then there’s the mental parts. And they can be pretty disconnected. Bessant, how common is it that someone has physically recovered from something but that their head is still inside the event? Because David is technically physically recovered at this point, right?
S8: Well, the actual attack is over, but he’s living with a lot of aftermath. So it’s not over anyway. But listening to this story, what I hear is how lucky he was, how fortunate as best as he comes from a functional family where people are able to say to you, your jerk or you are being a jerk. So they hear from this is a deep sense of caring for a member of the family who was very badly hurt.
S7: What would you have done to help David when he’s at that bleak moment and he’s lonely and he’s depressed and he’s frustrated?
S12: Well, we know how well he was sleeping and how well he was able to concentrate and to pay attention to stuff, because part of being Tomatis is sick. Your whole brain becomes very hyper active and all over the place.
S13: People’s misdiagnosed people as ADHD and all kind of stuff because it’s so hard to stay focused and to be grounded inside of yourself.
S3: I mean, yeah, I mean, I, I couldn’t concentrate. Like, I, I couldn’t read a book. I couldn’t really work or focus on work. I couldn’t carry a conversation for very long without getting sort of distracted in my own thoughts when I was coping with pain. You know, I was in my head and not thinking about the pain. A lot of nerve pain to see you like you think that your hand is moving when your hands are not moving or you think that your toes are moving when you don’t have toes or things like that. And so, yeah, I definitely there was a big dissociation in my body.
S7: When you’re at this point, when you’re in the wheelchair, when you’re when things are still hard. Did people treat you differently?
S3: Yeah, I remember like one particular example was I was in New York for meetings with a large investment bank and it was also snowing outside. So I was like a little bit disheveled because I had to, like, wheelchair through the snow. And so I’m in the lobby and one of the security guards told me that I wasn’t allowed to hang out in the lobby and kind of like set it like I was homeless or something. And I got, like, super passed. I was like, no, actually, I come here for a meeting. And so people, when you’re in a wheelchair, will talk to you very slowly, like as if because you’re physically disabled, you must also have a mental disability. And I just found it like incredibly frustrating.
S7: So, Bessel, when you’re working with people and you’re helping them get used to this new normal, right. You’re helping them think of their body. That’s been been changed in some way. And other people react to that body in these ways. How do you help them work through that?
S8: It takes an enormous amount of strength and self compassion because people look at you as effective and then you need to hold your own and say, no, I’m a worthy person.
S9: And that’s that’s quite a quite a big job. It’s very important to say, yeah, part of you feels like your life is over. And in fact, a part of you part of your life is over because something has shifted. You will not be the same person as before.
S6: This is the next rule. It’s OK to admit to yourself that you’re angry and that what happened to you is unfair. It’s OK to grieve for the life you used to have. In fact, it’s essential degree for that old life. So you can accept the new one, so you can say goodbye and move on to the next chapter. And one way to help yourself do this, paradoxically, is to force yourself to focus on what you’re grateful for. Which can be hard after this awful experience, but grateful. This is how we move on.
S3: As David discover whether it was like the medical team, like you, you know, very explicitly saved my life or my friends or co-workers or just like anyone I could think of who had really had a big impact and helped me.
S14: I kind of, you know, after this moment of realizing I had been a jerk, like, really leaned in on on being grateful and something about being grateful for everything I had just, like, made me feel better. I just wrote out letters, like telling people explicitly and honestly how I felt about them and and thanking them. And people don’t don’t get a lot of letters. So there’s something nice about getting a handwritten note from someone that makes them realize how appreciated they are and how grateful somebody is.
S7: Bissel, you help me understand why that makes sense, because I’m thinking that if I had been attacked by a shark, my feeling would not be a gratefulness. My feeling he would be he of of of wrongness, of injury, like of all the things in the world. Why am I the one who got attacked by this shark?
S12: I’m very moved by this. It’s such a beautiful way of dealing with it. Very much reminds me of tell step programs, have parties, tell step programs is to acknowledge what effectives has had in you. But how has it affected other people and making those connections and making your amends with people you have hurt. Very important. And also, it is a special occasion. I see it in people who are in disasters together. They get very close because a disaster really sharpens your sense of being part of humanity. And sometimes the people who actually were intimately involved in the traumatic events become the most important people in your life.
S7: So let me ask, has we’ve been talking about this connection? I’ve heard a couple of things that you’ve said. One is to seek out other people. And another way of creating connection is to to be grateful and express the gratefulness to the people in our lives.
S12: I wouldn’t I wouldn’t pushed hard on people. I think people need to discover these things for themselves. It’s better not to tell them what to do because it doesn’t. And they feel guilty for not doing it or not feeling that way. That’s interesting. I was in this impressive and very moving to me, and David’s story is that he invented this. And that’s really part of the joy of doing this work is the people who have gone through Ivins’s experiences need to create new realities and new possibilities.
S6: So the next rule is you shouldn’t necessarily think of your recovery as following a bunch of rules. The important thing is to create your own path to finding meaning from this event and to find meaning that has nothing to do with this trauma.
S13: Like, why the hell does a shark come in? Tamara Leggo, for God’s sake. But at some point we make a choice on some level where you just see the world as event, the cruel place, or already we want to create meaning out of our lives. And I think many people are traumatized. Get a deeper appreciation of how precious things are and how valuable things are, and then become advocates of this real spiritual approach to life. Plus helps, of course, tremendously is to meet one or two people who really believe in you, who, despite the fact you’re feeling desperate and angry, nihilistic, who see your soul.
S7: David, does that sound right to you? What have you learned as a result of this? Like, what’s the new meaning that you think you weren’t aware of before this attack happened?
S3: One that comes to mind when you think about how improbable a shark attack is, is that I used to think of like probability is this thing I should use to guide my individual decision making. I’d be like, oh, well, this thing is more probable. And so therefore, I’m going to bet that that happens. And so, you know, on one hand, I, I still acknowledge that like probability as a guiding thing you should use. On the other hand, very improbable things can happen to you. And so you should look at the flip side, look at the positive of those improbable things. Some of those will be as bad as shark attacks, but some of those could be really good things to.
S7: What I hear you saying is, is some people would say I got attacked by a shark and that’s a one in a million occurrence and I was the unlucky one in a million. But what you’re saying is actually like, well, by that same token, I might win the lottery or even better, I might go out and I might start this company.
S5: And even though it has a one in a million shot of working, I can become that one in a million.
S11: And this is our last rule. Each of us will have painful, unfair experiences in life. Some are more traumatic than others. But how we choose to engage with those traumas, how we seek out other people and try to turn those setbacks into strengths that we learn from them, meaning we make from them. That’s what really matters. That’s how we shape with life looks like on the other side. David, can you tell us the story of of you returning to the ocean?
S15: Yeah. So this would have been December.
S3: It was at the same beach with my dad and my brother was there, too. And some of the people who who had saved my life were there, too. And we went paddleboarding and I found it to just be one of the most kind of magical times I’ve ever read on paddleboarding. We saw manta rays. We saw a pot of dolphins and other people who were on the water were were like cheering for me and cheering me on because they knew what had happened. And it was just a very powerful emotion of feeling all of the love from everywhere around me. Wow.
S8: Wow, that’s really beautiful. That’s extraordinary. That’s awesome.
S9: I’m so blown away by it, actually. It is the right thing to do. And sometimes in therapeutic environments, we try to recreate something like that. Ceremonies are important. Ceremonies are important. In terms of, say, I have moved on with my life. I’ve had my baptism like my bar mitzvah, my college graduation, to say this is a piece of my past and showing it to people were important to me. It’s a very important piece of recovery.
S7: David, were you were you afraid at all. When you got back on that board?
S3: No. And I think I felt that I had made it through and survived before. Thanks to all of these people around me. And so I wasn’t I wasn’t worried while all those people were with me.
S16: Thank you to David for talking to us about his experiences and domestically undercook for his fantastic advice. Make sure to look for his books, including The Body Keeps the Score Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. And an important note that we wanted to add. David’s recovered with the help of friends and family. But if you are experiencing trauma in most particularly in Bessel wanted us to emphasize this. If you’re experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, where you keep reliving a traumatic experience over and over. It’s important to find a therapist to help you. This isn’t something you have to do on your own in some kinds of trauma can really benefit from the help of a trained professional. You can find information on finding help at the National Alliance on Mental Illness at an A.M. Eye, Dawg. And the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has resources for everyone, even nonveterans at PTSD, DOD, V.A., Dr.. If you are struggling with something, we would love to hear from you and maybe have you on the show to see if we can help you out. You can send us a note at how to at Slate dot com, or you can also leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. How TOS executive producer is Derek John. Rachel Allen is a production assistant and Merritt Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Hannis Brown. June Thomas is senior managing producer and Alicia Montgomery is executive producer of Slate podcasts. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director of audio. Special thanks to Kevin Bendis, Bill Carey and Sung Park. I’m Charles Do HIG. Thanks for listening.