Originally posted April 8, 2013.
Book Review: In the Shadow of a Badge: A Memoir about Flight 93, a Field of Angels and My Spiritual Homecoming by Lillie Leonardi
Post-Traumatic Growth, Spiritual Development and Development of the Self
When I saw this book advertised by Hay House, I was instantly attracted. After a quick look at Lillie Leonardi, the author’s, website, I immediately Kindled her book and read it straight through.
For me, the transcendent themes of post-traumatic growth, the process of soul retrieval, the restoration of a sense of wholeness, and personal spiritual growth emerged. Many people in my psychotherapy practice struggle with post-traumatic growth, the integration of differing aspects of the self, to restore a sense of wholeness.
Transcendent Theme: Integration of Aspects of the Self
Ms. Leonardi first discusses her life generally as a female police officer and FBI agent. As a first responder, the routinely traumatic aspects of her job required her to learn to don the persona of what her family called “Robocop.”
The Robocop persona was her method of ignoring primary emotional responses to traumatic material in order to function on the job. Some research calls this type of adaptive behavior as “pragmatic coping” (Westphal and Bonanno, 2007). Pragmatic or resilient coping is not necessarily bad, but is a range of behaviors whereas some are maladaptive behaviors in order to function and survive during tough events. These behaviors have both beneficial and negative costs, and are also referred to as “coping ugly” (Bonanno, 2006; as cited in Westphal and Bonanno, 2007).
In addition, she talks about how being a female police officer impacted her self-identity as a woman, causing her to push down the more feminine aspects of herself. These normal everyday defenses can result in continuous dismissal of primary emotional material, thus foster the creation of a false self, causing automatic distancing from the feelings of the authentic self. This is yet another aspect of a coping style, adaptive to stressful circumstances.
Ms. Leonardi specifically discusses her role as a first responder at the crash site in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001 of Flight 93, the plane that the passengers intentionally brought down to save others. She describes in detail her struggle to manage and recover from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And, in this book, she courageously reveals the powerful angelic vision she received at the crash site of Flight 93.
First Responders, PTSD and Internalized Shame
So many aspects of this woman’s life story resounded within me. As a practitioner of EMDR, I was intrigued by her description of her suffering and decade-long struggle with and recovery from PSTD.
PTSD heavily impacts the first responder community, but many in this demographic hide their pain. There is internalized and externalized stigma and shame associated with the diagnosis of PTSD; it is considered emotional weakness. There is doubt that PTSD is a valid disorder. Ms. Leonardi doubted the validity of the diagnosis for years and felt weak and ashamed about her symptoms.
Ms. Leonardi shares with us her painful multi-level symptoms that are the common symptoms of PTSD. She describes her multiple physical, emotional and psychological symptoms: pain and tingling in her arms, neck & legs, headaches, the inability to sleep, the intense physicality of the flashbacks of traumatic memories, feelings of isolation, anxiety, depression and loss of self-confidence.
Her description of the PTSD symptom of vivid and constant flashbacks, what she calls the “hauntings,” is powerful. She says:
“..I was tired of the hauntings, as my mind traveled to the same site time and time again. I feared the nighttime most, when I had to shut my eyes and dream about Shanksville. Each morning when I awoke, it was still there before my eyes” (Kindle loc 1588 of 1815).
Her description of the PTSD symptom of hypervigilance, the constant scanning and suspiciousness are powerful. As she says:
“…My mind is constantly besieged with thoughts of my next battle…I m battle prone in my stance…I must be prepared to strike back swiftly and with no mercy. The battle readiness remains as a perpetual part of my being…I stand isolated on this lonely field of glory for the next gladiator to appear” (Kindle loc 1638 of 1815).
I believe her descriptions of what it’s like to suffer from PSTD are some of the best descriptions I have ever read. They help me more intensely empathize with the suffering of my clients.
In the chapter, Superwoman Has Left the Room, she describes how she finally comes to accept the diagnosis of PTSD and shares the insight that this acceptance is tied to opening to her womanly identity. She discusses how she was taunted about being female and how she buried her feminine essence in order to survive.
Ms. Leonardi says that, among other treatment modalities, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) helped her recovery.
Angelic Visions and Integration of Spirituality into the Self
When I worked in a hospital Cancer Center as a Reiki practitioner, I experienced alot of unexplainable spiritual phenomena. I and the patients saw and felt firsthand the presence of angels and other spiritual beings. You might think this is strange, but it happened on a weekly basis. Angels are still a big part of my life, in my practice, in guided imagery work and in energy healing work.
So when Ms. Leonardi reveals she had visitations from St. Michael the Archangel since she was a little girl, I am fully with her.
At the field of Flight 93, she saw a “field of angels,” a vision of luminous, kind, comforting celestial beings sent by God to protect the souls of those who had sacrificed themselves for the well-being of others.
In her book, she describes the long journey of how she kept her vision of angels a secret; afraid that people, especially in law enforcement, would think she had lost her sanity. She also wondered why it happened to her; why she had the vision.
It takes her years of self-reflection, prayer and discussions with her priest to help her come to peace with these questions.
Her struggle with and recovery from PSTD, the deconstruction of her inner protective layers of the self and the acceptance and help she receives from her spirituality, are intertwined in her healing journey.
As she matures emotionally, she realizes that, in order to move forward in her life, she needs to shed her professional persona and retrieve the lost feminine aspects of her inner soul.
Ms. Leonardi slowly sheds her fear of how it would look for a law enforcement office to reveal a vision of angels publicly. Invited to speak at a remembrance mass for those lost on 9/11, she reveals her field of angels vision six years after it occurred. Thus, concurrently with her emotional awakening, she more fully opens to deeper aspects of her Catholic spirituality and integrates these more fully into her self-identity.
She describes how afraid she was of rejection, but during her talk, indescribable joy arises within her and she is received with a standing ovation, praising God’s revelation on the field.
Fighting the Stigma of PTSD
Ms. Leonardi has written a powerful and honest book about her experience with post-traumatic stress disorder, the development of her feminine self-identity and acceptance of a powerful spiritual awakening. Her work helps reach others who need help and raises awareness about PTSD in first responders. Her story helps erase the stigma surrounding this mental illness.
Yet, Ms. Leonardi’s personal story is about so much more than her mental illness.
Her story is about how she developed into the person she is today through emotional growth, maturation, and self-reflection. She slowly lets down her professional mask to find her inner self: her own emotional truth, her maternal identity and her spiritual identity.
It is heartbreaking to read about her very real emotional pain. And it is downright inspiring to see her persevere and search for the right kind of help to so she could dig herself out of her anxiety and depression and be well again.
Her description of how her disease progressed is valuable information for other women and families who wonder if PTSD is even a real condition, let alone what it actually feels like. She vividly describes her insomnia, anxiety, fear, flashbacks and feelings of isolation, all symptoms of PTSD. This is enormously helpful work in helping to remove the stigma of mental illness and to assure others that they are not alone; help is available.
And for those of us who are interested in the spiritual and angelic realm, this is a wonderful and inspiring account of heavenly intervention on earth.
Please enjoy this work!
Westphal, M. and Bonanno, G.A. (2007). Post-traumatic growth and resilience to trauma: Different sides of the same coin or different coins? Applied Psychology: An International Review, 56(3),417-427.