Michele’s Journey & Research
HOW SOUL CONSOLE CAME TO BE
Journey Into “The Black Hours”
My first encounter with moral injury was as a relational therapist intern in rural Vermont nearly two decades ago. I was working in a small counseling practice with couples and families when “Kirk” (I’ll call him) and his wife came in. They were there because, as they wrote on the intake form, they were “having problems with communication and connection.”
"Kirk goes to the dark place and shuts me out…it’s like talking to death,” his wife said between tears in our first meeting. Kirk just sat there, motionless, expressionless, until finally he muttered, “Memory is its own life sentence.”
Kirk was in a type of existential solitary confinement because of an action he took that transgressed his most cherished values. On the night of his high school graduation, Kirk was driving home from a celebration (sober), when a dark figure riding a bike on a desolate road appeared out of nowhere.
The accident was ruled not Kirk’s fault, and yet the reality that he took someone’s life — an young boy’s at that — was more than he could live with.
At the time I saw Kirk and his wife, the phrase moral injury was only beginning to be used as an emergent trauma condition. Very little information on the mechanisms underlying moral injury was available; no consensus definition had been determined; and treatment relied primarily on frontline posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) exposure-based approaches, with little positive effect.
Three decades later we know much more about moral injury, thanks, in large part, to increased awareness of the condition after decades-long wars in the middle east; the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought healthcare professionals to the precipice of ethical care and in many cases into their own war with their Hippocratic oath; social and political unrest that has pitted citizen and local, regional, and national security groups against one another; to say nothing of the private transgressions and betrayals that naturally accompany human life.
As a clinical ethicist and trauma researcher, specializing in moral injury, I have seen the emotional, spiritual, and relational devastation of unreconciled moral injury. As a narrative and creative arts therapist, with an emphasis on moral stories and emotions, neuroscience, and somatic psychology, I have become acutely aware that “the body keeps score” (to quote Bessel van der Kolk) with moral injury and moral distress, like the mind. As someone who has also experienced moral injury, this is not simply some abstract or theoretical concept; it’s personal. Life threw me into a life-or-death situation that was neither of my choosing nor my doing. In the end, I was left with an impossible decision: for me to live, another couldn’t — only this other was not a stranger or enemy; it was my unborn child.
Parents are meant to protect their children, full stop; that is a time-honored moral credo. “I’d throw down my life for yours without thinking,” I know well my own mother and father would say. Yet for reasons that are better explained here, I could not do that. Like a soldier who must shoot or be killed, I had to terminate or die.
I don’t regret the decision, only that I had to make it. But making it tore my soul to shreds. And reconciling that harsh reality — with all its implications for how I saw myself, others, and life itself — was an arduous, soul-centered process. Fortunately, I had a tremendous support network, especially my parents, whose unwavering love and compassion was a much-needed light in my own black hours. What’s more, as a professionally trained therapist and clinical ethicist, I had some practical resources to draw upon. But not everyone does — which is why I created Soul Console. As I came to see, while wholeness and peace may feel far off or impossible, it need never be lost entirely.
And so, moral injury (and moral distress, a related condition, and resilience) became my home. My current research explores whether there is a somatic dimension to moral injury and moral distress that isn’t being adequately addressed by extant therapies — which, to date, have proven inefficacious. Low and behold, my research found that there may very well be such a dimension. Until now, the felt sense or somatic experience of moral injury has been largely ignored in both research and treatment, instead favoring cognitive-behavioral applications.
Out of this research, I developed a writing therapy (WT), specifically for moral trauma called Embodied Disclosure Therapy. While it’s a great tool for therapists or other mental health professionals, I have adapted it into an online, self-directed course for individuals. It’s entitled “Writing the Wrongs.” For more information, check out our Soul Console Community. We're also developing a new course called, “The Write Way to Heal” that’s targeted more generally for meaningful change, challenge, crisis, and lost innocence.
My blog “Soul Console” for Psychology Today features my and others’ research on moral injury and moral distress and resilience.
Voices of courage speak about the trauma of moral injury
In The Black Hours
My research also led to the development of a project called In the Black Hours.
In the Black Hours is a bold collection of photographic vignettes and a compendium of life stories that bring us face to face with the lived experience of moral injury. It begins with those in the black despair of night, moving through glimmers of hope in twilight, and finally into an emerging dawn, reminding us all that while peace and happiness can sometimes feel elusive, it need never be lost entirely. In the Black Hours grew out a desire to give voice to the silence surrounding moral injury—both for those who are struggling with it and for the communities in which they are a part of and who support them.
With astounding openness and courage, 20 individuals—young and old, from all walks of life—have put into words experiences that are beyond difficult to say to heal themselves and to raise awareness of this type of trauma. We hear from soldiers—including a World War II veteran who was in the battalion that liberated the first German Nazi concentration camp; law enforcement, EMTs, and other first responders; healthcare workers, including those working with COVID; journalists at the frontline of disaster; those being trafficked or abused, or wrestling with substance abuse or addiction; humanitarian workers; refugees; individuals on both sides of borders; gang members; chaplains and priests; husbands and wives; and the average “Joe” or “Jane.”
The stories aren’t always easy to read—and that’s the point: moral injury isn’t easy to digest. Good people sometimes are thrown into situations that require them to do “bad,” or else into situations in which they cannot prevent “bad” from happening, despite their best intentions or efforts. That they feel this pain is a mark of their abiding goodness and the starting point for healing. We all can learn much from their struggle, courage, and resilience.
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” or so goes the saying. But what can also be said is that sometimes it takes more than words to capture the “felt sense” of something—and a felt sense is where empathy, compassion, and positive action begins. So, the stories In the Black Hours are accompanied by photos—some are littered through this website. Through long exposure, blurred motion, ethereal light, and high contrast, the accompanying photography creates a piercing visual landscape that captures the raw emotion which moral injury lays bare — as well as the warmth of hope and promise of peace when light dawns. The resulting collection is an intimate and visceral journey into the heart and soul of moral injury, and honors both the vulnerability and the triumph of the human spirit.
In the Black Hours
Select Stories and Art
"I’ll never forget that night, although for years it’s all I prayed for. I can still see the scene in my mind as if I’m watching it. There was a curve in the road, which was kind of desolate. I came around it as I always did, only this time...I was just some nondescript kid from some nondescript town with a nondescript life—but it was a good life, in a good town, and I was a good kid. Only I wasn’t anymore..."
"I remember as a little girl, staring at the dark, walnut urn that held my father’s ashes, thinking, 'I want to save lives too.' He was a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War—shot down on his last trip back to the base after flying through enemy fire to recover wounded soldiers. I opted for medical school instead of the military. I guess I didn’t think the hospital would be a combat zone. And then it did..."
"I chose Demon as my gang name because I had no soul, and I wanted to torment. When the gang found me, I was almost 16 and alone. My mother died having my sister when I was seven. And my father died driving drunk when I was 13. That’s what gangs look for, your vulnerabilities. So, when I got the chance to join, I did. I figured I'd be okay if I was one of them—but nothing would ever be okay again..."
"You don’t remember the day you were born or the day you die. But you do remember the day when your innocence is shattered. April 4, 1945. It was a sunny morning in Ohrdruf, Germany, and my battalion was on patrol. We'd heard rumors of Nazi camps, but at that point none had been found. —And then they were, by us. At 94, I still can’t wrap my head around that experience; it caused an invisible wound unlike anything I’ve known, one that I struggle to put words to even now..."
We cannot recreate our lives going backward.
We can only reclaim our life moving forward.
-Michele DeMarco, PhD, from Holding Onto Air: The Art and Science of Building a Resilient Spirit