Brittney Griner returned to US soil under a dark sky with the red glow of airplane lights illuminating her first steps home.
The brief, blurry four-second video of Griner’s return Friday morning marked the end of one ordeal for the WNBA star but the beginning of another.
After 294 days in Russian custody, Griner returned to the United States last week after a high-profile prisoner swap. The WNBA star’s homecoming was greeted with joy and relief by her supporters as she was reunited with wife Cherelle in San Antonio where Griner was scheduled for a checkup at Brooke Army Medical Center. These assessments of Griner’s physical, mental and emotional state were just the first step on an uncertain path for the two-time Olympic champion.
“This is a long-term recovery,” said Paul R. Abramson, a UCLA psychology professor who has worked with victims of wrongful incarceration.
Griner’s prolonged detention in Russia puts her at risk for complex post-traumatic stress disorder, two psychology experts said. While PTSD results from a single traumatic event, complex PTSD is characterized by continued obsessive-compulsive control.
Survivors of repeated child sexual abuse or domestic violence, prisoners of war and refugees often suffer from complex PTSD. The response involves involuntarily reliving a traumatic event in PTSD, trigger avoidance, and heightened alertness with intense responses that manifest in physical symptoms such as insomnia, headaches, and upset stomach.
“When you have an incident, you have a whole series of traumatic consequences, but when events repeat themselves, the consequences aren’t cumulative, they’re multiplicative,” said Priscilla Dass-Brailsford, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University , an expert in trauma rehabilitation. “So it becomes more difficult and the therapy becomes very long-term.”
Griner’s identity as a black queer woman and abuse she endured in Russia adds layers that need to be addressed as she recovers from her experiences, said Dass-Brailsford, whose research focuses on how people from historically oppressed Groups deal with stress. The need to individually and collectively approach each part of Griner’s identity further complicates the psychological treatment.
For trauma survivors, Dass-Brailsford recommends first restoring a sense of security and encouraging self-care. She avoids asking them to share their experiences right away so as not to risk repeating trauma. Instead, Dass-Brailsford is focused on what to expect next.
Trauma survivors often experience a range of emotions over months and years: everything from joy, disbelief, shock, fear, guilt, anger, and depression. Understanding what might happen, preparing for the challenges, and normalizing any feeling are positive steps.
“Whatever promotes stability, seek it,” Abramson said. “You want to get back into your life, back to playing basketball, back to what you’re doing, so you can fill your time with productive things and find the power within you.”
Dass-Brailsford encourages patients recovering from trauma to rediscover routines. For Griner, a return to basketball could be a positive step toward restoring self-esteem and confidence, the psychologist added.
The 32-year-old WNBA champion averaged 20.5 points and a career-high 9.5 rebounds in 2021, the same year she helped the United States win their seventh straight Olympic gold medal. But when asked about Griner’s future last week, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert stressed the importance of patience.
“We will respect the privacy of this very critical time as she returns home,” Engelbert said Thursday, hours after news of Griner’s release was confirmed. “Of course I would like to call her, I would like to see her, we will give her the appropriate space and time for that. And then follow what Brittney and her family plan to do to re-engage with the WNBA and our players. I know our players are very anxious to re-engage and reunite with Brittney. So we will follow the players.”
Mercury forward Brianna Turner helped lead her team’s calls for Griner’s safe return, writing on Twitter that hearing her teammate’s release was the “BEST NEWS EVER.” With Griner’s safety guaranteed, any questions about her returning to court were secondary.
“BG is so much more than an athlete,” Turner wrote in a separate tweet. “The main concern is to ensure that her mental health improves and that she can recover from the past 294 days. She could never set foot again and I will still support her relentlessly.”
Since Griner’s February arrest, the support of the WNBA community has never wavered. The players wore t-shirts that said “We Are BG” and sweatshirts with Griner’s likeness on them. The courts were decorated with Griner’s initials and jersey number 42. Players, coaches and fans wrote her thousands of letters.
After counting the days on Twitter, supporters rejoiced when Griner was shown boarding a chartered plane bound for the United States. Wearing a red and black plaid flannel shirt and a knitted hat covering her cropped hair, Griner was asked about her mood in the video released by Russian state media.
“Happy,” she said with a nod and a smile.
Through her research and practice, Dass-Brailsford has met people who have experienced civil war, poverty and abuse. She still notes that many survivors end up smiling just like Griner, giving her optimism about the resilience of the human mind.
“Support, that’s a key part of recovery and she already has it,” Dass-Brailsford said. “She seems to have a very loving wife, so that’s another important part of recovery. So will she be resilient? I bet yes.”
https://www.latimes.com/sports/story/2022-12-12/brittney-griner-russia-prison-release-whats-next-wnba What’s next for Brittney Griner after release from Russia?