June 21, 2007

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Revisited

Posted in post traumatic stress disorder, recovery, violence at 1:32 pm by nevavegan

We rented and watched Munich a little while ago. It was a well-made movie and really did convey the twisted ways war, politics, and vengeance can overcome intrinsic good and compassion. The overwhelming paranoia that grew throughout the movie was palpable, becoming almost its own character, growing, changing, suffocating.

That feeling, not feeling safe wherever you happen to be, is such a real thing to me, and sadly it’s familiar to many people all around the world.

When we first learned about post traumatic stress disorder it was in relation to war veterans. These were men, many of them practically children, who were sent abroad to witness atrocities, kill fellow human beings, and watch their friends die.

My grandfather fought two official wars, World War II, Korea, and one undeclared war, the Cold War. When I say he fought the Cold War I really mean that in every sense of the word. He is very tight-lipped about most of his experiences, giving only small anecdotes here and there. For example, he never really spoke about his experiences as a pilot in WWII, but at one of his birthday parties a friend of his made some joke about the time my grandfather’s plane was shot down. I wanted to know more, but he just turned away and said it really wasn’t a very interesting story.

So after all of this, after he left the military, my grandfather was plagued with nightmares for years. According to my grandmother he insisted on continuing to sleep with his hand gun under his pillow, until they were finally able to break him of that habit. My grandmother described being terrified that my grandfather would awake from a violent nightmare and start shooting before he realized he was at home and safe. My grandfather in his waking life was a gentle person. He wasn’t prone to rage, he didn’t drive aggressively, if someone tried to provoke him he walked away rather than fighting. But in his sleep he yelled and flailed and apparently even punched and kicked at the air. The after effects of trauma following him, however deep he tried to bury them in his mind.

My father too is a veteran and bears the scars of seeing things nobody should ever see.

This topic is timely right now as well, when we wonder how to reintegrate soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan into civil society. At times it seems almost hopeless to think that we train people to turn off their compassion and to kill other people, and then we expect them to return home seamlessly, get jobs in construction, solve problems with words not violence… Of course for many veterans this might not be so hard, but for others it’s nearly impossible. My father described the court marshal proceedings against a fellow soldier that he observed. This man told my father that he simply couldn’t be kicked out of the military, in fact he felt he needed to remain in Vietnam. His chilling words were that he had found he enjoyed killing people and while this was acceptable “in country” he just couldn’t go back to the states and live among normal people.

Once we flip a certain switch, how can we unflip it?

Of course Post Traumatic Stress Disorder isn’t just about war, it can affect anyone who has witnessed extreme violence, has survived a brutal attack, has been abused, or maybe even people who have been bullied over long periods of time.

Maybe it’s the time of the year. I, myself, have been having a lot of nightmares lately and waking up exhausted.

I wonder what happens to children growing up in violence plagued neighborhoods. What about those growing up in countries where genocide is allowed to continue unchecked for years. My area has a high murder rate. The local ice-cream man was shot for a few dollars as he tried to sell popsicles (luckily he was rushed to the hospital and survived). How can a young mind grow and bloom when their friends are gunned down senselessly, when they never feel safe?

What kind of world are we building here? Do cultures themselves acquire post traumatic stress disorder?