PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. When we hear this acronym, it usually accompanies a war veteran story, involving drugs or alcohol or violence or homelessness. Where I live, it is a highly common verbalized jumble of letters due to my proximity to Fort Bragg. The news continuously has stories about resources to help veterans battling PTSD, programs, counseling and hotlines available, a horror story involving a PTSD riddled soldier who kills his wife, a drug addicted veteran struggling with PTSD who gets arrested again and again. There was even a huge story that made national news about a Fayetteville judge who spent the night in jail with a PTSD plagued veteran…the judge himself a veteran of the US Army.
It took a long time to make the mainstream vocabulary, but the aftermath of Vietnam pushed the issue. No one talks about PTSD in relative peace time. But with the new normal of a Post 9-11 world, which includes frequent deployments to the Middle East of our soldiers, sailors and marines and mass shootings and attacks in the larger Western world for a plethora of reasons, PTSD is recognized, known and validated.
But for many who have battled it, that validation came too late.
With its detrimental symptoms and paralyzing and oftentimes debilitating effects, what average people could not understand for a long time was that trauma can literally change the brain. It is easy to point to physical injury, such a stroke or concussion or accident and say, “This person has a brain injury. This is why this person is behaving like this.” The side effects and life altering changes of physically brain damaged people are seen, diagnosed, and essentially understood that there is a connection. The trauma was physical. We know what happened and why it happened.
But emotional injury? Mental injury? Dare I say…spiritual injury? Affecting the brain? Changing the brain? Re-wiring the brain? What is that?
It’s easier to tell emotionally damaged people to “get over it” or “suck it up” because you can’t see the injury. There is no CAT Scan pointing to the damage or the results of the injuries. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. If a woman is raped, there is a physical injury. And that is, in most cases, not the lasting one. Many, instead, suffer the emotional and mental trauma associated with the physical one, long after the physical wounds have healed.
In my second book, Good Buddy, PTSD plays a big part in the story. One of my characters, Kenny Bellinger, is a Vietnam war veteran who suffers a particular traumatic experience during the war – not even while in combat – and carries that psychological and emotional wound back into the regular world. A personal crisis in his later civilian life triggers his PTSD symptoms – symptoms that were long buried but waiting for the right triggers to be released onto those he loved. And the fact that in the 1970s, no one really knew much about this type of trauma, someone like a Kenny Bellinger imploded and took down his entire family with him. There weren’t many answers or resources for guys like him.
However, there are many colors of PTSD. We refer to it when a woman is sexually assaulted or when a person witnesses a murder.
But what about the other kinds of traumatic experiences that go on each day among people, affecting their lives forever? Things like relentless bullying, ugly divorces (or even amicable ones?), death of loved ones from horrible diseases, loss of jobs or careers, a cancer diagnosis? These are traumatic experiences.
Pat Benatar sang, “Love is a battlefield.” But I think what she meant is that life itself is a battlefield. Not many people get to go through life untouched by a traumatic experience.
In my novel, Scout’s Honor, Scout suffered an emotionally-based trauma, even a spiritual one, which affected her entire life. She experienced it at a key developmental age, at a certain time and place, with a specific type of person, and found herself in similar toxic, immoral and detrimental situations well into adulthood. Her brain developed a pattern of thinking as a result of the trauma and because she never received any kind of therapy to correct it, she continued to make the same mistakes and poor choices. So many women who have read my book have told me that they were mad at Scout for thinking how she thought or allowing herself to be used by these men or making poor decisions when she knew better or how she walled herself off to the man who did love her. But it is too easy to just point a finger and tell someone that she is weak and pathetic.
Trauma *changes* your brain. It takes brain fixing to change it again. There are some things that journaling and affirmations and support groups and prayer and even nice, supportive friends cannot fix for you when your brain has been altered in this way.
Research shows that when a human being suffers a severe trauma, the neuro-pathways in the brain are rewired. In order to experience true healing, there has to be a way to rewire – yet again (re-rewire?) – the traumatic experience into a more healthy pathway that leads to some semblance of healing. There are several therapies out there, such as “EMDR,” that claim to do just that. The medical community has a long way to go in understanding and helping people who have experienced this kind of trauma, but it is on its way.
This is where literature and storytelling – in all its forms – helps us understand the things that we cannot necessarily understand. I remember explaining to someone once that a person can know something intellectually but feel something opposite. The knowledge and the feelings do not match. Since that made “no sense” to this person, it was obvious that he had never experienced a severe trauma before.
While not everyone experiences the same kind of trauma, and no one knows how one level of trauma will affect one person to another and to another, after all, we are all different! – at least as human beings, we can be more compassionate and less judgmental about the devastating effects of those who suffer from the many colors of PTSD.