Just What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?: A Theory

It may seem overly dramatic to equate the trauma of a soldier at war with that of a citizen at home. But the collapse of a marriage or the death of a spouse may shake certain personalities down to their core. The shattering life events of civilian life may be as traumatic as killing a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan or having a leg blown off by a land mine in Iraq. Soldiers who return from the traumas of war may deal with them successfully and proceed to take up a more “ordinary” life. They may start families, go to work, get educational certificates, complete graduate school. But other returning soldiers may not adjust so successfully. They may sleep with a gun beneath their pillow, have difficulty keeping a job, and abuse their spouses and children. According to the common view, soldiers who move easily from war to citizenship pass the test of strength and bravery. They deserved the flag-waving ride from the airport their hometown gave them. But soldiers who fail to adapt are presumed weak, cowardly, and a burden on the Veterans Affairs budget: “babies in need of a binky” as one military bulletin board put it.

Judgments like these are too simple. Soldiers who adapt may of course stay that way. But if their post-war stress is severe and they deny the extent of it, we might find them years later shooting up their employers’ company and their co-workers with it. After well over a decade of wars without victory, we are at last learning not just to identify PTSD and find ways to treat it, but to understand how widely it has spread among the formerly military or non-military population. Our lives now have so many pressures, some of them traumatic, that it is impossible to tell if or when some who suffer from them will reach the end of their tether.

Think of the absurd fistfights between parents, or parents and referees, during their children’s baseball or soccer games. In the minds of these parents the game becomes like society itself. The only point of the game is to win it, however drastic the behavior necessary to make that happen. A host of understandable sources of stress is behind such loss of perspective. Will my child or children succeed? What about the cost of sending them to college? Will they ever find jobs lucrative enough to pay off their student loans and start their own families? Will my own company keep me on or let me go? Can I ever save enough for retirement? And will my child (or children) be able to stand up to the stress of succeeding without recourse to addictive drinking, drugs or sex, not to mention suicide.

What then is PTSD? The trauma itself may not consist of just one event. The stresses of modern civilians, like those of modern soldiers, are so many and varied that they can easily add up to trauma. But however multiple they are, they probably have one powerful feeling in common. When I was about nine, I got beat up for no obvious reason by four neighborhood hooligans. When I came home miserable and dirtied up and found my father in the living room, I was looking for what I was sure would be sympathy. Instead he told me I should have bravely taken on those kids, outnumbered though I was, and beaten THEM up.

Those words left me with a truly awful feeling. If I had to grow up in a world like the one my father apparently lived in, I was bound to fail in it. The feeling was traumatic in that this living room scene comes back to me whenever I am in danger of suffering any kind of major setback. By never mentioning that feeling to anyone I kept it knotted up inside me for years. Trauma has the power not just to make us think and act irrationally, but to destroy us. If we never find someone sympathetic enough to talk to about it, the feeling it provokes may lurk inside us like a bomb forever on the verge of blowing up.

Bully in the Playground

In a recent post I argued that the current divisiveness in American life has robbed many of us of the meaning and community we used to find in parts of our world not in themselves political. Everything is now political. I have a relative with whom I have long been on excellent terms, even though we have always belonged to opposing political parties. We are both Catholics, and though I always suspected we had some hidden religious differences, they never entered our conversation or affected our relationship. But suddenly we cannot even accept the same person as pope. The official one, according to my friend’s recent way of thinking, is a charlatan; Benedict remains the real pope though Benedict himself would dispute that. In any event neither my friend nor I will be doing very well this Lent loving our enemies.

Certain segments of my own world remain essentially separate from the political, though they are affected by it and, as I see it, my religion is one of them. Another, not nearly so sacred, is South Ardmore Park, which is close enough to where I live that I can walk there. I visit the park on days when life is getting to me. Once I walk the circle that surrounds it, then go sit on my favorite park bench for 20 minutes or so, I almost always feel a whole lot better. The enormously tall trees, which look as ancient as South Ardmore Park itself, lift me out of the day’s routine into a larger place where I can think more clearly. Mothers take their children to the park but lots of dads, day nurses and grandparents do so also. Soon the local high school will start playing its summer baseball games on a field that, judging by the fence behind home plate, must have been there long before I moved into the neighborhood.

Politics seems to have entered South Ardmore Park only by way of yearly township budget discussions. But our township must have long ago realized that the park is essentially separate from politics because, despite its age, the board members still keep it up so well. Whatever their political affiliations, they must sense how special a place it is for local citizens–a place as American as Ben Franklin’s Free Libraries.

I also visit the park so regularly to think about how long our current divisiveness will last. Will we continue screaming at each other indefinitely? I like to think not if only because the divisiveness isn’t getting us anywhere. Just the opposite, in fact. Think of the nightly news: hit and run drivers are now commonplace; children die as byproducts of adult gun violence; schools, churches and synagogues are shot up routinely; “deaths of despair” like suicide and overdoses of addictive substances like fetanyl remain on the rise.

The image of a bully comes to me as I sit in South Ardmore Park: I “see” him standing in the middle of this special, essentially non-political space spewing out the kind of endless mockery and abuse that implicitly sanction the above brutalities. If we could stop putting up with, even getting a kick out of, that unfunny bullying, maybe we could help minimize the divisiveness and begin to be grown-ups again.