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.

Great Again?

America has grown “great again” in some respects: the economy is strong, employment high, and the stock market keeps surmounting threatening bumps. Inevitably though, doubts about our supposed greatness do arise. How evenly have these developments spread geographically throughout our country. And have they benefited the poorer ranks of the population along with the richer?

Obamacare, we were told, was a “disaster,” but there is no plan in the 2020 budget assigned to take its place. America, it was claimed, had lost a “greatness” from which it is now recovering. But with prices rising and personal debt (to say nothing of the national debt) soaring, is it in fact any easier to enter the middle class now than it was in 2016? And more importantly, is economic advance the only measure of a country’s “greatness” anyway? Is not a society of intensifying partisanship and increasing incivility farther away from growing into greatness than ever?

When a “never Trump” voter will not speak to a Trump acolyte, or vice versa, each minimizes the citizenship they have in common. What does such a rejection of difference indicate about how we have come to relate to each other? What we are now increasingly convinced of, it seems to me, is our essential isolation as individuals. We may be lucky enough to be close to a few family members, a supportive spouse, and a handful of friends (most of these probably temporary). We may even have the sometimes spurious closeness of attendance at a rally, a football game, or a church service. But the feeling of commonality in belonging to a neighborhood or town or city–of that there is now generally very little.

Grim reports in the daily local and national news have always been with us. But they are lately getting grimmer and increasingly attributable to that feeling of hopeless isolation I mentioned above. In future comments I propose to examine some of these more recent reports, emphasizing the need for those larger communities, accepting of difference, that can contribute to our becoming more genuinely “great again.” #economic strength #partisanship #incivility #isolated individuality #sense of community

Greetings Where no Kindness is

The death of my sister less than four months ago keeps reminding me of a poem by William Wordsworth written toward the end of the 18th century and entitled “Tintern Abbey.” Speaking of the joys he shared with his own younger sister, Wordsworth also reflects on the experiences in all our lives that sometimes shatter such joys–among them, as he says, “greetings where no kindness is.”

“Greetings” can be empty, harmless formalities such as “so how are you today?” These may be meant well, but you hear no convincing kindness in them. But there are other greetings like “I was so saddened to hear of your sister’s death” in which, formal though they are, we can still hear genuine kindness.

I had two experiences last week, one of unkindness and the other of kindness. The first was in a supermarket where, after picking up a few articles, I spotted a cashier in his early twenties on the verge of closing up by turning off his light. When I asked him if he could ring me up anyway, he answered that he had only three minutes left in his shift and that finishing up with me would take more time than that. There was one of Wordsworth’s cold greetings, I thought, empty of kindness. So I made my way to another aisle reflecting on the countless times I had asked the same question of other cashiers who, after turning off their light for the benefit of the customer behind me, took my order gladly. Was this young cashier in for a hot date that night? Did he first have to make dinner for a bedridden mother? Or have the gods of supermarket management come up with some new rules that have forbidden the old kindnesses of cashiers to their customers? In any event, one thing was certain. That cashier wanted out of that store, and fast.

A few days later I found myself in the same supermarket, this time blessed with a calm, middle aged cashier who packed my order and handled my debit card purchase with wondrous efficiency and, though it was clearly the end of a long day for her, a kindly farewell smile. I could not help notice, however, how she kept her eyes pinned on the customer after me who, as soon as he saw her light go off, asked if she had time for him. I have eight minutes, she replied confidently; so c’mon.

I’m not entirely sure, but it looked like my guess of a few days earlier about new rules governing the end of a cashiers’ day may have had some basis. Could it be that exceeding the allotted time for a shift required that the cashier be paid overtime and that too many such gracious excesses, which might well cost the company significant money, could threaten that person’s job? Or was it simply that a long record of too many minutes on a shift would reduce the possibility of a raise?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, which may be irrelevant or vary with the company in question. What I do know is that I can no longer count on a kindness I was in the habit of assuming for the better part of my adult life. Capitalism these days is producing more jobs. But is that good news squeezing a little more each day out of our humanity?

Getting Through to a Parent with Dementia: Talking and Touching

My mother, who died at 83, suffered from dementia in her last year or two. Only forty-seven when my father died of cancer, and still full of vitality, she finally met a fellow named Ted. Ted gave her many years of companionship until an illness forced me to move mom from Buffalo, our hometown, to Philadelphia, where I worked.

Ted died in Buffalo about a year before mom died in Philadelphia. When his family called to tell me of his death, I felt I had to find a way to break the news to mom even though by then her dementia left her unable or, I sometimes thought, unwilling, to acknowledge anything I said to her, even by nodding her head.

I began by asking my mom if she remembered Ted and, as usual, received not a look or a word that indicated she understood what I had said. So I repeated my question and, once again, nothing. Her lunch, almost none of it eaten, still sat on a tray table next to her armchair, and something possessed me to move the table and tray aside and take both her hands in mine as gently as I could. Looking as straight at her as I ever had, I asked mom once again, this time with a special softness, if she remembered Ted. And while once again she gave no sign of hearing me, I thought I saw something in her eyes that flickered recognition. So I repeated my question again, and as I did the tears began falling down her cheeks. My few softened words had apparently gotten through to her, and we looked at each other with as much affection, I think, as we ever had, or ever would, even though (or perhaps because) our “conversation” was about somebody else. But it was less my few words, I think, that started up her tears than the feel of my hands in hers and hers in mine.

Boat Tour of the Bosporus, a Fish Dinner, and the end of these Istanbul Posts

Our week in Istanbul ended with a boat tour of the Bosporus. The second photo is of a smaller mosque on shore, smaller because lacking the many minarets of the larger mosques. The third photo is of a suspension bridge across the Bosporus and the fourth of some lovely people on board from the Republic of Ireland with whom we had a spirited conversation-filled lunch.

There are three photos below, the first of Mary with a buddy she made, the last two of a delicious fish dinner we enjoyed at the end of our trip, accompanied by the inevitable Efes glasses of beer we had been enjoying since we arrived in Istanbul. Happy 2020!

The Spice Market in Istanbul

This is a not-to-miss site. Constructed in and around 1660, it is also named the Egyptian eyalet, “eyalet” referring to a province or district within the Ottoman Empire that was a source of building funds. The Misir Carsisi, or Spice Bazaar, is a huge covered shopping complex of some 85 stores featuring spices to be sure, but as you can see in the photos below, all sorts of goodies (tea and the variously made cubes of sticky jellies known as Turkish delights).