February 28, 2013

PTSD

On my morning run through the Internet I got side-tracked by a bunch of articles on MSNBC about post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD. The article that had the most "uh-huh" moments was the one about the first 30 days back home. From adrenaline-seeking high-speed runs, to always sitting where you can see the room, to not liking people standing behind you ... oh yeah, I get it.

My first years -- not days, but years --  back from Vietnam were an odd blend of being here in body and there in mind. As I put it in SitRep Negative, "You had this sense of apartness from regular people and regular life, like you were here but your thoughts and feelings were coming from somewhere else, somewhere normal people could never know or understand."

For me at least, part of PTSD is having an overload of experiences that have no place to go once you get home. There is such a massive disconnect between the world you have just left and the world you have returned to. You are completely exhausted trying to get yourself across that divide. You don't have the energy to try and explain it to others who have no clue as to where you are coming from ... literally.

There is a deeper reason for PTSD besides finding a way to live with the memories. Veterans of war have a permanently altered understanding of just how fragile a construct our  so-called normal lives really are. The war left me with the very real sense of life as skating on very thin ice. If I didn't think about it, life was normal and safe and controllable. But I knew better. I knew that at any moment the ice could crack, and I would be instantly plunged into a life-altering void of chaos.

Being in the wrong place at the wrong time ... what Lewis Mumford called the accidental malice of the universe ... it could jump up and bite you in the ass at any time. So, yeah, I sit facing the front of the room when I can. I know where the exits are. I never go into a dark room until I have my night vision.  I don't just look at people, I look at people. When the flow of events speeds up, I slow down. The brain-stem lizard in me constantly flicks its tongue out, trying to get a feel for the ground, always asking, "What's wrong with this picture?"

Is that bad? I don't think so. PTSD is a burden, but as time goes by it is also a constant reminder of just how nasty, brutish, and short life was and still can be. And in spite of all I say, I am very much a "glass-half-full" kind of guy. I was that way before the war and I remained that way after the war, just with a few alterations to the original mental chassis, changes I have come to embrace, the final step back to wellness, such as it is.

I think this is the final point I would make to any returning veteran. Who you were before the war, that person is still in there. I don't think war changes a person so much as puts him or her in a position where certain daily habits of routine become deeply rutted neural pathways that overlay previous patterns of behavior. But take away the daily stimulus and those pathways will eventually smooth out a bit, allowing the old you to resurface.

The problem is that for a young kid, there is not a lot of the previous "you" to serve as a foundation. I was, relatively speaking, a lot older than most of my fellow draftees. I had a more fully-formed sense of who I was than most 19-year-olds do. So I had a "me" to return to. For a young teenager, the war looms much larger in their psyche, especially if you throw in a lot of re-deployments, a by-product of the all-volunteer army I hope we have seen is a disaster.

From this generation of soldiers, we have asked too much. We have asked too much from their families. The wounds are much deeper, the healing process much harder. The wounds are still very raw. I hope and pray that as time goes by and the wounds scab over and eventually begin to fade, most will find a way to live reasonably happy lives. God knows they have earned it.

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