Day 28 of National PTSD Awareness Month.
Traumatic events happen so fast they don't get incorporated into
narrative memory which resides in your forebrain, that big lump of brain
that gives us high foreheads. It is where the words are.
story isn't put together in your mind in words. I think this is one
reason for intrusive thoughts and if onlies. It is like when you are
trying to figure out the first point in
the movie where there was a clue to what was coming. Your mind picks at
it and picks at your war experience, trying to have a better past.
If I did this, it wouldn't have happened. If I did that...
This is the main reason that therapy is effective if you have an
effective therapist. You get to tell the story. It will probably change
during the therapy as you remember more details and feel the emotions
you didn't have time for. This is hard for people who are not used to
welcoming their emotions. We call them Americans, although I suspect it
is common all over the world.
One thing that really hangs people up
is guilt. You felt great when you killed that gook/raghead/dink. No one
tells you that killing someone is a basic biological high because you
lived and every bone in your body rejoices. This even happens when a
fellow soldier is killed, because it wasn't you. In Chickenhawk, Bob
wrote about the weird smile that possessed his face when he was telling
his buddies about someone who was killed. People have thanked him for
that because it happened to them and they thought it was only them. A
lot of people hate themselves for that and can't even talk about it.
If you are doing therapy and don't get relief, maybe there is something
you feel so guilty about you can't even admit it happened.
I wrote this prayer for people in 12 step groups when I realized a lot of them had been traumatized:
Prayer for People with PTSD
I know that it’s not within the harmony of the universe that I be
healed from the trauma of remembering ____________________________
Help me through the pain. Surround me with the golden
light of healing, fill me with the white light of peace and love. Help
me to bear the pain as I go through these memories. Help me to cry. Help
me to remember. Help me to love myself no matter what happened to me or
what I did to survive. Amen.
A few meetings later someone told
me about being raped, having therapy, and still reliving the rape every
day. When she read the prayer she remembered something she had never
told the therapist or anyone else because she was so ashamed of it. When
she remembered it, after reading "no matter what I did to survive," the
whole thing went away.
I used to be invited to VA's to give talks
on PTSD and Bob would come along if he could talk about writing. One
time, he was giving a workshop and one of the vets told about getting an
F on his first journal because it wasn't personal enough. Being a
Vietnam vet, he said "F her. I'll write one of my nightmares." He did.
She handed it back with corrections. He rewrote it several times for
her, then several more times for himself, and then he realized he wasn't
having the nightmare any more! That night Bob said to me, "I haven't
had nightmares since I wrote Chickenhawk, and I didn't notice.' We had a
good laugh over that.
Therapy is about debriefing and finding
support. The way I described PTSD yesterday, the two clusters of
symptoms which start way before reexperiencing (hypervigilance and
numbing/avoidance) explain one of the mysterious things about PTSD.
Everyone has most of the symptoms right after the trauma (Critical
Stress Response) but if it lasts more than a month it is considered
PTSD. But some people don't seem to get PTSD which means it is a
disorder of healing.
How do you heal? Talk and find support. Some
people have someone who listens. Most people don't. Most people can't
listen for more than 30 seconds. Trained therapists can listen unless
they have been trained to think they know all the answers, but if you go
for help, you will know quickly if you can talk to the person. This
also means that you can talk to someone who wasn't there as long as they
are interested in learning from you what it was like for you there. I
think that is why so many guys talked to me about Vietnam for the book. I
was interested and they could tell.
Group therapy will help you
find support, but sometimes it is difficult to be around people who
didn't go through as much as you did or who went through more. That is
when my mother's saying is good: comparisons are odious. That means they
stink. Each person in the group has been through the worst thing they
have been through. If you've been through more, remember how it was when
you first got shot at or saw wounded or lost a friend. How rapidly you
adapted to sudden death. And if you are feeling guilty because your war
was not as hellish, you still have been through your own hell and have a
right to be there. Don't compare. Share and support each other. It will
be worth it.