Last year I heard an interview with combat veteran Morris on NPR and finally got around to reading his book this summer. Like all books, I’d hoped it would help me understand the world better. Like all good books, it did that and also built some scaffolding for me to climb on and peer into my own upper floors.
Morris hopes to do for PTSD what Siddhartha Mukherjee did for cancer with The Emperor of All Maladies. We are in our infancy of understanding PTSD and Morris is careful to focus his work on combat veterans and rape victims. He draws a distinction between events we consider man-made and natural disasters, like hurricanes. While still capable of wreaking havoc on lives and psyches, the rates of PTSD from these natural events are much lower. He postulates that we have some basic understanding that lethality is baked into the universal forces, but not our fellow humans.
In that way, it seems like the outcome of trauma hinges in part on how you comprehend its genesis.
Given his careful and logical parsing of PTSD, I don’t wish to hop on the bandwagon. Life comes with inherent trauma. You live long enough and you will encounter something, even many somethings, that will bring you to your knees. It’s bound to change you, maybe haunt you. But labeling every undesirable outcome of life as PTSD cheapens it for those who experience it at the extremes. As one of my favorite writers and thinkers, David Simon, said when discussing Treme on his blog,
[A]ny story that claims to be about everything is, in the end, about nothing.
I am also reticent about taking on the heft of a diagnosis, especially this weighty one. After all, being treated for cancer is simply not the same things as being blown up in a Humvee in Fallujah. It just isn’t.
A general rule of thumb is that our own “quirks” become problems when they interfere with the normal functioning of our lives. While I realize that’s a standard with a lot of wiggle room. I can say for me, I don’t feel a label is beneficial. Your mileage may vary.
That said, he gives voice to some of my orphaned bits and I hope he doesn’t mind me borrowing his framework.
Morris described the post-war soldier as living in a liminal place, no longer belonging in combat, yet not the same pre-war person. He quotes famous World War II personality Audie Murphy as wryly saying that the military rehabilitates Army dogs to return to civilian life, but plops soldiers back into their old lives with little more than bus fare.
That’s similar to what I felt walking out the cancer center’s door after a year of slash/burn/poison, a year also full of incredible doctors, cheerleaders, and supporters accompanying me on every step. Suddenly my calendar was clear and I asked a few people what I should do next. They all answered the same: Go live your life!
Sometimes I bounce around like a pinball – Do I pick up where I left off and pretend nothing happened? Do I lead with the cancer story and stick with people who’ve been there, done that? Both approaches have costs and benefits. Do I try to put parts of my life and the people in it in little boxes and only take the ones I need off the shelf?
Eight years gone and I still don’t have the answer. I am not sure there is one. Perhaps the point of it all is to keep asking the questions.
And the questions Morris asks here get to the heart of the matter for me.
[A]s I would learn, one of the deceptive things about trauma is that it is usually pretty easy to find someone who has been through something even more awful than what you’ve been through and thus dismiss your own pain, needlessly prolonging the process. It’s easy to find people to place at the top of the pyramid of loss – Holocaust survivors, Bosnians refugees, African child soldiers — but what about all that space below them? Who goes there? Who decides?
(Excerpt from Introduction, The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by David J. Morris)