I’m going to ask you to pretend for a moment. I’m going to request that you empathize with me and try to imagine yourself within the context of my experience. I’m making this request because recently Donald Trump spoke to a group of Vets.
“When people come back from war and combat and they see maybe what the people in this room have seen many times over, and you’re strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can’t handle it,” he said.
The implication I and many others took away from this exchange was that some of us are somehow lesser because we can’t cope. Apparently, we lack strength, as if volition and an iron-will would be our only protection.
Now picture yourself laying down on a gurney. It’s one of those nearly solid, foam rubber ones that you find in hospitals. You can feel the cracked vinyl covering through the rough cotton sheet. It’s uncomfortable, but that discomfort is increasingly distant. This isn’t your first time, you’ve been here before. The IV in your arm and the plastic mask situated over your face are taking you very far away from the echoing sounds of nurses and surgeons preparing your body for yet another surgery.
You’ve got misgivings, unresolved concerns, but as the chemical cocktail suppresses your life — a mere breath from death — the drugs obscure all this. You couldn’t struggle even if you wanted to.
Now imagine that some hours into this surgery you’re suddenly awake. This time, it’s not a gentle wash of gasses and counter-agents the anesthetists uses to bring you back. This time, it’s an excruciating pain. Your mind is roused. Your heart races, thumping like a hammer inside your ribs. Bob Marley is blaring from a white and silver boombox in the corner of a room that smells of blood and antiseptic. There are people with instruments and masks at the foot of your bed. Your foot is flayed open. Wrenched open and held that way with metal hooks.
All of your senses are working overtime in an instant.
This scream is not an act originating in your conscious mind. You don’t think Oh shit. Now the script says to scream. You just do. For the first time in your life, you experience a primal rage. You express this anger, as a response to the hurt coursing through your body.
Hands push you against the bed. Secrets, and there are many of them, spill from your mouth. Anything to make it stop.
Eventually, they put you out. Ultimately, you move on.
But this experience sticks to your soul, like fallout from a dirty bomb. You don’t know this, not on a conscious level, but you wake up sweating, heart pounding most nights. You can’t hear Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved” and not break down in a quaking fear. Your animal brain is consistently coiled and ready to pounce. You leash this part of your mind, but it will push you to rampage despite your best efforts to contain it. Your relationships will crumble in your hands. You’ll add eternal shame to your pile of dysfunction.
Time passes and things will seem to be getting better. One day you’ll wake, you’ll begin your day like any other. Like every other. You’ll walk into the kitchen, bend over to kiss your youngest child and discover that the beast has found a new way to mess with you.
You’ll writhe and convulse on the kitchen floor. You’ve lost control of your mind as much as your body. Soon anti-seizure drugs will conspire to rob you of all the good left in your life. They’ll transform you into a husk of yourself. They’ll suck the color from your life. You’ll abandon hope.
They’ll do this for nearly two years. You’ll know what it means to disassociate. You’ll lose all grasp on reality, experience psychotic episodes, and end up in the ER more times than you can count.
You’ll unravel. You’ll lose your job, have to sell your car, your insurance claims will be denied by the VA and your private provider alike. You’ll spend your retirement trying to figure out exactly what could have gone wrong. Strangers will judge you. They’ll imply that you’re to blame.
Eventually, if you make it through that gauntlet, you’ll only find a little peace as your family struggles to prop you up. You know that they’ll love you despite all this for as long as they can. They don’t understand. You can’t put it into words.
You’ll brave this singular demon accidentally created in the middle of a surgical ward every day, whether you want to or not. Whether you have the energy necessary to confront your beast or not. You’ll do this all day, every day.
This characterizes my struggles with PTSD and later PNES. Yes, there were other events which may have contributed to my condition or subsequently complicated my life. Ultimately, this is what lies at the core of my experience. It’s fear. An animal fear that no amount of will or fortitude can overcome.
In fact, the only relief I’ve ever found from this fear has come in my vulnerability.
I think it’s important that I share this dirty secret because there’s apparently still much misunderstood about PTSD and it’s consequences.
As you probably know, I’m not a fan of Trump, but in this case, not for the reason you’re imagining. I know he tried to show a modicum of sympathy for Veterans suffering from PTSD. In doing so, however, he exposed his chronic lack of empathy. Beyond the very narrow bounds of his experience, Trump seems incapable of imagination.
Combat isn’t the only cause of PTSD.
Effective therapies that help people who have PTSD do not rely on the force of their will or the strength of their character.
PTSD isn’t about weakness.
PTSD isn’t about strength.