Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The missing descriptive element in exploring the Post-Traumatic experience

Understandably, but regrettably, there is a blank in describing the whole of PTSD.

The agreements are solid: a life threatening event creating an emotionally overwhelming state having also biological implications; anxiety persisting beyond thirty days, flashbacks of the event keep returning.

This agreement has wider expressions. They run along the lines of rage, interpersonal difficulties, avoidance, denial, withdrawal. We can all suggest more, such as tendencies to self destructive behavior.

There is consensus about the landscape of such events; it is as vast as various. Combat comes readily to mind, but news reporters make a living out of PTSD occurrences. 

Annelie and I have our stories, both rather ordinary. Hers could be entitled, “PTSD Without Borders,” being a child growing up in war. My story sounds unique, an encounter with a rattlesnake, but it has about the same one-of-a-kind flavor that could be matched by a few hundred millions, give or take ten or twenty. Death can stare a person down in a lot of ways. 

The missing descriptive element I want to suggest is illustrated by the young Saul of Tarsus on his way to Damascus. Saul began as a red hot God&Country-Take No Prisoners kind of post adolescent. You probably served with one; maybe were one yourself. He ended up flat on his back in Damascus, blinded, and totally confused. Three days later a compassionate Jesus Way believer came and laid his hands on him. Sight returning, Saul did a 180 degree turn and started preaching about Jesus in what must have been in enraged way. He must have felt his trust had been betrayed by some Jewish leaders. Some of the locals must have responded with shouts of “traitor” and threats of death.

The traditional understanding was that Saul had been “converted.” What we have learned about PTSD in the very recent past is somewhat different. He had a flashback, and out of that he had recognizable PTSD symptoms, but there was more. Out of some horrendous experience, which he could no longer deny, he now had an insight and an understanding that radicalized and transformed his life. It took a while, but the process was for the good, both for him and many others. I would include myself.

This kind of turn around is not extraordinary, quite the contrary, a lot of veterans (and others) have that experience. What is usually described negatively in mental health terms, for many is a bursting out of growth. It can come in all sorts of dimensions: spiritual, intellectual, social, cultural, political. Some would dismiss groups like “Veterans Against the War” (which ever one has been going on!) in all sorts of mocking ways. I think this indicates a lack of a more comprehensive understanding of the possibilities arising from the post traumatic.

It seems to me that the task of change agents is to find ways to turn the post-traumatic implosion into a journey leading towards the post-positive of realizations, more adequate acceptances, larger commitments to a greater good. A lot of us would put Greater Good in parenthesizes and capitalize them.

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