When veterans were returning from the war in Vietnam, North Americans didn’t want to know about the horrors they’d experienced. These men and women who’d served in combat couldn’t sleep, had terrible nightmares, relived the unthinkable in flashbacks and could no longer function in civilian society. Nobody would help them so they formed their own “rap groups” and hired their own helping professionals.
They demanded to be heard. They told a public that was in denial about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They explained that their memories, unlike ordinary memories, did not get better with time. Some talked about being numb and without any feeling. Others described how a benign sound or smell could trigger them into violence or terror. Their fight or flight mechanisms were constantly being set off.
Thanks to the fact that they spoke out, civilian men and women started identifying their own symptoms of PTSD. These civilians had not been to war, but they too dissociated, had overworked startle responses, sleep disorders, terror in innocent situations and trouble living a normal life.
They were victims of child abuse. Their traumatic incidents didn’t occur on the battlefield. They’d been wounded in a parent’s bedroom, in church basements, in schools – and anywhere exploitative adults have access to vulnerable children. The results were pretty much the same as the returning soldiers.
The return of the veterans from Vietnam and the beginning of the Women’s Movement coincided. Women felt freer to talk with one another about their secret pasts. They now had a name for their invisible wounds, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The veterans validated their pain.
It is this common experience that brings me to invite Bonnie Toews as a guest blogger on this site. Bonnie’s website reaches out to veterans with problems which, in many ways, are similar to survivors of childhood trauma.
The following will introduce you to Bonnie. Look for her wisdom about healing from trauma in future posts on this website:
Relating to Trauma
How does a writer or a journalist cope with the trauma they witness and report?
Some like the Toronto Star’s Paul Watson who won the Pulitzer Prize for his photo of an American soldier’s body being dragged on the ground in the failed 1993 United Nations Mission to Somalia have ended up victims of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). War correspondents deal with the same adrenalin rushes combat personnel do, and there is a theory amongst some military neurologists that the brain, when in adrenalin overload, short circuits like a super-charged electrical surge that trips a house breaker before a fire erupts. Another way it was explained to me is that, when the brain malfunctions to protect itself, it is like a stuck record repeating the same sequence over and over again. Unfortunately, no one knows what the tolerance limit of the brain is to repeated and sustained adrenalin drives, or what to do to get the brain back on track to its normal performance after the short-circuit is triggered.
This explanation makes sense to me. The function of the brain depends on its genetic make-up, which means some people are more susceptible to suffering PTSD than others who have a higher natural tolerance to endure trauma. But, it also means anyone can develop PTSD if exposed to sustained adrenaline surges long enough and often enough because every brain has a breaking point. None of us is immune.
In 1994, I and my magazine’s design director followed the humanitarian relief effort to Rwanda following the genocide. No one understood why we would put ourselves in danger to do that. It’s simple: Without transportation and logistics there could be no aid delivered anywhere in the world. We went to find the story that gives tribute to that effort. We arrived just after the rebel forces had recaptured the airport in the capital of Kigali. Nothing had been cleaned up. There was broken glass and blood everywhere. Guarding the terminal were 11- to 15-year-old Rwandans shouldering Russian Uzi machine guns. Their bloodshot glassy eyes told the story of the savage massacres they had witnessed. They were incapable of responding to a loving smile. The journalist in me wanted to snap their picture. The mother in me prevented it. It was enough to realize they could kill anyone at the slightest provocation.
We found a ravaged country, devastated peacekeepers, exhausted relief workers and traumatized survivors. We did not see the dead still cluttering the hills, but we listened to every story of those who had seen it all. Their shock, their disbelief at such inhuman behaviour permeated our imaginations as we listened to each one and in many cases held them as they cried. We absorbed all of their feelings, their sense of helplessness to do anything to stop it and their frustrated anger at the United Nations for not allowing them to stop it. I did not cry with them. I wrote. Two weeks after I came home, I broke into tears and cried into my husband’s arms until I was exhausted. And I have never forgotten a single image, a broken sound or a foul smell. They will haunt me for as long as I live for we came face-to-face with stark evil and, in the eyes of one woman, pure good. It was like discovering the face of God in the heart of darkness.
BOOK ONE “At the Crossroads of Humanity” in the Trilogy of Treason Series
Available at amazon.com, amazon.ca, amazon.uk, Barnes & Noble and Kindle.