Yesterday was Remembrance Day here in Canada. It’s a very important day to me. My paternal grandfather served during WWII in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A friend of the family lied about his age and joined up when he was 16, only 2 years older than my daughter is now, to go over to Europe to fight the Nazis. I went to school with a couple of young men who went to Bosnia. I have a friend who served with the Canadian Special Forces for years. I work with a man whose son was involved in two roadside bombings in Afghanistan. I’m lucky because none of the people I’ve known have come home in a casket, draped in a flag. Only one of them (that I know of) came home physically wounded. I think they all bear some mental wounds though.
I wouldn’t want to see a picture of their psychological scars. I know the emotional and mental scarring I’m left with because of trauma, that must be nothing compared to what our military men and women come home with. When the men came home from overseas from WWII they were given strict instructions to never talk about what they’d gone through “over there”. The women on the home front were told, under no certain circumstances, to ever ask about life in the war zone. An entire generation told to never open up about their losses. To keep all that horror, devastation and heartbreak locked inside, never being able to let it go.
Lieutenant-General Roméo Antonius Dallaire described Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a film that continually plays over and over again in your mind. A film of the worst things you’ve ever seen or experienced and there’s no way to stop it. I can understand this. I can hear the voices of the people who abused me. I can hear every negative thing they ever said. Feel every horrible touch. My nostrils fill with the smells from those days. I get lost in the memories, and like Alice in Wonderland, I wonder if I’ll ever be home. Home, where it’s safe and familiar.
The problem is, since the sights, smells and sounds are in your own mind, and not necessarily in your surroundings, you carry the nightmare with you everywhere you go. Home, work, vacation, church – nowhere is safe. It doesn’t even matter if you’re awake. It wouldn’t matter if you were standing in the middle of a meadow, surrounded by nothing but sunshine and warm breezes. If your mind jump starts that video you experience your own private hell, and every emotion that went with it, over and over again. You can feel walls closing in on you, even if you’re in open space. You can smell smoke or cologne even when the only thing in the room is flowers. It’s a life lived in purgatory and there’s no escape in sight.
The sensory perceptions of the PTSD are horrible enough but what happens emotionally adds another layer of agony. Someone who is held captive in the grip of PTSD often experiences the same feelings as they did during the trauma. For a rape survivor the feelings of shame, anger and fear will overwhelm them (I use the term “them” because not all victims of sexual assault are female). My co-worker’s son, who was in Afghanistan, cannot stand the sight of white Toyotas because it was a while Toyota, driven by a suicide bomber, that blew up beside the truck he was riding in. The family friend who served over seas during WWII was said to have been walking down main street with his father after the war when a truck back fired. His father looked down to see his son lying flat on the ground with his hands covering his head. Both men were experiencing the effects of PTSD.
PTSD used to be referred to as “shell shock” by the military. In decades past it was considered cowardly to be given such a diagnosis and the usual remedy was to send the afflicted individual directly back to their unit on the front line. The idea was that getting the soldier back into his regular duties would shake off the effect of the “shell shock“. They were treating trauma with trauma. Almost like giving a drowning a man a glass of water. It was a cruel way to deal with such an issue.
Children are often profoundly affected by trauma but are rarely diagnosed with PTSD. If an adult witnesses a violent act or is victim to violent attack they are often diagnosed with PTSD. Why would the same not be true of children? There is this fallacy that children are resilient and they’ll bounce back with very few, if any, long term effects. Having been the victim of several childhood traumas, been friends with many people who suffered childhood traumas and am raising two children who have experienced and witnessed trauma I can say, with all honesty, that nothing is further from the truth. Just because you’re a child doesn’t mean your mind is any less susceptible to the prolonged effects of trauma. American psychologist Dr. Robin Gurwitch had this to say about children who have experienced trauma, “It does not mean they will not have difficulty, it does not mean they will not need help, but the good news is that most children are not likely to develop PTSD.” Perhaps she’s right, at least about the few children who actually get treatment for trauma during their childhood. Statistics show us that less than 25% of children ever receive appropriate psychological care when it is needed.
Although the medical community is finally realizing the lingering effects trauma has on the human mind, not to mention body and soul, there is still a long way to go in treating PTSD. Especially for children. Because of the strength of character of men like Lieutenant-General Roméo Antonius Dallaire who have come forward and brought light to the truth about PTSD the medical community is now looking at trauma from a different perspective.There are new methods and treatments being developed all the time. And for that I am grateful.