The consequences of adversity

Published 8:10 pm Friday, December 1, 2017

The veteran I knew struggled — with sleeping, losing track of time, having occasional pervasive feelings of hopelessness, experiencing heightened anxiety in crowds of more than handful of strangers or greater than a handful, and bouts of anger, even rage, at the drop of a hat and, for what seemed to family and close friends, no reason at all. Drugs, alcohol and other risky behaviors were coping mechanisms to blunt, dull or in some ways, control those feelings.

The veteran had faced the results of combat — a colleague blown apart by an RPG, another by an IED. Risk and uncertainty were constant companions. Like so many fellow soldiers, the veteran learned to shut down thoughts and do what was needed to survive the days while doing the mission and to be there to protect and help comrades.

“You decide at some point to pick up your weapons and fight for your friends,” a former Navy Seabee said. “I decided whatever I had to do, I would, and I would think about it later.”

The veteran was engaged fully to complete tasks and orders and survive in a very uncertain and risk-jammed world telescoped to the next valley or the next patrol.

Consequences for the veteran would come later, when home on leave or when service ended, and there was no longer a mission or the daily attention to surviving the risks of war.

Said the Seabee, “I would deal with the repercussions of it later, and that is how people get PTSD.”

Psychology Today defines Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a trauma and stress-related disorder stemming from experiencing an event or ordeal such as combat “… where severe physical harm or violence occurred or was threatened.” PTSD also relates to experiences such as military sexual trauma (MST) in female, and male veterans (the percentage of MST survivors is lower in male veterans, but the number of male veteran survivors is higher).

Resilience, as has been outlined in earlier columns, is critical to confront and survive the insults of war. When veterans come home and retire from service, many can never escape the consequences.

An anthropology professor colleague of mine, who was a “field” social scientist for two tours in Iraq, tells me of similar residual behaviors he brought back: “You can’t escape Iraq even when you are living in San Francisco.”

But the truth of the matter is that one doesn’t have to fight the Taliban to suffer from PTSD. Living in high- or violent-crime areas, experiencing abusive relationships, being emergency responders or police, survivors of mass shootings or coming from countries or regions with endemic violence from terrorism and war, long-term famine and severe climate change can trigger PTSD.

Surviving adversity, however, doesn’t guarantee the survivor emerges unscathed. Healing becomes an important part of recovery from the consequences of adversity. But healing — making one whole again — is often viewed by those not affected by PTSD as similar to medically repairing broken bones or pulled muscles: all you need is a cast, some crutches, a little bit of time and one is almost as good as new.

Healing from PTSD doesn’t mean as good as new or a return to the veteran prior to the experience. Many who suffer from PTSD will never be the same again, and to the survivor, and their loved ones, this is a raw truth.

Said the Seabee, one of the first females in her unit: “There is no cure or finish to having PTSD. You are never going to be who you were before, and that’s difficult to accept. You have to give that person up if you want to be whole.”

Healing then is a journey to find ways, and tools, to help manage the behaviors and thoughts that strangle the afflicted veteran’s daily existence and help take back control of life and future. Relaxation techniques, meditation and yoga are some of these tools. Other therapies exist to regulate unwanted behaviors such as engaging in art or music classes and performance, even gardening. Physical exercise programs also promote healing.

There are people among us, veterans and non-veterans alike, that suffer from PTSD. Healing gives individuals new lease on life, while also building their resilience. Access to programs and efforts that have those tools to help a veteran, or others, find their way back to quality of life is invaluable. Serving in Afghanistan, responding to a mass shooting, living in fear of gang violence and drive-by shootings — the result can be same, as are the tools necessary to find one’s way out of the clutches of the past.

Future columns will explore the role of community in promoting healing in populations like veterans.

Robert Greene Sands is an anthropologist and CEO of the non-profit Pamlico Rose Institute for Sustainable Communities located in Washington.