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America has a monster under its bed. It is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, otherwise known as PTSD. While PTSD is on the rise worldwide, most people don’t even know it exists. There are growing signs that we, many if not most of us, suffer from symptoms of this invisible and elusive disorder. For those who recognize this disturbing fact, the most obvious explanation is 9/11 and the growing numbers of traumatized soldiers returning from Iraq. But I believe that it is not only soldiers and survivors of 9/11 who are traumatized. I believe that Americans have been traumatized by more mundane forces and factors, such as more evidence of Republican election fraud (it was unbelievable the first time), the recent passage of more civil-liberties-destroying legislation (despite the resolutions of hundreds of communities nationwide protesting the PATRIOT Act), or the official endorsement of torture (is that US?) while speaking out of the other side of the mouth, saying we do not endorse it (who is the enemy?).
These things, together with other little nonsensical things, such as general corporate and communal depersonalization, frighten people, shut down logical thinking, silence dissent, and force submission. The result is traumatization.
Now, I must advise you that I am not a mental health professional or expert and I am certainly not offering mental health advice or therapy. So, this is just me talking to you. You can and should follow up with your own research. And if you do recognize any of the symptoms I talk about below, you might want to seek professional help. Don’t merely take my word for any of this.
But I will also tell you that I do know a good bit about trauma and its effects. While in law school, I was diagnosed with a trauma-related disorder similar to PTSD, but longer-standing. (It wasn’t caused by law school!) Through my own research and healing work, I learned a lot about trauma. Also while in law school, I did extensive research and wrote a paper on brain chemistry and criminal defenses. I learned that trauma can actually alter brain chemistry, permanently. It can even cause neuronal death.
After law school, I edited an issue of the now-defunct Criminal Defense Weekly on trauma and the law, which contained articles I solicited from numerous renowned trauma experts such as doctors Alan Scheflin, Colin Ross, Bessel van der Kolk, and others. Those articles were revealing and thought-provoking, providing a major contribution to the literature on this subject and teaching me a great deal. (Unfortunately, they are no longer publicly available.)
Also, as a writing professor at the New School University in NYC — where I taught for ten years before my highly popular characterization course was abruptly dropped in 2002 and where I was teaching when 9/11 happened — I worked closely with many, many people who found their path to writing through an inner journey to themselves, through the pain and hardships and traumas of their own lives, and I have come to my own conclusions about trauma and about what is happening in America. I would now like to share some of these with you.
Trauma is not only what happens when you are subjected to Abu Ghraib-style humiliation or torture. It is not only what can happen to you from combat. I don’t, by any means, intend to diminish the effects of such horrors. But trauma is also something that can creep up on you unawares. Severely incongruent occurrences can be traumatizing. Events that the mind cannot wrap itself around, cannot fully fathom. Things that don’t “make sense.” Things that are the opposite of what they should be. Good people being called bad people (dissenters called terrorists); bad people reaping rewards (the man who told Bush how to get away with torture nominated to the position of Attorney General). Statements that don’t make sense, such as those that Bush is famous for (“Please just don’t look at part of the glass, the part that is only less than half full.”), or those that sanitize and hide acts of brutality, such as “collateral damage” for mass killings, “ordnance” for weapons of murder, “targets” instead of human beings. These are all dehumanizing and subtly traumatizing.
Then there is what is happening everywhere around us: the dehumanizing corporatization of our world. While we have more and more things within our grasp — more services (phones, faxes, email, internet, DSL, cell phones), more amenities (cars, airplanes, air conditioning), more things (Wal Mart or Target have it all, supermarkets long ago made specialty stores obsolete, clothes, books, videos, toys) — we also have LESS. It is getting increasingly hard to reach a live person on the telephone when you need assistance with something you pay for. People you do reach often live hundreds if not thousands of miles away from you. Nobody is responsible for anything they do anymore. Merchants keeping a hold on your debit card blame the bank and the bank says it is the credit card people who do it. No one can fix it. It’s all electronic. Nobody cares. People don’t matter. All that matters is making money.
On the job, people have no privacy and no time to themselves, no time even to think about their work. A friend of mine recently was required along with his co-workers to work over 80 hours a week for several weeks in order to finish a project. That’s more than 17 hours a day. Not long after this period ended, his boss told him the quality of his work had gone down! No, really?!
I could cite some statistics about how Americans are working longer hours and taking fewer vacation days than ever before in history or than any other country and I think such statistics recently were circulated but I don’t think I need to. We all know it. Technology was supposed to give us more free time, but it gives us less. And it is another dehumanizing thing.
Separation from the natural environment is also depersonalizing. All we see all day long are four walls and fluorescent lights, if we’re lucky to have a good job. No trees, no grasses, no animals, no water, no air, no silence. Constant noise. It is maddening.
One day, we wake up and ask “What’s wrong?” And we don’t know. We’ve forgotten what it’s like to be human beings. There are so many tiny little rudenesses, personal invasions, and dehumanizations that we actually think those things are normal. People block store aisles, drivers block lanes or cut others off. They have little or no awareness of other human beings. In fact, those drivers must have death wishes. Their driving habits not only are rude and dangerous to others but even to themselves and their passengers.
These are things we ignore on a daily basis and don’t realize affect us. Like subliminal advertising (that is supposed to be banned but actually isn’t) or food additives (that are supposed to be labeled but also really aren’t) or pesticides and other toxins and pollutants (how much of our groundwater is contaminated?), there are a million things affecting us that we can’t avoid and have come to think of as normal.
Yet, on top of all this increasing invasion of the senses and body are invasions of the mind. How can people cite “moral values” as their main reason for voting for a president who it is clear has violated and evaded the law and promoted others who advised him to do so? This president, more than any before in history, uses the language of fear to invade the minds of those he purportedly serves. As Renata Brooks wrote in her June 2003 article <i>A Nation of Victims</i>, Bush, “like many dominant personality types, uses dependency-creating language.” He “employs language of contempt and intimidation to shame others into submission and desperate admiration,” and “pessimistic language that creates fear and disables people from feeling they can solve their problems.” He “describes the nation as being in a perpetual state of crisis and then attempts to convince the electorate the it is powerless and he is the only one with the strength to deal with it.”
In 1996, psychologist Jennifer Freyd coined a new term: betrayal trauma. Freyd showed that when those who have power over us betray our trust, it is traumatizing.
But now, it is not just our president or our government that is betraying us. It is our communities, our neighbors. We are being attacked every day. But it is not by terrorists. It is by our own friends, our merchants, those with whom we do business, our colleagues, our landlords, our banks, and our own leaders. Everywhere we go, we are assailed by the lack of common decency and courtesy of our fellow humans.
This, itself, is unfathomable. It is unthinkable that our entire society could be so dysfunctional as to be causing us all to become traumatized. But this is what I am suggesting.
What are the signs of PTSD, then? They are, put simply and colloquially: increasing trouble remembering small or big things (appointments, chores, dates, locations, names), trouble sleeping, even nightmares, general anxiety, excessive fatigue, stomach problems, heart “aches,” headaches, losing things, difficulty concentrating, forgetting where you put things, losing “time” (time passes but you can’t remember what you were doing), difficulty articulating what you think or even holding onto your thoughts, loss of appetite (or binge eating), depression, lethargy, inability to get motivated anymore, mistrust of others, chronic agitation, anger, or sadness, or abrupt mood swings, diminished ability to earn money (or to keep it) or loss of employment.
Of course, some of these things could be symptoms of other problems and these are not exhaustive. But what I have been seeing in my own friends and colleagues, especially in the last few months, is remarkably similar to what I saw in my writing students in NY immediately after 9/11. I am seeing many of these symptoms in people who have not had major life-threatening stressors in their lives, people who have, however, been working hard the last four years to preserve democracy and civil liberties, to fight the war machine, and to raise awareness in their fellow human beings. People who have witnessed a terrible reversal in our country.
PTSD is an invisible enemy. I’ve seen it hurt or even destroy people who might not even have known they suffered from it.
So what can we do about it? First of all, it is very important to name it, to recognize its symptoms. It is trauma. If you are suffering from it, you can acknowledge that. (Many people are embarrassed to admit it, although trauma is not the fault of a trauma survivor; it is the fault of the traumatizer.) There should also be no embarrassment in admitting that we are traumatized by what our government is doing. Our reactions are sane and sensible. It is our government that has gone mad.
Second, although there is nothing an individual can do about many of the causes of PTSD, it is important to engage every day in some productive activities, no matter how small — things that are within your control. Do something you can complete. Small, mundane things are not beneath you; they are affirming and grounding. If you can’t handle engaging in political, social, or family activities, or even small chores, try sitting quietly for a bit, and congratulate yourself on doing it.
Third, engage in healing activities. Healing activities are those that allow your mind and body to roam without judgment or consequence, permitting acceptance of whatever thoughts and feelings emerge. They are things that allow you to just BE.
And finally, create something out of your healing work, something to have and to hold, something that makes you feel proud and loving, passing the benefits of your accomplishment onto others.
The Bush Administration operates on the twin premises of fear and trauma. There is an invisible monster under the bed: something we are never quite able to see, but we know it’s there and we know we have to be afraid. Most frightening is that our own leaders are the cause. This is hard to admit. (Harder for those who voted for them.) Hard to look at. Hardest to live with. The first step is to turn on the lights and look under the bed. Then realize that the monster disappears when you really look him in the eyes.
JENNIFER VAN BERGEN, J.D., is the author of The Twilight of Democracy: The Bush Plan for America. She is at work on a book about the characterization method she has taught for over twenty years, Archetypes for Writers: Using the Power of the Subconscious in Your Writing. She is a trained Shakespearean actress and has issued a CD of her “trauma survivor” music, some of which can be heard on her website. She can be reached at email@example.com.