In December 2010 I wrote a blog on intergenerational PTSD and promised to write another. After many years of counseling veterans with PTSD, and finally having to admit that I had PTSD myself, it seems to me that most of the people I have counseled were protectors. They tend to be hypervigilant for all sorts of danger, whether physical or emotional. They’ve seen terrible things, and they’ve seen people do terrible things. They often know from personal experience what people are capable of. I used to wonder about the symptom of avoiding crowds. I thought that perhaps that came from the military rule of telling people to spread out and not bunch up, or “one round will get us all.” It is often said of soldiers fighting urban wars that they avoid crowds because of a fear of a terrorist bombing. Well, that’s true enough, I suppose, but I think the symptom of hypervigilance runs a bit deeper than that. I think it has to do with a basic sense of trust. Can human beings really be trusted? Some people with PTSD have been blessed to see people who laid down their lives for others, and so they know that some people can be really, really brave, good, and trustworthy. However, this is so rare that we tend to weep when we see it, because we realize just how wonderful the world could be if everyone were so brave and good. On the other hand, most people with PTSD have also seen the completely depraved and ruthless acts of others, and they know that civilization is just a thin veneer over the vicious beast that is man. So they don’t avoid crowds because they are afraid of an explosion or a bullet so much as that they simply don’t trust people. People make them nervous. People are wild and unpredictable. Will there be a robbery or mugging? An attack of some kind? Of course this is all mostly unconscious. All they know is that they just get nervous, jumpy, or uncomfortable.
While I’m on the topic of hypervigilance, I want to distinguish it from paranoia. I hear people confusing these two phenomena all the time as if they were very similar. Even mental health professionals confuse the two. But I believe that they are almost complete opposites. Paranoia stems from an exaggerated sense of importance which is created to compensate for a very deep and underlying sense of worthlessness and emptiness. So in paranoia the person tells himself that people are out to get him because he is special in some way. Thus, for example, one might have delusions of grandeur. But hypervigilance is completely the opposite. One does not think one is special at all. Quite the contrary. If normal people seem to fool themselves that bad things cannot happen to them, and then be ridiculously shocked when something bad does happen to them, hypervigilant people know that they are not special, and that bad things can just as easily happen to them as to anyone else. They don’t have that “normal” sense of somehow being invulnerable and immortal. So hypervigilance and paranoia may be similar in their sense of wariness, but they are completely opposite in terms of their psychological origins.
I put “normal” in quotations, because those with PTSD have a new “normal” that is not shared by conventional society. They don’t fit in anymore. J. Krishnamurti wrote “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” For example, would you want to be well adjusted in Nazi Germany? And this is a matter of degree. America, for example, has much to recommend it, and many people seek to be here. Yet there is also much that is sick about America. So which “normal” is best? Society’s norm, or the PTSD norm? Everyone seems to assume that we have to fix those people with PTSD and make them more like the people in society so that they will fit in better. Many counselors, psychotherapists, and psychologists seem to be working very hard to make the people with PTSD “readjust” or fit in with society. But I think that the goal of therapy should be to help the person realize the ways in which they are different from society, and the ways they will never be the same again. Then they need to cope with that difference, accepting that they are different, and do their best to stay in communication with society. In the end I think it is much more true that society is the one that needs to change; society is the one who needs to learn from the people with PTSD, e.g., to avoid another Holocaust. So those with PTSD should speak their truths even when “normal” people don’t want to hear them. It’s a dance.
And so we come again to the topic of intergenerational PTSD. Intergenerational PTSD seems to be based on the idea that PTSD is in a sense contagious, and that kids will “catch it” from their parent, which they surely will. But there is another way to think about this. I believe it is very much like the situation in which people move to a new country with a new culture, and then experience agony when they see their children abandoning the culture and values of their parents and adopting the culture and value of their new society. The parents and the society almost seem to be competing with each other to win the hearts and minds of their children. This most often frightens the parents. If the parents are enlightened and wise, then they will rejoice that their children are adopting the good things of the new culture, and caution them about adopting the bad things.
I lived with my mother for a few years when she developed macular degeneration. She said she never felt safer than when I was there. I was like a bodyguard or a security consultant. I was a protector. On the other hand there were times when she did not like becoming alarmed when I became aware of a danger to which she had been oblivious, or blissfully ignorant. Years before when her car caught on fire at a resort, everyone was standing around looking at the fire and wondering what to do, when “all of a sudden Michael appeared with a fire extinguisher and put out the fire.” I knew exactly where the fire extinguishers were. I had checked that out when we first arrived. At the time I did not realize that I met all the criteria for PTSD.
I know there were many times when my daughter must have been frustrated with my hypervigilance and caution. Of course, children are often frustrated by their parents’ cautions. But I am more cautious than most! I am like the parents who have moved to a new country and a new culture. I have moved to the land of PTSD. My daughter was trying to figure out whose attitudes and perceptions to adopt. Mine, or those of “normal” society? Do I want to make her into a scaredy-cat, or someone who is cautious and alert enough to be a survivor? Or do I want her to be one of those “normal” persons who act as if nothing bad could ever happen to them? When I was a boy I remember going far out into the surf with my father. The waves were over my head, and I was having a lot of fun jumping off the bottom to ride on top of the big waves. Years later my feelings about being in the surf were much more mixed, combining both fear and fun. I knew there were things in there that could eat me if they wanted to, in the same way that there were people in the thickets in Vietnam who could have killed me. I would go into the surf from time to time, but never again with the same joy and lack of concern that I had as a child. Then I took my daughter to the ocean. It was her first time to see the ocean. She wanted to go way out into the waves. What was I to do? I went with her, acting as if everything were just fine, but staying very close to her and ready to grab her instantly and head for the beach, or fight off a shark. She was having fun; I wasn’t. I was afraid. Did I successfully hide it from her? Should I? Should she be afraid also? Did she “catch” my PTSD? I have little doubt that she did. But on the other hand, I really don’t want her to “catch” what seems to be “normal” in our society. Like the parents who move to a new country and a new culture, I want her to adopt the good things and avoid the bad things. I want her to be loving, wise, strong, protective, and vigilant, but I don’t want her to be afraid. These are the same things I want for myself, but it is not so easy. I am often anxious, and I am certainly a misfit in society. I don’t particularly want to fit in, but that can be lonely. According to my beliefs, the only antidote to fear is trust in God. If you don’t believe in God, then I hope you believe in goodness, honor, love, and the Golden Rule, and believe that there is nothing to fear if you are acting in accord with these virtues. We all die, but the more important question is whether we lived in accord with the higher values that humanity aspires to, or whether we lived like greedy, angry beasts.
- Inter-generational PTSD, What is it Really? (Part One)
- The Stigma of PTSD
- The Puzzle of PTSD
- Writers and PTSD
Mike Muller- MACV CORDS operations advisor, Binh Chanh District, 1970. Briefing officer for DEPCORDS Ambassador Funkhouser to CG & staff, III Corps Vietnam, 1971. In addition to briefing the staff I briefed visiting officials such as the Secretary of the Army. I was in Vietnam for one tour.
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