Mike Muller is on the Advisory Board for Thuy Smith International Outreach. He is a Vietnam Veteran and has been a Psychologist counseling veterans for many years. He writes novels under the pen name of Michael FitzGordon.
The Puzzle of PTSD
Jonathan Shay, a VA psychiatrist, wrote Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America, two books showing that PTSD existed long before we had a name for it. In the past the condition has been referred to as nostalgia, shell shock, and combat neurosis. I find “nostalgia” interesting, because it suggests a longing for the innocence of one’s past before experiencing traumatic horrors. The paintings of Nguyen Thanh Chuong, a former North Vietnamese soldier, suggest a longing for the pastoral peace of his childhood. Nor is “shell shock” such a bad designation. The theory was that multiple concussions created many tiny bleeds in the brain, resulting in a diffuse brain damage. Anyone who has been in heavy shelling knows this is all too likely. When I was counseling WWII veterans I would sometimes read their medical records from the past, long before there was any such diagnosis as PTSD. It was interesting to see the clinicians from the past describing what was instantly recognizable to me as PTSD, and then giving it some other name, such as combat neurosis or even schizophrenia.
Recently I was reading The Book of Psalms in the Old Testament. Psalms is believed to have been written by King David. I found the psalms very meaningful, and I felt that David was a kindred spirit with whom I would have liked to have a conversation. Later a friend of mind suggested that David had PTSD. Of course! As a kid he fought the giant, Goliath. He did his best to serve King Saul, but Saul was jealous of David and tried for a long time to hunt him down and kill him. And David of course wrote the favorite verse of so many combat veterans, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” (Psalm 23). It does seem to me that David might have had PTSD. Yet he was a very competent warrior and king.
Recently I was viewing and enjoying Michael Wood’s very interesting four-hour documentary for PBS, “In Search of Shakespeare.” It is a biography of Shakespeare and a description of the society in which he lived. England in Shakespeare’s time was a very oppressive society in which there were many paid informants, and in which being a Catholic could result in execution. Shakespeare’s family had been Catholic before the government outlawed Catholicism. There is evidence that Shakespeare’s family remained secret Catholics. You might notice that none of Shakespeare’s plays were about contemporary events! That could get one beheaded. His plays were set in the distant past, in distant countries, or in fantasy worlds. Any allegories or references to present events were very subtle, indirect, discreet, and cautious! When Shakespeare was a teenager, one of his uncles was suspected of being a clandestine Catholic, and was executed in the usual style, which was to be taken to the meat market for public viewing of his execution. He was disemboweled, and his intestines were set on fire so that he could see them burning before he died. Then he was beheaded. Perhaps his head was placed on London Bridge for additional public viewing. Whether the young Shakespeare saw this, we do not know. But he certainly knew of it. When I read Shakespeare’s early plays, it seems to me that there is a clear horror for the folly of the human conflicts that raged all around him in society. I believe it is likely that Shakespeare could have been diagnosed with PTSD.
General William Tecumseh Sherman is notorious for his decisive action and scorched-earth policy in his march to the sea. Before the Civil War he fought in The Second Seminole War. Before the Civil War he also warned the secessionists about the course of this war they were seeking. His statement about the course of the war was, in retrospect, uncannily accurate, and very nearly psychic. He knew what he was talking about. In the early part of the Civil War, however, Sherman was relieved of command as unfit for duty and crazy. Apparently he was considered to be hypervigilant, and to be having a nervous breakdown. He did eventually return to duty, and was caught by surprise in one engagement because, although he had wanted to be hypervigilant and take precautions and prepare defenses, he feared that he would once again be considered crazy and hypervigilant. His unit was in fact attacked and forced into retreat. His competent leadership later contributed greatly to the victory of the Union. I believe that Sherman could have been diagnosed with PTSD. But like Shakespeare, of whom he was fond, Sherman was also exceptionally intelligent and competent.
In future blogs I want to continue to address this puzzle about the ways in which PTSD is disabling, and the ways in which it is not. Perhaps I will develop a theory. I also want to discuss some well-known authors who probably had PTSD, and the different ways they coped. Each person who has PTSD is unique.
Other Related Posts by Mike:
- The Stigma of PTSD
- Inter-generational PTSD, What is it Really? (Part One)
- Inter-generational PTSD, Another Perspective (Part Two)
- 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.
Disclaimer: If you are needing more extensive assistance or counseling, we can supply you with a list of available agencies to assist you. No blogs are ever meant to substitute a person seeking help through professional counseling.