What does it mean to survive war trauma?
If you ask a soldier who has fought in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, or any of the wars America has been involved in, he or she might tell you that it means, “You came back home alive but not the same.”
They would probably not tell you about the flashbacks and nightmares that go on for weeks, months and years. They may (or may not) understand why they seem like strangers to their spouses, family and friends; because they are strangers to themselves.
But, try posing the same question to someone who survived 911 or a military coup in some Arab or African country, or a mass shooting and you’ll get a different picture.
They have had a full blast of the destructive, nerve shattering, mind binding, life-altering nature of violence. But, they are victims, and not soldiers. The mind however, does not always do a good job of distinguishing the soldier from the civilian.
The thing that caused them so much emotional pain may be a one-time event but it has changed something. The lucky ones get on with their lives and for them life soon returns to “business as usual”. They sigh with relief. They mourn but they are “the same”. The attack is “over”, the threat, chaos and confusion is pushed into the back of the mind as they return to normal. But, those who have been emotionally traumatized live in a strange reality, waiting to return to normal like everyone else.
Anxiety settles into their life and they begin to realize that the mercy of denial, that defense mechanism that allows us to forget, is not working so well for them. People begin to notice and to ask, “What’s wrong with you?” A year later, as the anniversary of their trauma approaches they become restless, jittery, irritable, and unable to sleep through the night. They wonder, “Am I going crazy?” They typically think a lot about the people who died that day. And, with each successive anniversary they may begin to realize just how truly devastated they are, how that day might have changed their lives forever, how much they yearn for closure, and just how deeply they were emotionally wounded.
In a work of historical fiction, Iron Butterfly: A novel of Africa, Dr. Clara Whaley Perkins, a practicing psychologist and close colleague, tells a story of the daughter of a diplomat who confronts residuals of emotional trauma stemming from a military coup that she escaped while living in Liberia. Facing each anniversary with the help of the female Paramount Chief from Sierra Leone, her “mama”, she survives. But, just as another anniversary is approaching her beloved Madame Chief is kidnapped by Liberian rebels. A brutal and devastating civil war has been raging in Liberia. She is torn between using diplomatic channels to find Madame Chief and using other less conventional avenues. Iron Butterfly is a story of conviction, faith, love, destiny and the wounds of war. Dr. Whaley Perkins has crafted a story of high emotional intensity that is tempered by courage. Her work is masterful and insightful. Anyone interested in understanding the long-term effects of emotional trauma should read this novel. Most interestingly, readers will learn that the steps that can take you back to normal might not be as complicated as you think.
Read more posts by Michael S. Broder, Ph.D, a renowned psychologist, executive coach, bestselling author, continuing education seminar leader and popular speaker. Dr. Broder blogs for JenningsWire.