All caps, that’ll get your attention. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is thought of in the general population as a condition that afflicts military personnel returning from war zones. Now, like the myths of the Tortoise and the Hare and David and Goliath that we have deconstructed in previous essays it is time to deconstruct this one. PTSD is a real affliction that affects people differently; in some it is physically debilitating and in others it causes mental anguish and yet in others it tears at their souls.
The myth is that this is an affliction most associated with experiences in combat and comes from specific events of great trauma. Yes, PTSD can stem from a single traumatic event but that event need not, necessarily, be in a war zone. PTSD is very real right here in the good old U.S. where it may well stem from witnessing a shooting in Chicago to being a survivor of a terrorist attack. Generally, though, we don’t name the bad dreams, loss of mental acuity, fear or physical deterioration resulting from these events as PTSD. We call them depression, sadness, shock or some other generic term and assume the affliction will be short-lived while the person recovers from the “shock of the event.” We give the person chemicals to alter their brains blocking the production of this or that enzyme or to stimulate the production of this or that protein. We encourage the person to engage others in talking about the event and gaining a perspective they otherwise would not have. And so on…
But PTSD isn’t really just a condition associated with single or even multiple traumatic events, it’s the fear of such events occurring. Hyper-vigilance causes more cases of PTSD than does specific traumatic events. Hyper-vigilance is another term for fear; fear of dying, fear of dismemberment, fear of capture and so on. Hey, you say, you’re not a doctor, you don’t play one on television and we don’t think you stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night. So, what makes you an expert on PTSD?
Well, let’s see. For almost two decades I lived undercover and ran spies in countries that generally hung or shot spies. I held down a cover job for eight to ten hours a day and then at night, became a skulker in the darkness meeting spies in alleys, cars, hotel rooms, safe houses, you name it. When I wasn’t meeting spies I was trying to recruit others to spy, people surrounded by security officers and counterespionage types. I did this with the knowledge that my life and their lives were at risk and with the additional knowledge that some of the people I had recruited as spies had, indeed, been hung and shot. You round the corner of a dark alley expecting to meet your agent but you might just be meeting the business end of a pistol. It’s 24 hour a day stress just like waiting on combat is. So, I know a lot about stress and the trauma it can cause. Yes, I suffer from PTSD, every single day, but let me tell you who else suffers from PTSD. Police officers and health care professionals are particularly at risk. If you’ve never considered the stress associated with either of these professions you should step back and give it a good long thought. These are every bit as front-line as a soldier in Afghanistan and like that soldier, who may never see combat, they are subjected to the daily fear of what may happen and the stress it creates in their bodies and minds.
But you know who else suffers from PTSD? You do. And do you know why? Because there are elements in this country that want you to be fearful, that want you to worry about what is going to happen this afternoon and tomorrow morning. They predict disaster. You see them daily, you can’t avoid them. And over time the stress they create takes its toll on your body and mind. You know who they are yet you still seek information from them. It’s like an addiction to stress and in many cases that is exactly what PTSD is, a withdrawal from an addiction to adrenaline. The soldier experiences more stress waiting on combat than in actual combat, the police officer experiences more stress in what may happen than in what does happen and the healthcare worker wonders when they are almost certainly going to come down with the highly infectious diseases they’re treating. Real courage is doing what needs to be done despite the fear of consequences and that is why police and healthcare workers are heroes.
But you; you don’t realize that every time you turn on the news you’re seeking a fix for the adrenaline your body needs and in the interim when the fear and the adrenaline isn’t causing a visceral response in your mind and body caused by the hatred of those the media lampoons and blames for the nation, state or city’s problems then the withdrawal creates other chemical changes in your body. You experience the symptoms: depression, sadness, weakness, anxiety and sometimes even physical pain.
Can you have PTSD and be addicted to adrenaline at the same time? I think so, because PTSD is the result of long-term addiction to the adrenaline your body makes in fight or flight conditions as well as in the long term cases of hyper-vigilance. I wish I had an answer for this, I really do. I take medication but that’s not a good answer. I’m not a doctor, but I’m a hyper-vigilant observer, my life depended on it. And this is what I have observed.