“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
– William Falkner. Requiem for a Nun.
The echoes of past traumas get subconsciously played out by us in our everyday lives. Sigmund Freud called it ‘repetition compulsion’ – an attempt of the unconscious mind to replay the unresolved so that we can ‘get it right’. This mechanism drives its way through generations. Jung also noted that whatever is too difficult to process does not fade away. It gets stored in our unconscious and finds expression in other ways. He says,” When an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside as fate.”
Here’s an example: Jake was 19. He hadn’t slept a full night’s sleep in more than a year. He had developed dark circles around his eyes and a blank stare in them. He looked at least 10 years older. He had been a star student and a great athlete but the insomnia had left him lifeless. This thing had no explanation and none of his doctors or psychologists or naturopaths could figure it out.
It had started with Jake waking up shivering one night at 3.30 am, frightened to death. No amount of woollen clothing warmed him up. Soon, insomnia became a daily ordeal. Despite knowing that his fear was irrational, Jake was helpless and could not relax. The ‘freezing’ feeling associated with the first episode was quite peculiar.
On exploration of Jake’s family history, this story came out: His mum’s brother, Uncle Colin, whom he had never met had frozen to death at the age of 19. He was checking power lines in a storm in the Northwest of Canada. He struggled to hang on but eventually fell face down in a blizzard, lost consciousness and died of hypothermia. The family never spoke his name again.
Now, thirty years later, Jake was unable to slip into sleep at the same age as his Uncle. For Colin, letting go meant death. For Jake, falling asleep must have felt the same. Once Jake could see this link, he was able to free himself of it with the help of healing techniques taught by Dr Mark Wolynn, a neuroscientist with an expertise in breaking inherited family patterns. His book “It didn’t start with you”, describes some of these practical tools.
Scientists are now able to identify bio-markers as evidence of traumas passed down from one generation to the next. Studies on Holocaust survivors and their children have revolutionised the understanding and treatment of PTSD all over the world. Be it fear, guilt, low self-esteem or anxiety, the roots of these issues may reside in the traumas of our parents, grand-parents and even great-grandparents.
He served for 10 years in the Parachute Regiment. He had witnessed and been a part of ‘very severe military activity’ in Afghanistan as a result of his service in the elite Pathfinder Platoon. He left the army in 2010 and started to work in close protection in Iraq. In 2012 he married a Thai woman who commented that 2 years later he ‘wasn’t good’.
He sought help from the Combat Stress charity (http://www.combatstress.org.uk/) in December. A nurse referred him to a Consultant Psychiatrist as she felt he might have PTSD. His father noticed that Pete had started to have a tic and facial problems and that was a clear indication that he was suffering from deep psychological trauma. The psychiatric appointment was available for a date 4 months away, in April. Faced with this long wait, Pete went back to Iraq for 2 months. He returned home briefly before flying to Vietnam for a kite-surfing course. Pete never went on the course and sadly ended his life in Vietnam in February.
The Coroner heard that drugs were found in Pete’s blood and ruled there was insufficient evidence for either suicide or accidental death. His family are hoping that the authorities will recognise Pete’s death as a direct result of PTSD resulting from his service. They want his name to be included at the National Memorial Arboretum.
Another tragic loss of a young life, not getting timely help despite asking for it. Another family lost, not knowing exactly how to help their young man. Another suicide not registered as such, adding to the underestimation of the national scandal that it is. Another charity, offering more assistance than the NHS. Another child not coming home for Christmas.
Parents, partners, friends and siblings of those lost through suicide can take forever to get back to ‘normal’. They are haunted by events and memories associated with it for many years. This is especially true for those who are unfortunate enough to be the ones to find the bodies of their loved ones. The unimaginable pain stays with them like a dagger in their hearts forever.
Even today, the sound of fast moving trains completely rattles my being. The events of ‘Day 0’ replay like a film in my head many times a day. Most often it’s the first thought in the morning. I break into a sweat and my heart pounds violently. I hold back from screaming outwardly but inside I am wailing. I have millions of screams stored up inside me. I fear one day they will explode into a deafening wail that will enfold the whole world.
Direct experience of horrific events; witnessing trauma in others; learning that traumatic event(s) occurred to a close family member or a close friend, especially where the actual or threatened death is violent; repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the event – a history of all of these is DSM-5 criteria for the diagnosis of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
Talking therapies (Cognitive Behavioural therapy and EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing), Group therapy and self help strategies are very useful for management of PTSD.
Guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) suggest that trauma-focussed psychological therapies should be offered before medication, wherever possible. UK Psychotrauma Society has published an evidence based guide for management of stress caused by trauma.
Following on from yesterday, is it any wonder that mental illness is rife in war torn countries?
I am no psychiatrist but I don’t think what I have is PTSD. I have an understandable response to a catastrophic event. I am gradually getting better at handling it. I can keep a semblance of ‘normality’ in my day to day life even though I am hurting deeply. Some recently bereaved ‘patients’ are started on antidepressants within weeks by their doctors. One of them said to me, “I don’t feel anything. Just blank.”