A new book has been published on PTSD that looks as if it might have something fresh to say about the experience of suffering from the condition.
The book, The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is by David J Morris, a former marine officer who survived an IED attack in Iraq.
Morris is an unusually good writer, as an excerpt from his book demonstrates. Writing of how a trauma affects mind and body, he says:
“Traumatized people often feel fragmented, with their nervous systems living in the past, while other parts of their body continue to live in the present. This sense of temporal disorientation is strong enough that it is difficult to describe such feelings as merely memories. (When your heart starts to race and your eyes start scanning rooftops for snipers in downtown Phoenix, is this really the same as remembering your high school graduation?) Put another way, if on a chemical level your body is essentially still in Iraq, is that still memory? Isn’t it something more than a memory?”
Morris is very good on the subject of that connection between mind and body, of how trauma turns the survivor into a different person – and how a major trauma is both a death and a rebirth. He writes:
“As practically any survivor will tell you, the day of their rape or ‘their’ IED serves not merely as the end of a chapter in their lives, such as the end of puberty or bachelorhood, but the actual disappearance of their previous identity and the emergence of something altogether new and unknown.”
This is particularly pertinent when it comes to PTSD after birth, because giving birth already feels like a transition into a new identity – but when that transition is marked instead by trauma instead of happiness, it is overlaid with feelings of guilt and confusion. If it’s true that veterans and other trauma survivors with PTSD are often expected to “snap out of it” or “pull themselves together”, then this is even more the experience for new mothers, who are often told they should focus on how lucky they are instead of “dwelling” on their difficult birth.
But it’s not something within an individual’s conscious control. As Morris so beautifully puts it:
“The parts of the brain dedicated to survival, such as the amygdala, store away as much information as possible for future reference. You might want that information to go away, but these deeply seated survival mechanisms, wired into the oldest regions of the brain, are simply not open to human reason.”