Periodically my brother sent photos home to assure my mother that he was alive, and his selection of photos reveals a lot. This picture of him with prostitutes is the most normal thing he could come up with during his second combat tour. And sadly, when he arrived back home with no visible injuries, our family culture — to pretend that very unusual circumstances were not in fact unusual, or were even superior — prevented an acknowledgement of his devastation, which in turn prevented his healing from PTSD.Our family view was not unique when it comes to the PTSD connection.
Our family view was not unique when it comes to the PTSD connection. About 25% of the Vietnam Vets who had battlefield experiences (aka witnessing or performing atrocities, constant stress, and the witnessing or handling of wounded and dead comrades) were diagnosed as having PTSD. Why did not 100% have PTSD? Recent neuro-scientific research on PTSD reveals that a “normal” or structurally healthy brain is designed to recover, and re-set the disregulated neural adaptations from traumatic events. However if one’s brain wasn’t set to “normal” levels in childhood, the resilience isn’t necessarily built in, or doesn’t function as as well. My brother lived through the most horrific of battlefield experiences AND had far from a normal start in life.
That said, brains like his that succumb to PTSD need not stay stuck in the destructive feedback loop. It seems counter-intuitive at first glance, but healing PTSD means facing the trauma by re-visiting the trauma — in a safe supportive environment. However this revisiting needs the proper context: an empathetic setting with person(s) trained or naturally able to understand that triggered behavior is not problematic; it is in fact a useful reflection of the original suppressed trauma, and as such provides an opportunity for the triggered person to receive increased support, increased assurance of safety, and increased compassion. These conditions begin to re-set the brain; they are the means by which the the neural system regains balance. Tragically, my bother didn’t get that opportunity. He defaulted to the homeless community for acceptance, alcohol to calm his fears, and his most reliable source of comfort and warmth were his cancer causing cigarettes.