by Joseph Stanfill
“Suffering is traumatic and awful and we get angry and we shake our fists at the heavens and we vent and rage and weep. But in the process we discover a new tomorrow, one we never would have imagined otherwise.”
– Rob Bell
In the preceding pages you have been offered a glimpse into the military experience. And you have been exposed to the concept of post-traumatic growth. More importantly you have read through stories that are real, stories that come from the heart and mind working as one—a visceral representation of people’s memories. By reading them you have been a participant in a project that seeks to shed light on the other side of trauma—the side that is unspoken in the media and, sadly, within the veteran community as well.
A relatively new concept, post-traumatic growth has been a part of every war, car accident, sexual assault, and child’s broken arm. The founders of the post-traumatic growth concept, Rich Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun describe it as such:
“Posttraumatic Growth is not about returning to a ‘default position’ but rather about expanding and experiencing significant life-changing shifts in thinking and relating to the world post trauma.”
To understand post-traumatic growth, we must first understand post-traumatic stress. One of the most important factors to keep in mind when considering post-traumatic stress is that we all experience trauma differently. It is a very personal thing. No scale exists to show how one should respond and process a traumatic event. What effects one person greatly may not register as traumatic for another. How a person processes trauma depends on many factors, such as previous beliefs on safety, trust, control, self-esteem, and others. A person’s upbringing, any previous trauma exposure, and even genetics play a part as well.
From a neurobiological perspective, fascinating things are going on in the brain during and after one experiences trauma. When we are faced with a traumatic experience, no matter how intense, our primitive brain springs into action. The sights, sounds, tactile feelings, taste, and smells that happen during trauma are received by our sensory organs, sending signals into our brain, starting with the thalamus. These signals are routed to the amygdala, circumventing the hippocampus, where they would normally be put into a memory with data about space, time, and function. The signals also bypass the left hemisphere of the prefrontal cortex where they would take on a symbolic significance, as the event takes on meaning within us. In an instant, the brain sends signals to the adrenal glands, which begin emitting cortisol and norepinephrine, which in turn activate the fight-or-flight response and hyperarousal. The result of this process in the future is a seemingly unconscious recall of the trauma. The veteran does not even have to be thinking of the traumatic event in order to experience anxiety, hypervigilance, anger, or rage.
After living through extreme trauma, such as sexual assault or combat action, a person may experience constant over-arousal and respond as if the event is occurring all over again. This constant state of arousal and hyper-vigilance can lead to difficulty concentrating and holding attention. It can also distort information processing and create tunnel vision. The brain becomes unable to distinguish between actually recalling the trauma and the stimulus occurring in the present. The brain treats the current stimulus as a clear and present danger. Eventually the person starts to isolate or restrict themselves from interaction with others, including going out in public, in order to avoid being subjected to those feelings again. Nightmares and re-experiencing of the traumatic event(s) are also common.
Travis Martin is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and the founder of Military Experience & the Arts. He speaks to this avoidance and the benefits of the arts to the veteran:
“Writing and doing art doesn’t cure PTSD. People pushing that panacea are the same types afraid to confront the reality of veterans suffering from lifelong, debilitating mental trauma walking about in their midst. These creative acts can, however, conquer the symptom that gives PTSD its staying power: avoidance.”
Travis goes on to speak of reshaping the trauma and the feelings which feed off of it:
If war trauma is a scalding hot casserole dish in the oven, the creative act is like a pair of oven mitts; the finished casserole is analogous to a finished story, poem, or piece of art. Importantly, that finished work may be only one of the dishes in the oven. And it may take some a lifetime to finish baking. Oven mitts aren’t going to change the dish that was prepped, but they may speed up the process by allowing for culinary precision. They’re for handling things, so that the amateur or expert chef alike can take out the casserole, taste it, check the temperature, show it to others, and even share recipes:
- ‘“Take out the casserole” by transcribing images and thoughts that are too painful or loud to be transformed from within the psyche onto a canvas, page, or screen.
- “Taste it” by easing the artist or author into the creative act—into the act of remembering. It can be easier to simply put down a pen or paint brush than to answer questions from loved ones in real time.
- “Check the temperature” to let the artist or author decide whether the story is still developing or stuck on repeat somewhere in the past.
- “Show it to others” so that the author and artist can discover they are not alone.
- “Share your recipe” and join a community to help those in that community suffering from trauma build the skills needed to express themselves; and to educate those with no referents about what it is that was sacrificed in their name.
Many veterans recover from the worst symptoms of post-traumatic stress. This is not to say that the veteran does not “live” with the trauma. Some veterans will not experience a symptom for years, then something triggers a latent memory within them and symptoms reemerge. Post-traumatic growth is what happens during this recovery, be it from medication and psychotherapy, or the veteran working through things on their own.
Travis Switalski, a veteran of both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, speaks to recovery and the reconciliation of guilt which comes through writing:
“Writing about my experiences in the military has given me more in the way of recovery than medication or therapy ever has. Putting down on paper what happened to me and those around me has helped me to understand the trauma that we were subjected to, and to help let go of some of the guilt that I was holding on to personally. There is something liberating about getting all of that mental mess out of my head and heart and putting it into an organized, understandable thought that others can read and comprehend. Translating it for them has helped me understand it better myself.”
The growth he speaks of is the real life representation of a phoenix rising from the ashes. People will experience varying levels of growth through trauma. Some will be nearly symptom free and become successful in their chosen passion and profession. Others will be challenged by symptoms yet find that they are better able to cope with those challenges and live more full lives.
David P. Ervin is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the President of Military Experience & the Arts. He says that, “Writing about the traumatic events of war removed one major—and damaging—element of the aftermath. Writing it reinforced retrospect. It helped me move past the guilt of what I did or didn’t do. It gave me perspective that there is nothing I could do to change the past, and thus I accepted the memories with greater peace of mind.”
Much time and sacrifice went into the collection of writings on the previous pages. David Chrisinger, the Managing Editor of Blue Nostalgia, was the engine and the driving force behind this effort. Associate Editor, Josef Nix, lent knowledge and expertise in composition and history to the initiative. The Veterans’ PTSD Project is a collection of volunteers, veterans, and civilian counterparts who have a passion for assisting veterans in telling their story of trauma and growth through the arts. The staff of The Veterans’ PTSD Project and its parent organization, Military Experience & the Arts, would like to thank you for making this valuable compilation possible. This journal would not exist without you, the reader. And it would not exist without the brave veterans who were courageous enough to submit their stories of pain, loss, and growth. Thank you all.