What a fascinating process; metabolism . Its scientific designation runs from breaking matter down, to absorbing and burning it up for circulation as fuel. We don’t have many words in the English language that cover such a gamut. The romance languages are better at that, acknowledging many ways to make use of the nuance of inference. But appreciating metabolism as a physical process all living things employ one way or another for survival, I’ve always been focused on its corporal rather than its spiritual qualities. I’m learning, slowly, that it takes more time to absorb emotional properties than physical ones—but that the process of metabolizing shock is just as important for the survival of the soul as the absorption of nutrients is for the body.
With achingly embarrassing honesty, I admit I’ve always considered PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) an excuse for not getting on with life. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps comes to me from a mindset of self-sufficiency passed on in early childhood. Even with the proof of PTSD’s debilitating effects—a brother-in-law suffering from it after the Korean War, friends and acquaintances clearly in its clutches in too many ways to number—I still felt a constant reference to PTSD was more excuse than acceptance, and the fact that whether it was denied or glorified, no one I knew with it ever seemed to get better. I assumed that meant they didn’t want to.
Truly, I did understand intellectually, and even sympathized emotionally whenever my brother-in-law jumped out of his car to run under a bush, hiding from imaginary North Korean fighter planes overhead. I myself used to duck involuntarily after 9/11 when I heard planes over New York. But the ongoing assumption of what seemed like the victim’s plight always left me suspicious of PTSD’s labeling. Was it in fact any use, to the sufferer or anyone else for that matter including the medical profession, to identify it in order to understand it and study its components? Finding that I’m also considered to be a ‘sufferer’ after the year of my husband’s fatal disease and ultimate death, I have of course come to a new acceptance of the importance of understanding PTSD. Nothing like personal involvement to change attitude!
So now, why do I feel so comfortable with the diagnosis when I was so uncomfortable even admitting it was a disease to begin with? It’s more than just its proximity to me, because of course I don’t feel any different than I did when I doubted its practicality in others. Whatever you call it, I have to deal with the flashbacks, when they come, of my husband’s hospital stay and long months of palliative hell at home. Therapy may be essential for halting the invasion of past unhealthy habits into present and future healthy living, but it clearly doesn’t stop the assault of visions of a trauma one has to hold at arm’s length in order to survive.
Viewing PTSD as something that has to be metabolized in order for it to lose its power to shock has brought me a new vision of its importance. Call it my modern concern with waste, but the idea of there being a future use for the barbs of memory coming back to slash and burn helps me see them differently. The thought that PTSD will ultimately be absorbed over time changes my relationship to the emotional disorder itself. Understanding that as the shock is metabolized, slowly and relentlessly, it will also be processed and made use of, recycled if you will, to produce a stronger me who can possibly help others to see it as useful and necessary, too.
Thinking about this discovery for a while, I recently spotted an Op Ed essay by David Brooks in the NY Times on those who survive shock and come back from it best. I certainly don’t disagree with his suggestion that the two necessary ingredients are love and altruism, and appreciate the need to engage with a community in an open way to put the haunting personal images in a place where they lose their power. But all this does suggest you have to do something yourself, and perhaps be some kind of personality you may never have been. That can be a daunting prospect. I’m sure the idea that these lingering traumatic images and feelings invading the present can be absorbed naturally without any special effort or skill from the sufferer is what attracted me to the idea of metabolizing shock in the first place. If we don’t have to actually ‘do something’ ourselves, or ‘be something’ we’re not to have the pain recede, then I assume moving on to opening the heart and soul further as Brooks suggested would be a wonderful catalyst to move the healing process along.
Those flashbacks from a former blow aren’t like the feelings from the things in early life we didn’t handle well. I think we know instinctively that traumatic memories are too much for our human psyches, but that doesn’t make us victims, either. So we can use them to rebuild our strength if we let them, and use the natural process of metabolism to its full advantage until we’re healed by the progression itself. Naturally.