Bridging the chasm of PTSD: Penn Valley veteran reflects on war and a failure of the medical model
Special to The Union
In advance of Veterans Day, The Union will publish a special section Monday, Nov. 6, sharing personal reflections from our community’s veterans. Today, we feature a first-person piece authored by Don Morrison, which will be among the stories published in Monday’s special edition. Thank you to the veterans who shared their story, and thanks to each of our local veterans for their service and for the sacrifices they and their families have made in honor of our country.
War for me as young warrior was an apocalypse — brought face-to-face with my own death that couldn’t be denied.
I survived this encounter, but the memory is always there — and will come back when least expected — creating a chasm between the present moment and that memory of imminent death.
The Vietnam War created such a chasm between me, and parts of myself — scenes of war and death and mayhem. For a long time this chasm went unrecognized. I was fine. Oh, I had difficulty sleeping or concentrating while I was awake, but I was in denial and dismissed it.
I had lots of therapy, and it helped for a while — a few days or weeks. I could be with other veterans who carried the same chasm inside of themselves and would stay away from war talk, except for lost friends — the parts of ourselves that didn’t make it back.
I found that giving it a name — PTSD, “post-traumatic stress disorder” — by people who had studied it and wanted to help, did not help. I hated the name PTSD, since it labeled me as a cripple with a “disorder.” I was defective as a human being. It was part of the myopic, single-vision medical model that believes that to understand and give it a name is to heal.
I was just a victim, the “waking, walking, wounded,” a casualty of war.
I became suspicious of people who talked of a cure. Friends left by suicide, and they still do, from Vietnam and more current wars. They said I was depressed and prescribed medications — lots of it — but Western medicine was, and is, bankrupt when it comes to the wounds to the soul.
The Veterans Administration throws lots of money at PTSD. “Supporting our troops — our wounded warriors” became a cottage industry complete with gurus and entrepreneurs who had never been fired at in anger, but who hold themselves out as experts. Staying with the images of the past war, imprisoned me. Going back over and over them in therapy, reinforced the prison.
Long before the term PTSD was added to the DSM-3 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), I was trying, on my own, to make sense of the trauma of my Vietnam War experiences. I’d been looking for an image or a metaphor that would transport me into “another world.” I hoped it would allow me to transit between these alternate realities without being labeled “crazy.”
For a long time, I thought my war memory was just me, maybe other vets, and trauma victims — but always hoping to get over it. Drugs, sex and other obsessions helped for a bit, but they too burned out. I had a high-stress career as a tax accountant that kept me focused on deadlines. Compulsive and extreme exercise helped — running, until my knees went; then biking, until age and loss of balance took the bike.
It slowly dawned on me that almost everyone carries a “hidden chasm,” I admired writers who could transport me for an hour or two, taking me to “another world” — their world. From poets, I learned to tap into deep images, images with psychic weight. I have kept a dream journal for 40 years, and that helped keep the demons at bay. Somehow, these images and scenes seemed to transport myself across the chasm.
Finally, it occurred to me that the war had helped me recognize the “chasm” as few do. I learned that everyone has the “chasm” between the two worlds of consciousness. With help, I came to the knowledge of the underworld of consciousness as a “friend” rather than “the enemy.” It took a long time to shift from being a victim of war memory to understanding it as a “divine insanity.”
Strong poetic images seemed to penetrate the deep psyche in a way that rational language did not, and lifted me into an emerging future and relieving me of the weight of the past. I’ve memorized poems that can do this for me — a great solace. The memorization and speaking of these poems aloud to myself has become a ticket across the chasm.
Somewhere, I stumbled on a quote by Albert Camus, the French writer and philosopher, which grabbed my attention:
“A man’s work is nothing but the slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”
While American culture wants a “quick fix” for the wounds of war, the wisdom of Camus says that it is a “slow trek.” It’s become a ritual practice each morning to visit the images in the poems that reopened my heart.
In his poem “Healing,” D.H. Lawrence says “wounds to the soul take a long, long, time, only time can help, and patience …” Other veteran friends have survived the apocalypse of war by finding a safe haven in art and ritual.
I’ve learned to cope. I know that the war images are “still here,” and won’t ever go away. Occasionally they recur and incapacitate me. But surrendering to the “chaos of the chasm” and allowing it a “voice” shortens the prison sentence.
With age and art, I have a found a path for escaping that prison for a time. I don’t think my path is for everyone, but it works for me, to regularly find the thread back to myself and to the future.
Capt. Don Morrison, a Penn Valley resident, was a B-52 Navigator who left the U.S. Air Force in July of 1969. His service included combat missions over Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam War.
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