Trauma Is Contagious

Shortly after we moved in together, my boyfriend's experiences in Afghanistan began affecting me in strange and terrifying ways.

Dr. Robert Motta, a psychology professor at Hofstra University, is the first person to make sense of me in a year and a half.

He tells me about one study in which one monkey watches another on television. The study finds that if the monkey on television is fearful, the watching monkey becomes fearful as well.

Motta is comparing me to the monkey that's watching. He tells me that the watching monkey can't smell anything or sense any danger in the air.

"Are you following me?" Motta asks.

Motta is a cognitive behavioral psychotherapy specialist who studied secondary trauma in Vietnam vets' families. He thinks I have Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder, or STSD.

The initial "T," or trauma, refers to the time I spent with Jay, my ginger ex-boyfriend people still ask about. "How's he doing after Afghanistan?" they ask. "I sure did feel bad for him."

I smile and I shrug through those conversations. "We don't talk," I say. "I hope he's doing well."

That's a lie.

* * *

There are two levels to my experience.

The first shows itself in psychological reactivity to triggers that would commonly disturb a veteran. Except I've never been to war.

STSD is a vicarious traumatization occurring when a significant other is "traumatized" by hearing about a trauma that happened to a loved one. The likelihood of contracting it is increased through three factors: First, how graphic is the exposure? Second, how repeated is the exposure? And, third, how much does it violate your expectation or understanding of how the world works?

When psychologists talk about PTSD, usually there is a reference to a "trigger event"—a catalyst. With STSD, meanwhile, the individual may not have actually shot a person, but they hear about the experience over and over again from someone close to them.

A University of Denver study found that that 22 out of 190 military wives showed signs of possible STSD, in that they reported that their PSTD-like symptoms were due only to their husbands' wartime experiences. 

"If I was really saying,'this is how we define secondary traumatic stress disorder,' it would be just like we define PTSD," Keith Renshaw, a clinical psychologist at George Mason University, said to me in a phone interview. "It's no less traumatic or poignant."

* * *

I was almost 21 when our relationship started. It was January 2010, the month Ali Hassan Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti, the Ba'athist Iraqi Defense Minister, was executed, and two former Blackwater contractors were charged with murder for the shooting death of two pregnant Afghani civilians.

Jay, a pseudonym, was my cousin's roommate—a short redhead with freckles and rosy cheeks. Our first date was Valentine's Day at a little Greek restaurant in downtown Long Beach, California. Over the next several months he became, in every sense of the word, my very best friend.

Jay was a Reconnaissance Amphibious Marine—the best of the best, according to him, me, and the bumper sticker on my car. He left in April for Camp Leatherneck, where he was to spend the next nine months traveling back and forth between Sangin, in Helmand province, and Kandahar.

Almost immediately, I began to love Jay in a way I'd never loved anyone. I loved the way he laughed and the way he talked, his stories about Afghanistan's nomad shepherds and the way we watched cartoons on Sunday afternoons from opposite sides of the couch—legs all tangled up, cereal bowls on the table. I loved him when he was angry, and when he was sad, and when he wouldn't let me sleep at 5 a.m. with the TV up loud and his drunken snores coming off the couch.

In April 2011, I flew to Camp Pendleton to help Jay drive his jeep and gear home to Portland, where he grew up. We spent our time catching up, not sleeping, making fast food runs at midnight, and watching movies on repeat.

In July 2011, 54 coalition soldiers, including 32 Americans, were killed in Afghanistan, and I moved to Oregon to move in with Jay.

I didn't know trauma was contagious when I was packing a white convertible to move in with a man who couldn't grocery shop without panicking. But, according to Motta, people are programmed to be sensitive to the threats that occur to their loved ones because they could become their own.

A month after I move in, Jay begins to talk about the way he loves blood. Two weeks later, I'm helping Jay fill out college applications. He throws something at me. It's a pair of bloody gloves.

"Look," he says, laughing.

They land on my lap. My heart’s pounding. Whose blood is this? It’s touching me.

"Get them off!" I scream.

"Calm down," he says, grabbing my chin to give me a kiss.

I’m watching Moulin Rouge in my sweats on the couch. Jay wants to show me a video. "Can I turn it off and show you what I made?" he asks.

It opens with the dates of his deployment on a black background. Next, there’s a photo of an animal leg. Jay tells me they dismembered goats for fun one day when they were bored. After the goat leg comes a human leg. Next, there are fields of marijuana. Three minutes in, there’s a naked man.

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Shanley Knox is a freelance writer based in New York City and Uganda.

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