After Hurricane Katrina, Years of Post-Traumatic Stress

In a paper called "Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Memory," Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a clinical psychiatrist who has studied PTSD for over three decades, explains how it works. "Ordinarily, memories of particular events are remembered as stories that change and deteriorate over time and that do not evoke intense emotions and sensations," van der Kolk writes. "In contrast, in PTSD the past is relived with an immediate sensory and emotional intensity that makes victims feel as if the event were occurring all over again." Simply put, one experiences a traumatic event but is unable to integrate it into the story of his or her life.

Why did I develop PTSD while some whose lives were more greatly devastated by Hurricane Katrina did not?

According to van der Kolk, it depends on whether or not one dissociates from the traumatic event. If the event is never fully experienced, it fails to be integrated into a "past-tense" narrative, leaving the survivor living in the shadow of a memory-in-limbo -- an experience playing over and over again on an internal JumboTron with no remote control. As a result, some disconnect emotionally; others fail to remember at all. "For example, traumatized people may know what has happened to them, but they may have no feelings about it," van der Kolk adds. "Conversely, people may act disturbed without knowing what makes them behave that way."

This past July, I was asked to appear on National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation" to discuss the White House's decision to send condolence letters to families of servicemen and servicewomen who commit suicide while deployed in combat zones.

During the program, the conversation turned to post-traumatic stress disorder and some of its symptoms: hyper-vigilance, flashbacks, emotional numbness, night terrors, anger, depression, anxiety, and an exaggerated fight-or-flight response. The host, Neal Conan, asked me about my personal experience with PTSD, and I attempted to explain what it was like. I said that it was like looking at life through a pane of smoked glass. I told him that you become "emotionally dead."

After the show aired, I received an email from Brad Fleegle, 27, a Marine corporal and Iraq War veteran who lives in Portland, Oregon.

"I've often told people that I feel like there's a glass barrier between myself and everyone else," his email read, in part. "I can see them, but I can't connect and communicate with them. I am alone in a small glass box, seemingly within the world but actually removed from it."

Not every combat veteran emerges from war with this sense of dislocation. For some, an extreme life experience -- war, trauma, a natural disaster -- can give their lives new meaning. After the hurricane, I relocated to Virginia, where, working on a story for the local newspaper, I interviewed J.R. Martinez, a then-22-year-old Army corporal from Shreveport, Louisiana. Martinez had suffered burns over 40 percent of his body when he drove a Humvee over a landmine in Karbala, Iraq, and was trapped inside. 

At a fundraiser where he was helping raise money for other veterans injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, Martinez pulled off his knit cap to show me the breast implant that was embedded under the skin of his skull to expand the skin, which would be grafted onto other, scarred parts of his body. I suggested that when he was done with it, he donate the breast implant to a stripper who had only one breast implant, and we laughed. At the time, Martinez had undergone over two-dozen surgeries. For the most part, he was cheery and upbeat. It seemed through what had happened to him, he had found his purpose.

In 2010, I started interviewing combat veterans and launched The War Project. Some of the veterans I meet are struggling with their experiences; others are not. They have been to Iraq, Afghanistan, and sometimes both. On one end of the spectrum is Hart Viges, an Army mortarman-turned-conscientious objector who had a religious revelation during a post-deployment screening of "The Passion of the Christ" and now dresses up like Jesus, walking around town holding a sign that reads "JESUS AGAINST WAR." On the other is George Zubaty, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2002 and Iraq in 2003 and has the cool unflappability of a politician-to-be. Zubaty told me, "All the times when I shot at somebody in Iraq, it never really struck me as being something that I was gonna internalize as some kind of, like, great metaphysical wrong."

It's been six years since Hurricane Katrina made landfall and two years since I slammed my head into a cupboard on purpose. Over the years, I've come to understand those who witness stories bigger than themselves have a responsibility to tell their stories and keep telling them. It's through this process that we come to terms with what happened, and, in doing so, we are able to move on, even as we look at the past. It's a way to keep from dissociating, to weave our memories more firmly into the stories of our lives.

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