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.

"I killed him," Jay says into my ear. I feel my hands start to go cold. I can’t get the images out of my head for months.

After the slideshow, there’s an aerial video Jay wants to watch.

"It's classified," he says. "Don’t tell anyone I showed you this." Through the grey on the screen, a bright light explodes toward a moving dot. "Those three black things down there are people," Jay explains. He hands me a beer.

I start crying. Then I feel bad for not being strong enough to handle the videos.

This is where STSD becomes complicated—both in my life, and the definition of the disorder itself. While STSD is most accurately defined as a transfer of a disturbing experience, such as in the case of Jay making me watch videos, many argue for a broader definition of trauma, where the original survivor's PTSD symptoms are, in themselves, a "trauma" for their significant other. By this definition, STSD could occur when a veteran in a traumatized state attacks his significant other. In my case, it was both.

A week after the videos, Jay holds my face in his hands while he replays scenes from a Korean War film I don’t want to watch. I close my eyes and he screams at me.

"Watch! Watch!" he yells. "What if you have to kill someone and you’re not ready?"

"I'll never have to!" I respond.

He’s shaking me. "You might! You might! I’m helping you!"

That night he gets drunk and smacks me across the face. Afterward, he scoops up my hands and stares at the ground.

"You know that was an accident baby," he says. "I'd never hurt you. I'd never hurt you. I promise, baby."

"I know," I say. I believe that he’s right. He has to be.

Two nights later, Jay ties me down. He wants to take our sex to the next level, he says. I’m cool with it until he starts pulling a cord tighter around me, and I realize I can’t move.

"Shhh, baby," he says. "You want this."

I fight him off with my knees, but he’s stronger than I am. He's laughing. I’m crying. He gets angry when I don't orgasm.

"Let me go," I say.

He unties the cords on my hands. I curl up. I can’t move. I can’t think. But I feel guilty—I feel bad for Jay that I got so wimpy, that I couldn’t be more fun.

Two years later, my therapist asks me to say the word "rape." He asks if I know that's what it was.

I shake my head. "No, not until you just said it."

Later, Jay tells me about killing a disabled civilian in Afghanistan.

The man was standing on the road in the dark. Jay and his friends didn't know what he was doing. They asked for permission to shoot. They were told to build their case.

Jay's friend lied and said that the man bent down and put something in the ground. Permission was granted.

Jay shot him seven times. Four in the face. The next morning, when Jay strips the man down, Jay finds a radio in his pocket and nothing else. He is identified later that day as a man with Down Syndrome who enjoyed visiting the American troops.

Jay tells me the story again in front of eight other marines who laugh and add details.

"Oh, how that motherfucking retard cried."

Someone cracks a beer.

I'm feeling bad for Jay for having such a horrible accident happen to him. I'm feeling the need to keep his secrets and to defend him.

A few days later, he tells me about calling in a bomb drop on a family. This time, he's drunk. An hour later, he says something slowly from across the living room. "What - kind - of - person - kills - a  - fucking - retard."

"I'll tell you who," he says, pointing at his own chest. "Me. I'm a monster."

That night, every time I leave the bedroom, Jay screams at me. He's so drunk he can barely stand up, but he’s lunging at me.

"What the fuck are you doing out of bed?" he yells.

"I have to pee," I sob.

He climbs on top of me, naked, at around 5 a.m. the next morning.

He's blacked out. He holds me down and tries to have sex with me, but he's too drunk.

A month later, Jay tells me he can't love anything—not even me.

Jay breaks up with me in October, six months after I moved in. I gather the last of my things and drive home to California. I am numb. I am terrified. I feel responsible for his pain.

In May 2012, the U.S. and members of NATO involved in Afghanistan formally agree on a transition plan, and so do I. I pack my bags and board a plane to New York, and I start my life over.

Jay surfaces only once after that, to write me a letter threatening me if I ever share his secrets.

"I don't want to end up like the guy who pissed on dead bodies and ended up in the fucking New York Times," he tells me. "Don't you fucking ever share. Don't you turn me into that."

It might have been the STSD that caused me to think he'd kill me if I did. Either way, I keep Jay's secrets for two years. During that time, I think about creative ways to kill myself and wonder if Jay has passed on the torch of suicidal tendency.

When I'm alone, I wake up in the night wondering if the ghosts of the Afghan war are demanding my blood.

Other nights, I sleep with a man, R. At first, my panic attacks and my fits of crying bust our new relationship open like a ripe watermelon.

"I don't get you," he shakes his head. "What the fuck happened?"

I fill up on booze and weed and pills and pass out horizontal on R's queen-sized bed, snoring, full of Xanax and champagne. But we are lovers for a year, and he is still there when my therapist convinces me that I have to get my experiences out.

"No more Xanax and weed whenever you start to lose it," my therapist says. "Tell R you have to stay alert. You're going to have to begin to stay in that moment until it passes."

R asks me questions, and I share my experiences, like I've been told to, until they lose their power, like they are supposed to, do according to my therapist.

"You're here," R says, when I start to lose it. "Be here."

Motta says I should think of my mind like a filing cabinet. My war-related experiences are filed in the wrong slots. I have to re-open all those cabinets and re-sort my files until they go where they need to. To do it, I have to re-live my experiences until they slide into the correct spaces.

"The way most people conceptualize this is that your entire autonomic system is on hyperdrive. You're sort of always prepared, always ready, always on edge. Sleep tends to get disrupted. You have trouble paying attention, concentrating on things. You have negative interpretations of ambiguous stuff," Renshaw explains to me.

R does eventually hurt me, but by then, my brain is filing correctly. I can tell rape from sex, our normal break up from an abusive experience.

Forgiving myself for the experiences I've had—filing the rape and the pain and the lost time into a space where they stopped being my fault—is the first step. But healing is much more difficult.

Motta explains that whether it was first or the secondary trauma I'm facing, the experience of fighting it out of my life is part of my body's evolutionary fight for survival.

He takes me back to the scared monkeys watching TV. Its evolutionary survival reflex told the monkey that there was danger, and it could affect him.

"It's some kind of interpretation," Motta says. "I don't think it's cognitive, because we're talking about animals watching other animals. I don't think they're doing much thinking. It's just reacting."

My writing process has left me keenly aware that what happened with Jay won't ever kill me. That much I know, now. What it has done, instead, is given me a choice. Rather than operating on autopilot, functioning only as a result of some misplaced sense of evolutionary survival, I can now choose to live my life. I can choose to have a say in my story.