In a good novel, there is a moment where the interactions between certain characters can become highly charged, fraught with anger and other intense emotions. That is the case with what I am writing now: three of my characters spent a long time fighting alongside each other, brothers and sisters in arms, completely dependent on each other.
They have a long history. Several terrible incidents occurred during the war they once fought that they don’t understand, and which created a rift between them. Some of their close companions were killed under bad circumstances (are there ever any good ones?) and each of my characters suffers a little survivor’s guilt.
After the war, they went their separate ways and for the last 25 years, have rarely seen each other or spoken. They all bear a burden of responsibility for things they can’t change, and their lives are affected by this, although they don’t know why. For each of them, their anger and remorse are expressed in different ways.
Two of them can’t be in the same room for long without trying to kill each other.
One character in particular suffers disturbing recurring flashbacks, avoidance or numbing of memories of the event, and what we call ‘fight or flight syndrome,’ the uncontrollable urge to either fight or flee. These characters all three demonstrate varying degrees of avoidance, withdrawal, aggressive defense, or in one case, complete frozen immobility. Certain memories trigger these behaviors, and now all three are being forced to face their demons.
My challenge is to bring these people back together with sensitivity and realism, in order to advance my story, and use only 1/3 of the allotted word-count for this book.
Does this sound like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? You’re right. For more information on PTSD, see an article on the website, Military Pathways, and this news article aired by CBS on their show, 60Minutes.
Because it’s a new term, I can’t refer to this ‘injury of the spirit’ as PTSD in my manuscript. But I can give it another name and air both the symptoms and the sometimes life-long problems untreated PTSD causes.
My father, and my uncles all suffered from this long after World War II ended. In many ways it has shaped our post WWII society. Our fathers were told to just shut up and get on with their lives–something that is not always an easy thing. Alcoholism and domestic abuse lay just under the surface of many families in our community, hidden but there.
Prior to World War I, the U.S. Army considered the symptoms of battle fatigue to be cowardice or attempts to avoid combat duty. While the causes, symptoms, and effects of the condition were familiar to physicians, it was generally less understood in military circles. General George Patton garnered substantial controversy after he slapped two United States Army soldiers under his command during the Sicily Campaign of World War II.
It was common for soldiers who reported these symptoms to receive harsh treatment. At the time of the slapping incidents, the two soldiers Patton assaulted were suffering from “battle fatigue,” otherwise known as “shell shock” or “battle stress.” Today, this condition is characterized as a form of PTSD, which can result from prolonged severe exposure to death and destruction, among many other traumatic events.
Even though I write fantasy, the reactions of my characters to certain situations has to be realistic, and that is where a good grasp of what really happens to our vets comes in handy. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is real and affects our returning veterans. More must be done to help ease our military wounded back into society, but generally speaking we pay more lip-service to that problem than we do tax dollars.
We write about incredible personal challenges, because they make great stories. But what about the people who live through those moments? How do they quietly go back to the farm once the war is over, and pretend it never happened? This is what I am writing about now, and it has been an emotional journey for me as as an author and a human being. Everyday, our paths are crossed by men and women living with PTSD caused by a variety of terrible circumstances, They are just ordinary people trying to keep their lives together, not understanding why they sometimes do the things they do, and wondering why things just keep going to hell all around them.