In the discussion on the Troth email list this past while I have been listening to my fellow veterans, as well as victims of rape and traumatic assault talking about the twin elements of PTSD, what happened to cause the PTSD, and what can be done to build coping mechanisms for it. Our society is built on lies. The communal delusions of the west in the twenty first century are in my estimation these:
We are a civilized folk. Horse pucky. You are not being robbed, raped, embezzled, by the Soviet Red Army. We are most likely to be preyed upon by those in our community who have the ability to use violence to satisfy momentary urges and no real motivation not to use it.
War is about fighting for truth, justice, and the American/Canadian/British/Australian way. Dog droppings. We kill people over there, in the hopes that we can keep the flames of war from crossing our own frontiers . We fight foreign wars for reasons of internal politics, protection of our economic hegemony, to preserve an imperfect balance of power that is assumed to be better than the maelstrom of escalation and violence that would follow its breaking down, and to remind people that attacking us is a good way of getting dead.
We heard much reference to the saga’s being so graphically violent, celebrating the horror of the battle and its aftermath. Indeed, the romanticism of our ancestors differs from the romanticism of the Chivalric, Renaissance and later ages romanticism of battle in the fact that it is not concerned with making the battle seem clean, or for noble purpose. Battle was described as ugly, the humour was rough and sometimes cruel, and the purposes of the struggle were often politics, economics, avarice, ego. This did not detract from the glory that comes from facing your challenges, whether in knowing success or failure in their strategic aims, what was celebrated was the courage in facing the challenge, and the strength, cunning, and spirit brought to bear.
To a survivor of rape or abuse, the delusion of safety that was the communal understanding of the society that they were raised in has been shattered. Their mind is now conflicted between gnostic and epistemological knowledge. They know from their entire cultural upbringing that we are more evolved than the rabid murdering, raping, lawless thieving ancients that gave us so much rich history of semi random carnage. This is their epistemological knowledge, the shared learned beleifs of our society. They know from bitter personal experience that we, as a species, are capable of the basest acts of cruelty, at any time, for the most transient and venal of reasons. Where once the face of every stranger was a fellow citizen, now it must ever be a potential enemy.
From its first line the Hamaval teaches us to be wary always. Enemies can be anywhere. Bad things are always possible, and people who have reason to harm you, or who desire what is yours, are indeed out there. This is not reason to cease living, or going out, or building relationships, but it must ALWAYS be near the top of our ancestors thoughts, when looking at the world.
A person who has had he delusion of safety, of the innate goodness of humanity, stripped away from them will have a hard time talking with those who are still comfortable in their innocence. Like a seal swimming happily in a pod of orca; unaware that some of their playmates regard them as no more than a twinkie that they may or may not feel like consuming at the moment, but are definitely considering.
Society holds the delusion, a modern invention based on trappings of law enforcement, and the public face of justice. The fact is one in four women will be sexually assaulted in their lives, 80% of their abusers were known and trusted by them. When those you trust can turn out to be the ones you should have feared, how hard is it to trust again?
My father’s generation was raised on the myths of the Second World War, the battle of good versus evil, the coming home to parades. My grandfather got back from the war too late to get the truth of it into his sons, so they went to war in Africa believing a myth that was turning most of the returning veterans of WWII into borderline alcoholics, and giving us the kind of marriages that made Valium nicknamed “mother’s little helper”. My father and uncles got to watch African tribal warfare, see baby’s heads dashed on building walls by laughing men of other tribes, while European Mercenaries paid by funds from Canadian Churches did the brunt of the fighting against the UN forces. Coming back from that, they did not receive their parades, but shouts of “baby killer”. The veil was off their eyes, but no one who had not “been there and done that” could they talk to about it.
When I was in the service, Canada preached the myth of the Peacekeeper. We had some of the best killers on the planet, but we told the public that we were glorified crossing guards. When the politician believed their lies, a lot of ours got left in some bad places with no support. A generation of soldiers who grew up listening to the Jewish Holocaust stories and the UN declaration that such would never happen again got to be on the ground when the UN forced its troop commanders to stop using the word Genocide, and use Ethnic cleansing. Never Again was happening in front of our troops, and rather than honouring the UN Charter that all the Superpowers and leading nations of the earth swore to, and stopping genocide from happening again, we switched what we were calling it, to allow us to not go to war, as long as all (insert name of ethnicity) everywhere weren’t being killed, its not genocide. Wiping out all of them in one region or one country is not genocide. Under current UN rules, Hitler would walk. Soldiers that trained their whole lives to stop this from happening, were being handcuffed by their political leaders from stopping it, and gagged by their officers from talking about it. PTSD rates among over used troops who can’t talk to anyone about what they have been through were brutal.
Those who followed me into service got away from Peacekeeping and back into war fighting in Afghanistan (and Iraq for US/UK). While the need to watch passively was taken away, the level of violence and pressure was far higher than we needed. The myth of the good clean war was being sold hard at home, and ladies and gentlemen, that myth has killed as many of my fellow soldiers as IED. It isn’t. It can’t be. It will never be. Selling that myth makes those who support the troops being impossible to talk to because they have no idea what happened, and those who don’t support the troops being impossible to talk to because they have no idea why its necessary or how often the “terrible tragedies” are the cost of bringing about almost unnoticeable Improvements, or stopping rapid escalation of bad.
Again, the problem that the returning soldiers have is that the myths of our society are commonly accepted and hold the force of holy writ. Those who administer and populate the mental health systems do not share the reality of those people who have been down in the mud and the blood, the stress and the fear. The people defining normal have an understanding of reality that is, honestly, flawed.
Our ancestors did have mental illness, and did have clear cases of PTSD. They had a society that understood a version of reality that was close enough to their warriors, to the women and children who had been on the receiving end of brigandage or the sack. Their poetry was as often created by professional warriors as poets, celebrating the reality they shared. The customs of the bragaful, the use of mead and wine to break down the barriers, of establishing a sacred space in which men could speak freely and without shame of their struggles, their losses. Egil Skallgrimson showed the depth of how a warrior, a mercenary and noted berserkyr could openly mourn his lost son without fear of losing his perceived status or manhood. The reality of our ancestors accepted that terrible things happened to the ones we love, and it is bloody hard to cope. Coping mechanisms are often best described as going just insane enough to not come apart completely. Egil is a wonderful case in point. His dealing with the death of his brother, and then later his son shows how acting out was accepted, as long as once you were done dealing with your losses you got your act together and took care of your duty. There was no need to pretend everything was fine. It was alright to come apart at the seams, to not be OK with what happened. There was no shame in bleeding from wounds without or within. There was healing to be done in sharing the pain, and loss. Life goes on. Hard, unforgiving, cruel, tiresome, seductive, amusing, inspiring, exciting, glorious life-goes on.
Our society accepts the delusion that fair exists, that we have a right for bad things to not happen. It teaches that there is always a better way than violence. It teaches that if something bad happened to you there must be a reason (you got raped, where were you, what were you wearing?). If somebody dies in a war zone it is a crime and somebody must be punished. Our society teaches that when something terrible happens to you, and you realize the myths are false, that now something is wrong with you. If you are not OK with having a stillborn baby because your doctor says you “can just have another one”, then clearly you are the one with a problem. If you got raped at a transit stop and are now afraid to take a class that will force you to take transit home after dark, you need to “get over it”. If you are a soldier who did what you needed to do when you were over there, and now can’t go to bed alone, unless you have a bottle or pills to keep the things behind your eyes at bay when the night comes, then you need to “suck it up buttercup”. We eat our wounded to cover the lies of our society.
Our own faith is a world accepting one. We are taught to accept the world for what it is. Our code of ethics is not a perfect world system, but a functional roadmap for dealing with people the way they are. Violence, greed, malice are all parts of humanity. Those with the power to abuse will often be as free to do so as they think they can get away with (observe the “good people” in mob situations and see how many people have been straining at the leash to indulge some pretty dark appetites). There is the good with the bad, but we are taught to as much how to protect against the latter as we are to build upon the former. A person not coping well with stuff that was too much to handle was accepted by the ancients. Madness was holy, in its own way. Coping strategies based around sharing your trauma in a way that was not victims talking about what broke them, but strong men and women boasting, sharing, ranting, and raving about what they survived.
Why do so many of our gods bear wounds openly? The Battle Glad gave his eye, while the lord of honour gave his hand. Our gods bear their wounds with pride, their loss not hidden in shame but boasted. There is always a price to be paid for life. A terrible price, for the greatest possible prize. To pretend that life should be free of price, is to cheapen its worth. Bad things happen, mistakes happen, bad people are out there, and even some good people are going to be set against you. Accept this. You will encounter things that are beyond your power to deal with, unless the gods have blessed you greater than any I have yet met. Wyrd weaves as it will, and it is enough that you muddle through and seek to do your duty regardless of the price paid. Remember that, take pride in that. Grow strong in the broken places and boast of your scars, both the outer ones and the dark secret ones that society tries hard to make you ashamed of. Pain overcome is honour won. Claim your victory, and pox on the shame society would use to protect its pathetic tissue of make-believe “normal”.
John T Mainer
John T Mainer