Sunday, April 20, 2014

Traumatic Growth

In one of the first meetings, he gave this:

The main line chart is a model, illustrating growth and development through one's whole life.  Like many-a-line-graph, the over-and-upward ray illustrates the course of a life, from left to right, with the elevation indicating a level of wellness and function -- or development -- and the distance representing time in years. 

As he had sectioned it, ages:
0 - 20 is largely biological/intellectual development;
20 - 50-ish years is one's growth in productivity in the form of financial growth and offspring;
50's - 60's is an assessment and evaluation stage of life;
and 70's - 80's he called "making peace."

Of the things he has been advocating all along is to give yourself time -- one of the things we both noted that societal conditions these days don't give us.  Back in the earliest days of America, when there was a frontier, veterans could receive free parcels of land for their service, as an extension to the Homestead Act of 1862.  The slow life of being a rural farmer on the outskirts of society gave former soldiers something to do, and time to process things.

Being a Vietnam war veteran, he understood that the situations of "traumatic experience" lend what might be called "traumatic growth."  The growth occurs secondary to the realizations of what the world is, with the fracturing of what we thought the world to be.  Having stepped far outside boundaries of everyday experience, one comes to a(n often isolating) realization of existence outside of confines of normal understanding -- and its importance.  He uses the big suit/little suit analogy.

When you did and thought in accordance with approaches that society had conditioned you to do and think, you wore the "little suit."  Exposure to the potential of one's own death, the death of friends, rationalization of murder, and especially, what all of that was for ... in seeing this aspect of it all, you come back from the experience with the "big suit".  The little suit no longer fits you, and reintegration to normative society is the hardest challenge.

After partaking in combat operations, a whole war, and a whole military that didn't make sense; for a government whose foreign policies only made sense to a select few, I was compelled to find a state of being in the world that truly made sense to myself.  I could no longer trust that there is something "out there" that I should believe will make me feel truly alive, be productive, and in accord with the rest of world in an honest and sensible way.  In a manner of speaking, I was now in a place where I had shed the behaviors I would otherwise accept if I were wearing the "little suit," and start looking for something of *symbolic* meaning to me -- lest, perhaps, my life not be meaningful to me.  My job was to find whatever that is.  In my last weeks at the VA hospital, secondary to questions about my leaving them, I had told my former supervisor, "What I am doing has to make sense" -- that I'm not in a place where I can simply fulfill illogical or inefficient processes simply because it provides me with money to live, or simply because someone in a position of authority had codified that as the way to do it.

Brought up by my counselor was the Repetition Complex, written on the upper left-hand side in the picture above of his dry-erase board.  This is a reference to what's also called Repetition Compulsion.  Freud was the one who initially talked of repetition compulsion, as it was a type of observable behavior in people that wasn't fitting in with Freud's working theory about people's drives: that people naturally pursue pleasure and avoid displeasure.  In a child, for example, this is demonstrated in their behaviors as when they hold a toy and intentionally throw it to the ground.  Mother or father comes to pick up the toy and give it back to the child, and after a little time, the child throws it back to the ground again. Traumatic repetitions could be seen as the result of an attempt to retrospectively "master" the original trauma -- a child's play as an attempt to turn passivity into activity.  As Freud said: "At the outset he was in a passive situation...but by repeating it, unpleasurable though it was, as a game, he took on an active part."

I didn't really understand this part of the equation until I told him that I would sometimes spend hours looking at the pictures from Iraq -- not realizing that so much time had passed -- looking at them over and over.  After watching an HBO documentary about Iraq war veterans, seeing one who claimed to engage in the same behaviors, I understood that I am not the only one who did that.  More importantly, in seeing a documentary called "Sous la Main de l'Autre," (English: "In Their Hands,") showing the work of psychotherapists in Switzerland with veterans or civilian victims of wars that included exposure to (or participation in) torture and other atrocities, at that point, then, like a revelation, I got it:


Friday, April 18, 2014

Field Orphans

He said,
"When I was in Vietnam, somewhere near the Laotian border, there were these Vietnamese children we called 'field orphans.'"

Although it was unclear to me whether or not the children traveled with the platoons, or appeared while the platoons were out on patrol, they were there somehow.

"In the 15 minutes it took for you to rest from a march, the kids -- anywhere from about 9 or 10 years old, to teenagers -- they would give you foot massages, shoulder massages, whatever... and also, strip down your weapons; take the bolt out, clean them off, oil them up and then put them all together.  ...and ALL of this would happen in less than 15 minutes.  They were awesome.

So, one time, we decided to get clever with one of the kids who was going to clean our weapons.  We gave him a Russian AK, a Chinese AK, and an M-16 to see if he could take them all apart, clean them, and then put them back together right, given all of the different parts -- but blindfolded.  And he did.  In less than the 15 minutes of our rest, he had them all back together and cleaned up -- and this is a rural kid about 15 years old.

He continues about the field orphans:

"One time, I noticed that one of the field orphans was missing a leg -- he had a stump left from the amputation.  I asked him how he lost his leg, and he said,

'You did that.'

I thought to myself, I didn't do that -- I hadn't even even seen the kid before.  So I asked the kid,

'What do you mean that I did that,'

and he said,

'U.S. bomb.'

And I thought about it for a minute.  I went into my gear to offer him a can of fruit, and motioned for him to come over to me.  After I gave him the can, I asked him,

'So if we did that to you, how is it that you will come and clean our weapons for us -- why would you come and help us?'

The kid said,

'The American people are not bad, the American government is bad.'"

He chuckled briefly to himself, leaned forward in his chair, and then gave me a compelling, wide-eyed, raised-eyebrow look, saying,
"Are you kidding me?  Did we really know who we were fuckin' with out there?  How is it that a rural 15-year-old Vietnamese field orphan has an understanding of what the real issue with the war was -- one that is superior to that of a great portion of the population back at home?"