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2007-03-18 - 10:33 a.m.

...psychic reservoirs and compassion....

It's a quiet morning because K is out with a friend from Germany - she arrived yesterday evening. I should be curled up on the couch grading papers or writing my lecture for tomorrow. ha. I'm still in my PJs, having become engrossed in a NY Times Magazine article about women, war, sexual assault, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

I can't help thinking of my cousin who has made a military career for herself and who has already done one tour in Iraq. I hope that she has not had to experience the things that this article describes. When I met her last, she led us to believe that her commander laid down the law about harassment in her unit. Her unit was (is?) like her family.

The news article focuses on the worst cases, and the mental damage that warring countries need to anticipate in their soldiers upon their return. In reading all the horror stories, it is easy to feel that PTSD is inevitable for every soldier who has experienced combat. I know of some of the situations that my cousin has experienced, and I wonder how she can have returned to a "normal" life with a husband and two kids. I don't have a sense of perspective on how that can feel.

The article gave some useful analogies for thinking about people, though, and their ability to handle stress. One psychologist explained that we are born with a certain 'psychic reservoir' that we use for dealing with stress and trauma. In the case of the military, many individuals arrive on the scene with that reservoir partially depleted by their life experiences with assault and abuse. In the case of women, they may be able to 'handle' the stress of harassment and prior traumas at home, but combining the stresses of sexual assault with combat situations makes them twice as vulnerable to PTSD as men. And in fact we still don't know the stats, because dealing with the problems of women in the armed forces is still relatively new. But it's a problem that sits on our horizon, now that we've sent over 160,000 women to Iraq in this war.

The article was very thoughtful and left me wondering about the greater consequences of these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our military health system - which is slated to experience $1.8 billion in budgetary cuts in 2009-2010 - does not seem equipped to handle an army of men and women saddled with PTSD. What are we doing to these otherwise productive members of society, and what are we doing to their families? Who is going to pay for them?

The analogy of the psychic reservoir has stuck with me, too, in that I watched several friends deal with and cope with the events of 9/11 in NYC. Some of them went about their lives. Others are still hurting and/or emotionally numbed from the experience. My friends who were hurt the worst began with their reservoirs half-full. One is emotionally numbed. The other has days when s/he is completely immobilized by panic. Both are incredibly forgetful.

I guess this makes me realize (again) that we should not judge other people by our own reactions or responses to a traumatic event, because the what is equally important is a person's level of preparedness for that event.

I try very hard not to let it show, but I have a tendency to think that people should "just get over it." Poor K feels the brunt of it whenever he gets physically sick. ;-) But I fight back the feeling when I hear someone recount their sad tale. I don't want to hear it, or rather, I wait to hear what they are trying to DO about it before I send too much sympathy their way. Given my family history, I can easily see how that attitude developed in me, but it isn't an attitude of which am particularly proud.

I have friends who become completely devastated by situations that I've come through relatively unscathed. I try to be compassionate, I listen to them, I feel sorry for their pain. But it is hard for me to understand, and I cannot offer much more.

But this analogy of considering someone's psychic reservoir is a powerful image for me. We do not all come to the table with the same set of reserves. When a snowstorm comes, am I standing in a house with a roaring fire, or in the open wind without a jacket? My simple solutions are not theirs.

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