We know life or body threatening traumatic events, like the terror attacks in Paris and Colorado Springs or repeated combat deployments, can injure the brain. But such injuries are not like bullets ripping through organs. When bullet meets flesh injury, even death, is inevitable. In contrast, traumatic events yield many outcomes. Most adapt. Some thrive. But some are torn apart, about 20%. Some lives never recover. Many end in suicide. This relationship between traumatic growth (resilience) and a traumatic stress disorder is extraordinarily complex in aggregate, and, as any clinician who works with traumatized patients will attest, even more so for any one individual. Of course, risk and reliance factors influence outcome. But no clear answers exists for why one person thrives while someone else suffers.
Pundits who write about trauma and resilience should honor that complexity, as well as the imperative to do no harm. Simplistic comforting illusions help no one and risk further stigmatizing those suffering from PTSD. A particularly egregious example of someone getting it wrong was David Brooks’ Thanksgiving column “Tales of the Super Survivors.”
Brooks argued that those who thrive, the “super survivors,” as opposed to those wrecked by PTSD, are able to tell themselves moral narratives of redemption. They have a post-trauma story that makes sense. The background for this success is lots of unconditional love early in life (blame the parents!) and being optimistic by nature. The wrong story leads to suffering and the right story breeds resilience: “individuals need moral stories if they are going to recover.”
Brooks could not be more wrong. He misses the basics of traumatic experience. Trauma is not, as he writes, “a shock that ruptures the central story that you thought was your life.” Such disrupted narratives are symptoms of trauma, among many. But PTSD is not the wrong life-story, one that may be amoral or immoral or just insufficiently moral; it is damage to the brain’s capacity to tell stories. As a result the traumatic event is relived rather than narrativized.
The moral content of one’s autobiographical narrative is a non-question because trauma is an event that overwhelms the brain’s capacity for narrative. It leaves you over-stimulated and out-of-control, reacting in an aisle at the Wal-Mart as though you were once again walking the rifle-torn streets of Fallujah, or Paris or Colorado Springs. Palms sweat, hearts race and vision narrows. Fear, helplessness, and horror fill and overwhelm the moment. You’ll do anything to avoid feeling that way. Forget shopping at a Wal-Mart, never again put yourself in an aisle of any sort. Withdraw and isolate. It’s safer. Maybe turn to drink and drugs, or maybe compulsive sex or gaming, or just stay home and stare at screens, anything to numb the traumatic Groundhog Day that has become your life.
The traumatized haven’t lost a moral story line. They’ve lost the ability to tell their story about the traumatic experience. Recovery is regaining the ability to tell stories, regaining the ability to tell a story about a horrible feeling rather than living the feeling. So, when Brooks urges us to develop moral foreign policy narratives as a vaccine against PTSD he completely misses what trauma is. It’s not the narrative that’s off, it’s the ability to narrate, getting stuck in repetitive moments where the fight-or-flight mechanism fires at full speed for no apparent external reason.
He wants to comfort us: the age of terror is not so bad; we just need better stories and all will be well. It seems he’s doing for the age of terror what apologists for the Catholic Church tried to do when the priest abuse scandal first came to light: it’s not so bad; most do really well even when traumatized; embrace the terror. His conclusion is startling: the “good news is there is no reason to be pessimistic during the war on terrorism. Individuals and societies are tough and resilient, and usually emerge from attacks better than before.” Bring it on; you make us stronger!
But for some a traumatic event rips through a brain like a bullet. Now is not the time to stigmatize the traumatized for not telling themselves the right kinds of stories. It is time to make sure top-notch treatment is widely available.