The Coping With Trauma
Generally, war stories are expected to be intense recollections of the gruesome battles and disturbing encounters soldiers experience in service. However, many people tend to pay no attention to the emotional battles soldiers undergo. The stigma around mental illness, and PTSD in particular, is strong. Stereotypes that depict people with PTSD as dangerous, incompetent, or to blame for their illness promotes stigma and makes it a subject many choose to ignore and repress. Rather than focusing on the physical wounds, what kind of emotional wounds do soldiers sustain, and how to they cope and continue on a normal life? In his novel The things they carried, Tim O’brien assumes this new perspective while telling not only of war experiences, but also life experiences before and after. O’Brien depicts how soldiers go through five stages of grief to overcome and find peace in their struggles with trauma and shock.
After experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event, most people have stressful reactions, finding it temporarily difficult to adjust and cope. With time and good self-care, they usually get better and resume in their normal lives. However, for some people the emotions do not go away and they find it starts to disrupt their lives. According to the Veterans Association of War Related Illnesses, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is diagnosed “when these feelings do not subside, or they get worse.” It is highly recommended “ to get treatment for these symptoms because they may lead to drinking and drug use, trouble sleeping, irritability, angry outbursts,” flashbacks, feeling emotionally numb and disconnected, depression, paranoia and constant avoidance of things that will remind them of the event. These symptoms “eventually will interfere with work, family relationships, and social life.” Soldiers are exposed to several terrifying and potentially traumatic events during the life threatening combat in war as they constantly witness death and injury, handle human remains, and live in constant fear.
With extreme emotional baggage and a complete change in environment after the war, hundreds of thousands of soldiers develop PTSD. Because it is a delayed disease, many neglect to get proper treatment and suffer immensely. Tim O’Brien recalls how after the war his “emotions went from outrage to terror to bewilderment to guilt to sorrow and then back again to outrage.” and he “felt a sickness inside [him]. [a] Real disease”. The array of emotions he experienced were brought out by his time in the war, and are apart of the 5 common stages of grief PTSD victims go through. The stages these victims undergo are shock, denial, anger, depression, and final acceptance. While the characters described in The Things They Carried clearly deal with this process, hundreds of thousands of other soldiers experience the five stages of grief while overcoming their trauma. Most people are familiar with the fight or flight reaction to an event that is possibly threatening ones survival or sanity. However it is rare someone is fully equipped with all of the tools to stay fully present in a stressful situation, so most respond with ‘flight’ in the moment, otherwise known as being in shock.
A surge of overwhelming emotions cause the nervous system to temporarily freeze in order to make the reality and pain of the situation bearable. It provides an emotional protection, and allows people to survive and not freak out impulsively. In the beginning of the novel, O’brien describes a brief period following his draft into the war where he was experienced shock. O’brien opened the letter and all he could think about was running away to a place in Canada where no one would be able to track him. His recollection of the events that followed were all blurry to him, he subconsciously got in the car and drove North. It were as if he were being controlled by something, and could not comprehend what was happening. All he could “remember was a sense of high velocity and the feel of the steering wheel in [his] hands [as he] was hiding on adrenaline.” He felt a “paralysis that took [his] heart, a moral freeze. [He] couldn’t decide, couldn’t act, couldn’t comport [himself] with even a pretense of modest human dignity. All [he] could do was” drive. He was stuck on what to do: go to Canada or go to war, he was completely frozen. During the war, the stress of a battle often causes soldiers to get so overwhelmed that they disconnect from their surroundings. They become unable to react efficiently or prioritize what they need to do in the situation.
O’Brien recalls when he was shot in combat, he suffered injuries much more severe than they should have been because the medic, Bobby Jorgenson, froze up when going to treat him. He “later found out [he’d] almost died of shock. Bobby Jorgenson didn’t know about shock, and if he did, the fear made him forget”. The self paralyzing response, as scary and uncontrollable as it seems, is the bodies way to prevent someone from feeling the harrowing enormity and help them to cope with what is happening. As people start to leave the state of shock, the reality of the drastic change in their life starts to sink in. Life can make no sense and seems impossible to continue. Emotions are still way too overwhelming to accept, so many start to deny what has happened in order to cope. Denial is the refusal to accept the facts either consciously or subconsciously. In the denial stage, people are not living in ‘true’ reality, but the ‘prefered’ reality as they slowly adjust. O’brien recalls denying hard truths as far back as his childhood, when his friend Linda passed away from cancer. Her death caught him off guard, it seemed as if it “didn’t seem real, a mistake…[he] knew it was Linda, but even so [he] couldn’t find much to recognize…she looked dead, totally heavy and dead.”
In his mind, Linda couldn’t have died, and the girl in the casket was dead, so he refused to believe it was his friend laying there. Soldiers are particularly affected by denial as their lives are completely uprooted and changed when they are serving; weather it’s something they are refusing to accept back at home or in the present, it is hard to accept every emotion brought out while in the environment of a war. O’Brien describes a soldier named Timothy Cross in his novel who previous to the war was in love with a woman, Martha, who did not love him back. Martha had denied him in the past, had other boyfriends and would only occasionally write to Cross in a friendly manner; however Cross denied the fact that she did not love him back and instead lived in his own prefered reality where she did. In Vietnam “Cross carried around two photographs of martha” that he cherished and stared at almost every night. He would sometimes “wonder who [had] taken the picture[s], because he knew she had boyfriends, but he loved her so much” that he would make up scenarios where it was just a friend or relative who had taken it. He would think of several excuses, anything that would help him deny the reality and the pain that she did not love him back.
Cross later experiences denial during the war when his fellow soldier Lavender dies, and cross can’t accept the truth that death surrounds them and cannot be prevented in war. Cross“blame[s] himself [which] allows him to retain the illusion of control in the chaotic and often random world of war that he finds himself in,” and feels helpless. He makes up reasons in his head how it could have been his fault, when in reality“there was nothing he could have done to prevent Lavender’s death. The purpose of denial is to protect and shield the harshness before the person is ready to face the next stage towards accepting. The next stage of grief is anger. Once the reality of the situation becomes real, churning emotions will eventually start to surface; Pain, frustration, and confusion can dominate any other feeling. It is natural for someone to look for someone or something to blame, it’s the bodies way of releasing all of the energy and pain that has built up inside. In the novel, Jimmy Cross spent so much time obsessing and loving this woman Martha, imagining she would be waiting for him at home thinking of him always. It wasn’t until his friend Lavender died that Cross noticed he was too preoccupied thinking about if Martha was a virgin still saving herself for him back home, instead being more aware to possibly prevent his friends death.
His fellow soldier died because of his unmutual love for a girl back home and Cross realized “virginity was no longer an issue. He hated her… love too, but it was a hard, hating kind of love.” He developed a “resentment of Martha for being safe at home, for never asking about the war in his letters, and for being part of a different world,” and he realized she “could not possibly understand his wartime experiences”. Cross eventually “burn[ed] her pictures” as his way to release all of the pain and energy. Later in the war, O’Brien took a different approach for releasing his anger towards Bobby Jorgenson, the medic, who was so in shock that he didn’t treat O’Briens wounds correctly. After O’Brien’s injury finally healed, he “kept seeing Bobby Jorgenson’s scared white face”, and “once [he] could think straight, [he] devoted a lot of time to figuring out ways to get back at him.” He was so angry about how he wasn’t helped correctly, that he sabotages and tortures Jorgenson to get even and make him feel pain too. Although it can sound unnecessary and bad tempered, anger is a necessary step to release bottled up emotions, and further helps the soldiers deal with their new reality and trauma.
As the feelings of anger subsides, attention starts to moves squarely into the present and the reality starts to sink in becoming final. The realization that life has forever changed, and there is nothing to do about it leads people to become depressed. Mark Heberle points out how in in The Things They Carried, all of the soldiers leave the war “haunted by guilt and looking for someone to blame. They feel guilty for the deaths of men in their platoons, for the deaths of Vietnamese, and for their own inadequacies… They put a lot of blame on themselves and become depressed from the baggage.” Jimmy Cross carried around a lot of baggage after Lavender’s death. He obviously “had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead and [it] was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach” forever. The intense sadness leave the men feeling stuck, unmotivated to continue, and wanting to withdraw from life. The soldier Norman Bowker felt particularly upset due to war baggage and depression in his life when he returned home. His experiences were something “[Norman] could not talk about” and “never would.”
All he wanted to do was talk to someone about “his haunting memory when his friend Kiowa slipped away [one] night beneath the dark swampy field…[he was right] in with the war…part of the waste.” Since Norman Bowker couldn’t cope with his depression and felt haunted, he felt he couldn’t continue on with his life and commited suicide. Sadly not everyone can bear this stage of grief and continue, like Norman Bowker, however depression doesn’t last forever, and it is important in finally associating with ones new life and emotions. After the shock, denial, anger, and depression are over with, acceptance is the final stage to overcoming trauma. The notion of being perfectly fine is usually expected to come with accepting everything, but most people never feel this way. O’brien recalls how “for more than twenty years [he’s] had to live with feeling the shame, trying to push it away” constantly. This stage is more about accepting the new reality and finding ways to continue on with life normally. People use different ways and find various hobbies to help them accept that things are final.
For O’Brien, writing is what helped him fully cope. He felt that by writing about his traumatic experiences, it took the charge out of them and even brought back the lives of the dead in a good light. He started by writing about his memories and feelings towards his childhood friend Linda who passed away. It was “the resurrection of Linda, however, that [had] made all others possible. Linda’s death and his grief [were] replaced by dreaming her back to life and his subsequent career as an author.”(Herble). He believes that “stories can save us…in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.”(O’Brien) In O’Briens way of accepting, the lives are brought back and preserved forever in writing, their legacies are remembered in a positive memory rather than a traumatic, overwhelming one.
As we can never return to how life was before, accepting helps us evolve and learn to live in our new lives, but it is not possible unless grief and the stages are given its time to properly heal. For soldiers with PTSD, the five stages of grief are not just a process, but are tools that help with framing and identifying the emotions churning inside. Through experiencing shock, denial, anger, depression and acceptance, the victims of trauma become better equipped to cope with life and loss. By focusing on the soldiers emotional battles, Tim O’Brien was able to show how the characters in The Things They carried overcame all of the trauma that war had brought out through slowly adjusting alongside the 5 stages of grief.