Phenomenology Online

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The Experience of Living with Military-Related “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder”

 

Kroch, Rachel

 

One early morning in 1996 the telephone woke me. It was my son: “Mom, it’s me. I am okay, don’t worry!” “What? What happened?” Still half asleep, I was trying to comprehend what he was saying. I realized that he had phoned from his army base, but I had no idea what he was talking about. Realizing that I knew nothing, and afraid to say too much, he hung up.

 

I got up and turned on the radio – the terrible news entered the room: While on military duty, a group of soldiers, of which my son was one, were ambushed; most of the soldiers were killed. The realization of what might have happened to my son hit me, and I started to cry. Dreadful thoughts of “What if…” started to haunt me, and I couldn’t stop crying. I was so grateful that he was alive, but couldn’t stop the terrifying thoughts that raced through my head. On the phone I heard his girlfriend’s breathless sobbing; neither of us were barely able to utter a word.

 

That day my telephone kept ringing: Family, friends, and colleagues – all hesitant to call me yet deeply worried – phoned and asked if everything was okay, and shared their shock and their fear. With every new phone-call, with every worried voice, my crying started all over again, and I was unable to speak.

 

Days after the event, people I met in different places, their voices trembling, shared with me how they hadn’t dared phone me that day, although they so wished to. And every time the tears reappeared.

 

For some months the dark thoughts of what might have happened to my son kept torturing me. But with the passing of time, the sharpness of the event gradually faded. Now that I am writing about it, I still sense that fear crawling beneath my skin, though I feel that the event is already part of the past.

 

Facing the Dread of Death

We all know that we will not live forever. Death is part of life, part of being human, or in Heidegger’s (1967) words: “Death is a way to be, which Dasein takes over as soon as it is. As soon as man comes to life, he is at once old enough to die. […] Death, in the widest sense, is a phenomenon of life” (1967, pp. 289-290).

 

In the course of our daily lives, however, we seldom think about our own deaths. From time to time – when we are seriously sick, or hear about the death or severe illness of someone we know – we are reminded of our own mortality. We also count on the “good order” of things – that death goes hand in hand with old age and sickness.

 

Thus, although I knew that my son was involved in dangerous activities, I clung to the faith that “to him no harm would happen”, that he was protected. Don’t we all tend to ignore the fear of death in our everyday lives, such as when we drive a car or cross the road? We may even feel somewhat bold about death, as Epicurus (1940) writes:

“So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us. Since so long as we exist, death is nothing with us. But when death comes, then we do not exist” (1940, p. 31).

Heidegger describes the way we tend, in our everyday lives, to conceal from ourselves the impending nature of death:

Death is something that stands before us – something impending. […]
In the publicness with which we are with one another in our everyday manner, death is “known” as a mishap, which is constantly occurring – as a “case of death”. Someone or other “dies”, be he neighbor or stranger. People who are no acquaintances of ours are “dying” daily and hourly. “Death” is encountered as a well- known event  occurring within–the-world […]

The “they” [i.e., the social conventions] talks of it in a “fugitive” manner, either expressly or else in a way which is mostly inhibited, as if to say, “One of these days one will die too, in the end; but right now it has nothing to do with us.” […]
In such a way of talking, death is understood as an indefinite something which, above all, must duly arrive from somewhere or other, but which is proximally not yet present-at-hand for oneself, and is therefore no threat. […]

One knows about the certainty of death, and yet “is” not authentically certain of one’s own. [? One says, “Death certainly comes, but not right away”. With this “but”, the “they” denies that death is certain […]

Thus the “they” covers up what is peculiar in death’s certainty – that it is possible at any moment. Along with the certainty of death goes the indefiniteness of its “when” […]  Thus death’s ownmost character as a possibility gets veiled a possibility which is certain and at the same time indefinite that is to say, possible at any moment. (Heidegger, 1967, pp. 294, 296, 297, 302)

Yet there are situations when this “natural shield” of “to me it won’t happen” is severely shaken. Imagine how we might feel if we, or our loved ones, were exposed to an extreme traumatic event; an event such as war or an act of terror, an earthquake or an avalanche, a car accident, a sudden fatal heart attack of a loved one, or the diagnosis of an unexpected and life-threatening illness. In all these cases, and in others, when we experience fear, helplessness, or horror at the threat of severe injury or death, the taken-for-grantedness of life, and the idea of the world as a safe and  secure place, are both shattered, and we no longer treat death as “a case of death.”

 

The word “trauma” comes from the Greek “trauma,” which originally referred to an injury inflicted on the body. In its later usage, particularly in medical and psychiatric literature, the term “trauma” is understood as a wound inflicted upon the mind, rather than upon the body (Caruth, 1996).

 

Spiers and Harrington (2001) further explain that the ancient Greek word  “trauma,” which meant to “wound” or to “pierce,” was used to refer to the wounds or injuries suffered by soldiers, which resulted from the piercing of their armor. In a way, people’s responses to psychological trauma might be understood as the result of “piercing” through their protective mental defenses (2001, p. 213).

 

Two traumatic events return easily to my memory. The first such event is the September 11th act of terror, with its horrible sights of people jumping out of the burning towers to their deaths; and people escaping in the street below, and running for their lives. The second event is the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister, Itschak Rabin, on November 4th, 1995 , by a Jewish Israeli, at the end of a huge public gathering for peace. The sights of the recent two-year suicide bombings in Israel I dare not recall – they are too frightening for me to think of at present.

My husband and I are sitting on the sofa in our living room, watching the television, unable to stop crying, unable to believe – did this really happen? For the tenth time, the TV shows exactly how it happened: Rabin, standing in front of the huge crowd of people, all singing together The Song for Peace. We see lots of smiling faces, in collective exhilaration. Rabin is singing too, in his low voice, wandering near the melody, with his familiar embarrassed smile on his face…

 

Rabin walks down the steps toward his car. A sudden crowding around him. Did we hear gun shots? Rabin falls. What’s going on? People are running to and fro, looking confused. Shouts are heard everywhere…

 

Outside the familiar emergency room of Ichilov hospital (where I work), we hear the voice of Rabin’s assistant:  “The Government of Israel announces, in great shock and deep grief, that the Israeli Prime Minister, Itzchak Rabin, is dead.” And again: the pictures, the screams of the waiting crowd, the shock on the faces.

 

The next day: the pictures of the children, gathering in the same place, lighting memorial candles and crying. A whole nation is grieving, we are grieving, we are our nation… And again: the pictures, the sounds, the tears. And again.

After exposure to a traumatic event, we usually “run the film” again and again in our heads, with exactly the same sights, sounds, and smells, and with the same dread of death, as if the event were taking place in the here and now. Yet as time passes by – after days, weeks, or even a few months – our lives return to normal, to the taken-for-granted sense of safety of everyday living, to our “living-within-a-shield.”

 

But what happens if our sense of safety does not recover, if we go on living, year after year, with traumatic memories that refuse to go away? What is the lived experience of being medically diagnosed with “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?”  What is the experience of living with “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder” after exposure to traumatic events during military service?

 

Not Willing to Remember, Unable to Forget – the Intrusive Character of Traumatic Memories

Danny, a 36-year old man, talks about the traumatic memory that has haunted his everyday living. He re-experiences the memory of himself as a 19-year old soldier,  exposed one night to an unexpected and deadly air assault on his military base which was located in a relatively “safe place” within the country’s (Israel’s) borders, and very close to his home. This memory is repeatedly recalled, unlike ordinary memories of everyday living, which tend to be forgotten over time. This is an unforgettable memory:

From a state where that night didn’t exist at all, it became… it has dominated everything… Suddenly… to remember things that I didn’t think that I remember, and that did happen… Things that at first I told myself it’s impossible that I remember them, since I hadn’t seen them at all… And suddenly they were everywhere, the flashbacks… I broke all my back teeth, grinding them so hard during my sleep….
I am walking on the street, and pictures of the event start running…
I see pictures of the wounded people… silent pictures, without voice… frozen pictures.

It is difficult to think of our lives without memory. Memory is fundamental to our existence within-the-world; it preserves our sense of self, and the sense of continuity of our personal history. Casey (2000) reflects about the taken-for-granted centrality of memory in our lives:

Usually, remembering is at all times presupposed, and always at work: It is continually going on, often on several levels and in several ways at once. There are few moments in which we are not steeped in memory; Each step we take, each thought we think, each word we utter, are deeply immersed in memory. Memory takes us into the environing world, as well as into our individual lives. (2000, p. xix)

Yet when traumatic memories are involved, is the process of remembering the same as it is when applied to everyday life memories? In what ways is remembering of past events different when the memories are traumatic in nature?

 

Ordinary memories of everyday life do not seem to occupy most of our waking and non-waking time; rather, they seem to be confined to certain boundaries of time and place. Some memories come at appropriate times and places; other memories appear uninvited, but nonetheless they seem to be a part of our whole being.

 

Past-trauma memories seem to be different: They appear frequently, intrusively,  neither restricted to appropriate places, nor to time. They invade our everyday lives, become the rulers of the day and of the night. They are uncontrollable, and dominate the lives of the sufferers.

 

Traumatic memories are not only reminders of unforgettable events that one desperately wishes to forget; Sometimes they are a testimony to things that were thought not to have occurred at all. Re-experiencing a traumatic event is thus to face a horrible reality which has been previously denied, an “unclaimed experience” (Caruth, 1996, p. 10), or in Blanchot’s words: “Grief – incising, dissecting, exposing a hurt which can no longer be endured, or even remembered” (1995, p.52).

 

Unlike memories of everyday living, traumatic memories seem to appear vividly, through various sense modalities, but often in a fragmentary way, disclosing only bits and pieces of the whole traumatic story. Thus, Danny recalls the traumatic scene of the assault in the form of still pictures, lacking the sound and motion of the actual event.

“I am not sure that I want to talk with you about it,” says Omer, now a 40- year old man. Omer fought as a 19-year old Israeli soldier in the battles of the war in Lebanon for several months in 1982.  “I don’t like to talk about what is it like, to live with past trauma,” he tells me on the phone. “I need to prepare myself for that. Call me next week.”

I realize that a conversation about past-trauma living necessitates a lot of inner strength. When we finally meet, Omer explains that it is uncomfortable for him to dig inwards and search all the time; it is too painful. Omer describes the duality of re-experiencing traumatic memories: the constant efforts he exerts to forget them, and the efforts it takes him to re-call the memories:

Most of my time I try to repress… There are things that you remember, and things that you already don’t remember… And then a person in my state, that is emotional and vulnerable, is trying to repress, and every meeting, like therapeutic or else, because this subject is talked of, becomes problematic.

 

I, most of my dreams I can’t remember. When talking about war is taking place, I don’t talk about it… I don’t talk about myself at all. This is a kind of secrecy that you live with, to preserve an appearance of a normal human being… If I analyze things and talk about things, then everything gets lost, there is no order, there is chaos… Then I am not a whole person anymore… I can’t do the things I have to do.

Ordinary memories of everyday life seem to enable us to achieve a sense of self-coherence and integrity. “Without memory,” says Sokolowski, “we would not be fully actualized as selves, and as human beings” (2000, pp.69-70). But with traumatic memories, remembering  seems to have rather a destructive, chaotic impact: “Then I am not a whole person anymore,” says Omer. The chaos he feels seems to evoke a sense of insanity, which Omer tries to avoid by not remembering. Yet he seems to know, that this is only a  pretence in order “to preserve an appearance of a normal human being.” Can traumatic memories really be forgotten? Sometimes the memory that seemed to succeed in deceiving as “non-existent” reappears in a different form:

Actually I live in repression most of the time, but with me this is a bit more than psychic – it shows also on the skin – I’ve got psoriasis, which is also a result of stress. You can’t ignore that it exists, the signs… You can’t erase it totally; I get up in the morning and still see the signs, like an… Auschwitz serial number.

 

Up to 1995 I didn’t know that I am “post-trauma.” I ignored it completely. But when this got worse from the psoriasis perspective, the signs were too many on the surface to be ignored, so that I couldn’t cope with everything anymore, and I asked to be recognized [as a disabled veteran]. (Omer)

The suffering of past trauma is “suffering from too much remembering – too much for the subject to bear,” says Casey (2000, p. xiv). Omer tries to “repress” the memories – to keep them down, or hold them back, to restrain, or to control so strictly or severely, as to prevent their natural expression (Agnes & Guralnik, 2001, p.1217). Omer distances himself from anything that might remind him of the traumas, and might trigger the memories again. Any talk – our interview, for instance – runs the risk of serving as a reminder.

 

Can traumatic memories be forced to be forgotten? Danny describes the constant efforts he exerts not to remember, detaching himself from the places and the people that will remind him of the traumatic event. Being once more in the place where the trauma occurred brings back the memories. But in spite of his efforts, the memories which were attached to the specific place, now appear everywhere and anytime:

I restlessly roamed around without purpose in Europe for ten years, but also there I couldn’t bear myself and my surroundings. After a while I hardly remembered what happened then. I did remember that there was such an event, but I didn’t remember who was killed… I came back, worked and was fired…I met my future wife…Then in 1996 (ten years after the event) I was called to the reserves, to the same military base…

 

At that moment, everything around me slowed down, I was walking in a long corridor, my whole body was trembling…I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t figure out what’s the matter with me – wasn’t I healthy when I got there?! From a state where that night didn’t exist at all, it has dominated everything. (Danny)

Traumatic Memories are Re-Experienced Vividly in their “Presentness”, as if they were  Perceptions

When we recall something, there is temporality in it; “Memory is of the past,” says Aristotle (in Straus, 1970). “No one would say that he remembers the present when it is present. […]  For whenever one exercises the faculty of remembering he must say within himself: I formally heard or otherwise perceived this”(p. 48).

 

Etymologically-speaking, “‘to remember’ is of the Latin ‘re’ – back, again, and ‘memorare’; to bring back to mind by an effort; recollect; recall; remind” (Agnes & Guralnik, 2001, p. 1212). Casey (2000) discusses the temporal dimension of memories of everyday living:

“Pastness” is the quality of what is remembered, which places its origin in the past. The present has to become past in some sense and to some degree, in order to be rememberable. And to become past is to be situated in a period of time sufficiently elapsed, to fall away from the central focus of my ongoing sensing. What we remember not only has its origin in the past, but is now completed, finished, or ended – for unless an experience has become genuinely an ex-perience, something standing out as lived through, it cannot begin to be remembered. (2000, pp. 39-40)

By being “of the past”, memories of everyday living seem to be somewhat elusive. Husserl describes them as having dark shades, as seen through a veil: “As the temporal object moves into the past, it is drawn together on itself, and thereby also becomes ‘dunkel’” (1964, p. 47). Wyschogrod talks about the past that “resides in a shadow-land, into which consciousness penetrates by means of memory. […]  Memory attaches itself to something that has been, even if it no longer is” (1970, p.18). Sokolowski, when comparing memory and perception, describes memory as “the past which comes to life again, with a special kind of absence” (2000, p.69).

 

Memories are usually re-experienced in their “pastness,” as seen “through a veil,” “dunkel,” “of shadow-land,” “with a kind of absence” – some of the ways in which ordinary memories are described. But do traumatic memories have these properties as well?

 

Danny describes the memories: “Suddenly they were everywhere, the flashbacks… I am walking on the street, and pictures of the event start running”. Being re-called into the present, traumatic memories are vividly relived, with the sights, sounds and smells of the original experience, as if they were occurring here and now, as if they were perceptions, not just recollections.

I can’t go to the theatre, I feel that something is going to happen, I don’t feel well. And then, all that I went through this war… I see it happen…My life was in danger many times. (Omer)

Casey (2000) describes traumatic recollections as having “a terrifying reality, as hallucinatory reenactments of the trauma itself” (p. xiii). Omer can “see it happen” – all that he went through in “this” war, a war which took place twenty years ago.  Danny’s description lets us see the wounded people, even though the pictures lack the original sounds and voices, and the motion: “I am walking on the street, and pictures of the event start running… I see pictures of the wounded people… silent pictures, without voice… frozen pictures.”

 

Straus’ (1966) discussion of the anthropological significance of the modalities of seeing and hearing may shed some light on this phenomenon of detachment from the actual scene, as Danny describes himself not hearing the screams of pain and terror of the wounded:

When a film is shown without music, the pictures appear at a different remove – unusually remote; they are marionette-like and lifeless. We lack contact with what is being represented, which glides by in front of our eyes in a spiritless, barren manner. We are spectators at, and not participants in, what is occurring. As soon as the music starts, contact is re-established. […] Space filled with sound is enough to establish a connection between viewer and picture. (Straus, 1966, pp.19-20)

Traumatic Memory Reminders: The Visible and Audible Cues of Trauma

We often consider reminders essential and useful in everyday life situations, as when we write notes to ourselves in order not to forget things that are important to us. Casey sees reminders as being “designed to draw us back from the edge of oblivion, by directing us to that which we might otherwise forget. […] Reminders surround and support our ongoing existence in countless manners. […] signaling to us what we should remember to do, or think” (2000, p. 91).

 

Yet past-trauma cues/reminders, with the anxiety that they evoke, seem to have an opposite effect, both painful and disorganizing. In Danny’s description we can see how a warm and sweet moment when he holds his sleeping child in his arms, turns into a horrible moment for him, when it becomes a traumatic reminder:

If my daughter falls asleep when I hold her, and suddenly her head falls, I can’t describe what it does to me – I immediately wake her up, I am convinced that moment that she is dead… L. [Danny’s childhood buddy]  died in my own arms.

While the sight of his sleeping daughter’s falling head reminds Danny of the good friend who died in his arms, for Omer,  the ambulance sirens that he now hears where he lives are frightening reminders of the sounds and voices that filled the battle fields, and he reacts to the present sirens with great anxiety:

When there is bad news on the TV… when I hear the terror acts – I live in the midst of Tel-Aviv and hear it, and the Dolfinarium I was accidentally there and saw the suicide bombing. In Dissengoff Center when the terror bombing took place I heard it as well, I hear the screams… It is very difficult for me to function with all this, and the TV on the war in Iraq , and the war here.

For Omer, the screams at the suicide-bombing scenes (the first event involved the killing of teenagers in a discotheque; the second – the killing of children dressed in costumes on Purim holiday) acted as traumatic reminders of the screams he was exposed to during the war. The sounds that he describes seem to be a mixture of human voices screaming in pain, and the sounds of the ambulances’ sirens. “It is misleading to say,” stresses Malcolm, “that a reminder is that, which evokes memory. Reminding, especially in the form of thinking of the past, does not simply evoke memories; it is itself a form of memory” (1977, p. 105).

Experiences Derive their Traumatic Meaning from the Individual’s Personal History as well

What makes a certain event be experienced as traumatic by some persons, while for others it is not? Among other things, it seems that the individual’s personal history may enhance our understanding of this phenomenon:

I am a “second generation” [of Holocaust survivors] – my father is one of the children who have survived the Holocaust from all over Europe . Between the age of 5 and 11 he lived there as an orphan… and all the tensions and bad energies were brought to the home I grew up in. There was always tension in the air; One sees Holocaust persons, and they either close all the windows and everything, or open them… This [the Holocaust survivor home] is a place of very strong emotions and anxieties, and also here there is, the same version… except that for me it is real. (Omer)

It seems that Omer’s personal traumas in the war were built upon, or revived, the memories of the Holocaust that he grew up with, of traumatic situations which his father was exposed to, and both experiences are interwoven. Danny too refers to his early family history when he describes what it is like to live with past trauma. He points to the earlier trauma of the earthquake, many decades earlier, which apparently has existed in the collective memory of his family:

I am an offspring of a family from the Second Temple Era [70 BC], of Donna Gracia of Spain . In the graveyard of Tiberias, a very ancient graveyard, almost everyone is of my family. Till the big earthquake in Sefad 250 years ago we were a huge “chamula” [a communal family], of which only one infant survived. Today we are only four families.

The Body Re-Experiences the Trauma

We live in the world with our bodies, experiencing everyday situations and relationships  through our bodies – as van Manen says: “We are always bodily in the world. […] In our physical or bodily presence we both reveal something about ourselves, and we always conceal something at the same time” (1997, p. 103). While Omer’s mind tries hard to erase the past traumas’ memories, his body keeps the signs of the mental scars. The signs are shown on the body’s surface, on its outer face:

I live in repression most of the time, but… it shows on the skin, I’ve got psoriasis… You can’t ignore that it exists, the signs…You can’t erase it totally; I get up in the morning and still see the signs, like an… Auschwitz serial number.

 

There [in the war] the psoriasis was created, it has a concrete connection, it is a Vulcan eruption that has exploded in me, as I felt what had happened there, seven months and a half of day-by-day of non-stop-death, non-stop-death, and death.

The bodily memories of the traumas are engraved on Omer’s skin like Auschwitz numbers, which can never be erased, nor disappear after a good night’s sleep, nor fade  with the passing of time: they are forever present, cannot be kept secret or be ignored. The memories of the war traumas bring back the threat of death which was always present in the Nazi concentration camps, and the dehumanization.

 

It seems that Omer’s body, with its skin disease, psoriasis, is “the body of the pathic, pre-reflective life, which we are” (van den Berg, 1987, p.54). Buytendijk draws a close relation between the pathic experience and the mood of the lived body: “The pathically tuned body perceives the world in a feeling or emotive way” (Buytendijk in van Manen, 1999, p. 30). The “pathically tuned body” emerges in Omer’s experiences of the traumas of war, and in Danny’s flashbacks of his own traumatic event. Omer says: “The fear being so severe, experiencing violence was so strong, that my hair stood on end … It was as though my hand was decapitated.”

 

Omer uses in his description words which pertain to the response of animals to terrifying situations, and misuses the word “decapitated”, which usually is used with reference to the head, and not to the hand. His shock and horror seem to be reflected in the language too.

 

Danny describes the tremendous tension that he too experiences in his body  during his nightmares: “Suddenly they were everywhere, the flashbacks… I broke all my back teeth, grinding them so hard during my sleep.”

 

We perceive the world with our bodies, says Merleau-Ponty, “The body is a natural self and, as it were, the subject of perception” (1962, p.239). The lived body is itself a self, a bodily self, immersed in the world. The bodily self is a “spreadoutedness” that senses the qualities of the world. “Our body is somebody, our expression in the world, the visible form of our intentions” (Merleau-Ponty, 1964, p.5). Thus it seems that the dread of death is experienced not only by the anxious soul, but also by the suffering body:

When I am out in places where people are gathering I don’t feel well, I feel something heavy on my heart, I get headaches. (Omer)

 

When my wife goes out for shopping, no one can talk to me – I hear nothing… I find myself standing by the window, seeing things that might happen… I am trembling, crying, I can’t breath. (Danny)

Van den Berg (1987, p. 54) would have said of Danny’s experience, that “the body of the pathic, pre-reflective life which we are” is responding – that Danny’s whole existence is trembling.

I lost ten kilos since the event… I can’t eat… There are times when I take the child in my arms, and she complains that it hurts her to put her head on my shoulder – and then I search for cushioned places (in the body) for her to lay her head on. (Danny)

Van den Berg refers to eating and digesting as having a pre-reflective meaning: “To eat,” he says, “from a pre-reflective point of view is to receive. […] Even to digest has a pre-reflective meaning of assimilating in general, of making merge with what one is, even of declaring oneself in agreement with the events and incidents of life” (1987, p. 52). Danny’s pre-reflective body may be unable to “eat,” “swallow,” or “digest” the difficult life events he has undergone.

The World is Perceived as a Dangerous Place , and the Lived Space is Shrinking

The relationship between man and the world is so close, says van den Berg, that it is erroneous to separate them:

Our world is not primarily a conglomeration of objects. […] Our world is our home, a realization of subjectivity. If we want to understand man’s existence, we must listen to the language of objects. If we are describing a subject, we must elaborate on the scene in which the subject reveals itself. (1987, pp. 39-40)

Living with past trauma is living in a world that is experienced as a dangerous place in which to live. Being outside one’s home is dangerous, public places with many people become sites of potential, unexpected danger. The acts of terror which are presently taking place in the reality of Danny’s and Omer’s country, revive the dread of death and become one with the anxiety aroused by the past traumatic events.

 

Danny describes himself living inside a “shelter,” retreating from the dangerous outside open spaces to his sheltered car, and from there to home, but even his home is not safe any more; maybe only the living-room where he actually lives  is safe:

I don’t go to places with many people. I feel that in a minute there will be here an explosion, and I don’t want to see all that will happen here…
To get me out of home is like moving a one- hundred- year- old oak tree  from one side of the road to the other side…
Most of the day I stay here in this room: Here are all my things – the computer, my paintings… I hardly go out… I stopped working in 1997, just gave up… I realized that I cannot protect myself outside…
Even at home I don’t feel secure, I am convinced that the ceiling will collapse… I had my wife and child moving through so many houses, when the floor was not flat enough, or when there were some cracks in the walls….
When my wife goes to her mother by bus I ask those who phone me to hang up, all my antennas are up, I am frightened because of the suicide bombings….
When we had a car it was good for me. Sitting within a box on the street gave me a better feeling, I felt less vulnerable, and with a better ability to escape.

With past trauma there is a pervasive sense of fragility and vulnerability of the self, and of the world and its objects. Being-in-the-world is a state of being naked and vulnerable. The lived space shrinks as the person with past trauma seeks to avoid the threat of death. Omer describes how he experiences being-in-the-world:

I don’t go to places where people are gathering, I want to get out,  don’t feel well… When there are many people… terror acts…My son loves to go to parks, but I get crazy in such places… I become afraid that somebody will come… I need to be by myself in my room, to process what I feel… Outside I get mad.

Living in a Constant State of Vigilance; Being Vigilant to the Sounds of the World

Heidegger uses the notion of “Befindlichkeit” to refer to a mood and a state of mind, the way one finds oneself in the world; a way of being tuned to the world,  how we sense ourselves in situations, the human being-in-the-world (Gendlin, 1988). Living with past trauma is being-in-the-world in a mood, or Befindlichkeit, of  constant vigilance. Even though traumatized people are aware that their fears are illogical and way beyond proportion, the fears are lived as    reality, thus making it necessary to be always on the look-out for danger.

 

For Danny, life has lost its sense of safety, constancy and stability; his life is unpredictable, forever changing, always bearing potential danger for injury and death, for himself and also for his loved ones:

There is a strong feeling of transience… I am always afraid of something that will happen… My child sits on a chair and I sit beside her, enjoying the sun and admire my child’s beauty – It’s a good moment, and then I see her shot by a gun…  I get up and close all the windows, so that no one sees her from the outside, so that the man in the street who is directing now the gun won’t see her, won’t hurt her…I become highly alert to non-real situations.

Those precious moments of being with our children and feeling happy and relaxed, become so fragile when we feel that death lurks nearby. Though Danny knows rationally that what he sees is unreal, nevertheless he perceives the horrible scene of his daughter being shot dead in front of him, as occurring in the reality of the here and now. Danny remains vigilant at night as well, when he is inside his own home, ready for any disaster to occur, from the outside or from the inside:

Some days ago, a piece of cement fell from the ceiling – the whole night I was trembling, as if the whole house is collapsing on me… just a piece of cement… There I stood, between the bathroom and my kid’s room… so that if something happens, I’ll be close enough to her…
Life is filled with stupid calculations: before going to sleep I already plan the ways to escape, and the ways of action if there are suicide bombings, if war starts or a missile falls here, or an  earthquake occurs, if someone gets hurt…I don’t know how many times at night I check if the kid is breathing. (Danny)

Watching our children play, dancing with them to the sound of music – what a happy and joyful experience this can be; yet not when we live on the edge, when we are always prepared for potential danger. Danny is very sensitive to sounds and searches for warning cues, trying to distinguish between “good” sounds and “dangerous” sounds, as Lingis would say: “To hear the murmur of the world, the distant rumble of the world and its demons” (2000, p.112). Maybe after having met the “demons” and been caught by surprise, Danny is constantly operating all his “senses of danger:”

I used to love music. Now, if I do hear music, I am sure that there are explosions and sirens, and then I lower the sound more and more, till it is turned off. Or when I hear songs and dance with my child, then suddenly I can’t, I start imagining things to happen… The minute I can’t operate all the senses of danger, the minute I can’t be aware of what is happening around… I am always on alert, on guard around my child.

Why is sound so emphasized in these descriptions, as being the signal of danger, or as the “embodiment” of danger itself? Straus discusses the distinctive features of the spatiality of sound, by comparing the modes of spatiality for sound and color:

We always see colors over there, in a direction and at a distance, somewhere vis-a-vis ourselves. The colors are both bounded and, in turn, boundary setting, they confine space. […] A resonating tone is altogether different. Often we can say of a sound source that it is impossible to determine reliably the direction where it is localized […] but the tone itself  approaches us, penetrating, filling, and homogenozing space. Thus the tone is not confined to a single spatial position. […]

 

Color clings (phenomenally) to the object, while the tone produced by an object separates itself from it. Color is the mark of a thing, whereas tone is the effect of an activity. […]  While color and form constitute the object, sound, both as tone and noise, merely points to the object and only indicates it. The sound that detaches itself from the sound source can take a pure and autonomous existence, as in the tones of music, while noise retains the character of indicating and pointing to. (Straus, 1966, pp. 7-8)

It seems that the pure tones of music that Danny listens to, which ought to have an autonomous existence, become noise in his ears, like imaginary indicators of explosions and sirens. Danny actually seems to experience his surroundings to a great extent through his sense of hearing:

I can’t stand it, being in a place where many people are talking there… It becomes a cacophony of voices… When I go to a celebration there is no chance that I hear somebody talking… When there is a lot of noise around I can’t hear anything… I feel that in a minute there will be an explosion here, and I don’t want to see all that will happen here….

 

Tuesday is the day when I go to therapy… This is the day when I have to go out, to cope with all the noises of the street… Yesterday when I walked on the street I felt exhausted… My mind flies to every direction that I hear noise… The minute that there are sirens of ambulances I instantly freeze… That was the noise immediately after the event… What brings me immediately back home is the noise of a helicopter – I am totally lost… The minute the event started there were two of our helicopters flying very low, and we almost hit them by mistake.

Straus describes how in unfamiliar surroundings, noises begin to lose their particular effects as indicators of specific activities, and approach the phenomenal mode of musical tones: “Under these conditions, noise too penetrates and fills space; by homogenizing space, it makes orientation difficult, and increases confusion and strangeness” (1966, p. 9).

 

I wonder what the meaning is of this hypersensitivity to sound: Is this a form of orientation in space? Is it similar to the usual way of sensing our environment? “In sensing we experience the world and ourselves in relation to the world”, says Straus (1963, p. 368). It seems that in our everyday lives we usually tend to rely more on our sense of vision than on our hearing; we use our eyes to screen our surroundings, “cast a look or eye at someone,”  “look for” something, rather than hear or listen to our environment.

 

What is it that makes hearing so central to the experience of living with past-trauma? Is hearing more useful in situations that are perceived as dangerous, as a “sense of danger,” as Danny calls it – like animals who sense danger by smelling and listening? “Hearing is simultaneous with that which is heard,” says Straus, “Sound always takes hold of me in this moment. It is present and determines the actual singularity of my Now” (1963, pp. 376- 377).

 

Although sound maybe more useful when we feel that our safety is threatened, we cannot detach ourselves easily from alarming sounds. “We can flee from something which is visible in the distance,” says Straus, “but that which is heard – be it sound or word – has already taken hold of us. […] We have no power over sound, word, voice, or ‘voices'” (1963, pp. 377-378). Whereas to experience the colored object “we must turn toward it, look at it, actively master it” (Straus, 1966, p. 15), the phenomenal character of sound is completely different: “Tone has an activity all its own; it presses in on us, surrounds, seizes, and embraces us. […] The acoustical pursues us; we are at its mercy, unable to get away” (Straus, 1966, p. 16).

 

Sounds press on us, as Straus says, they surround and seize us, take possession of us, we are at their mercy. In a way, sounds are like traumatic memories – invading, intruding, possessing; and I wonder: Do traumatic memories have a similar quality of signaling danger as the sounds?

Past Trauma is Something that no one can Comprehend, and no Words can Describe: Epilogue

“In the spectrum of the senses,” says Straus, “at one end of the scale is found the collectively communicable, and communication in articulated verbal sounds and writing; at the other end there is the aloneness of pain, which ultimately finds its expression in the unformed sounds of wailing and in the scream” (1963, pp. 378-379). Toward the end of our interview, Omer tries to communicate his understanding of what traumatic experiences ultimately mean to him:

This “Post Trauma” – I tried to understand it… but what happened to me in the war – the scream of what happened is so loud, the fear being so severe, the experience of violence so strong – that my hair stood on end… It was as though my hand was decapitated, as though my soul exploded into a million pieces, this profound power of war is something no words can explain, and nothing can show what it is, a complete chaos. And the scream that rises from there overshadows a thousand times everything that happens to you in daily life, at work or with a woman.

 

Everything becomes minute there where things are around life and death, things are temporary there, they have no meaning, you are not alive there you are actually dead when you are there. I don’t know if there is anybody who could sustain it without post-trauma… The duty is to let the scream be heard.

As I approach the end of my phenomenological exploration of the experience of living with military-related “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,” I still feel that facing the dread of death and horror, as this is re-experienced by traumatized people,  is something beyond our human capacity to grasp, and our words to describe. In The Writing of the Disaster, Blanchot says:

Silence is perhaps a word, a paradoxical word, the silence of the word “silence.” Yet surely we feel that it is linked to the cry, the voiceless cry, which breaks with all utterance. […] The cry tends to exceed all language, even if it lends itself to recuperation as language effect. […]

 

Know what has happened, do not forget, and at the same time, never will you know. (1995, pp. 51, 82)

 

 

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