Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Meditation, Compassion and PTSD

Yesterday, NPR ran a good (and moving) story on the use of meditation to help veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which afflicts roughly one in four veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Given a less cheery recent post on PTSD, and the spirit of the day, this seemed especially appropriate.)

The Vietnam vets talk first. Some say they'd never even heard of PTSD until a few years ago. Now that they're getting treatment, it's like they're making up for lost time.

"The idea, of you saying, 'just like me,' that does a lot for me in a sense because I know how I'd like to be treated or how I want to feel," says John Montgomery, who has a bushy gray mustache and a tattoo of a scorpion on each forearm. "So if I'm showing that to somebody else, I find myself looking at me a little better and being satisfied with what I see."

Montgomery says he knows that what the meditation is teaching him sounds incredibly basic: Treat others the way you want to be treated; it's Human Relationships 101. And yet, it's completely at odds with the person the Vietnam War trained him to be.

"You're in a situation where you don't negotiate. You either make it or you don't," he says, "because we were taught to survive."

When he came home, Montgomery says, he had forgotten how to be a son, a parent, a friend. This lasted for decades.

John Perry, a soft-spoken Vietnam vet from Phoenix, steps in.

"It's pretty much just a self-imposed prison," he says. His story is much the same as Montgomery's.

"I didn't talk to anybody. No one would ask me any questions about it. I wouldn't answer if they did," Perry says. "So isolation has been my problem for 40 years."

Hey, whatever works. Meditation alone might not do the trick for every vet, but it's definitely helping some of them. It's also heartening to see Vietnam vets get some attention along with the younger vets. The skills and mentality necessary for surviving warfare, an unnatural environment, are often ill-suited for civilian life. Not every soldier suffers PTSD, but the transition alone can be difficult (something The Best Years of Our Lives, among other works, captures well). "Treat others the way you want to be treated" may be "Human Relationships 101," but it's one thing to know it intellectually, and quite another to know it your bones, to feel it, to live it, to grow into that understanding more deeply over a lifetime. The most moving part for me is hearing the older vets reaching out to the younger ones – they've been there, and can speak with authority… and as John Montgomery discovers, compassion.


LanceThruster said...

Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes talked about his reactions post combat and some of the things effective for him. Some were surprising to say the least (i.e. Native American spirit rituals).

see: http://billmoyers.com/episode/encore-what-its-like-to-go-to-war/

Batocchio said...

Thanks, I caught that show and was going to post on it! It was an interesting interview.