Decades ago when I worked in a street clinic as a counsellor, a lawyer asked if I would visit a man in the local jail who was up on very serious assault charges.
The lawyer was concerned because the man was refusing a plea bargain which would get him a reduced sentence.
Several things are deeply imbedded in my memory: the very loud sound of the various air locks on the outer and inner doors, the weight of an atmosphere of despair which pervaded the interview room.
I listened to the young prisoner, a veteran of Viet-Nam and, though at the time there was no clinical definition for it, I now understand he was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, commonly called today, if little understood by non-sufferers, as PTSD.
Simply put this young man not only did not deny his crime but was very articulate in why he should try for the longest term possible because: “I don’t know what is happening in my mind but I know if I am released like this I will do something worse. Please sir, convince my lawyer to let me choose.”
Perhaps not as selfless an act as a fireman running into a burning building, or other such examples, even of the martyrs for the faith, but in his own way this man, as best he could with the brokenness in which he was engulfed, was in a sense, indeed I believe in the eyes of the All-Merciful Father, laying down his life for his friends – granted those friends in his mind were potential victims should he ever be released – yet here was a young man choosing the unimaginable horrors of a prolonged incarceration, rather than risk hurting others because the trauma from war had so damaged his capacity for non-violence.
I have never forgotten him and bring him daily to the altar in Holy Mass.
This is, admittedly, a follow up to yesterday’s post: A REAL PANIC ROOM because I believe more needs to be said, as much to honour that man as to plead for compassionate understanding for all who suffer the aftermath of trauma and indeed as a prayer that, frankly, our Bishops begin to understand what happens to accused priests, in particularly the falsely accused and subsequently exiled and abandoned priests.
These days there are lots of books and professional journals which teach about PTSD and so here I will only note a few salient facts without attempting a full clinical discussion, since that is not the purpose here.
What is the purpose? To show an aspect of the current crisis in the Priesthood not faced and also an aspect of the mystery of suffering without anything being wasted.
PTSD is triggered, indeed implanted deep in the imaginative centres and the emotional centres of the brain, and even can impact upon those aspects of faith and trust in one’s soul, because of either personally experiencing some traumatic event [witnessing a murder/being a victim of abuse]….in other words the trauma may occur ‘outside’ of me or ‘within’ my very being.
However many events, other than the two examples above, can also trigger PTSD such as suddenly and without warning being fired from a job, or abandoned by a spouse, or being falsely accused and, worse, when you know you are innocent of the accusation being, as is so common within the Church because of the unlimited power of the Bishops, punished without due process.
However it comes to pass that a person is wounded by this very serious reality of PTSD the clinical manifestations range from nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, and constant fearful anxiety that the original trauma will be repeated.
Thus there are many triggers – and if you are someone who is married to or employs or has some authority over a person with PTSD and don’t know they have it you can trigger serious upheaval unknowingly – but if you do know and fail to exercise common sense and trigger an upheaval, well that is a gross act of callousness.
There is no magic bullet, no quick fix. Most sufferers will likely have to endure periodic onsets of the trauma’s impact the rest of their lives, though some forms of therapy and proper medication may enhance the suffering person’s ability to cope and lead a pretty normal life in marriage, work, priesthood, faith.
The sufferers, in terms of the Gospel, will find, with prayer, nothing is wasted if we in our brokenness, powerlessness, embrace Christ’s own vulnerability both when he observed traumatic suffering while He walked the earth and in His own Person in His Passion and Death for us.
In my own life I admit PTSD was triggered by the false accusation and the way that was dealt with by the ‘church’, small ‘c’ deliberately for it is human beings, albeit Bishops, who exercise the power and NOT Holy Mother the Church, our Mother.
After a couple of years of intense therapy and mild medication I was able to enter the hermitical life and service of the poor and, this is crucial: to have the love and support of other human beings, such as when my family urged me to move across the country and live near them, in a place where I could also serve the poorest of the poor, the homeless, I jumped at the chance.
Sometimes a word said, a news report about some priest, would trigger a mild attack, but nothing too serious.
Then five years ago I was in a serious car crash caused by a man who ran a red light and then days later when a priest friend, helping me deal with that trigger, took me out to dinner, his car was smashed into by someone else running a light.
Back to serious therapy [which is ongoing] back to the meds because the crashes were shouts of “you are vulnerable, you are powerless, you always will be hurt!”
After three years we had begun this winter to start winding down the therapy. There is joy in my hidden life of service.
The local bishop knows all this and yet even when I told his secretary about the PTSD he refused to give any indication why I was being summoned and after I stood my ground the secretary called back and cancelled the summons.
The bishop knows where I serve, where I live, who has contact with me, where my confessor lives, what my contact numbers are, email is………..he could easily contact me himself!
I am not angry with him, he didn’t give me PTSD, just disappointed in the way he is handling this!
I urge everyone, wife/husband/bishop/chancery official/employer – whoever you are from whatever source, especially if you have authority in the military these days or over first responders – USE CHARITABLE COMMON SENSE – know the persons you are exercising authority over and be sensitive to what pain they carry.
Finally, to all those who like myself bear this suffering, these words from the Servant of God Catherine Doherty from one of her Staff Letters: "The Apostolate of suffering is God’s hurricane of love, for pain and suffering – His Cross – are His greatest gift to us. In so many words it means that He has found us worthy to really be co-redeemers with Him, to really enter into His passion, and therefore, to really be sharers of His eternal glory, love and joy. Those touched by His tender hand of love can become ‘victim souls’, in truth and in joy."
We can be in the deepest darkness and confusion, rattled by the most intense panic attack, weighted down by oceans of unrelenting tears, totally discombobulated because the PTSD is in full whirlwind within us – no matter – we give Jesus who we are, as we are, poor, wounded, vulnerable, hurting, powerless, because we love Him and our suffering is intercessory love for one another.
Thus nothing is wasted, all the fragments are gathered up as prayer for those who hunger for Him!