1 June 2007

On Validating the Illness

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:46 pm

Alternate realities typically refer to alternate physical places and phenomena, as in science fiction movies or dreams, but I’m referring to alternative ways of construing the meanings of things. Yesterday I wrote about wartime reality, where fear and violence come to dominate the way people in the war zone experience the world. When the soldiers who fought in Vietnam returned from the remote Asian jungles to the States they perceived it as a hostile environment riven with imminent but hidden danger — the way they had experienced Vietnam. It was an uncanny experience for the vets: they had returned home, but home had changed. The place was the same, but what the place meant was different. They remembered how they used to feel at home, and people treated them as if they had never left. But now they felt out of place, as if Vietnam had changed them into someone else.

As individuals the vets were isolated. When everyone else acts as if nothing has changed you feel like there must be something wrong with you. In a group, they came to realize that they shared a common orientation to the world. I think we all experienced a sense of vindication. PTSD, we felt certain, was a legitimate syndrome, deserving of official recognition in the psychological profession. Vets who couldn’t hold down a job should receive disability. Professionals who offered treatment of PTSD should be compensated by the Veterans Administration. Society adapted itself to the vets, not by validating their reality but validating their illness.

I’m not so sure I want to see the world like the vets I knew did, but I’m aware that their paranoia wasn’t psychotic. They were acutely attuned to the subtle threats that surround us, the small gestures of aggression and fear, surveillance and counter-surveillance, covert acts of treachery and retaliation, the precariousness of existence and the gradual loss of life that all of us experience. No doubt most of their perceptions were accurate. Who was I to tell them that these experiences were unimportant and should be ignored, that all things considered America was a safe and friendly place, that adjustment depended on their unlearning of instincts that had kept them alive during the most dangerous and meaningful interval of their lives?

I believe that the vets did learn to doubt their perceptions as warriors, to mistrust their newfound instincts for survival and attack. I believe that I helped them adjust to civilian life, not by guiding them through catharsis of repressed traumatic experiences but by abetting their repression of awarenesses deemed unacceptable by mainstream American culture. Only gradually did it dawn on me that the vets’ reality was and is a latent truth about America, comprising an alternate reality that for most of us remains invisible. Only when something triggers our awareness, some kind of wartime experience comes out from the camouflage and moves into the foreground, are we able to glimpse this alternate reality.

Maybe if we had listened to the Vietnam veterans we’d all be better at distinguishing real threats from contrived ones, at recognizing acts of macho bravado as the kind of bullshit slung by guys who have never actually been in the line of fire, at never purposely putting people in harm’s way unless there’s a damned good reason for it. Instead, we allowed ourselves to be manipulated into a continual paranoiac state of war against unseen enemies, persuading ourselves that it had nothing to do with Vietnam.

I’m trying to get on with the project of formulating what a postmodern psychological practice might look like, but as I rethink these experiences I’m finding myself a little discouraged by the prospect.



  1. “I’m aware that their paranoia wasn’t psychotic” It’s a very strange thing but the paranoia aspect I also remeber being very common amongst the Viet=nam Vets that I knew and yet it is not even listed in most of the PTSD info sites!

    Here’s the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder rundown:
    Reliving the event (also called re-experiencing symptoms), Avoiding situations that remind you of the event, Feeling numb, and Feeling keyed up (also called arousal or hyper-arousal symptoms).


    Comment by samlcarr — 2 June 2007 @ 8:26 am

  2. Sam –

    This characterization of PTSD is what I’m reacting against. It emphasizes the specific event, its repression in memory, reliving the event, avoiding situations that reminds the person of the event. If we go with Stern’s idea of unformulated experience, then the person isn’t pushing the event out of conscious processing; instead, the person never fully formulated a way of making sense of the event. I’m also saying that a past traumatic event hypersensitizes a person to the continual imminent threats posed by the present environment. Again, this hyperattunement takes place below conscious awareness, as an unformulated way of being toward the world. People who aren’t attuned in this way regard such a person as paranoid. As you and I agree, this is one of the defining characteristics of someone who’s acutely aware of environmental threats. So maybe there’s still room for incorporating a more ecological understanding of PTSD, even after all this time has gone by.


    Comment by ktismatics — 2 June 2007 @ 12:12 pm

  3. Yes, that’s the other aspect that you are bringing out that is really fascinating. Normal, everyday society is a potentially very dangerous place and most of us are blithely aware of the dangers. Perhaps the Vets are only sensing what is in fact there.


    Comment by samlcarr — 2 June 2007 @ 12:45 pm

  4. Canary in a coal mine.


    Comment by ktismatics — 2 June 2007 @ 12:55 pm

  5. Career soldiers perhaps create the structures of meaning that are needed to survive the reality of living to die. Soldiers who set out to do one or two tours would not make the effort, and get permanently scarred…


    Comment by samlcarr — 2 June 2007 @ 1:50 pm

  6. Sam –

    Career soldiers live their lives among career soldiers, in a social context that validates the soldier’s reality. The interpersonal soldier who goes back into civilian life loses the interpersonal validation. What is adaptive and normal in the combat zone becomes strange in civilian life. Strangeness is suspicious, and suspicion forces the strange to the margins where the criminals and crazies live.


    Comment by ktismatics — 2 June 2007 @ 4:14 pm

  7. Irony and Alethia. You, in commenting on my blog: “I suspect you and I share a frustration with all corporate endeavors. But corporations are made up of people. You’re probably right: people hide behind the faceless machinelike container of the collective enterprise. And that includes strings of machinelike propositions like zoning codes, apartment leases, mission statements, ….”

    You, here: “we allowed ourselves to be manipulated into a continual paranoiac state of war against unseen enemies, persuading ourselves that it had nothing to do with Vietnam.”

    I see a strong connection. Even in terms of the cause of the “reality” in which we live, as compared to the “cause” of both the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

    As far as experiencing the world in a different way from everyne else, but in reaction to something that’s actually there…I used to not understand Vietnam vets…now I feel like I am one (sort of).


    Comment by Jaosn Hesiak — 4 June 2007 @ 7:48 pm

  8. I agree about the connection that you see. And I’m glad you can see something about the Vietnam vets that you didn’t know before. I too feel solidarity with them.


    Comment by ktismatics — 4 June 2007 @ 10:28 pm

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