The PTSD Identity takes over when our PTSD symptoms take control of us. One tends to whipsaw between all sorts of extremes. I may at one moment want to be in the crowd and act hyperactive with them, or I may want to be in isolation and removed from all of my relationships. I may want to feel alive or I may not want to feel at all. Getting ping-ponged between these extremes can lead to risky behaviors, such as
drinking too much, fighting, drug abuse, thrill seeking, medication abuse, and reckless sex.
Feeling Too Much Can Be Addictive
As I mentioned in an earlier post, living through trauma and surviving it can be an ecstatic experience. This does not mean I enjoyed it, it just means that the experience was ecstatic and touched not only my physical condition, but also my soul. For those readers able to use their legs, imagine the “runner’s high” amplified a thousand times. It is amplified over any thing I may choose to do partly because of the absolute danger I am in and the lack of control or safety nets, or assured outcomes. People who are raped, shot at, in explosions, or who watch their friends die, can feel this. They won’t enjoy it, but it is ecstatic and it will touch their souls.
This is the “Feeling Alive” feeling that many trauma survivors recount. When we return to our “normal” lives, we miss this feeling of absolute Aliveness. We feel that something is missing. We feel less than fully alive. We may even have a need to feel alive again, as we did when we experienced all of that trauma.
Trying to Feel Alive Again
In order to try and recapture the intensity of the aliveness we felt, we try to manufacture it. Often this is through some sort of thrill seeking. We engage in acts of intensity that endeavor to repeat the ecstatic experience. Examples include:
– Extreme Fighting
– Extreme Sports
– Reckless Self-Endangerment
– Reckless Sex
– Violence Addiction
Extreme Fighting: Bare knuckle fighting is extremely popular among some of our soldiers in Iraq. Illicit tapes circulate of blood matches as well as tapes of Saddam’s thugs murdering his opponents. When our troops return to the USA, one of the ways to feel danger and the sensation that almost everything is on the line is to engage in these sorts of fist fights. Some States sanction them and they have become very popular and profitable for promoters. Essentially two people beat each other to a pulp while a paying crowd roars its approval and the promoters make money.
Some folks will say that since the fighters are volunteers and the crowd chooses to watch it is no big deal. Alas, I differ with that point of view. Morality matters. The dignity of all human beings matter. The lives of the men and women in these fights matter more than my titillation at a blood sport – or the money to be made off of the flesh of the fighters. Americans used to be better than this. I know of at least one death connected to extreme fighting in the United States.
Extreme Sports: Nothing immoral here. Just folks trying to push themselves to the physical limit by rock climbing, white water, sky diving, physical endurance events, etc. When done to try and re-create an ecstatic PTSD experience, they will fall short. When done for the thrill and accomplishment in and of themselves, without connection to our traumas, they are just fine. They will not satisfy the Aliveness craving of a PTSD person as they cannot replicate the original ecstasy.
Reckless Self-Endangerment: Real life examples of this are the following:
– Driving the highway at night with the lights off
– Driving the highway (day or night) with your eyes closed and counting to sixty
– Riding a motorcycle on the highway standing on the
– Variations of the above, except on country roads at high speeds, usually at night
The above list is compiled from the PTSD experiences of three American soldiers, one served during the war in Viet Nam, one served in the 1980s, and one who served in the current war in Iraq. None of the men knew one another or knew that other veterans were engaging in these PTSD behaviors. Each self-identified the reason for doing this as trying to feel alive again. And, each discovered that they could not replicate the aliveness feeling of their initial traumas this way.
Quite a few veterans die in single vehicle fatalities. Some speculate that they are suicides. I imagine that many of them are suicides. I also figure than many of those fatalities are the result of reckless endangerment as they try to feel alive again. (There are other versions of this category besides the automotive).
More on the behaviors of the PTSD Identity soon: I will be posting more about these behaviors in terms of reckless sex and addiction to violence and also about how we sometimes try to not feel anything at all.
Semper Pax, Dr. Z