About a month ago I was asked by a very patient reader about what parts of my PTSD have gone away and what I still have. I had to put that question on-hold because I had a minor heart issue to deal with at the hospital and I was wrapping up my teaching semester. What I appreciated most about the query was that my dignity and privacy were respected. While all of us deserve dignity and respect, it is very important to provide it to people who have survived trauma. Why? Because PTSD, regardless of the particular cause, seeks to strip us of our dignity and our self-respect.
Often family, friends, institutions, and political fanatics on both sides of the political world, seek to diminish the value of our suffering and our subsequent sanctifying journey through pain and self-doubt. PTSD is an “Invisible Wound” that attacks not only our brain’s structures (Amygdala and Hippocampus) and brain chemistry, but it also attempts to erode away our souls.
Usually when we encounter a PTSD Skeptic we cannot hold up a bloody stump and say, “See! I really was wounded!” If they cannot see a bleeding stump then some people will try to deny we have been maimed at all. But, PTSD maims our soul.
PTSD is like having a compound fracture ripping through our souls.
If you are uncomfortable with the word “soul,” then you are in good company. It is a difficult term because we are trying to describe a supernatural reality (the soul) though mundane means (our human language). Trying to describe supernatural realities with natural methods (language, science, lab coats, endless insurance co-pays) means we will always come up short and never fully satisfy someone who claims they only can comprehend mathematical reality. For our purposes you can think of the terms “soul” and identity” as being very similar.
Sometimes the palms of my hands will hurt and ache so much that I will say to my wife, “It feels like someone is trying to shove a screwdriver or a fork through my hands.” I think I have only said that to her between 100-250 different times over the last twenty years. Having someone who I can trust means that every time I say that, she knows it is fresh and new and real. I am not perceived as a nag. What does this have to do with PTSD (beyond the basic point it is crucial to have someone you can talk with or write to about your suffering)? It is a simile for the pain of PTSD:
PTSD feels like someone is pushing a screwdriver or a fork through my soul.
Do People Ever Heal 100% from PTSD?
There seems to be two populations who speak of PTSD being 100% curable. Sometimes these groups may even overlap.
The first are people who state that they themselves have been healed 100% from PTSD. The second population is those who state that PTSD can be 100% cured in others.
People Who Say They Have Been Fully Cured
This first group includes people whom I don’t want to discourage or engage in any confrontation with. If they say they are cured, I accept it. I suppose it means they have been 100% symptom free for at least 5 years. That is my arbitrary time frame. But since we know PTSD can suddenly manifest itself 10 years after the trauma, I am not putting too much stock in any number.
Concerning this, I have spoken with veterans from World War II and from the Korean War. They told me that they have had good periods and bad periods of PTSD. Some just had “only” a few years of intense symptoms, others have ongoing symptoms. And, given the stigma that still surrounds PTSD, many people will claim they are symptom free.
But, if someone tells me they are completely cured, well, who am I to say otherwise? But I do think of PTSD cures and remissions as analogous to cancers cures and rates of remission. I have read of individuals who were allegedly cancer-free and in remission for 10 years – only to have the disease return. I tend to think of PTSD symptoms as being well managed or in a state of remission, similar to how we speak of cancer.
I am personally doubtful that there is a complete cure for PTSD. That does not mean we will forever be disabled by it. We can get to a place where we are not controlled by our PTSD, but that place may mean I cannot work in what is ordinarily considered full time employment. Most trauma survivors will be able to resume fulltime employment, but not everyone. Why? Because we are dealing with unique individuals and not a cookie-cutter textbook model that says all people react the same way, all of the time.
People With Other Interests in Claiming a Cure
The second group of those who state PTSD is 100% curable are folks I happen to be suspicious of – at least usually.
I would always be leery of buying a “miracle cure” for PTSD, especially if it is advertised using phrases like “What the doctors don’t want you to know…”
Included in this second group are institutions which tend to evaluate and prioritize you and your PTSD in terms of cost-benefit analysis. For example, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has done substantial work to minimize the realities of PTSD and some believe they overstate the ease of curability, etc. As a politically conservative non-governmental institution it has decided that to fully treat and compensate military cases of PTSD is cost prohibitive. Evidently, it is fine to send men and women into combat (unless they are your kids!), but it is too expensive to give them adequate care afterwards.
The Veterans Administration (VA) also has a vested interest in saying PTSD is curable. They are currently unable to meet the flood of conventionally wounded troops and the added reality of PTSD is immense. They are doing a better job under President Obama who made some immediate changes to how the place was run, but they could still do much better.
If someone says PTSD is completely curable you have to ask yourselves the following:
- Are they trying to sell me something?
- Are they trying to reduce financial exposure that governments and employers may owe to their traumatized employees?
- Are they exhibiting Compassion Deficit Disorder?
The sooner a person/corporation/government agency can dismiss your PTSD as either “not real,” “faking it”, or “completely curable,” then the sooner they can quit caring about you and tell you to get lost. That is to say,
like Pontius Pilate, they can wash their hands of you.
Compassion Deficit Disorder can be manifested by governments, civilian institutions like the AEI, and our family and supposed-friends. It really takes an immense commitment to care about someone else. If a company or government’s policy actions gave you PTSD, then they usually will want to avoid the cost of keeping you alive.
Some treatments have better healing rates than others, but I am doubtful that any single medical treatment is the cure-all for PTSD. I would love to be wrong about that.
While the medical field has a lot to offer in terms of alleviating sleep deprivation, headaches, chronic pain, anger, etc., it cannot heal a wounded soul. The medical industry is good at treating symptoms and I am grateful for that. But PTSD affects our souls and no pharmaceutical can address that.
Lastly, if someone insists that PTSD is always curable and you are not cured, then they can blame you. They will say you don’t want to be cured; you are just selfish, trying to get money, seeking attention, etc. This viewpoint allows them to drive a trauma survivor into deeper isolation. Thus, they can wash their hands of you. This sort of one-dimensional thinking has no capacity to grasp the possibilities of the soul.
While Mortal, I will Always Have PTSD to Some Extent
PTSD affects our souls. While my symptoms might diminish or even go into remission, I will always have the condition of PTSD.
Some analogies to this are allergies and broken bones. A person can receive injections to control the severity of allergic reactions. But if a person is allergic to peanuts, they will probably always be allergic to peanuts no matter how many shots I give them.
A person can have a broken bone, get treatment, physical therapy, etc., but that bone is no longer as cohesive as it used to be.
My past cannot be undone. I cannot be removed from what happened to me. I cannot undo what I have done to others. I can repent and be sorry, but I cannot undo my actions or unspeak my words.
My soul will always, in this life time, be a soul that has been assaulted by PTSD. I can do a number of things to control symptoms and reduce my susceptibility to PTSD’s negative coping behaviors.
Will My Soul Ever Be Free of PTSD?
Yes! I will ultimately be 100% freed of PTSD in the resurrection. In heaven, there is no PTSD.
In this lifetime I can strive to reduce the damage of PTSD to my soul. My soul can heal. I can continue to strive to not give in and be taken away by PTSD’s negative behaviors.
To someone who does not know me, I can appear healthy as they only see the outside. But how many times have you been in personal torment and when someone said, “How are you?” you then said, “I am fine”?
The healing journey away from the PTSD soul wound is a journey of sanctification.
It is true that we can be forgiven of sins we have committed. And, we can forgive others the sins they have inflicted upon us. But often we will carry the marks of those sins through our mortal lives. In the resurrection, in the presence of God and the Community of Saints, those sins and their affects are left behind us.
So yes, we can be fully cured of PTSD if we look at the very big picture: Eternity.
But in our current mortal estate (I can’t believe I just used a 19th century phrase like that…Yikes!), we carry the effects of the wounds, even if those who are involved in the wounding have been forgiven. If a man cuts off my foot and I forgive him, I will still be missing a foot for the rest of THIS life.
I see I am going on and on and need to stop. I am also getting physically worn out (Ah! The joys of being physically frail!). So how to sum up?
If someone says they are fully healed, then great. I won’t try and convince them otherwise. But, knowing what I think I know about the soul:
Aspects of the PTSD Soul Wound remain until the Resurrection.
In the future I need to more fully answer some of the questions people have sent me and I would also like to delve more into the Identity issue of PTSD and why theology has something to offer here.
The soul is eternal, but the wound is not.
Semper Pax, Dr. Z