PTSD strives to dislodge us from our healthy relationships and to wedge us into extreme isolation. Alienation and isolation are not only outcomes of the PTSD-Identity; each also forms part of the process that hijacks our lives and loves. Each feeds into the other and forms a cycle of lost relationships and reinforced self-isolation. Whether examined as process or outcomes, each is fueled in turn by bitterness. We can transform bitterness.
People who have survived trauma often become bitter; many times they are not even aware that they have become so. It is easy to not see the bitterness that begins to pervade our day to day and then subsequently moment by moment experience. It is easy to miss because we are often swamped by the ongoing strands that form the webs of bitterness. We survived the PTSD-inducing trauma, now we need to survive the survival.
Webs of Bitterness Increase Isolation and Alienation
Our injuries, wounds, and traumas are hard enough to live with in and of themselves. Several types of different experiences, after the initial wounding, can render us bitter. This bitterness will make it harder to heal not only physically, but also spiritually. I’ve listed a few examples below. Each contributes sticky strands that encase us in a bitterness that causes us to damage our own relationships and to seek out our own isolation.
Physical Rehab Strands
If we lose an arm or a foot we spend quite a bit of time in triage and then in physical therapy (assuming we can afford the medical care, therapy, and medications). At first, quite naturally, we are focused on stopping the bleeding and learning to walk again. Our situation has booked us middle passage in the medical industry. Add into this mix the occasions when employers will not allow an employee the time away from work to get physical therapy and/or the insurance company refuses coverage for the full extent of necessary treatment.
These webs come from all of the energy, and in some cases personal identity, one has to put into filing for insurance, disability, legal judgments, parking permits, etc.
The insurance industry does not offer a smooth ride to sorting our claims, payments, and liabilities. They too book us for a journey on the middle passage. Indeed, I’ve known some people who actually have insurance to still refuse medical care because the barriers the insurance industry has erected made dealing with the physical malady the easier injury to bear. One sad ironic case I know of concerns a medical doctor flummoxed and exhausted by trying to navigate the insurance maze to get coverage for their own family members.
Just as the medical and insurance industries are blind mazes to the smartest of people, trying to navigate the legal system is a middle passage all of its own. It can be a scathing and depressing experience.
Toxic People Strands
Added to the above frustrations are the toxic individuals who judge us. These people usually already have some relationship to us. They may be relatives, co-workers, or they attend the same church, etc. Unfortunately, they presume on this level of acquaintance and use it as leverage to make judgment calls about our suffering. If they were not already acquainted with us we probably would not put up with the abuse. If you enter public life you may then get some acerbic remarks directed your way by total strangers. It happens to me occasionally when people discover that I teach about PTSD as a soul wound.
Even though they have no training or certification in matters of triage, therapy, or spiritual direction, they proudly announce to all and sundry that our suffering is not justified. They saw a similar case on TV, they know someone who did a year as pre-Med in college, they experienced it themselves as a video game character, etc. and etc. some more. Usually it adds up to the fact that they do not want to feel compelled to care about someone else.
The toxic person dances on our not yet dug graves as they proclaim we do not need compassion, treatment, or moral support. They may admit we are indeed injured or wounded, but the means by which that wounding occurred is not in their view justifiable. The damage they inflict upon us comes around for some sort of hellish bonus points when they talk about us behind our backs.
This extracurricular gossip is not only evil but it may prejudice the weak-minded from offering both tangible and intangible assistance to us later on. The gossip’s ricochets may make someone less inclined to help me get my yard mown or carry a box of books from one room to another. They may cease praying for my healing and general well-being because the gossip said my suffering is not worthy.
Bitterness Wants Us to Give Up
The strands of physical rehab, administrative bottlenecks, and toxic gossips are not the only strands that form the web of bitterness. I am sure you know of several others strands that form the bitterness web: false friends, false religions, plastic patriots, legal struggles, self-absorbed journalists and politicians, well you get the idea.
People who are recovering from trauma frequently feel they have been let down, abandoned. Promises were made and not kept, sometimes with severe consequences. The system seems designed to prevent us from healing and participating more in society.
If you have survived trauma, then you know what disappointment is like. The more invested we were in a trusted person or institution, who then failed us, the greater our subsequent disappointments. These disappointments – betrayals? –can induce bitterness in us. They cause us pain and disappointment and this is processed into bitterness. But we don’t have to stay embittered.
What Does PTSD Bitterness Want From Us?
Bitterness wants quite a bit from us. It wants us to abandon all of our healthy relationships and eventually even the unhealthy relationships. It wants us to isolate ourselves and then eventually die.
Bitterness will try to
- tell us to never trust people again.
- prevent relationships because that way we won’t get hurt.
- prevents us from forming the deep many tiered relationships that can get us through thick and thin.
- makes us obnoxious to other people.
- inhibits our abilities to trust and love.
- make us too cynical.
- dismiss the value of life, including our own.
- uses us like a puppet and says “Why should I care? Nobody else does! Screw it!”
Our experiences of the webs of bitterness can make us withdraw from our relationships. This makes us bitterer. The more alienated and isolated we become, the bitterer we become. It’s another of PTSD’s vicious circles.
If our bitterness controls us then we will seek fewer relationships and the ones we do seek will have some common link of destruction like porn, violence, drugs, or alcohol. Eventually even those unhealthy relationships go by the wayside and we find ourselves fully isolated from others, fully alienated from love. Often, when that occurs, suicide is not too far away.
Love Helps to Heal the Deep Wounding of our Spirit
Part of the difficulty here is that while it is not unnatural to be embittered over grave disappointments, we must be careful that the bitterness does not become a cocoon that bakes us into an always angry misanthropist. Unchecked bitterness can make us too easily dismissive of the value of life.
There is nothing wrong with feeling the pain of betrayals and abused trusts. If the Veterans Administration, or your church, or your spouse, have lied to you and let you down, then it is okay to acknowledge that pain. We may need some time to weep the loss that was inflicted upon us. We are not being asked to pretend that we don’t have feelings or that abuse of our bodies and souls by trauma has no impact.
Significant wounds need significant time to heal. We must, yet again, engage the journey to heal, to be sanctified from the pain that has afflicted us.
We learn who to trust and who not to trust. If I learn that someone is a gossip, then I know I need to avoid confiding in them. Eventually, I need to start forgiving them, but that may take some time and healing on my part so that the forgiveness will be authentic.
So we take precautions based on the best information we have. But we must avoid allowing the pain and disappointment brew a draught of bitterness that poisons our life from there on out.
Healing Day by Day, Less Bitter and More Alive
Healing from the PTSD soul wound is something we should be engaged in each day. Relationships are living things, they need to be nourished and loved. Our souls will suffer if we withdraw from our healthy relationships.
So part of the irony is that you have the right to feel bitter if you’ve suffered and then treated by our culture in way that makes it even worse. But, you can’t let it control you and color your world. Over time, in prayer, one’s bitterness can be transformed into pity for those who would dehumanize you. It can be a call to forgiveness and the embracing of renewed life.
But, in the long run, there is no money, no joy, nor life, in remaining embittered. We take our sorrow and seek its transformation. We can survive our suffering and our sorrow. If we risk being open to something that is so much bigger than ourselves, and for me, this is God, we can discover that the journey is lighter. We can discover, if not meaning, then at least transformation and discovery of how precious our lives and the creation truly are.
It can be tempting to be seduced by bitterness. It is the easier path to take: You just give up your soul and appreciation for all life.
Some will hide in their bitterness because trying for a healthy relationship can seem so risky. But love is better than bitterness. Love can help heal the soul damage of PTSD, it can renew the spirit. It is a journey of many steps, but a doable journey all the same. As we shed the layer of bitterness, we become more sanctified, more easily attracted to the Light and Love of God.
Bitterness deepens the alienation from relationships and plunges us into isolation. Love and hope, however, can dampen and peel away the scars of bitterness.
We cannot change the traumas of our past. Our personal history is, well, history. But we can choose to start peeling off the bitterness which would further cripple our souls. While we need to engage God in prayer, and others in conversation or at least a private journal, we also need to commit to not bathing in the brittle waters of bitterness. In many areas we lack a choice, but we can choose how much we will bow to the idol of bitterness. If we reject the cold comfort of bitterness we can engage the warmth that goes with healing.
Semper Pax, Dr. Z