I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and I can longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.
I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which fighting men are being sacrificed.
On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.Siegfried Sassoon, Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration, 1917
I’m on the phone with my therapist, Dr. John. I’ve asked him to administer the CAPS-5 (Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale for DSM-5), for “narrative purposes.”
Since I began writing about PTSD a year and a half ago, I’ve struggled with how to describe myself: am I the well partner of someone with PTSD? Am I a caregiver, though I don’t love that word? Am I displaying symptoms of PTSD? Or do I have a full-blown case of PTSD myself?
We’re deep in Criterion D: Negative alterations in cognition and mood associated with the traumatic events. Dr. John asks, “In the past month, have you had strong negative beliefs about yourself, other people, or the world?” It’s the easiest question I’ll answer on the whole test.
“Absolutely,” I say.
“Tell me more about that,” he probes.
“Well, I dislike the people who did this to Jason, obviously. And it’s hard not to feel angry that they are still all walking around the neighborhood somewhere. But mostly, I’m angry at non-traums.”
“Yeah. People who haven’t experienced this kind of existential harm, who ignore it. I get incredibly angry at naive people. Civilians, I guess you could say.”
“How about aggressive people?”
“Weirdly, no. That’s definitely one of Jason’s triggers — angry white men — but it’s not one of mine. It’s funny, but with my new trauma goggles, I have more empathy for aggressive people now. I see aggression as mostly a trauma response. Someone freaks out waiting on line at the pharmacy? Road rages? Verbally snaps at someone for no reason? The first thing that goes through my head is, What happened to you?“
“Hmmm,” says Dr. John.
“But non-traums? People who move through the world surrounded by trauma and ignore it, turn a blind eye? They make me furious.”
There’s so much to talk about in the first third of Regeneration. Pat Barker’s focus on male friendship and love. The different ways war trauma shows up in Craiglockhart patients’ bodies: Anderson’s blood phobia, Burn’s inability to eat, Prior’s silence, Sassoon’s “powerful anti-war neurosis.” The subtle disses the author dishes out to Freud.
But the thing that resonated most when I first read the novel, and again on this re-reading, is the complicated relationship traumatized people have with non-traumatized people. In the novel, Barker has Sassoon describe the feeling:
He hated everybody, giggling girls, portly middle-aged men, women whose eyes settled on his wound stripe like flies. Only the young soldier home on leave, staggering out of a pub, dazed and vacant-eyed, escaped his disgust. …
He thought of Rivers [his psychiatrist], and what he’d said that morning about finding safety unbearable. Well, Rivers was wrong, people were more corruptible than that. A few days of safety, and all the clear spirit of the trenches was gone. It was still, after all these weeks, pure joy to go to bed in white sheets and know that he would wake. The road smelled of hot tar, moths flickered between the trees, and when at last, turning up the drive into Craiglockhart, he stopped and threw back his head, the stars burst on his upturned face like spray.Regeneration, pp 43-44
What is this feeling toward non-traums about? It’s part resentment that they haven’t gone through what you’ve gone through, certainly. It’s colored by survivor’s guilt, as Sassoon describes above, a fear that giving in to safety means you’ve left your comrades in trauma behind to suffer in your stead. It’s also contempt for non-traum’s perceived (or actual) ignorance, their stubborn clinging to the delusion that the world is just — that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. That destroying minds and bodies is an acceptable sacrifice for the greater good.
When you cross the boundary into PTSDLand, that just-world fallacy is exposed, and all its petty brutalities come, stinking and rotten, to the surface. All the chirpy bullshit of bright-siding: “This will all turn out fine, you’ll see! Maybe it will even be a source of growth!” All the stealthily blame-the-victiming: “Do you live in a bad neighborhood? What was he wearing? Was it at night?” All the guru-bullshit-magic-bullet-fix-it-schemes: “Have you tried probiotics? Reiki? Walking in the woods? I heard this podcast that said you can cure PTSD in just ten sessions!”
As Sassoon says to Rivers, explaining that he hates civilians as much as he hates the German Army, this denial is callous, complacent, unimaginative. It allows non-traums to focus on our brokenness so that they “don’t have to ask themselves any awkward questions.”
It is a fear of facing reality so profound that it must erase, invalidate, and demean the traumatized. It is a form of human sacrifice.