A woman heads into the grocery store with her child. That child sees masks on the faces of customers departing the store and expresses fear. The mother quickly tells the child there’s nothing to fear, lifts the child and carries him into the store.
Do you see the problem here? A child in the developmental stages of his life has just learned that his feelings don’t matter. Maybe the mother will teach him differently elsewhere, maybe not. If not that child may grow up without the ability to sense when he’s in need. This happens. We learn to ignore concerns that later come back to bite us.
I was with the Marine Corps from 1991 to 2001. I spent my early years with veterans of the Kuwaiti Liberation preparing to do battle in a chemical rich environment. These Marines were suffering because they’d been unfortunate enough to have found themselves in the path of Iraqi Scud missiles that rained condensate down on them. That condensate triggered false positive readings indicating the presence of weaponized chemicals when it was contaminated by the antifreeze and oil residue on their vehicles. They were in and out of chemical protective gear for months never quite certain they were safe even when further testing let the know it was a false alarm.
We’ve just lived through something very different. More than 600,000 Americans died as the result of the pandemic. A strain that forced the United Kingdom and Canada to push back the date they plan to open to travel from outside their respective nations continues to hospitalize us. Pretending there’s nothing out there we might yet want to protect ourselves from isn’t a wise way to address that concern, no matter how tired of it all we are. Now comes the time when we acknowledge that fear remains, as we did with those Marines traumatized by the experience I just described in the years that followed. Yes, years!
I know Marines who continued to wake in cold sweats shivering into the late 90’s. Many feared the inoculations they received before deploying were to blame and became hesitant to receive others. That was fear talking. The inoculations had not produced the symptoms they experienced, the trauma they’d suffered simply continued to reek havoc on their mind and thus their body as a result.
There is a stronger relationship between physical well-being and emotional well-being, as I well know. I knew a lot about the threats posed by al Qaeda and Iraq before the war. Like many I feared our fixation on the chemical weapons Iraq was provided in an effort to deter Soviet expansion during the Cold War left us vulnerable to groups like al Qaeda who were determined to draw us to war in the Middle East because they suspected they could hurt us as badly as they’d hurt the Soviets in Afghanistan. I knew what they wanted to do with our aircraft years before they did it and did my best to separate the issues of Middle Eastern extremism, the Taliban’s influence in Afghanistan, and Iraq so extremist leaders wouldn’t succeed in drawing us into a larger battle than was necessary to contend with them alone.
I can’t tell you how often the emotional traumas I suffered as I watched that all go to pot affected me physically. It’s been a struggle, I can tell you that. I can also tell you that a friend of mine who continued to work the intelligence side of things long after I left was eventually paralysed by PTSD. Muscular tension resulting from emotional stress caused so much inflammation around his spinal cord he slowly lost the use of his legs. The exciting part is he gained it back after a few years therapy, so it is possible to undo at least some of the physical harm we do ourselves by ignoring emotional stress.
We have a ways yet to go before we’re through this. The bystander is going to recover first, the witness later. I’m telling you stories from 20 years ago now because I simply wasn’t capable of telling them then. Some of our first responders are going to come to understand that. Just be mindful of one another and we’ll recover from this as quickly as is reasonably possible.