It commonly happens that something I read or watch prompts me to put together words on a topic, though the thoughts had been there a while. This time, the trigger is a West Wing episode titled “Noel.” It’s a Christmas episode removed by a few weeks from an ark showing white supremacists trying to shoot a young black aide to a white U.S. president for dating the first daughter. Instead, the criminals end up wounding the president and seriously wounding his senior aide Josh Lyman. In “Noel,” Josh begins to experience post-traumatic symptoms from the shooting, which are triggered by Christmas carols (we learn that music in his confused mind associates with sirens) and exacerbated by other coincidental events. His friends and colleagues are worried about him, but the one who understands him is his boss, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry—a recovering alcoholic, who’s been through violent outburst, suicidal thoughts, loss of self-control, paranoia, and God knows what else himself. In the end, Josh is helped by a smart psychologist, who gets him to recognize what’s happening and tells him he’ll get better.
Here’s the thing: the last few minutes of the episode, as Josh is coming out of his day-long session with the psychologist, Leo is waiting for him, and only then does Josh truly find out how well he is understood and supported. Leo tells him a little parable. “A guy is walking down the road and falls into a hole,” he says. “Then a doctor walks by. ‘Hey, Doc! Help me out!’ The guy calls out. The doctor writes out a prescription and throws it down the hole. Then a priest walks by. ‘Hey, Father! Help me out!’ The guy calls out. The priest writes down a prayer and throws it down the hole. Then his friend walks by. ‘Hey, Joe! It’s me! Help me out!’ His friend jumps into the hole. ‘What are you, crazy?!’ The guys says. ‘Now we’re both down here!’ ‘Yeah,’ the friend answers, ‘but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.’”
I love West Wing. I love learning from it and catching its sharp patter, its humor, its truly noble sentiment. Most of the time, the world of West Wing is foreign to me but for Aaron Sorkin’s humanizing pen. But just at that moment I was watching two men on the screen and thinking that I know them. In a certain sense, I am them. Both of them.
A few months ago, I underwent a psychological evaluation—a full day of computer-based tests and a long personal interview. It was done for a purpose, the kind of thing they do for sensitive security jobs, pilots, military clearance, and so on, and overall mine went well. Still, my evaluating psychologist, by the very fact that I had had PTSD, expressed a concern that my symptoms might recur under normal stress of life. It was a note at the end of the evaluation. He did not think it was necessarily an impediment to joining a community or pursuing any job, but he noted it as a warning to my potential fellows: consider her with a caveat.
I’ve been thinking about this caveat, and I must admit: for a while I wasn’t sure exactly how to take it. Did he miss something about me? Did he catch something very astute?
I lived with PTSD for many years. Then I lived and struggled with it. Then I won. I watched “Noel” and knew exactly, from the first minutes of it, what the creators of the show were getting at. I looked at Josh Lyman’s face and knew exactly what he was feeling – and then some – but like Leo the recovering alcoholic, I am the friend who’s been down the hole before and found the way out. I’m on the other side of this. I have PTSD no longer. My heart no longer stops at every noise, and I sleep sweetly at night and sit with my back to the room. Flashbacks are gone and nightmares, and I’ve learned to say words I’d never thought could roll off my tongue. It is unlikely that any amount of stress I might encounter in the course of my life unrolling here, under normal circumstances, will compare to the stress I managed to survive by the end of my battle with PTSD. I survived it without resorting to violence, breaking the law, alienating my loved ones, or becoming a burden on them or on society. I discovered philosophy, religion, and mysticism. I appreciated love beyond all measure. And I emerged on the other side of crushing stress, PTSD-free. Well. Happy. Cured. What exactly is this psychologist worried about? What life stuff will bring me down that will leave untouched someone who hasn’t the experience I have?
And then I turn around and wonder: What does it mean, to be cured? Is it even possible?
Specialists in the field argue about chronicity of PTSD, but most seem to agree on one thing: prognosis varies. Depends on the trauma, on risk factors, on treatments, on life stressors, on the person… Yes, well. How many of us, who have re-entered this life, as joyful and productive as we may be, from the very real if figurative dark side of existence—how many of us would dare say that we have not left some part of ourselves behind in the darkness? How many of us haven’t cut off a foot to get out of the trap? We know we’ve been changed, never to be the same again—and maybe that’s how it’s meant to be. Part of our gift now is empathy and skill, to understand those who, like Josh Lyman in “Noel,” are just falling into the hole. We are the Leos of the world. A small degree of chronicity may be the price we pay. Maybe, it’s called “memory.” Maybe, it’s something we need in order to recognize it in others—and then, to empathize.
And so I think back to that evaluation, and I wonder what I have. Not PTSD, not anymore. But… the scars of one?
I admit to myself that I am disappointed in him, that psychologist: that he didn’t see in me enough joy and balance to leave out the warning, more balance than I’d had before trauma began to shape me into what I am. Because I am, indeed, well. But then, perhaps, the warning he wrote could be a product of something else he saw: a shadow. I carry the shadow with me and will carry it always, for it is the shadow of the thing that makes me what I am. I don’t suppose I am cured. No. I suppose I am recovering in some way like an alcoholic is, to the end of my life.
It is funny, you know—I’ve always been very comfortable with old friends of Bill W.. We understand each other on a gut level. Though in different ways, we share that awareness of the darkness and appreciation of every ray of light, the terror of letting go—because we know what can happen if we fall—and at the same time an assuredness of steady pace. I don’t ask an alcoholic if he will drink tomorrow. Only today. We get through today. We remember shame, helplessness, and utter hopelessness, and we remember the paradoxical breath of power that comes from surrendering to our powerlessness in the embrace of Benevolent Reality. They call it Higher Power. I call it My Love. Who cares…
My evaluating psychologist says I am a recovering trauma victim, never to be cured. That my PTSD is sleeping inside me and might wake up tomorrow. I think now, I am okay with that. Because I don’t know about tomorrow, mine or yours. Tomorrow, I hope not, but bad things can happen to me, and they can happen to you. If they happen to me, I don’t know what symptoms will surface, but I think, now more than before, as I can recognize them, as I have the Love of my life by my side, I can handle them. And if they happen to you, I’ll be near to jump in the hole with you—because I’ve been down that hole before, and I know the way out.