How Researching PTSD Changed My Book
A Higher Purpose
When I was a writing teacher, I would often show my students J.K. Rowling's commencement address she gave at Harvard. I showed this speech to students so they could learn how to properly write and give a speech. Rowling did an excellent job.
But as I listened to the moving speech, a few things hit my heart rather hard. In addition to sharing her writing journey, she described her time working for a human rights organization. She went on to describe the impact her time at the organization had on her life and on her writing. After learning more about her time there, readers can easily see how important human rights are to her just by reading her famous Harry Potter series.
PTSD and Other Issues
That revelation by Rowling made me pause and consider my own writing projects. Do they have an impact on my readers? Am I successfully conveying my message to them?
I'd love to be a writer simply to make money, but that's just not me. I write to send a message, too. In my current WIP, Leaving Eden, my protagonist is a war correspondent who suffers from PTSD. She doesn't realize it at first, but friends and family recognize the symptoms. When they confront her, she resists getting help at first. But later she realizes her friends and family are right. She seeks help.
So many people don't truly understand the disorder and what trauma can do to a person's mental state. I know I didn't understand the scope until I experienced it when my mother died suddenly. I then started studying it.
The disorder was first recorded and researched at the time of the Civil War. Military physicians called it "irritable heart" and "soldier's heart." Later it was called "battle shock."
Experiencing and witnessing a sudden traumatic death can forever change a person. You can't "un-see" what you have seen. I worked in a criminal court and saw the horrific crime scenes and listened to descriptive testimony about those crimes. I also witnessed several autopsies live because I once thought about going into forensic science. I once sat four feet away from a mass murderer and rapist. All of these experiences stayed in my mind and began to change how I thought. I had no idea this was happening until 7 years later. I knew I had to walk away from this atmosphere. Imagine the police officers, medical examiners, paramedics, and firefighters who cannot walk away. They need their jobs!
And I also knew that I could never be a forensic scientist. And that's okay. It's important to respect your boundaries
Now consider those who have experienced war! The constant threat of death and destruction does affect the psyche.
During WWI, soldiers were psychologically wounded. The weapons of war had advanced and chemical weaponry had a severe result on soldiers. The term "shell shock" entered the vernacular and alerted Freud. He submitted a memorandum about the brutal treatment wounded soldiers were enduring. Not only were they physically wounded, but psychologically wounded. Doctors had to learn to treat wounds they could not see.
WWII changed the terminology and called PTSD "battle fatigue" and "combat stress." These men (and even the women who served as nurses) had reached their limit.
PTSD wasn't even officially diagnosed until the 1950s.
In the 1960s and 70s, of course, Vietnam veterans and the mistreatment of their psychological wounds perpetuated the problem rather than prevented it.
Today, we all know more about PTSD and its affects on those who have served in war. The good thing is that the more PTSD is discussed, the more prevention options are discussed as well.
Books About War
War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters who Covered Vietnam
American Daughter Gone to War: On the Front Lines with an Army Nurse in Vietnam
In my book, Leaving Eden, my protagonist experienced war in Afghanistan and Iraq by embedding with the troops in both countries.
To prepare for writing this book, I read War Torn by Tad Bartimus and Tracy Wood which is about women journalists who served and reported on the Vietnam War. It was an eye-opening read. I knew women journalists went to Vietnam, but I had no idea what they had endured.
Another good book to read that also prepared me was American Daughter Gone to War by Winnie Smith. This book is also well written and fascinating. It opened my eyes to what nurses endured during Vietnam.
But the aftermath of war was also presented in both books. That's what intrigued me the most. Survivors of war suffer much when they return home; Survivor's guilt, depression, anxiety all of which are typically self-medicated at first, resulting in alcohol abuse and drug abuse.
Now that my protagonist is home again, how will she adjust? How do all war vets adjust?
Knowledge is Power
Now that I know more about PTSD, I can write about it. There is still so much for me to learn. I want to interview those who have returned home from war to ensure I am adequately portraying the affects of the disorder in my story.
Now that we know more about PTSD and its affects on people (and not just veterans but all victims and survivors of trauma), we should do our best to spread the knowledge.
If we keep quiet about it, we perpetuate the problem rather than solve or prevent the problem. Words can heal.
For this reason, I am making sure the issues that surround PTSD are addressed in my novel. My protagonist is a strong headed woman with a purpose. Pride and fear keep her from understanding the effects of the trauma she has experienced after 8 years of dealing with war. Pride almost kept me from seeking help after I experienced the trauma of losing my mom suddenly. What else keeps people from seeking help or talking about their traumatic experiences? How can they be helped to move forward?
There are resources out there. Books are just some of the resources. As writers, we can help get the conversation started by addressing PTSD and other issues in our stories.
I suppose that's why I write what I write.: Flawed characters who do their best to move forward, conquering the "dragons" along the way.
Write with a purpose, that's what I always say.
My purpose is to help others cope with what life has handed them.
For help with PTSD, please visit: https://www.ptsd.va.gov/
R. A. Douthitt is an award-winning author of books for middle grade readers. She is now working on a contemporary inspirational novel, Leaving Eden for release later this fall. She is also an educator and speaker with a Masters degree in Education.
History of PTSD in veterans: Civil war to DSM-5. National Center for PTSD. (2016). Retrieved from //www.ptsd.va.gov/index.asp
Friedman, M. J. (2015). History of PTSD in veterans: Civil War to DSM-5. Retrieved from //www.ptsd.va.gov/public/PTSD-overview/...