All emotions are contagious, but post-traumatic-stress disorder has been compared to an infectious disease that affects everyone nearby. Anybody who has grown up in the shadow of trauma already knows that.
Linda was born in 1945, just 10 months after her father returned from the war. Her aunts said Morris was a lighthearted man, a bright and talented violinist before the war. But his children – Linda and her younger brother, Mark – never got to know that man.
Morris was severely injured in the Battle of Normandy. He suffered multiple shrapnel wounds and lost a finger, which prevented him from ever playing the violin again. He spent months in a hospital in Europe before returning home to start a family. He was no longer lighthearted.
Here’s how Linda described the father she knew: “He was extremely moody, and when he got depressed, he would withdraw into his room. And he couldn’t sleep because of the nightmares. We all knew about the nightmares.”
People deal with trauma in different ways. Several years ago, I treated Pearl, whose mother lived through the Holocaust and refused to talk about her experiences. The violence she witnessed stayed buried inside along with her grief and survivor’s guilt. Her silent suffering became the elephant in the living room; everyone was afraid to talk about it for fear of inflicting more pain on their suffering mother. Sometimes, Pearl told me, she could feel her mother’s pain right through the pores of her body. Ten years after her mother’s death, Pearl still feels guilty about not being able to help her.
Morris dealt with his trauma quite differently. Linda said her father would talk about what happened almost every day. “From the time I was 5 or 6,” she said, “he would tell me stories about his friends losing limbs or what a body looked like after it was blown up. At first I didn’t understand what he was saying, but when I was old enough to understand what it all meant, it was terrible. And it was daily.”
And it went beyond talk. Whatever Morris carried inside was acted out on his children – especially Mark, who said it was predictable and terrifying. “I was told I had to be tough and strong,” he said. “I was never allowed to be a child. And for many years, I thought I was being beaten because I was not good enough.”
All children tend to feel responsible for their parents’ problems; it’s their way of trying to control their own environment. Parents’ problems typically are temporary and manageable, so the child’s development is not impaired. When they reach the level of significant trauma, however, the suffering becomes like a member of the family whose needs dominate everything.
Pearl spent her childhood afraid to do anything that could upset her mother. She grew into a quiet and withdrawn adult who rarely acknowledged her own needs. Mark has difficulty with intimate relationships: “The kind of anxiety I felt growing up stays deep inside. I don’t think it will ever go away.”
What might have made a difference for them? In today’s world, of course, post-traumatic-stress disorder is far better known, and professionals have more effective treatments. But a very simple thing might have helped a great deal: Talk. Not the one-way kind that was so frightening to Mark and Linda, but open family discussions – everyone included – about what happened to mother or father then, and what they are experiencing now. Beginning the conversation can be very difficult. Often, these families have unspoken rules about not raising the subject. But remember: Open discussion like this rarely causes harm. Silence does.
Still, it won’t change the parent’s past; it might not even diminish the symptoms. But it will help the children. Morris’ kids never realized their father had PTSD until shortly before he died. What if they had known earlier?
“I spent the early years of my life thinking that all this was happening because there was something wrong with me,” Mark said. “Even if he couldn’t have been helped, at least I would have known it wasn’t my fault.”