I promised myself I’d keep going, so here we are, the first segment of the presentation, Beam Me Home, Scotty!: How Star Trek Can Help Us Make Sense of the Brain, PTSD & Combat Trauma.
Yes, it’s hard to stay brief. But I’ll struggle on.
In the Hero’s Journey, the first two stages are The Ordinary World and The Call to Adventure. Here they are, all “four minutes” or so of them.
Keep me honest, folks.
So, why should we put Star Trek and combat trauma/PTSD together?
The brain itself tells a story, you know. Every morning, our bodies get up, face the obstacles of the day, and the brain—the organ in charge of our survival in this world,—asks us, our heart, our lungs, our muscles: So, my friend, will our hero make it today, or not? Now that’s a story’s end each of us wants to know.
So why shouldn’t we tell such a story with more familiar characters whose mission—to go boldly forward into life—is one that each of us would like to participate in?
Imagine, if you will, that you are now watching me lean onto a guardrail, looking out over Boston Harbor, over at Logan International Airport, the planes landing, taking off.
Now watch that scene change, as you see me making my way down the aisle of an airplane, the attendant’s voice overhead announcing the full, “red-eye”, overnight flight from Los Angeles to Boston. See me come upon the open middle seat, between a woman in her late thirties and a man not much older than I—acquaintances, clearly. Notice how they welcome me into their midst. Catch how I put my shoulder bag under the seat in front of me. See upon that bag the familiar logo, the initials “VA.” As you do, hear that someone else has noticed those initials as well.
“Oh, Lord, don’t let Joe see that!” the woman sitting at the window whispers, a smile tempering the warning.
“Too late,” the man on the aisle says, with a tempered smile as well. “That’s all right, sir. I’ll let you off easy—this time.”
As we prepare to taxi down the runway, I do tell them that yes, I have worked for the VA before. I’m a psychiatrist, heading to Boston for a training about combat-related PTSD.
It turns out that they are both combat veterans, former United States Army: the woman, Jane, a former 68 Whiskey (68W), a combat medic, two fourteen-month tours in Iraq early in the conflict, now an advanced practice nursing student in Atlanta—”sorry, Doc, not psych; critical care, probably, definitely not peds.”
The man, Joe, a former 35 Papa (35P), a Vietnamese language specialist who in an extended tour of duty during the Tet offensive found out that being picked out by the First Sergeant because you’re the best at what you do means that maybe you won’t in fact be sitting next to a radio all day translating messages, as they told you at Defense Language Institute; who, as a result, has been no stranger to VA mental health. He’s now a part-time English instructor at various community colleges in central Ohio because, well, you can periodically lose your cool and piss people off, and the Department Chair will still take you back. After all, “who else can you get to teach Composition 101 and actually read the crap those kids write?”
“We’re actually both advocates for veterans health care,” Jane says, “heading off to a planning meeting in Boston about mental health services. Joe’s not exactly a fan of VA’s psychiatric services, I have to tell you, but me? I’ve never been one much to talk to anybody about Iraq. Yet even with all my own training, I’ve always wondered: can PTSD ever get better?”
I smile. “Of course.”
Joe, still pleasant enough, yet clearly skeptical, rolls his eyes. “Well, that’s news to me, good sir. And just how do you make that happen?”
“Well, glad to tell you—but you’ll have to use your imagination.”
Jane laughs. “Like the kids shows on PBS? Hey, I’m game.”
Joe rolls his eyes even further. “Sure, I’ll do it just to prove to you both how wrong our good doctor is.”
“OK, then,” I say. “Let’s just sit back, close our eyes, take a few deep breaths, and see what happens.”
So we do.
And the scene changes.