On Saying Farewell to Katniss & Peeta

Today, in the United States, it is Thanksgiving Day.

One week ago, though, in IMAX theaters across the land, it was Katniss Everdeen’s Day.

Much to President Coin’s chagrin.

For those of you acquainted with Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, whether in print or on the big (and I mean, big) screen, you know exactly what I mean.

For those of you not acquainted with it, or at least with Jennifer Lawrence’s/Josh Hutcherson’s/Liam Hemsworth’s incarnation thereof:  good Lord, where have you been buying your groceries this past month?

Sure enough, I was there, Opry Mills theater, right off the Briley Parkway, Nashville, Tennessee, USA, far too close to the screen, but there you have it.. Wouldn’t have missed it. I had to see if the ending was going to disappointment me.

It didn’t.

Interestingly, though, just the week before I’d spoken with a journalist about my old posts on the books, written around the time of the first films. He was surprised that I was as gung-ho on the books’ ending as I was.

“I think a lot of people thought it was a let-down,” he told me.

I suspect he’s right.

Was I let down that Dr. Aurelius, the psychiatrist in the book, never made it to the big screen?  Sure.  I’m a shrink, after all. It was our big moment, and to end up on the cutting floor? Another day at the office, I guess.  Next patient, please.

Just the other day, David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote an op-ed piece entitled “Tales of the Super Survivors,” in which he stated (quite well, I think) the idea that one recovers from trauma only by learning to tell new stories about life, stories that must take into account the truth of the world, yet which must have the optimism to see beyond those truths.

I think he’s right, of course. I did find his tone a bit on the chipper side for my taste, admittedly. I’ve attended one too many funerals in my day, I guess.

Still, he’s right.

And Katniss and Peeta knew that as well. After all they had gone through, all they had left was home, back in what was left of District 12, in houses whose grandeur evoked the memories of all the smiles and largesse forced upon them by a government that had rather found them both dead in those beds they curled up in, nightmare-night after nightmare-night.

All they had left were the stories to be lived of Haymitch sober, of Annie and Finnick’s son, of primroses growing in gardens Prim would no longer tend, of an ugly cat, of a love, whether or not it was ever “not real,” that became so quietly real.

Does love conquer all? God, I wish it did. Too many veterans return to homes that, even though not on the edge of a genocide zone, do not have the luxury of quiet that the Everdeen-Mellarks were eventually afforded.

Narratives are easier to re-write, after all, when there’s a steady supply of food on the table and a warm-bed-for-life on the second floor.

Yet, in the end, love, connection, friendship, a willingness to let something in life matter again, someone in life: they are all that the traumatized veteran of War has. Treatments will come. Treatments will go. Sadly, in many parts, treatments never even come in the first place.

But to take the chance to love again, to love a man who once tried to strangle you, yet who endured your bite to keep you from swallowing pills of death (the one book scene I wish could have made it into that movie scene of the “execution’s” aftermath)? Katniss did.

To take the chance that the memories you worked so hard to retrieve could leave you once again, like that young lad outside the bakery on a cold night, tossing a loaf of bread to a beautiful girl rather than to a pig, without anything to show for it but a broken heart and a maybe an occasional wild turkey brought in from the woods and left at your doorstep to cook up that night if you wanted to invite, what, maybe Haymitch over for a beer–or nineteen? Peeta did.

You know, the high-drama-guy in me wanted to shed a tear or two as I watched Peeta giggle with that little blond guy in the field at movie’s ending, as Katniss recited the book’s ending to the baby in her arms, as the two of them looked at each other and knew—and yet lived and loved and smiled anyway.

Perhaps because it was only about a week after JD’s funeral, I couldn’t.

Yet I was happy for them, those two fictional characters, yet still, two veterans of horrific wars, ones televised live and overanalyzed, two young veterans, slowly growing older, with nothing more to show for it than love and a willingness to play different games.

Thank you, Ms. Collins, for your books and for your care over the films. Thank you that even when there are worse games to play, there are always better stories to tell.

For that, the fictional ones and the real ones, all of us can whisper, “Thanksgiving.”

An Open Letter to the Upcoming Generation

It’s been one of those weeks, with days long and tiring enough to call for sleep at their end, rather than typing.  In other words (as if you didn’t know already): I’ve been remiss.

But I’ll confess: one of the “one of those weeks” elements has been my finally succumbing to the Hunger Games trilogy.  I just finished the second book last night, and I’m already well into the third and final one.

So go ahead. Say it.  You’re right, you know.  I should be embarrassed.

I’m not, though–especially since I’ll have at least one post come out of this.  Who knows, maybe more.

On that note . . .

Brief side bar (a serious one): I would not recommend The Hunger Games willy-nilly to a combat veteran. The story has elements that are quite relevant to combat trauma and PTSD, and reading these books gives me a feel similar to one I often feel at my job every day.  More on this later, but, truly, word to the wise: these books could prove quite distressing to men and women who have weathered the traumas of war.

I’ve had some very thoughtful comments this week, to all of which I plan to respond,  One in particular I wish to address in this post, if only to remind myself why I do this blog and this work. A high school student, Stephanie Pieper, has created a Facebook page entitled Veterans With Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It arose out of a class project, and she has created an excellent “deposit account” for information on all aspects of the challenges of living with and of finding hope for those living with PTSD. In her comment, which appears to have been sent out to a variety of individuals/organizations, she asked three very good questions–three very good questions that merit the following “letter.”

Dear Stephanie,

Thank you for your interest in my blog, and thank you for the work you are doing to increase the public’s understanding of the struggles that many combat veterans are facing. I especially commend you for your interest in making your peers more aware of these very difficult, very important issues. You asked me some questions, and I am glad to answer them as I can.

1. What drove you to start a blog?

First of all–though probably least noble of all–I enjoy writing. I enjoy entering inside a part of myself and seeing what words pop out. Sometimes I surprise myself. Sometimes I simply bore myself.

More importantly, though: as I say in the “About My Blog” section, I have had many combat veterans tell me that they can relate positively–even intensely–with the words I use to try to understand and describe their experiences. I claim no special knowledge. I just go to the same “place” inside me as I do when I write, searching for words to put to feelings that I can only barely comprehend–and never fully articulate. As long as the men and women whom I serve find these words useful, I will continue them.

Finally, there is a technical reason for the blog. Today there are many very effective psychotherapeutic (counseling) therapies for combat-related PTSD, and the VA, where I work, is at the forefront of promoting their widespread, competent use. These therapies arise out of a tradition that focuses on the importance of understanding what and how we think about our emotions, as well as on taking appropriate, helpful actions based on those thoughts.

I was, however, trained under a different tradition, one that focuses more on the stories we tell about ourselves, on the way we can make sense of our lives, and on the importance of powerful, personal relationships in bringing about a more coherent sense of ourselves. This has definitely become the “secondary” approach to the treatment of combat-related PTSD (and I’m not going to say for bad reasons, especially given the resources we have at hand). Still, I hope that this blog, the way that I talk, the way that I express my own experiences when I am with these veterans–all will give the next generation of professionals a taste of the wisdom I received from my teachers so that some of that wisdom can be effectively brought into some aspect of the care of veterans over the coming, many years.

2. What motivates you to work with veterans with PTSD on a daily basis?

To be truthful, I found my way to working with combat veterans quite unexpectedly.  Like many individuals who work for themselves (I also have a private psychotherapy practice), I was looking for a part-time job that would provide health insurance for me and my family. I knew my current supervisor well, and one day (before she became my supervisor) I asked her about any availability of staff psychiatrist positions at the Indianapolis VA. And tah-dah: here I am.

That is only a small part of the story, however. I have long focused my psychotherapeutic practice on the treatment of men who are struggling with interpersonal issues. I like the intensity that many men bring into their counseling work–and certainly no one, in my experience, brings more intensity to any encounter they have than do combat veterans.

In addition, I am the age of the parents of most of these individuals.  Thus I often find myself feeling a certain paternal enjoyment of the veterans.  In my line of work, you have to be cautious about overdoing this: you don’t want to end up burdening veterans with your own needs.  Yet similarly you cannot be “cool and distant” when you are sitting with persons who have been involved so closely with so much horror.  My task hour by hour is to try to find the right emotional distance with the veterans: close enough to be affected by them, but not so close as to become overwhelmed or demanding myself.

Finally, though, I do work with these veterans out of a definite sense of duty–although I need to clarify that word carefully.  The duty is not a patriotic one or a civic one, for I’m not one to feel a strong affinity toward the “nation” in the abstract.  Instead I feel it to be a human duty, arising out of who I am and what I value.  To me, it doesn’t matter whether or not this current conflict is a justified one.  These men and women believed that the honorable task for them was to protect those of us who are not willing (or able) to take up that task.  They do what they do so that we can do what we do.  You may or may not believe that this current conflict is such a task.  No matter: these men and women agreed to protect us by doing well what they are led to do, wherever, whenever.  They gave their youth–and some of them, their lives–for us, whether we wanted them to or not.  I believe strongly that all of us owe them our best efforts to make home “home” for them once again.

3.  What is one thing you would like my generation to know about PTSD?

If I may be so bold, I’d like to suggest two things: one about military life in general and one about PTSD in particular.

As a father of teenagers, I am well aware that most high schoolers these days have no thoughts whatsoever about entering military life.  I do ask, though, that your generation embrace from the start those of your peers who indeed believe that military life offers them the best hope for a meaningful career.

I know that some younger people think that people go into the military only because they lack structure or seek education.  Others think that people go into the military only because they are foolhardy.

Remember, though, as I’ve said in previous posts: some individuals have always been intense by their very nature, “warriors-in-spirit” as I have called them.  For these individuals, the military is not just a fall-back option.  It is the option, a chance for them to focus their energy into activities that can be meaningful and worthwhile.  Granted, combat often complicates–if not obliterates–that meaningfulness.  That’s where the PTSD comes in.  Nevertheless, they still feel the honor of protecting even those who don’t want (or at least say they don’t want) their protection!  Therefore I urge your generation to make combat veterans’ return to civilian life–both now and in the years to come–as seamless and rewarding as it can be.

As to PTSD, though: never forget that the traumas these men and women endured will be with them–and thus with your generation–for the remainder of your lives.  Your generation will never be free from these challenges, and thus I strongly urge each of you to begin preparing for these challenges right away, no matter what professional or personal choices you might end up making.   Learn what you can about the consequences of trauma.  Understand personally and professionally how you can help veterans come to grips with those consequences in ways that are both realistic, yet still hope-filled.

I am fifty-four, and I have about fifteen more good years to help prepare your generation for the work ahead.  Currently I treat men and women who are in their mid-twenties to their mid-thirties.  In fifteen years, they will only be in their forties–and there will be younger ones still, the ages of your generation.  The job of my generation is to transmit to your generation all the wisdom, the hope, and the patience our mentors have instilled in us.  The job of your generation is to make it work for these veterans–for a lifetime.

Again, I thank you for your energy and for your willingness to learn and to share.  If your generation has many like you–and I know it does–the futures of these combat veterans will be all the better.  Good for them.  And good for you.  All of you.

My best to you in your future,

Rod Deaton

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