A reporter recently asked me what the symptoms of PTSD are for children of veterans. And I paused, because what basis do I have for answering that question other than my own experience? I could not think of any books or research that specifically addresses that question; only in the last year has the National Center for PTSD recognized that children suffer from their veteran parents’ PTSD. Their website says this:
Children of Veterans with PTSD are at higher risk for being depressed and anxious than children of non-combat Veterans. Children may start to have symptoms like the ones the parent has. For example, a child may have nightmares about the parent’s trauma. Children may have PTSD symptoms related to watching their parent’s symptoms. For example, a child might have trouble paying attention at school because she is thinking about her parent’s problems. The impact of a parent’s PTSD symptoms on a child is sometimes called ‘secondary traumatization.’ Since violence occurs more often in the homes of Veterans with PTSD, the children may also develop their own PTSD symptoms.”
While I agree with that, I do not agree with what the website says in a prior paragraph:
“Families of Veterans with PTSD experience more violence than those without PTSD. This includes violent behaviors in children. Children of Veterans with PTSD have more behavior, school, and relationship problems. They are more aggressive and hyperactive than children of Veterans who do not have PTSD.”
While it is true that many veterans with PTSD can behave violently at times, not all veterans with PTSD do. Not all children of veterans of veterans with PTSD will be more aggressive or hyperactive. Such sweeping generalizations do a disservice to families who need help but do not see themselves as falling within these categories.
I say this from personal experience. I never showed aggression or hyperactivity; my father never once acted remotely violently. Nor did the many WWII veterans I have met and interviewed over the last six years. We need to consider that PTSD can take forms other than the one the media and governmental agencies highlight. I believe a more common form of PTSD from war manifests itself in periodic depression, veiled melancholy, brooding, anxiety, suppressed memories, and nightmares. The veteran is often highly successful in his or her professional life and does show to the outside world any indications of emotional pain.
One WII vet I met, who has never been able to speak of his war experience to his children, still wakes up from nightmares yelling and in a cold sweat. He went to the VA recently for an evaluation after a VA physician who saw him for a sprained arm suggested,after questioning him about his daily routine, that he might have PTSD. But the VA psychiatrist, after a twenty-minute evaluation, determined the vet did not have PTSD.
A determination of PTSD seems to involve more opinion than analysis of objective data. What can a 20-minute observation reveal? What if the psychiatrist her or himself devalues their emotions, a not uncommon characteristic of highly accomplished medical professionals? (Much of the three years I spent in law school was a struggle to hold on to my emotional life as doing well on exams and in moot court trials seemed to depend on excising all emotions, to forcing myself to be dispassionate. And if doctors allowed themselves to care about all their patients, they would soon be spent.) So the meager signs a new patient might allow himself to reveal to a VA doctor could easily not pass a threshold of symptoms that doctor has established.
All of this is to say that if we have yet to nail down the qualities of PTSD itself, we are even further from defining the characteristics of secondary trauma. I could speak from my own experience and identify my anxiety, which has increased over the years, my struggle with depression since I was 15, the way I go silent when I feel threatened or insecure, how I expect the worst and reflexively express a negative perspective (the quality that my husband finds most tiresome), how deep inside I see myself as unlovable, as having deserved the physical and emotional abandonment, so I can never rest from doing too much for those I love.
But such a profile becomes problematic, I learned when I first attended an Al-anon meeting two months ago. My mother became an alcoholic sometime in the five years after my father returned from Germany. As she left my life when I was five, I never considered the effects of her alcoholism on me (other than abandonment) until I sat through my first Alinon meeting.
Another child of a veteran had encouraged me to go after reading the manuscript of my forthcoming book, Gated Grief. “Have you ever explored the significance for you of your mother’s alcoholism?” he asked. At Alinon meetings people take turns speaking, and in my very first meeting as I listened to others speak, I felt like I was hearing my own characteristics described: going silent when people seem to ignore or dismiss me, constant worrying, being pessimistic, doing too much for people I care about.
So what of myself was the consequence of those five years with my mother and what resulted from my father’s repressed trauma? I thought about what a therapist had told me years before: A family is a system, so when one member of a family has a serious problem, other members will manifest anger in a myriad number of possible behaviors, alcoholism being one of them. Wine and then scotch enabled my mother to escape her husband’s coldness and absence- both physical and emotional.
We think that the trauma of war flows through the veteran-parent, but we need to also look at the non-veteran spouse, because often their means of coping has as serious consequences for the children as does the veteran’s detachment or rage.
I have not answered the question the reporter raised. I do not feel that I can speak for any one but myself. And it is terribly painful to acknowledge the toll of my father’s war on our family, on my brothers and me. We are not a family. One brother does not speak to my other brother and myself and has never told us his reasons. My other brother and I have distance between us, as though hearing the other person’s difficulties stimulates too much pain. My children have no sense of an extended family on my side. The lives of my brothers and myself have been warped, so much energy consumed by resisting our sorrow and negativity, by developing strategies to cope. If that is true of other children of veterans, how much treasure have we lost from our wars?
The Multigenerational Ripple of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)