alcoholic, ANZAC Day, Battle of Gallipoli, DNA, hamster wheel of hell, Lest we forget, mental health, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, Rats of Tobruk, remembrance, transgenerational transmission, Trauma, WWI
Today is ANZAC Day here in Australia – which stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Essentially it’s the remembrance day for those who fought in the Battle of Gallipoli in WWI. Generally speaking however, we honour all of our armed forces on this day – those that survived as well as those that passed.
All over the country, dawn services are held. There’s also one held in Gallipoli every year which is very popular with Aussie tourists, kind of like a pilgrimage of sorts.
In yesterday’s weekend paper, there was a piece about the remnants of an army unit known as the Rats of Tobruk – The Last Rats who fought in WWII. My maternal grandfather was one of their number but unlike the men featured in the story, he passed away thirteen years ago.
This is a photo of my grandfather, taken the year he died. I so wish I had a photo of him in his army uniform when he was young – he looked so handsome back then!
There’s things I know about my grandfather that made me do a double take on each of the former soldiers featured in the article.
Like, I know that he returned an alcoholic – not an uncommon side-effect of war. Somehow, despite his daily drinking he managed 85 years before he finally succumbed to liver cancer. I was living interstate at the time but my mother told me how confused and terrified he was on his deathbed – “…he was convinced the war was still going on and he was in the bunkers, hiding from snipers…”.
One moment he’d be lucid and talking to family members and the next he was re-living the war. I also know that he saw one of his best friends get blown up in combat, and there must be other atrocities he never mentioned but lived with for most of his life.
All of this tells me that my grandfather had PTSD – before there was a recognised diagnosis for it. Without any support for his condition, alcohol became the only way to anesthetise his ongoing trauma. Of course, he wasn’t the only one.
These days soldiers coming back from the war aren’t much better off. PTSD is generally recognised now, but sufferers are still not appropriately treated. Just read this case study, which talks about the soldier’s experiences, but says almost nothing about treatment.
As well as remembering my grandfather and everyone who’s ever gone to war on behalf of their country, today I remember that some of those survivors have lived with untreated PTSD for many long decades. It breaks my heart that some of the men interviewed in The Last Rats possibly still deal with PTSD even now.
On top of that, I’ve been considering my family history of trauma. There are theories and research on something called “transgenerational transmission” of PTSD, and here’s just a few examples:
It doesn’t seem so far-fetched to imagine that changes to the brain wrought by PTSD can impact a person’s DNA, creating an inherent risk of PTSD for that person’s progeny if they too, suffer a traumatic event.
As well as my grandfather, I suspect my mother experienced it, too. In addition to being powerless to stop the adoption of her first child from proceeding (against her wishes), she almost died giving birth. And she’s mentioned things from time to time about “…not being able to stop the memories from coming back over and over…”. It’s reasonable to assume that she too, could be a PTSD sufferer. Undiagnosed and untreated, just like my grandfather.
So if there’s any truth to the research on genetic pre-disposition, what hope did my mother or I have in the face of extremely traumatic events in our lives? It certainly helps me to understand why I had such an intense reaction to a single incident of being assaulted!
But fortunately for me, I grew up embracing alternative therapies and so it wasn’t too much of a leap for me to talk to a therapist or try EMDR, which meant that I got the help I needed and ultimately, I’ve been able to free myself from the hamster wheel of hell that is PTSD. Of course, the study and treatment of PTSD have also advanced significantly in recent times.
All of this makes me think that every ANZAC Day should be a time when we also consider how war affects people’s mental health. How many returned soldiers are still suffering in silence? If as a society, we could make it okay to talk openly about mental health issues without fear of stigmatisation, it would help. I know from my own experience that silence only makes things worse, even though at the time I thought it was a way of protecting myself.
Lest we forget those who died, and those who still live in a daily personal version of hell. Love and healing to you all.