Sebastian Junger’s PTSD Hypothesis

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Sebastian Junger’s work as an author and documentary filmmaker has been, for the last 10 years, been largely centered on the War on Terror, often going into the field in Afghanistan with the US military. His newest book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, is on the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) of returning soldiers. His very direct, hands-on experience has given him some very unique insights into the warrior psyche, including what becomes of these fighters when they come home.

Junger describes PTSD as a “disorder of transition,” explaining in a recent TED Talk that “maybe what determines long-term PTSD isn’t what happened out there, but the kind of society you come back to. In close, cohesive, tribal society, you can get over trauma pretty quickly. If you come back to an alienating, modern society, you might remain traumatized your entire life. Maybe the problem isn’t the vets, maybe it’s us.”

As he spoke, I thought of the other large group of traumatized people in our society: rape victims. There’s no shortage of personal accounts to be found where rape victims have described their experiences in a similar way—that while being violated was terrible, trying to report the crime was even worse than the crime itself. Too often, rape victims report being met with indifference and/or disbelief when seeking out help from the law enforcement and healthcare professionals who are supposed to have their best interests in mind. In the Pulitzer Prize winning article, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” a woman who already has mental health issues is raped during a home invasion, and is so disbelieved by police and her own guardians, that she ends up being charged with filing a false report. Video evidence made by the rapist of that assault is eventually found when he’s caught continuing to rape women in another state.

That story, to me, is a good illustration of what Junger is talking about in regard to the relationship between alienation and trauma. In the intervening years between the woman’s assault and finally being vindicated, the agony of her situation must have been unbearable. While this may be an extreme example, it’s not terribly unusual. As much as everyone says rape is a terrible crime, and perpetrators need to be held accountable, we’re not very good at following through on those words.

Nowhere is that clearer than in regard to prison rape. American society is notoriously short on sympathy for criminals as it is, and that lack of sympathy gets in the way of our pragmatism. What I mean is this: nearly everyone who goes to prison will eventually get out. Whatever trauma they endure in prison stays with them. While going out into the world as a former prisoner is itself already alienating, I can see where society’s condoning attitude about prison rape can make it even more difficult to work past the trauma and work to rebuild one’s life. It’s likely an overlooked component as to why the recidivism rate is so high.

To bring this back to the military, rape still remains a complex problem. To focus on the nature of alienation, less than 1% of Americans have served since 9/11. When we talk about military rape victims, we’re talking about an even smaller group. Throw the trauma of war into that mix, and coming to home to feelings of isolation is inevitable.

That so many PTSD sufferers remain isolated and alienated, it’s on us. We remain beholden to bad ideas, and forget that ideas can be altered. New information and research breakthroughs are happening all the time. Our unwillingness to adapt to newer ideas is rooted in a fear of looking like we’re weak, or wrong. But putting our own stupid pride ahead of the legitimate needs of others is what makes us weak.

In an interview with MSNBC, Junger went off on the social and political polarity that impedes progress on veterans’ care: “To sustain a national conversation we have to see ourselves as a unity. We don’t. The political parties are at each others’ throats, we live in racially segregated communities, economically segregated communities. There are politicians and leaders in media who literally talk about some fellow citizens as if they are traitors…As if they are rivals who actively want to hurt the country. They talk about [the] president that way, they talk about members of Congress, elements of the population, as if they are actually trying to harm their own country. When you talk like that, you are talking non-tribally. When you use that about people inside your own camp, you are dividing a society. And interestingly, it is a very deeply unpatriotic thing to do. If that is the norm, if that is acceptable to voters, to have people talk like that, you are never going to have a national conversation about anything.”

How I learned to exile the Kardashians/Jenners from my Facebook feed (Well, mostly)

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“Thumbs Down” by Jaz Jacobi

 

I hate the Kardashians. I hate all of the reality shows. I hate most of what’s on TV, on the radio, and at the multiplex. It’s not that I’m especially negative, I’m just a snob. I don’t just want art, I want good art. When I watch or read the news, I don’t just want to be informed, I want to be enlightened. In short, I’m a very demanding consumer. I demand more than the media wants to give me.

The Kardashian/Jenner clan makes the news a lot, so in my list of news sites on Facebook that I like to read, those people pop up a lot. More than I’d like to see. Far more than is ever relevant to most of my interests. So the question became: how can I read the news I want from sites I like without swimming through Kardashian/Jenner sludge?

With the shared links, there’s a little arrow to the side of them with a dropdown list. In that dropdown list, there is the option to “hide post.” When I found that, I started to “hide post” to every Kardashian/Jenner post in my feed. After a couple days of this, they started to disappear.

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However, all is not well. Sometimes an article about pregnancy risks would feature a picture of a pregnant Kim Kardashian, or an article about transgender rights or health issues would use a picture of Caitlyn Jenner. Then the articles actually about the Kardashian/Jenner tribe would slowly start to creep back. So, it’s something of a cycle, but it is an interesting insight into how the Facebook feed functions.

What I’ve come to resent is that the algorithms Facebook uses to “feed” me articles act like they know what I want to read more than I do. I also dislike how most of what’s being pushed the hardest seems to be the most stupid, or maybe my taste isn’t as discriminating as I like to think. Either way, I’ve found that “hiding” the stuff* that I think is a waste of time has made my social media time more useful. I think if more people were to make use of this function in the same way, it would be interesting to see how the news is tailored in response.

 

*In addition to the Kardashian/Jenner family, I’ve also started to use the function on other corners of pop culture I despise as well—those awful Real Housewives of Bravo, or anything pertaining to Victoria’s Secret.

 

The Bros love David Foster Wallace. So what?

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Recently, both Slate and Salon have run pieces discussing the newfound love that young white men seem to have for David Foster Wallace. Perhaps the attention is because of the upcoming movie about the late author, but I also think it speaks to the snobbery of the authors of those pieces. I think that Wallace’s appeal has transcended the inner circle of literary geeks should be cause for celebration, not squeamishness. I would much rather see an exploration of why these young guys have taken an interest in his work, and how they connect with it.

That is, if they’re actually reading it. Both articles argue that most copies of the 1,088 page Infinite Jest that are being sold to all the young dudes are for display purposes, as a kind of intellectual peacocking. I know I’m treading into some weird waters with this, but I haven’t read any of Wallace’s fiction, only some essays. In those essays, I found him to be an empathetic, sensitive, and passionate writer. Based on that alone, I’d like to see more young men actually reading his work, and cultivate a similar curiosity about the world around them–and a similar ability to see the world beyond their own noses.

Author’s note: This has been edited since the initial posting because I was too tired and cranky to do a second draft.

As a former barista, here’s why I think Starbucks’ #RaceTogether is a terrible idea

It's eSpresso, not eXpresso

It’s eSpresso, not eXpresso

As I have mentioned before, I have spent the bulk of my adult life working in the food industry, most of it spent dealing directly with the public. The horrible, stupid, ignorant public…

When I first read about Starbucks wanting their baristas to engage their customers in talking about race relations, my first thought was, “How in the pragmatic hell is that going to work? When I wasn’t waiting on people, I was supposed to be stocking and cleaning. It was my job to caffeinate the customers, which meant that a lot of them weren’t ready for an involved conversation until after they finished their coffee. And frankly, I didn’t give a rat’s patootie about their thoughts on life as it was.”

And a lot of those customers were jerks anyway. Not all of them, not even most–the majority just wanted to get their coffee and go, and they did. But a significant proportion of which made the job feel like the store could be mistaken for a zone that straddles the Fourth and Fifth Circles of Hell. Occasionally, those terrible were customers were racist toward the few black people I’ve worked with, one of them being a drunken nutbag who was thrown out by the manager after his verbal abuse made a 17 year-old black girl break down in tears.

I did have some regular customers that I look back on fondly, mainly because they also worked in the mall, and we were united in our disgust with the general public. I know this sounds like an utterly bleak view, but the reality is, anyone who works with the public long enough will come to loathe them. This is largely because a lot of people lack empathy and can’t see the world beyond their noses. Also, a lot of customers don’t realize that we’re at work. We’re not being nice because we like you, or kissing your butt because we think you’re wonderful. We’re performing happiness to provide a comfortable atmosphere to make it easier to sell you stuff.

This Starbucks initiative is also very telling of something else: the disconnect between the suits in corporate’s ivory tower and the people who actually work in the stores. I first came to realize this disconnect because the layout of the particular store I worked in was incredibly poor–it was as though they anticipated all their baristas would be 6’5″ and weigh 120 pounds. (It’s worth noting that the store I worked in still exists and has been remodeled, and appears to be more functional.) But there’s also a disconnect between what Starbucks thinks it does and what it actually does.

The classic European coffeehouse has, historically, been the domain of thinkers and artists. In Lauren Stover’s Bohemian Manifesto, she writes, “In Vienna, writers took to coffeehouses like Beatniks to bongos. Cafés started stocking writing supplies. Out of coffee? Out of paper? Out of ink? No problem. Some writers even gave the café as their address and received mail there…The intellectual and creative activity sizzling inside coffeehouses led many political and religious leaders to believe them to be hotbeds of rebellion and decree them illegal.”

Café Central in Vienna

Café Central in Vienna

I can’t help wondering if this old school café lust for life is what Starbucks is trying to cultivate or emulate. If they are, it’s too little too late. Starbucks is responsible for turning a place that was once a haven for society’s free thinkers into a fast food empire. It’s no longer a viable place for conversations that require patience, nuance and empathy, which race certainly does.

If Starbucks wants to go out of their way to make sure their stores are safe havens for people of all races, and all other walks of life, then good for them. Forcing the issue isn’t, I think, the way to go. When I discussed this with a friend who worked in another (now defunct) chain, he said that if this initiative had been proposed in his store, he could see the more redneck element of their clientele lecturing him on the “evils” of political correctness.

The best thing Starbucks does is offer a good cup of  coffee and an occasional sanctuary in a world gone mad. Also, free wi-fi. So I would implore Starbucks to do what it does best. But as a writer, I certainly wouldn’t turn down free paper and pens.

Starbucks does Paris.

Starbucks does Paris.

Beware of Darkness: In memory of my best friend

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I recently found out that my best friend has passed away. I know that he had struggled with mental health problems and substance abuse issues for years, and they finally ended his life. While part of me wants to find solace in that he has finally found peace, an even larger part of me is angry that the world has been cheated out of what this bright, sweet, funny young man had to offer.

We first met working in the same restaurant. He had a Fargo accent so thick that I initially thought English was not his first language. When he was washing dishes he put on the Sex Pistols, and I was the only one who totally dug his choice. From there, we would bond over books and music. If you’re a Kerouac reader, you know how unusual it is to find anyone who has read anything besides On the Road, and we had both already read the Dharma Bums. George Harrison was our favorite Beatle, and we agreed that Chrissie Hynde was the overlooked Queen of Rock ‘n Roll. We believed that John Lydon’s memoir, ROTTEN: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, should be required reading.

When I began to try my hand at writing professionally, a Google search revealed that my given name was so similar to an already successful author that a pseudonym was in order. I told my friend about this while we watched Robin Hood: Men in Tights. He suggested I should start calling myself “Tracy of Lockesley” since I was always crabbing about our society evolving into a corporate fiefdom.

I eventually learned was that I met him during a more lucid period. He’d been clean for about year, and remained so for the first year of our friendship. He had the worst luck when it came to his romantic relationships, and was something of a magnet for women who would mistake him for a punching bag. I don’t know for sure that any of these relationships triggered a relapse, but they certainly didn’t help. Once he left for college, he appeared to be on a persistent decline. On the outset, he appeared to be developing into an alcoholic. When I discussed the matter with his father, I learned of my friend’s earlier drug use.

One of the things that’s very difficult about loving an addict is that at some point, you have to resign yourself to the prospect that each time you see them, it may be your last. My friend spent the last years of his life bouncing around, incapable of holding down a job, and couch-surfing on a good day. I think he spent the last two years of his life living on the streets. He somehow managed to visit with me for my birthday last year, and appeared to have been clean for a few weeks. And yet, after we said our good-byes, I couldn’t escape a fatalistic feeling that that may very well be the last time I’d see him alive. And it was.

Of all the difficult things about this, I don’t know what more I could have done for him. As his friend, I had no way of having him committed. I had a standing offer to his parents that if they ever needed me for an intervention, I would be there. He was happiest living in California, and I’m very content to remain in Chicago, so geography was rarely on the side of our friendship.

Even in his passing, geography isn’t on our side. His memorial service is out of state, and I can’t make it. So I’d like to pay tribute to my friend by celebrating the time we had together. Below is a playlist of some of his favorite songs. There’s nothing I would love more than to hit the dance floor with him one last time.

 

One last playlist

One last playlist