A reader of yesterday’s blog asks why working with AIDS victims helped me cope with my Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI).
First of all, I call it “injury” and not “disorder” because the condition is the result of an external wound to the psyche—an experience so brutal that it does permanent damage to the soul—rather than an internal malfunction. Second, the affliction doesn’t heal; it’s a permanent infirmity. The afflicted’s only recourse is to learn to cope.
I learned to cope by helping others who were far worse off than I was. I spent five years working with AIDS patients, two years helping the homeless, and seven years taking care of dying people in the hospice system. I found that when I helped those less fortunate than me, my unbearable memories faded into the background. I learned that compassion comforts the giver as much as the receiver.
So I can’t claim that virtue or good will drove me to work with the needy. It was my own need. But I’m grateful that survival is a dominant trait in my personality. So many men who go through combat are maimed by the experience. Their memories of the battlefield are worse than mine. I was an intelligence operative; they were fighters who had to kill or be killed. The suicide rate among Vietnam veterans is higher than in any other socially-defined group, according to one report. And the rate of suicides goes up as people age.
In short, my drive to survive is far stronger than my despondence over my memories of war. In this season of thankfulness, I have much to be thankful for.