The classic symptoms of PTSI are flashbacks, panic attacks, nightmares, and irrational rages. A fleeting sound, smell, sight can cause a memory flash and trigger an episode. I’ve learned over the years to be on the watch for stimuli that spark an attack. And I’ve trained my emotions to restrain themselves in the face of unbearable memories.
An insidious aspect of PTSI is the human tendency to bury intolerable memories in the unconscious. Once there, they act like ghosts that haunt us, coming upon us when we least expect it. Many men and women who survived combat banished the recollection of the horrors to the subconscious where they lurk and attack without warning.
The unconscious aspect of PTSI is one of the reasons that it can lay dormant for years, then arise, decades after the events that instilled it. Many men who fought in Vietnam, for instance, have only begun to suffer the more serious symptoms of PTSI in recent years.
As I have explained here before, I was not able to seek therapy for my PTSI. I had top secret codeword-plus security clearances from the National Security Agency (NSA), my employer. Had I gone for psychotherapy or even counseling after my time in Vietnam, I would have lost my clearances and my job. Because I had a family to support, I didn’t dare risk the loss of income. Fortunately, NSA and other intelligence agencies have long since abandoned the policy of forbidding psychotherapy. But in the 1970s, that was their way of handling clearances.
I figured out that what I had to do was bring my hideous memories into my conscious mind and face them down. I had to train myself not to get hysterical at remembered scenes of gruesome deaths during combat and other unbearable experiences. It took all the discipline I had. I schooled my emotions for restraint.