Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an ongoing struggle for Elijah Smith of the Saint Maggie series. Although he sought and received treatment for his nightmares from Dr. Stanley in Seeing the Elephant, I wanted to let the reader know that his issues did not evaporate. He walked away with a better understanding of what was happening to him, managed to exorcize some of his demons, but still is troubled by nightmares and panic attacks. The good news is these things are not as frequent as they once were.
The following scene from my work-in-progress, The Good Community, illustrates how Eli’s PTSD can pop up from what appears on the face to be a benign trigger.
Something hit Eli in the gut as surely as if he had been in battle. His memories of gun and artillery fire, the sound of a shell landing near him and throwing him the air, the impact of hitting the ground – it all rushed upon him with the force of a great wave.
Heart pounding, Eli gasped for air and, hoping for cover, scooted back against the battlements.
Bob noticed that something was wrong. “Papa?”
Eli fought the feelings. This isn’t real, he told himself. It’s your mind. The boys are shouting.
Take a breath. Deep breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth.
He drew in a long breath to fill his lungs and then exhaled as if to push the panic out of his body.
“Papa! What’s wrong?”
Hearing the rising fear in his son’s voice brought Eli back to himself. He took one more breath. “I’m all right, Bobby.”
By now, Natey had stopped shouting, too. Eli could see the boy watching him with large, brown eyes.
“I’m fine,” he insisted. He was. Finally. Eli patted the ground. “Come sit down next to me, Bobby.” Once Bob was there, Eli added, “You, too, Natey, sit down over here.”
Once both boys settled on either side, Eli put his arms around them. He heaved a sigh. “I need to tell you fellas something. Remember when I was covering the war for our newspaper with Mr. Carson? Well, I saw battle. I watched people fire muskets and cannon, and I saw people die. And…” He couldn’t tell them about the horror of being in a field hospital, of watching Lydia’s husband Edgar die, of searching bodies for identification in a dead tent on the Gettysburg battlefield so the deceased’s loved ones could be contacted. “Well, sometimes sounds or sights make me remember what I saw. It’s like a nightmare, but I don’t see anything – I just get really scared.”
“I didn’t mean to make you scared, Papa.” Bob looked as if he might cry.
Eli kissed his son’s head. “It’s not your fault, Bobby.” He kissed Natey’s head next. “Or yours either, Nathaniel. I never know when it’s going to happen. But I’m getting better.” At least, he prayed he was getting better. His nightmares had decreased. His daytime panics were irregular, but most of the time he had found a way of dealing with them. “I get these things, but they don’t hurt me and I’m able to push them away. Understand?”
The boys nodded, but Bob cautiously asked, “Are you a madman, Papa?”
The boy’s honesty made him chuckle. There was no beating around the bush, no delicate turns of phrase. Just heartfelt concern. “No! I’m not a madman. Men who have been to the war sometimes get these things. No one quite knows what it is or why it happens but talking to someone can help. Or at least it does for me. I talk to Dr. Stanley at the hospital. He’s very helpful.”
“We won’t play war around you anymore, Papa,” Bob promised. “Just in case.”
Eli hugged both boys to him. “Thank you. That’s very considerate.” He struggled to his feet. “Well, I think I’ll go say hello to Mrs. Smith.”
“We’ll come with you.” Bob took his hand.
He could see by the look in his son’s eyes that Bob was feeling protective. Eli accepted the boy’s concern with a gracious nod. “I’d like that. Let’s go.”
Frankly, I don’t see Eli ever recovering completely. In the 1860s his condition was called Soldier’s Heart or Irritable Heart (for the palpitations the panic attacks could bring on). It also was called DeCosta’s Syndrome. Although the budding field of psychology managed to give a name to it, 1800s physicians really did not know what they were dealing with. In fact, even the basic idea that men (and women) exposed to the trauma of battle might have emotional difficulties was new to them. The term “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” did not come into being until the1970s, just over a century later, and we still are trying to find effective treatments today.
In a way, I feel guilty about what I’ve done to Eli. He has a physical issue from a leg injury received in Saint Maggie and now he’s got PTSD. But he is a strong character and he can show us that, imperfect and wounded as he is, he still is useful to his community and valuable to his family.
And that is important. Because aren’t all of us imperfect and wounded one way or another?