Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Dr. Schwartz's Cure for PTSD

In his dreams, looking out of a window, Michael would see the man watching him through a pair of binoculars like a voyeur. That was in the beginning - right after it had happened - when Michael was still young. But as time had gone by and Michael had grown into adulthood, the binoculars had disappeared and been replaced by a rifle.

"Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," his therapist had told him the first time Michael had visited his clinic. And he had proceeded to read Michael the definition of the disorder from his Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. "You're more traumatized by this event than you realize, Michael," Dr. Schwartz had said. "And you can't keep living in denial by not allowing yourself to talk or think about it. You need to face your ghosts if you want to eventually lead a normal life."

Michael knew all of this was true. But he also knew that he had allowed it to continue. First off, he had not resisted, had not tried to fight it. Secondly, he had kept it a secret. And the binoculars that had changed to a rifle in his dreams were his way of telling himself that he was just as guilty for what had happened as the man was guilty. The rifle was Michael's way of coming to terms with his own guilt. In his new dreams, standing at his window, with the rifle aimed at his chest and his violator's eye visible through the scope, Michael felt like a condemned man before a firing squad.

We like to see the events in our lives as plot lines that allow us to understand those events. When we're in a bind, we deliberately remind ourselves of a challenging incident that has happened to us in the past, and we methodically add just the right blend of memories to make it traumatic enough. Suddenly, everything falls into place for us. Suddenly, everything makes sense. Oh, that's why this is happening to me, now - it's because of what happened five years ago. I can't take the blame for something that happened to me...

Everything happens to us. We're all victims. That's how the system works. If we can all be victims, we can all be guilt-free. Even the most preying predator was probably victimized as a child, so the system says that that "likely contributed" to his victimizing someone else. We say we "condemn these acts," but in our hearts we secretly absolve the act and the actor by finding a justification for the behavior. We don't approve, oh no, but who are we to sit in judgment? A Happy Ending, right?

The first time Michael was raped he was fifteen. It felt like an impossible trauma for him to bear. He didn't know how he was going to go on living with the shame, the guilt, the anguish of having been physically and emotionally violated. The fact that he decided to keep it a secret added to the pain. Then, slowly, over time, he accepted the reality - he didn't come to terms with it, but accepted it. But even today, there are moments when life seems overwhelming: work, friends, family - and especially his father.

"You should speak with your father. Tell him the truth," Dr. Schwartz suggests. But Michael tells Dr. Schwartz that speaking with his father would be like talking to a brick wall; his father and the man (Michael still can't bear to speak his name after all this time) continue to be friends. "You should speak with your father," Dr. Schwartz insists.

Weeks pass before Michael gathers enough courage to tell his father about what had happened so many years ago. Michael is afraid of his father's reaction, afraid that it will widen the rift that already exists between them. His father takes a long puff on his Dunhill cigarette, exhales slowly, and says, "What do you want me to do?" Michael is not surprised, but he is hurt. His father has never wanted to take responsibility for anything, not even by just caring. Even if he isn't going to do anything, Michael tells himself, he could at least pretend he cares.

One evening, Dr. Schwartz proposes a new strategy. "For our next session," he says to Michael, "I want you to write about what happened with as much detail as you can remember. It doesn't matter how many pages you write, as long as you probe every crease of your memory." Dr. Schwartz looks deeply into Michael's eyes. "And allow yourself to cry, Michael. If you can't cry, you can't cleanse your soul of this. Crying is the catharsis you need." Soul? Catharsis? Since when were such words included in a therapist's vocabulary? But Dr. Schwartz is a therapist of a different variety. Although he is a relatively unattractive man with big thyroid-ravaged eyes that look like small golf balls, his hands are the hands of angels, the elegant praying hands of marble saints, with long fingers and manicured fingernails, all buffed to a glossy sheen. Maybe Dr. Schwartz is Michael's supplicant mediator? But Michael can't help but wonder if Dr. Schwartz has ever used those hands to hurt someone. Are his therapist's hands stained with the Macbethian blood of his victims?

As Michael writes his narrative, this narrative of past events written in the present to alleviate future suffering, he feels like he's redefining his life with every detail that he includes. Michael has been plagued by images of the rapes over the course of his life, and because those images made him flinch and tremble, he has always suppressed them. But today, replaying the memories in his head and filling in the gaps with details empowers him. And so do his tears, which he does not try to stop. For the first time in a long time, Michael allows himself to succumb to the pain - all of it. He allows the grief to envelop him, and the tears to cleanse him. Dr. Schwartz had once told him that we should never deny ourselves the feeling of grief - it is a necessary process in maintaining our sanity. For the most part, Dr. Schwartz has been right. And his strategy seems to work. I'm coming face-to-face with my ghosts, and coming to the realization that those ghosts no longer have any power over me. I feel like I am finally in control.


I like to watch my wife sleep. Tonight, she sleeps so peacefully, so silently, I'm afraid she will stop breathing. As I watch her, I feel myself slip into a deep slumber. In my dreams, my wife and I are at the opera. She is watching the actors on stage with great passion through a pair of binoculars. But I have no binoculars. I watch the actors on stage through the scope of my rifle. I don't wish to fire at the actors for any crime that they have committed. I only wish to see them through a lens that allows me to feel like a courageous warrior rather than a cowardly voyeur.


  1. Yes, our minds are incredible machines. Strange how our mind takes over when we think it has gone to sleep, no? As you know, I'm working my way backward through your material, and I'm just devouring it! I always bring a box of tissue when I sit down to read your work, Nevine! Wonderful piece!
    Much Love,

  2. Deborah, you really amaze me. I'm so incredibly flattered that you would keep reading my older posts - really, I am.

    Our minds do take over if we're not watching, but we can always reign them in, if we make that choice. The saddest part is when we allow our minds to run with us, and use us as their plaything.

    I hope you don't really cry, Deborah. But if you do, then I'll know it was that real for you. I sometimes cry writing my stories - writing is such an emotionally taxing process, and crying helps me through it.


Your thoughts are deeply appreciated.