TOAt the beginning of the pandemic, I reread Ms. Dalloway. I was not the only one; something in the novel seemed to resonate; What Evan Kindley noted In the New Yorker this past April, the specter of the Spanish flu is subtly but perceptibly looming over him. I had read it for the first time when I was a student, probably on second thought, a few months before something terrible happened to me, during which I expected to die. This event changed the makeup of my mind and, in countless unpredictable ways, my entire life. It also turned out that it changed the way I read Mrs. Dalloway. His portrait of a shocked mind, which he had noticed but not fully appreciated before, seems even more authentic, visceral.
I wasn’t in a war, and neither was Nadia Whittome, the Labor MP from Nottingham East, who is taking several weeks off at the recommendation of her doctor after a diagnosis of PTSD. The military legacy of that mental health condition that haunts him; Some of the comments on Whittome’s diagnosis have been truly despicable, and much of it has the same ring to it: “It’s not like you’re in a war, love.” Political blogger Paul “Guido Fawkes” Staines took himself to a new level with a post titled “Nadia’s Shock Shows Politicians Need Life Experience.” “Parliament can be overwhelming, although nothing like the trenches of World War I,” he said. Aside from a troubling lack of empathy, the writer has no knowledge of the background of Whittome’s diagnosis, nor the medical expertise to make such claims. But it does not matter. For a certain type of man, who has never fought a war himself, there is no greater glory than armed conflict. (Virginia Woolf knew of hollow glory. In Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus “went to France to save an England that consisted almost entirely of the plays of Shakespeare and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square”, and returns numb, suicidal and riddled with memories and hallucinations.)
Military metaphors have abounded throughout the pandemic, which has seen PTSD diagnoses rise, especially among front-line personnel. And for good reason: advocacy mental health experts are studying the effects of the pandemic, particularly in terms of “moral harm” (perpetrating, failing to prevent or witness to acts that violate deeply held moral beliefs and expectations, which leads to feelings of guilt and shame). Veterans groups have offered support to NHS staff. The staff themselves speak of being “on a battlefield.” Dr. Julie Highfield, a clinical psychologist working with ICU patients and support staff, told me that the prevalence of complex or type 2 PTSD among staff (which occurs after repeated trauma, as in child abuse or war cases) had given him a new understanding of what it should be like to be a veteran.
These conversations, the research, and the continued presence of trauma in the media made me think that perhaps we were getting somewhere with regard to the stigma of PTSD. There seemed to be a greater understanding of symptoms and treatments, to the point where books on trauma were on the best-seller lists and people were even making memes about it. Following the uprising on Capitol Hill, US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke out strongly about how she had feared for her life and how, as a survivor of sexual assault, trauma exacerbates the trauma.
I felt like we were straying further away from some of the attitudes I encountered when I was at my worst, ranging from “at least you didn’t die” to “in my day we just kept going” – in the case of the latter, the myth The “Blitz spirit” is being dismantled, and researchers have found that “people developed serious psychosomatic conditions, including involuntary getting dirty and wet, persistent crying, uncontrollable shaking, headaches, and chronic dizziness.” The ground was finally changing, or at least it felt that way.
But “culture wars” infect everything, including the perception of mental health. Any sensible person knows that trauma surrounds us. They have experienced it themselves or witnessed it: look at the prevalence of birth trauma: all the women who have experienced the sight of buckets of blood on the floor of the delivery room, all the men who have seen their partners and their babies almost. To die. Then you have the prevalence of rape and sexual assault, racist and homophobic hate crimes, child abuse, domestic violence. Add to that the health and social care professionals who have seen death in the past year on an unimaginable scale. Add to that the small town men who spent their youth trying to avoid being beaten to pulp, who still keep an eye on the pub door.
You don’t have to have been in a war to fear death. It is an integral part of being human, as is the fact that it leaves a lasting mark on some of us. Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD, but chances are, you know someone who suffers from it. A common thread among people with the disorder is the sudden, dawn realization that the symptoms they experienced were actually indicative of something and that it was treatable. And there is also a sense of ally. Rather than dividing trauma victims into worthy and unworthy, the experience of post-traumatic stress carries the potential for solidarity between veterans and others who develop it.
Earlier this week, amid the social media maelstrom regarding Whittome’s diagnosis, I saw a post from a veteran offering to speak to anyone struggling with trauma. If only everyone could show such kindness.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism