PTSD: the demons within

Troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to any other wounds, often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The symptoms can include flashbacks, intense startle response, nightmares, headaches, anger and depression. Many vets from earlier wars still suffer from PTSD.

Indeed, so did some of our best-known writers. We forget that many had been veterans before gaining fame as authors. Take British poets Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. During World War I, Sassoon was hospitalized for “shell-shock,” or “neurasthenia” as some called it. Back in England after the armistice, Graves felt himself “still mentally and nervously organized for war.

“Shells used to come bursting on my bed at midnight, even though Nancy shared it with me; strangers in daytime would assume the faces of friends who had been killed.” Such “daydreams … did not leave me until well in 1928.”

Following World War II, much the same was true for American poet-novelist James Dickey, who had flown in P-61 Black Widow night fighters over Japan. At the end of his poem “The Firebombing,” his narrator wonders how he could ever invite one of his Japanese napalm victims into his own suburban home, a dilemma that is “nothing I haven’t lived with/ For twenty years” – with that purgatory of “twenty years” five times punctuating the body of the poem.

It had been much the same for Ernest Hemingway, four years younger than Graves and an ambulance driver when he arrived on the Italian front in June of 1918. About midnight on July 8, “an enormous (Austrian) trench mortar hit within a few feet of Ernest while he was giving out chocolate. … There was an Italian between Ernest and the shell. He was instantly killed while another, standing a few feet away, had both his legs blown off. A third Italian was badly wounded and this one Ernest, after he had regained consciousness, picked up on his back and carried to the first aid dug-out.” Hemingway’s friend Ted Brumback visited him in the hospital in Milan shortly thereafter and mailed Hemingway’s father this account.

Ernest was still only 18 – just shy of his 19th birthday. In a letter to his parents the following month, he mentions his 227 wounds from the trench mortar fragments, describes how the Italian he was carrying had bled all over his coat, and says that “my pants looked like somebody had made current (sic) jelly in them and then punched holes to let the pulp out.”

It wasn’t called PTSD back then, and Hemingway didn’t even know he had it. But after only one month at the front, he would be wracked for decades by fear of the dark, insomnia and severe headaches. He later admitted to critic Malcolm Cowley that in the war, “I was hurt bad all the way through, and I was really spooked at the end.” Indeed, in the unsent draft of a 1950 letter to Arthur Mizener, Hemingway wrote that after he had come home, younger sister Ursula had slept in the room with him with the light on “so I would not be lonely in the night.”

Nothing would change over the next 40 years. During his August 1960 trip to Europe as he put the finishing touches on his bullfighting article for Life magazine, Valerie Danby-Smith (whom he had asked to join him as secretary) observed that he “continued to be plagued with insomnia. He asked me to stay by his side at night until he fell asleep, just as his sister Ura had done when he came home to Oak Park after the First World War.”

Perhaps Stephen Crane, whose writings were an early influence on Hemingway, phrased it best in “The Red Badge of Courage” when the tattered soldier urges Henry Fleming to take care of his wound, for “it might be inside mostly, an’ them plays thunder.”

If you’re a writer, what do you do with PTSD? Graves “had made several attempts during these (postwar) years to rid myself of the poison of war memories by finishing my novel.” Hemingway poured his bitterness and his anxieties into his short stories. In “Soldier’s Home,” Harold Krebs has finally returned from the war, but his new “soldier’s home” feels different from the one he left. And HE is different … and his parents don’t know how to handle that. They treat him as the boy they remember before the war, expecting him to follow all those family rules. But he is now a man and no longer a boy, a Marine, a veteran of Belleau Wood and the Argonne. They have no idea what he has seen. His civilian friends, too, are “different.” They have not a clue. Krebs feels adrift, in limbo.

As for that night on the bank of the Piave River and the shattering blast of the trench mortar, Hemingway attempts to exorcize those demons in his 1927 short story “Now I Lay Me.” His wounded narrator lies on the floor near racks of mulberry leaves where the silkworms munch away. Listening to them, he cannot sleep, for if he does, he thinks he might die. So he lies there in the dark, just listening, worrying that “if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body. I had been that way for a long time, ever since I had been blown up at night and felt it go out of me and go off and then come back.” No wonder he admits that “if I could have a light I was not afraid to sleep, because I knew my soul would only go out of me if it were dark.” Just recall the grim child’s prayer from which the title is taken – a prayer whose third line runs, “If I should die before I wake “

Thus, for the last two-thirds of his life, one of the several demons with which Hemingway would struggle was PTSD, with classic symptoms of depression, suicidal thoughts, loneliness, insomnia, nightmares, hyper-vigilance, anger, alcohol abuse and lack of impulse control. They constantly plagued him and influenced his interactions with others. He was almost 62 when he committed suicide on July 2, 1961.

Paul McKay was half Hemingway’s age – 31 – when he committed suicide early this January. He hiked alone into our Adirondacks and in the bitter cold laid himself down to sleep on the shoulder of Scarface Mountain. His recently posted Facebook page reveals a handsome young captain in the Australian Army, on leave after deployments in Afghanistan. He was suffering severely from PTSD; he did not have time to write about it. All he wanted was peace … and for those demons to go away. He flew to the U.S. and came to our mountains because:

“Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me.

“And I say, ‘O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest;

“‘Truly, I would flee far away; I would lodge in the wilderness.'” (Psalm 55, verses 5-7)

He did. Our prayers go with him.

Lee Gaillard lives in Saranac Lake and is a contributor to the recently published “Naval Institute Guide to The Battle of Midway.” His articles on Hemingway have appeared in Twentieth-Century Literature, The Explicator, English Journal and various newspapers. He served in the Marine Corps (Reserves) in the early 1960s and is on the Community Advisory Council of Homeward Bound Adirondacks.