Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Soap Operas and Sophocles: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Healing

Only the term "post traumatic stress disorder" is new. PTSD has been around for thousands of years. Over the centuries, this theme has become part of poetic and dramatic tradition. Ancient and modern authors have written about it and explored it in epic and tragedy.

Recently the ABC soap opera All My Children cast JR Martinez, an actual Iraq vet (and a spokesperson for the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes) in a storyline about a returning soldier who has chosen to hide his identity from his wife (whose character is also a veteran, portrayed by career actress Beth Ehlers) due to the extent of his injuries. So, what does an afternoon soap opera have to do with the Classics? Like the ancient Greeks, Americans are trying to understand what it means to have served in combat and what that does to a soldier and his family.

Soldiers, returning home from war, have always had to deal with the trauma of what they have seen and endured, often in isolation, because they cannot begin to describe the horrors of war to those who have not also experienced it. (See a recent public service announcement, Alone, from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Community of Veterans Project for a deeply moving depiction of this isolation, as well as links to support.)

On the November 25, 2008 airing of National Public Radio's All Things Considered, Elizabeth Bair relates how the tragedies of the ancient Greek Sophocles resonate with audiences of contemporary veterans and their families. Listen to In Ancient Dramas, Vital Words for Today's Warriors for a powerful story of the emotional toll of war, as well as hope and healing. There you'll also find several accompanying videos from recent productions of Ajax and Philoctetes, performed for veterans at a recent Warrior Resilience Conference.

To explore more about how the Ancient Greeks can help us understand the psychic wounds of war, also see the works of psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character and its sequel Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. Dr. Shay does an incredible job of showing the parallels between the experiences of the Homeric warriors and those of contemporary American soldiers.

Please remember the soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen still serving far from home and family during your Thanksgiving this week.