Thursday, September 6, 2012

Mending soldier's heart

Soldier’s heart, they called it in the American Civil War. It’s the condition of those who have been traumatized by combat. It was called shell shock in World War I, and treated without sympathy, when treated at all. In Spanish, they say of someone with this condition, esta roto, this person "is broken". Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the diagnostic term today, and it has reached epidemic proportions. We see that in the Pentagon's own statistics for suicide.  So far this year, on average, five active duty military personnel have killed themselves every four days; the numbers are far higher for veterans in general.
     Edward ("Ed") Tick, Ph.D., is one of those who is working to heal our wounded warriors. He is director of Soldier’s Heart, a nonprofit organization dedicated to facilitating the “safe return” of our veterans. He has practiced as a psychotherapist for 28 years. He knows that healing trauma requires the care of hearts and souls. He approaches combat trauma as a "soul wounding". He brings the skills of the shaman, the mythologist and the storymaker into his work; he knows that we can heal body and soul by helping each other to find and tell better stories. 

     Two of his books are on my desk as I write, and I treasure both. The Practice of Dream Healing is a spirited guide to the ancient temples of Asklepian healing, and a passionate appeal to integrate this tradition of sacred medicine into our modern healthcare, in the understanding that "encouraging patients to be in relationship with the sacred fosters their healing". Ed's recent book, War and the Soul, is a searing and essential work that lays out a road map for bringing our lost soldiers home: through cleansing and purification, through ritual and dream quest, through storytelling and through claiming the gift that is in the wound.
    We are in desperate need of healers like Ed Tick. He knows that anyone who has gone through profound trauma - whether on the field of battle or on the battlefields of life - will not be the same. Those we have sent to fight our wars will not and cannot be the same as before. A man or woman who has been sent out as a sanctioned killer, with a good chance of being killed, does not come back as a person who can simply be restored to normal functioning and dropped back into regular life. The transformation of character caused by combat trauma is profound and its effects are likely to be permanent. The warrior, returning, is something other than what he or she was before.
    We owe it to our homecoming warriors to offer them more than medications and therapies that address symptoms but not the soul, and Ed Tick knows where to find what they need. He borrows tools and resources from traditional cultures, those of our ancestors and those of indigenous peoples who preserve the shaman's ways. To make someone ready for war, in the primal understanding, you make him half-crazy. You seek to call into him the killing power and war frenzy of an animal predator; thus, in northern Europe, ancient warriors called in the wildness of the bear in order to go berserk (which literally means to put on the "bear shirt"). When the battles are over, a fighter who has been a sanctioned beast in the field must be carefully de-possessed of that killer spirit, cooled down, and also released from whatever other spirits of battle may be with him, including the ghosts of slain comrades and enemies. And he must be helped to speak of what he has lived through.
    I'll be talking of all this with Ed Tick on my radio show on 9/11, the anniversary of a tragedy that has send so many to fight on dubious ground, and has bequeathed a national trauma that is far from healed. I am glad to report that his work is now acknowledged by the  Department of Defense, which enlisted his help this year to introduce 2,000 military chaplains to his soul-centered approach.

     I celebrate Ed Tick as one of those who truly carries the staff of Asklepios, of whom the poet Pindar wrote that he healed "with the words that soothe men's tormented souls".

On the air: Ed Tick is my guest on my "Way of the Dreamer" radio show on Tuesday, September 11. Please join us for a powerful and timely conversation. You can hear the interview live from 12:00-1:00 PM Eastern (9:00-10:00 AM Pacific) via, or download from my archive after the broadcast. 

Graphic: Francisco Goya,  Los desastres de la guerra #18  Enterrar y callar ("Bury them and keep quiet")

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