Linda: Terrance reported to me that of all the challenges that he experienced in his life, and there have been many, the greatest and the one in which his wife’s support was most meaningful was his recovery from post traumatic stress as a result of serving in the Vietnam war. Several years ago Lawrence and Trudy were traveling and were spending the night in a hotel. It was too early to go to bed and Terrance was mindlessly flipping the channels on the TV, trying to find something interesting to watch. He stopped at a movie about Vietnam that featured a bunch of young soldiers. They were just kids. The movie was an embodiment of his worst nightmare, a recurring dream that he had experienced dozens of times since he had enlisted in the army and went to Vietnam as a battalion surgeon.
During his tour of duty, Terrance spent most of his time carrying an aid bag and a rifle and being shot at in the field. When he went into the service, he promised his parents that he would never take any unnecessary risks. Within weeks he had renounced that vow and had volunteered for a lot of high-risk assignments. Terrance did manage to survive but he told me that he owes a large part of his survival to dumb luck. Part of the price that he paid was being tormented by horrible nightmares for over twenty years. He never discussed his experiences in the war with anyone; not even his wife Trudy.
A caring presence can provide profound support.
For some reason when he came to this movie about Vietnam, he didn’t skip over it like he normally would have, but felt compelled to watch it. The movie line was identical to his recurring nightmare. A bunch of young soldiers, no more than kids, were separated from their weapons and the Vietcong were closing in. The soldiers were helpless and terrified. They knew that they were going to die. Terrance watched the whole movie, and when it ended, began crying. It was not just weeping, but deep gut-wrenching sobs that shook his whole body. He couldn’t stop, and continued crying nearly the whole night. He had never experienced anything like it. In Terrance’s words, “It was Trudy who made it possible for me to get through it. I couldn’t have made it without her. She hung in there with me through every moment of my experience.”
Trudy reported that she literally didn’t do or say anything. What she did do was to sit with him to bear witness to his suffering and pain. Understanding that Terrance was going through something terribly important, obviously in great pain, she trusted that he was also perfectly OK. She sat there with him for hours listening, and being with him. Being there with her heart open helped him to bear his unbearable pain.
Many hours later Terrance stopped crying and said that he needed to go for a walk alone. When he finally came back, there was another layer of pain for him to experience. Once again, Trudy was as fully present with him as she could possibly be so that he could stay with his experience and go right down to the bottom of it, as much as possible.
After that night of catharsis, Terrance’s nightmares went away and they have never come back. Terrance states that “Going through this episode of terrible anguish has deepened both our capacities to be present with suffering, our own, each other’s and with all those whose lives we touch.”
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