PTSD: We're all in the trenches

I had this great plan for my first Jerusalem Post article. After The Daily Beast (10/31/14) reported on the suicides of three Givati Brigade soldiers, I thought it might be interesting to discuss the nature of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the IDF's response to it, and the differences in approaches in the US and in Israel. In the US military, PTSD is a leading precipitator to suicide. There are 18.5 suicides per 100,000 in the military and the numbers are five-fold for soldiers with existing mental health issues.
Since my husband is retired military and a PTSD sufferer, it seemed a good launching point.
Then this morning happened.
Imagine being a mother in the US. You wake up to the alarm, the smell of coffee, and a text message. In the message is this. "Four murdered at a shul down the street." While you were sleeping four Jews who were "davening" Shachrit (morning prayers)at a shul a stone's throw from your own children’s homes, were hacked to death by two machete-wielding Israeli Arabs? This morning that was my reality.
My husband and I have a blended family of 13, seven of whom live in Har Nof, Jerusalem proper, and surrounding communities. And slowly as the minutes passed, we touched base with each one. One daughter, a hundred feet from the shul, could hear the pop-pop-pop of the gunfire, the exchange between police and the terrorists. The rest were off doing what normal people do. They were at work. They were taking care of babies. They were shopping at the supermarket down the street. They were riding the #53 bus to Har Nof, to the bus stop by the shul.
Har Nof is a quiet neighborhood perched atop a mountain that overlooks the Jerusalem Forest. People who moved here in the mid-80s saw it as a way to live in Jerusalem, to be close to the pulse of Jewish history, without living outside the green zone. Family life here is rich, bustling, and close-knit. On Shabbat, it's a magical place. Families go to shul around the same time. They eat the mid-day meal after shul around the same time. And then they visit friends, hang out in the parks and playgrounds, watch their children play, and immerse themselves in the joy of living in a community, living a Jewish life. It's an experience unparalleled anywhere else, even in New York.
The massacres in Har Nof are the latest in a series of attacks targeting innocent civilians. It won't be the last. And despite the fact that there will be more, despite the fact that Hamas, Palestinians, and other Arab communities are rejoicing that another bunch of Jews have died, it won't change anything. Historically, Jews, especially those in Israel have been targeted.
Being part of the unpopular team is part of the collective conscience of the Jewish People. Those Jews living in Israel live that resentment and hate on a daily basis. And yet, they deal with a traumatic event--a massacre, the death of innocent civilians--by choosing to live.
The other day I was talking to my daughter, a nurse and mother of two. Nervous in disposition, she had surprising clarity when it came to the increase of attacks against Israeli civilians. "If the terrorists are gonna stab me in the neck, if it's meant to be, then it will be. I won't live my life in fear. I won't stop living my life."
The Middle East historically has been a hot-seat of political instability. According to a report published by the National Center for PTSD, a federally funded agency in the US, "civilians in the Middle East have been subjected to frequent episodes of violence, intra- and inter-group conflicts, and natural disasters to include the following:
Yom Kippur War (1973)
Turkey Cyprus War (1974)
Lebanese Civil War (1976-1984)
Israel-Lebanon wars (1978; 1982)
Libyan-Egyptian war (1977)
Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)
The Gulf War (1990-1991)
The civil war between Kurdish factions in Northern Iraq (1994-1997)
The Second Gulf War (2003)
Israel-Hezbollah War (2006).
The report also mentions numerous political conflicts and uprisings such as the Syrian Civil war, not mentioned as per the 2010 publication date of the report. It also refers to a variety of earthquakes that have further traumatized the region.(PTSD Research Quarterly, Vol.21/No.4, Fall 2010)
Despite the instability and repeated threat of conflict, Israel still maintains one of the lowest rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. In a longitudinal study, researchers found that "rates of PTSD were found to spike during exposure and to decline with the passage of time. In a three-wave longitudinal study of college students (n = 133) that examined the prevalence of a range of mental health outcomes before and after the 2008-2009 Israel-Gaza war, Neria and colleagues reported a strong decline in PTSD prevalence, from 20.0% during the war to 3.0% at two months, and 2.2% at four months after the war."(2010)
Much of the decline can be attributed to an aggressive approach taken by the medical community in the treatment of PTSD. But an important aspect of PTSD is perception, how the sufferer perceives the trauma.
In the case of Jews living in Israel, trauma is a collective experience, one shouldered by everyone. When you're part of a group, despite the symptoms of PTSD, one doesn't feel a sense of isolation. And that's where I end up. I'm distraught. My kids, those who went to shul this morning, and Israeli's in general, I will never know exactly the trauma they're undergoing right now. I just know that this trauma will unify the Jewish community.
After some time, aggressive PTSD treatment, and the decision to just live life, Jews in Israel will go on. It's kind of like what my father said. He was a Holocaust survivor, was picked up by the Palmach in '41 in Europe. He lost many in his family and his home. Despite his combat exposure in '48 and '56, despite the loss of humanity he saw in Europe, he continues to live with fervor. He once told me after a spate of plate hijackings in the '70s, "I'm not going to stop traveling out of fear. I won't stop living my life because of fear." That's kind of the essence of Israeli mentality.
In a few days, mothers will shop at the shuk and supermarket. People will go to jobs, to school. They will take their children to the playground and to shul. They will rejoice on the holidays and sing Zmirot on Shabbat. They will live their lives because they must. Neither PTSD nor fear of the unknown will stop them.