Ed Tick doesn't lack for work.
A clinical psychotherapist and author based in Albany, N.Y., who has treated survivors of wars and other global horrors for three decades, Tick obviously has plenty of vets now who need his help when they return from battles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And Tick—who's speaking Thursday, Feb. 19, in Portland—says those vets, like so many before them, need much more than they're getting from the government to deal with post-traumatic stress syndrome.
"What we call PTSD is the way all human beings break down under severe, life-threatening stress," Tick says. "We have records of it going back thousands of years. It's much more destructive and violent today."
We asked Tick, whose work also includes taking Vietnam vets back to Vietnam as part of the healing, why PTSD is worse now and what can be done about it.
WW: Is there anything unique about how Americans returning from war deal with what they've done and seen, compared to how people from other cultures respond?
Ed Tick: What seems true is that those from aggressor nations have more severe PTSD than those who were attacked or invaded. So you've got the British with the Falklands War, the Dutch with the Indonesian war, the Portuguese with their wars in Angola and Mozambique. They all have the same characteristics. The veterans of those wars have massive PTSD, the government doesn't recognize it, and the public is fairly ignorant of their suffering.
Are there things specific to Americans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan that you haven't seen before?
Yes—women in combat. That's extraordinarily unusual in world history. Women are showing very severe post-traumatic stress disorder and many are coming back in deep grief. And then there's the rampant military sexual trauma. It's complicated, but one of the reasons is that in Islamic culture there's no sexual outlet like in other kinds of places. It's not a good thing, but there used to be "camp girls" and prostitutes that used to serve armies.
Sounds like a prison setting.
PTSD is rampant in our prisons, too. Our troops are in a surreal world. Many have air-conditioned hooches [dwellings] and beds and computer access and violent video games to discharge the violent energy left over from a firefight in horribly barren and primitive conditions.
Is there one person whose story haunts you the most?
Yes. I had to go through my own secondary trauma. For several years, I was having nightmares about combat. Some of it was based on stories I was told. Some was imagining myself in those conditions. I took on the wound and experienced it. I have really heard horrific stories, and the most horrible I've never repeated. They are of the most unimaginable things people do to each other in combat and under berserk conditions. But I would add that I still love this work after 30 years.
How do you define success?
Success is when a man who had nightmares no longer has nightmares and can sleep the night. It's when a vet who had 300 college credits but no degree because he was so disorganized and alienated, finishes a degree, gets a job and becomes a healer for others. It's when a veteran, after three divorces, chooses a partner who really understands and supports him. The soul can heal, and learn to carry this wound, horrible as it is.
What's your success rate?
For people who stick with the work, very high. But a lot of people only want symptom relief. A lot have severe addiction issues and gravitate to whatever substance they were abusing. But for people who stick with the journey, my success is very high.
How long are those journeys?
My model for that is the Iliad and the Odyssey. The journey can be very long. But seriously, some people after three weeks in Vietnam come home transformed. Other times it can take a couple of years, sometimes many years. It depends on each person.
In the aggregate, have things gotten better or worse for veterans in the 30 years you've dealt with them?
There are two things we are doing better than in the Vietnam era. One is the general public, no matter what they feel about these wars, is not blaming the vets. The second thing is that PTSD has been recognized as a diagnosis since 1980, so we don't have to argue about that anymore. But there's the horrible astronomical number of victims, the lack of resources given to their return. Vets say all the time, "You spent trillions of dollars to train us and send us to war, why won't you spend trillions of dollars to help us heal and bring us home?"
The Returning Veterans Project and Oregon Humanities Center are sponsoring Tick's lecture at 6 pm, Thursday, Feb. 19, at the University of Oregon's Portland center, 70 NW Couch St. Reception at 5:15 pm. Free.