When I asked her if she would be interested in my writing a blog entry about our work together, she at first appeared pleased, but then turned wary, ever so slightly.
“I’d talk about your mother,” I assured her.
With that, the smile I had come to admire beamed like the proverbial spotlight.
“Well, OK, then,” she replied, her whole head-to-toe demeanor practically shouting in addition, “And, Lord, won’t that be a hoot . . .”
How true, how true.
My patient is the first woman combat veteran I have written about.
I have received some criticisms for not having written previously about the women combat veterans I’ve had the honor to serve, some intimations of misogyny, even. Until now, I’ve not known quite how to express my challenge.
Thankfully, she’s changed all that.
My challenge has been one all too familiar to those who work with women combat veterans, one all too rarely addressed even remotely adequately: many, if not most, of the women combat veterans I’ve served were, at some point in their careers, sexually traumatized by the men with whom—and even worse, often under whom—they had been serving.
As the months have gone on, I’ve come to write this blog as a sort of memoir, reflections rendered in the form of “I remember So-and-So,” glimpses (I hope) of men whom I’ve served as filtered through how they have impacted my own experiences, my own understandings of what it means to be both incredibly powerful and yet incredibly vulnerable in the world. I have always strived to assume that I have no idea as to the men’s actual sufferings, but rather, through my inklings of those sufferings, to consider that I can nevertheless find a way to fathom what little of those sufferings I can fathom and then to respect them for all that must (thankfully) remain unfathomable to me (at least so far in my life, thanks be to God).
With military sexual trauma, however, whether perpetrated on women or on men, I have been loath to make any assumptions whatsoever.
How often we hear platitudes such as “War is war,” or, in the immortal words of Donald Rumsfeld, “Stuff happens.” Behind them is that most questionable, yet rarely-questioned of “truths”: even if the violence of War feels personal, nine times out of ten, it’s not. You don’t get shot at, in other words, because you’re you, but rather because you’re American or Afghan or in the wrong place at the wrong time, etc., etc.
Not so, sexual trauma, the zenith of the personal, even among strangers, let alone so-called friends.
As a man, I’ve had occasion to know (again) an inkling of the feeling of imagining myself powerful when, all of sudden, I am anything but. As a man, however, I have never grown up in a world where the power differentials between me and the other fifty per cent of civilization have confronted me day in, day out, where my deepest desires can be, at any moment, hijacked and obliterated without an intelligible word being spoken. I have never had to find a way to redefine myself in such a fundamental way vis-à-vis the other men and/or women—other humans—in my life such that I have had to decide whether today is a day worth surviving.
I have never had to face how someone who is supposedly on my side of the “Good vs. Bad” continuum can force me to redefine not only me, even after years of faithful military service, but even more those very words good and bad that have formed me.
As I have no inkling, I have believed that I dare not even intimate that I have a right to reflect on such—here unquestionable—truths.
My patient, however, reminded me that the treatment of trauma is not always about trauma, and certainly not just about trauma. It can be, should be about Life itself.
Fortunately I have a wise, dynamic, deeply empathetic psychologist colleague at my current job who just happens to be female in addition, and she and my patient found together the words that needed to be found to deal with, as well as could be dealt with, all that needed to be spoken, at least for now. I was, at first, glad simply to be the medication consultant, a man willing to listen, a man willing to face that my very being could itself be traumatizing. My patient and I did the best we could. She soldiered on. She began to feel better.
Then one day I overheard a conversation on the phone. “No, Mama, you can’t bring all your friends down here with you.” A pause, then “It’s a hospital, Mama. Visiting is for family.” Another pause, and then, “Well, Mama, I know you don’t like it, but that’s the way it is.”
We spoke together a few minutes later.
“Was that your Mom?” I asked.
Even though our previous conversations had mainly been marked by few words and even fewer emotions, she gave me the semblance of a half-smile, sort of.
“Oh, yeah,” she replied.
“Sounds as if she’s got quite the mind of her own,” I quipped, careful not to put too much emotion into my end, either.
That provoked a three-quarters-smile.
“You can say that again.”
“She wanting to bring half the church with her or something?”
Seven-eighths, now, with even a shake of the head.
“Don’t tempt her.”
We were on a roll, so I thought, why not?
“Pack up the church bus and maybe the van, too?”
This time she even leaned forward slightly, the asymptotic smile approaching, approaching . . .
“You’ve met my Mama?”
I gave in to the first chuckle.
“You know, there’s that old heliport out there that they’re not using. They could set up a meeting, bring a musician and a keyboard, have themselves a whole service, wave at you during the greeting time, the whole bit.”
Apparently, with that, asymptote reached, laugh achieved.
“I told you,” she grinned, “don’t tempt her.”
Thus began our own continuing rendition of “I Remember Mama.”
“I’m somehow suspecting that nobody had better cross your Mama,” I remarked later that week.
“Just let ‘em try,” she answered, the smile by then so much easier to appear, the demeanor so much less tense. “My Mama might not be tall, but you’d never know it. She still tells me, ‘Girl,’ and I hop to. Why, I’d once been out one night when I was a kid—just one night, mind you—and I sure learned never to do that again, I tell you. It wasn’t more than a couple of weeks later I walked upstairs from the basement, looked at her, she looked at me, and then she gave me this little swat, just like that. I asked her, ‘What did I do?’ all self-righteous, you know? And she just looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘You looked like you were about ready to do something.’”
At that, my patient paused and gave me, I think, her first of many full-faced, eyes-twinkling smiles.
“She was probably right,” was all she said.
My, how the stories went on.
I finally had a chance to meet her mother a few weeks later. In front of me indeed was a woman who may not have been that tall, but I sure didn’t know it. She was decked out in what they used to call a “pant suit,” and I mean it was a pant suit, bought full retail, no doubt, for no self-respecting outfit like that would last long enough in the store to make it to the sale rack. And did she know how to accessorize, let me tell you, not too much, not too little, without old-lady shoes to boot. My patient had once told me that her mother always flies, thank you, never drives to Nashville or anywhere else her kids might be.
Seeing the lady in front of me, I had no doubt of that whatsoever.
“Nice to meet you, ma’am,” I said, offering her my hand.
Her posture perfect, her head tilted slightly, she offered me her hand in return, not regally, for that would be too stiff, too formal, just pleasantly and confidently. Imagine the Queen Mother with a pinch of attitude.
“Nice to meet you, too, Doctor,” she replied.
“Doing my best to keep her honest,” I said, my head nodding toward her daughter.
As she let go of my hand, she turned her own head toward her, gave her one of those looks, and then she turned back to me to give me the selfsame. “Good luck with that,” she muttered, her wry smile telling the rest of the story.
I looked at my patient. She looked at me. What else could she say but, “Yes, Mama.” What else could I say but “Yes, Ma’am.”
There is no tidy way to wrap up a trauma narrative, sexual or otherwise. All of us bring givens, histories to our every encounter that shape what can or cannot, should or should not be said. Sometimes all I can do as a therapist is watch and hope that this other human being before me can re-find and redefine all that he was, all that she will become.
Other times, though, I catch a break. I get to meet women who have served faithfully, suffered as they must, and never let go, no matter what. I get to see strength cross a generational divide and infuse both sides not only with hope, but with a smile. And I get to learn, once again, that some stories are best told in their subplots, down in the deep streams of human connection that just flow on, baby, just flow on.
At least you can get a good laugh out of it every now and then. And believe you me, if anyone is good for a laugh, it’s Mama.
Yes, ma’am. And thank you.