Post Traumatic Stress Disorder causes several different changes in the way that the brain works, most notably, the hyperactivity in the anxiety centers in the brain. As noted in a previous post, the area of the brain that is responsible for acknowledging that something applies to the self also shuts down to a great extent. It allows for a sense of distance from the pain of trauma to help preserve a person's function when under threat, but when it fails to shut off when the threat has passed, it creates a profound sense of isolation.
I think of that old spiritual song borne out of slavery which ruminates on this pain of feeling alone: “Nobody knows the trouble I've seen. Nobody knows my sorrow.” I have little in my own life that can compare to those who were and are subjected to slavery, but I find it fascinating that this terrible feeling found such a lovely expression in song. To me, it attests to universal experience of feeling cut off from the world after a terrible trauma. Actually, singing is far more likely to heal such grief than traditional talk therapy, given the current research findings. It helps overcome the sense of the loss of the self after trauma.
But something interesting also happens among survivors of a common trauma and those who identify with it in both healthy and unhealthy ways. Another common trait emerges: “Only those who went through exactly what I did can really understand me.” Groups of survivors of a common threat tend to form strong bonds because of their shared intense and life-threatening experiences.
An example of this brothers in arms camaraderie can be found within the history of United States' 101st Airborne Division that carried out some of the most dangerous air assault missions in the Army's history. Normandy beach on D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and Hamburger Hill rank high among the campaigns in which the division participated. The history of their insignia, uniforms, and when they were permitted to wear their identifying patch bears witness to the pride, patriotism and the bonds of brotherhood shared by those who fought valiantly among its ranks. Early in its history, the Division was dubbed the Screaming Eagles.
Long after combat was over and those men retreated to their civilian lives, that bond forged in the horror and struggles of war, the grief of loss, and the pride of victory remained for them. Only someone who had been through their own mile could truly identify. Our nation learned much about trauma and how to receive a soldier after combat in its own troubled history of responding to these soldiers' needs. Some of those men used their bonds with one another in a healthy way to help them transcend the experience – holding true to the inspiring roots of their military service.
In contrast, the advent of the outlaw motorcycle gang culture offered a different kind of shared brotherhood (think Hell's Angels and Sons of Anarchy). Please note that they differ from legal motorcycle associations. They are long known for their illegal activities and by other traits such as sex, drugs, masculinity, and rebellion. The outlaw gangs had their own codes of conduct as well as identifying badges and insignias as well as the stereotypical uniform. The original Hell's Angels emblem derived from the insignias of Air Force fighter and bomber squadrons, but the organization denies that the group formed or was comprised of former servicemen who no longer fit into civilian life.
Those in the biker gangs also manifest an element of isolation combined with shared trauma – something depicted in the iconic biker slogan, “If you don't limp, you ain't worth $&^!” It speaks to the “nobody knows” phenomenon and the shared bond of trauma suffered by their members. In contrast to the war veterans who chose to identify with the (legal) virtues of military service to cope after the war, the biker gang subculture embraced an aggressive and closed system that gained a sense of worth through membership. Some of that value also included the devaluing of those who didn't share in it.
Where do you want to end up?
Do you want to be more like a patriotic war veteran who goes about the much needed work of healing, or do you want to become something more like a member of a biker gang? Granted, some people do embrace the aggressive culture of anger, but wouldn't it be advantageous to be like a veteran who employs every resource necessary and within reach to arrive at a place of healing and acceptance? Wouldn't it be better to offer others a tried and true plan of recovery rather than perpetuating the ongoing rhythm of hyperarousal, intrusion, and constriction of PTSD?