Click here for the first part of Chapter One and here to see the paperback and kindle books on Amazon.

“Gotta get them out, gotta get them out,” the voice on the other end of the line said.

“Excuse me, may I ask who is calling?”

“Gotta get them out, gotta get them out,” he repeated in a robotic fashion.

“Who are you, where are you calling from?”

“Gotta get them out. Gotta get them out.”

“In order for me to help you, you’ve got to tell me who you are and what happened tonight.”

“Gotta get them out. Gotta get them out.”

This went on for twenty minutes. After a while, I talked him down and found out what was going on.

Earlier that night, the veteran rushed into a burning house to rescue three little children. He saved their lives.

He was a hero.

But his mind paid a terrible price.

In the Vietnam War, he’d served as a fireman. His job was to put out fires on helicopters hit by enemy fires, including removing people from the flaming aircraft. Sometimes this meant saving lives; other times, it involved just pulling charred bodies out of the wreckage.

His actions as the hero who pulled the three children safely out of the house triggered a flashback to his memories of Vietnam. All he could see, like a movie playing out before him over and over, was a memory from Vietnam, rushing into a burning helicopter and pulling out the charred remains of a twenty-two-year-old marine.

As a last resort, he called the psychiatrist on duty at the VA hospital. Even as he talked to me on the phone, he replayed over and over, like a skip on a vinyl record, or like a continuous computer loop, pulling that body out of the helicopter.


When he came back into the land of the living, and while he was telling me his story, I had an epiphany: I realized that this man strongly resembled someone in the throes of a seizure, similar to my patients with brain disorders such as epilepsy. Even though they might look as though they’re performing recognizable behaviors, epileptic patients in the midst of a seizure are in fact totally out of touch with the world around them.

It was at that moment that I first considered the possibility that an emotional event such as a trauma could cause real physiological damage to the brain.

(People use the word ‘flashback’ fairly loosely, but as it applies to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), it refers to a specific symptom, where you see a traumatic event from your past playing out like a movie in front of your eyes, and you have no control over it. When people have a flashback, they are temporarily out of touch with what is going on around them.)

Changing Views on Trauma

While today that thought might not seem heretical, in the late 80’s, such an idea would have been laughed at.
The prevailing 80’s notion with psychological trauma cases was that the victims were malingerers, even though the American Psychiatric Association (APA)’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the bible of psychiatry, described its diagnosis as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. That diagnosis was virtually never used. It wasn’t used because, frankly, I and almost all other professionals didn’t believe in it.

Doctors are not islands; they reflect the beliefs and attitudes of their culture, time and place. When society changes, so do they.

HIPPOCAMPAL VOLUME IN PTSD Measured with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). There is a visible reduction in volume of the hippocampus (outlined in red) in a representative patient with PTSD relative to a normal individual (arrow).

HIPPOCAMPAL VOLUME IN PTSD
Measured with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). There is a visible reduction in volume of the hippocampus (outlined in red) in a representative patient with PTSD relative to a normal individual (arrow).

At that time, “Just snap out of it, just get over it” was akin to a national theme song. We looked to the resilient super-survivors, the WWII veterans from the “Greatest Generation,” who were (supposedly) unscarred by their war-time experiences, and who showed great courage and sacrifice for the country. We saw them as the ideal model—the ideal model being the person who could endure traumatic experiences and come out unscathed.

The thought that trauma might actually affect an individual—be that individual a soldier, a rape victim, or any other trauma survivor—was anathema to us.


Even today, many mental health professionals are still singing the “Just get over it” theme song. It resonates with the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps American outlook on life. For example, in a best-selling book Cope With It!, at page 147 of that book, the popular radio psychologist Dr. Laura Schlessinger writes,

Do you hold onto the past? Do you find yourself constantly reiterating old hurts? Might it be that remembering old pain serves a new purpose? Your old pain might be the way you manipulate your present partners or friends . . It also might be the way you get yourself off the hook for not being more giving, less selfish.

By saying this, Dr. Laura suggests that people with traumatic pasts are not only malingerers who should “just get over it” or “just snap out of it” (as she has said so many times on the radio), but that they are also manipulators.

She implies that people hang onto the trauma to use as a weapon against others.

That was (and in some quarters still is) the attitude towards trauma and its victims, but with that one Vietnam veteran’s case, I began to consider that perhaps we were wrong about psychological trauma. I wanted to discover the answers.

Click here for the first part of Chapter One and here to see the paperback and kindle books on Amazon.

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