Saturday, 11 November 2017

What shall we remember?

When I was a kid in primary school I remember volunteering to sell poppies for the Earl Haig fund. I knew it was important but in a typically childish way, it was exciting because I got to trawl the streets and pubs which is a big deal for an 8 year old. But I had no concept of what war really meant. It had not touched my life in a real or tangible way. We pulled apart war poems in school because they were part of the curriculum. We analysed the language and the structure and used words like horror and gore, but still, it was not real to me. It was stories, it was fiction, it was history. It was something we were taught to be proud of and the poppy was a representation of that.

Now, I'm filled with ambivalence about this iconic symbol. The public displays of national pride move me very deeply, but also stir up conflicting emotions of sorrow, anger and deep disappointment in the human race. Human beings have been fighting each other since the beginning of time - this is now an industry with unfathomable monetary cost, but the cost that moves me most is the human one. There are statistics about the most recent wars costing trillions and many thousands of lives, but statistics are numbers and almost impossible to get our heads around. The individual cost is something much more tangible.

I have worked with many veterans and active military personnel in a number of settings. I have heard their stories, I have heard their families stories. I have had both the honour and the horror of having them share their deepest pain and most disturbing nightmares and witnessed the impact of what haunts them daily. Most of their scars are not visible to the eye. They are internal amputees, with parts of them cut off, mangled and mutilated. The most unimaginable disturbing images burned into their brains causing the wiring to short-circuit and disrupt every part of their lives. Tortured to the point of the suicide.

"We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields." John McCrae

Should they be left to suffer with their wounds for the rest of their lives? What tiny fraction of the trillions of pounds and dollars invested in war actually contributes to their recovery, healing and rebuilding of their lives? Who takes responsibility for clearing up the mess that war has made of people's lives? Should more be invested in research into PTSD? Who is fighting for those who fought for us while we went about our lives and slept soundly in our beds? I can't begin to answer these questions without getting political, which is not the point of this blog, but it is mainly charities funding activities that aid the recovery of veterans. They are doing amazing work, but they have to fight for their funding. Is that right? Is that fair?

I consider it a privilege to have contributed a small part in trying to help people rebuild their minds and their lives, but it does feel like a single arrow being fired into a raging battlefield. I hold on to the fact that helping even one person fight for their mind, for their sanity is something that can make a difference.

The poppy became a symbol of war following the poem In Flanders Fields, written by John McCrae, inspired by the flowers that flourished in the soil churned up by shelling and fighting. How ironic that something so beautiful thrives in such an environment. Human beings are the same. Emerging research into post-traumatic growth shows that people are inevitably changed by the most terrible things, but they can also grow and transform into something else, into something incredible.

I shall remember. And I shall believe in the power of the human spirit.

Signing off. Dr M

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