Bessel Van der Kolk Wants to Transform the Treatment of Trauma
by Mary Sykes Wylie
Bessel van der Kolk likes to introduce his workshops on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with medical film clips from World War I showing veterans diagnosed with what was then called "shell shock." In these dramatic and riveting clips, one soldier sits hunched over on his hospital cot, staring blankly ahead, responding to nothing and nobody until the single word "bomb" is said, whereupon he dives for cover underneath the small bed. Another man lies almost naked on the bare floor, his back rigidly arched, his arms and hands clawing the air as he tries, spasmodically and without success, to clamber onto his side and stand up. Yet another, who once bayoneted an enemy in the face, now opens his mouth wide into a gaping yaw and then closes it, and opens it and closes it, over and over and over again.
The images are disturbing, heartbreaking, and all the stranger because these particular men, technically speaking, are physically unharmed. Their physical symptoms--paralysis, violent trembling, spasmodic movements, repetitive facial grimaces, zombielike demeanor--look exotic to our eyes because PTSD generally doesn't show up like this anymore in most clinicians' offices. Time and Western cultural evolution have changed the way traumatized people express their distress in a therapist's office. Now, trauma patients may look fine on the surface, but complain of nightmares, flashbacks, feelings of numbness, generalized fearfulness, dissociative symptoms, and other problems that aren't as visible to the world at large. But to van der Kolk, these old images still represent what he calls the "pure form" of PTSD. The appearance in these World War I film clips that the veterans are possessed, mind and body, by invisible demons still captures the fundamental truth about PTSD--that it can reduce its victims to mute, almost animal-like, creatures, utterly isolated in their fear and horror from the human community.
Van der Kolk first became aware of the world of trauma in 1978, when he decided to go work for the Veterans Administration (VA), not to study PTSD (it hadn't been recognized yet as a formal diagnosis), but to get the government benefits to pay for his own psychoanalysis. While there, he discovered the reality of PTSD--and the beginnings of a stunning, nationwide phenomenon. "At that time, tens of thousands of men who'd served in Vietnam suddenly seemed to come out of the woodwork, suffering from flashbacks, beating their wives, drinking and drugging to suppress their feelings, closing down emotionally," recalls van der Kolk. "It was a phenomenon that spawned a whole generation of researchers and clinicians fascinated by what had happened to these guys."