PTSD & Resilience

What makes one soldier suffer from PTSD and another one not have symptoms? Why do some people never recover from catastrophic grief while others do?

In the movie “What Dreams May Come” with the late Robin Williams, a physician dies in a car crash and ascends into heaven, his distraught wife commits suicide and descends into hell or Hades. The physician embarks on an epic journey to save his wife.  He descends into hell.  This is based on the presumption that we create our own hells and heaven with our own thoughts and memories (a theme in the Tibetan Book of the Dead as well). The couple had lost both of their children in a tragic car accident-the father was able to carry on through focusing on work, but the mother had much difficulty moving forward.  When she looses the love of her life, she commits suicide.

Why is it that some can carry on through immeasurable grief and others break down and can no longer function? How can one be resilient?

An article called Trauma, PTSD and Reliance by Christine E Agaibi, , states that “Theoretical models of  PTSD have established that there is a wide range of outcomes in how persons cope with traumatic experiences.”

Children cope more effectively with adversity if they receive nurturing and love, even those children exposed to chronic stress such as war trauma, refugee status, civil violence and extreme poverty. Self-esteem and self-confidence help protect against traumatic experiences.

A study of former prisoners of war and veterans, examined PTSD symptoms and they found that the greater the torture and weight loss experienced while imprisoned, the greater the PTSD symptoms. They noted that pre-military trauma, personality, age, and post-military social support determined the severity of the PTSD symptoms.

“To understand the plasticity of behavior in response to traumatic life events, it is necessary to recognize the multidimensional nature of traumatic experiences. Traumas are not equal in their impact to the psyche and vary greatly in their stressor dimensions. “

Support of others, childhood, pre-existing conditions, self-esteem, assertiveness, personality, intelligence, use of left brain and right brain and other cognitive styles, all play parts in how one survives and reacts to grief and trauma and whether they are vulnerable to PTSD or pathological disorders such as dissociative disorder.

Robin Williams retrieves his wife from hell through his love. She in the end decides to no longer blame herself for the death of her children, the hell she created, and to let go. She loves herself enough now and she loves her husband. She chooses to join her husband in heaven.

What is truly ironic about this film, is the late Robin Williams, who tragically committed suicide in real life. Perhaps his risk factors where far too high even for his magnificent creative mind to transcend, for he was battling both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.


I am a bit confused and disappointed when I see how mental issues are portrayed on television. There is a new series out on Hulu which offers hope, however. Hugh Laurie who once played the despicable Dr. House is now playing one quite different, a compassionate if not perplexed neuropsychiatrist. Chance is plagued by an attractive patient with “multiple personality” or dissociative disorder. I wonder how it is going to play out. In other series, I have come to feel that perhaps society is afraid of mental illness- to portray it accurately.

In the series Homeland for instance, Brody one of the main characters, definitely has PTSD, yet there is hardly a mention of it nor any therapy given to him when he arrives home from being a POW in Iraq. He has in fact what doctors call PTSD with DID or Dissociative Identity Disorder. As a soldier he was taken prisoner, suffered repeated beatings and unspeakable torture. He takes on a terrorist persona in order to survive the ordeal but he never relinquished the persona even when he comes home, and is celebrated as a hero in the United States. The results are devastating for the country and himself.

In Mr. Robot, Elliot struggles with his persona of his late father who tried to kill him as a young man. He is a vigilante hacker starting a revolution against corporate America. His “father” tells him how to do it. In a talk show after the 1st episode, Elliot is described as having an overactive imagination and anti-social. Really? On twitter it was tweeted about the potential  surprise you get when you figure out all of the characters are dissociative personalities of Elliott! In this case, the audience may know best!

Drama and comedy have been a way that society talks to itself about difficult issues. The Wire, Archie Bunker in the 60s, Roots are some that come to mind. Why can’t we be real about mental health issues? Dr. Chance’s philosophy is that in every situation there is hope. I say let’s give Chance, a chance.