Frank is the only World War II veteran I have worked with for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He came to see me because he was still tormented by events dating back to his service in the Navy, and he became easily overwhelmed and cried when things in his daily life became too much for him. Even though he was now retired and at a time in his life that was meant to be relaxed and easy, he cried every day. When we met, he wanted his wife, Nellie, to be present. The three of us sat in Frank’s and Nellie’s home and I listened as he related his story:
Frank had been in the navy. Before the war began, he had been engaged to marry a young woman named Theresa. He was deeply in love with her, and thought of her with great reverence.
One day, another sailor happened to see her picture. He asked Frank who she was, and he told the sailor that she was his sweetheart. The other sailor, according to Frank, was a young man who often got into fights and would purposely antagonize the men on the ship. He predictably responded with great hostility and asked Frank if he thought he would marry that — here, Frank stopped, unwilling to say the exact word, but I got the general idea. The other man had deeply insulted Frank by saying something profoundly disrespectful about the love of his life.
At the moment of this conversation with the other sailor, Frank had been carving roast beef with a very sharp knife. He completely lost his temper and his composure when he heard his girlfriend referred to in this way. He slammed the other sailor against the table he had been using to cut the roast beef on. He raised the knife. Blinded by his rage, he wanted nothing more than to kill the other sailor.
In that moment, Frank said, he heard his mother’s voice saying firmly, “Frankie, put that knife down!” The odd sensation of hearing a disembodied voice was enough to stop him in his tracks. He put the knife down and walked out of the room. Later, the other sailor apologized to him, but Frank had never forgiven the man; he was still bitter all these many years later.
Compounding the pain was the fact that, after Frank was discharged from the Navy, he learned that Theresa had not been faithful to him while he had been away. The first day that he was free to go where he wanted and do as he pleased, Frank rushed, unannounced, to Theresa’s home and was devastated to find another man there. What followed was a drawn-out, tortuous period of weeks in which Theresa said she still loved him, but didn’t know what she wanted to do. Finally Frank gave in to his despair over her treachery and broke off the relationship with her.
He had gone on with his life, finding another woman and marrying her, but he had never been able to make sense of the events regarding Theresa. Nellie, who was his second wife (his first had passed away several years earlier) told me that he had told her this story over and over again. It was clear that she had lost patience with Frank and his inability to get past the events regarding Theresa. She said that he cried every day, and, miserably, he agreed.
We began our work with me asking Frank to tell the story again. This time, however, I stopped him at every point in the story at which I saw signs of distress in him. Each time I stopped him, we tapped and talked about those events from long ago. The part that haunted him the most was the fact that, had he actually killed the sailor who had insulted Theresa, he would have spent the rest of his life in the brig for a woman who was not worthy of him. However, he was also, after all these years, still outraged that the sailor had been so insulting toward someone that he loved.
As we worked our way through this difficult story, I was struck, not for the first time, by how tender inside are the war veterans I have had the honor of working with, and also by the depth of their need to love and to be loved in return.
After our appointment, which turned out to be almost two hours, Frank said he felt better than he had in years. A few weeks later, Nellie contacted me to say that Frank no longer cries every day, and that he has stopped talking about Theresa. She said she has never seen him so relaxed.
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