For someone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), doing the New York Times crossword puzzle can be very therapeutic. But sometimes it can lead to unexpected results by triggering memories you’d rather not remember.
In the August 12, 2015 New York Times crossword puzzle, number 44 across is, Salinger heroine. If you don’t know what the answer in, it fills in when you fill in the answers to number 27, 31, 32, and 33 down. There’s an E from stream, an S from Amstel bier, an A from I am, and an E from NNE.
The answer is Esme, but what does that mean? Many of us can’t name anything Salinger wrote other than Catcher in the Rye, much less name his heroines.
If you to want to know who Esme is, do a Google search for “esme salinger”. According to the first search result, Wikipedia, For Esme—with Love and Squalor is a short story by J. D. Salinger. The second result is for shmoop.com, an education site. The third result is a link to a pdf version of the story.
The fourth search result opens a newyorker.com page, For Esme – With Love And Squalor by J. D. Salinger. There’s a photo of the short story in the New Yorker, and the caption reads, For Esme – With Love And Squalor The New Yorker, April 8, 1950 P. 28. Under that, there’s this synopsis of the story.
“An American soldier stationed in Devon in April, 1944, meets a precocious 13 year old girl, named Esme, and her brother, Charles, 5. They have a brief, entrancing conversation. Esme asks the American, who tells her he is a writer, to write a story for her about squalor. He promises that he will. Then comes the squalid part. The scene shifts to Bavaria several weeks after V-E Day. The soldier, now referred to as Sergeant X, is suffering from battle fatigue – shaking hands, facial tick, etc. His table is covered with unopened packages, and letters. One of them accidentally comes to the foreground and he opens it – it is a letter from Esme with a few words from Charles.”
After reading that, go back and click on the link to a pdf version of the story; a 15 page pdf document. The complete text of Salinger’s story, starts on page 4.
The first seven pages of the story (pages 4-10 of the pdf file) are about how Sergeant X meets the 13 year old English girl, Esme, when he stops into a tea shop in England shortly before the D-Day Invasion.
None of that’s likely to trigger a PTSD flashback, unless you served in World War II. But on page 11 when she says goodbye to Sergeant X, it strikes close to home. “Goodbye,” Esme said. “I hope you return from the war with all your faculties intact.”
“I hope you return from the war with all your faculties intact.”
Combat veterans with PTSD didn’t return home with all their faculties intact. They came home with a wounded brain, horrible flashbacks, wicked nightmares, and difficult to control anger outbursts.
“Goodbye,” Esme said. “I hope you return from the war with all your faculties intact.” Bing! In a heartbeat, the memories return and a creepy feeling settles over the combat veteran with PTSD. That creepy feeling will last all day, and going to bed will be put off as long as possible to increase the possibility of falling to sleep right away from exhaustion, rather than lying in bed wide awake for hours because of the bad memories.
PTSD is like that. The slightest thing can trigger that creepy feeling: a phrase in a book, an image on TV or a newspaper headline. Salinger puts it this way, when he describes how Sergeant X, was a young man who had not come through the war with all his faculties intact.
It was about ten-thirty at night in Gaufurt, Bavaria, several weeks after V-E Day. Staff Sergeant X was in his room…Then, abruptly, familiarly, and, as usual, with no warning, he thought he felt his mind dislodge itself and teeter, like insecure luggage on an overhead rack. He quickly did what he had been doing for weeks to set things right: he pressed his hands hard against his temples. He held on tight for a moment.
Salinger had been there and done that. After the war, Salinger checked himself into a mental hospital and was treated for “combat fatigue” which is what post-traumatic stress disorder was called then.
Salinger ends the short story with these words. “You take a really sleepy man, Esme, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac—with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.”
There are many veterans from WWII, Korean, and Vietnam who did not come through the war with all their faculties intact. Now they’ve been joined by many Iraq and Afghan War Veterans who did not come through the war with all their faculties intact. Try to understand that they have no control over the horrible memories and no control of the things that trigger those memories.
All combat veterans with PTSD can go from calm to angry in about three nanoseconds. The change is virtually instantaneous, and the combat veteran has to struggle with controlling that emotion, even though the sympathetic nervous system has released adrenaline and cortisol into the blood stream and the “fight or flight” reaction has already kicked in.
Keep in mind that the chemical reaction to anger is the almost same as the chemical reaction to fear. So there’s a fine line between fear and anger, and the combat veteran with PTSD has to deal with that in a split second.
Unfortunately, help is hard to find. The VA’s PTSD program is a hit or miss situation, and many civilian counselors don’t understand PTSD or the trauma of combat. So the combat veteran with PTSD is left out in the cold.
But if one of your loved ones is a combat veteran with PTSD, you can help. It might be hard for you to reach out with your hand and touch that combat veteran with PTSD. But doing that little thing can work miracles, because oxytocin, which is referred to as the cuddle hormone, is released by the pituitary gland when someone gives you a loving touch or a hug.
So instead of walking out when something triggers the fight or flight reaction in your combat veteran with PTSD, give them a hug. It might change your life and theirs.