Today I went to a play called “Time Stands Still” by Donald Margulies, which is in previews at the Friedman Theater. The story is about a couple named James and Sarah, a journalist and photojournalist, respectively, who return to their apartment in New York after covering war-torn Afghanistan. The play is about the challenges of returning to “real life” after being at war, about what covering war does to family relationships, and about the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on individuals, families, and friends. The acting was wonderful, with Laura Linney, Brian d’Arcy James, Eric Bogosian, and Alicia Silverstone. The writing was also wonderful, as to be expected from the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who wrote Dinner With Friends.
After the play, David Shookhoff, the Manhattan Theater Club’s Director of Education, led a panel discussion for the audience. Panel members including the director Daniel Sullivan (who also directed other fabulous plays including Proof, Rabbit Hole, and Dinner with Friends); Sebastian Junger, an award-winning journalist and author (he wrote The Perfect Storm), and Jack Saul PhD, a psychologist at Columbia University School of Public Health who treats journalists and others returning from war and other humanitarian crises.
In their discussion, the panelists talked about how when you’re in a war zone, you go into “survival mode.” The adrenaline is pumping; sometimes you can’t let yourself fully experience your feelings (like fear) or you couldn’t function. The journalist or soldier can be traumatized by the atrocities he/she sees and at the same time have difficulty adjusting to the life at home, which pales in comparison to what is going on in the war zone. They talked about individuals at the front sometimes find it difficult to relate to their loved ones who are back at home. On occasion, the soldier or journalist may not share certain experiences so as not to worry the loved one (or to prevent the loved one from issuing an ultimatum that they can’t go back for more). This secretive behavior can create a schism in a relationship.
The panel focused on two disparate emotions experienced by those who return home after being on the front: (1) a sense of missing the excitement and drama and bonding with others created by the war and (2) being haunted by the memories of the atrocities, which may appear as flashbacks or nightmares. The latter is part of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Is the former? I don’t know.
Some of what they were saying about PTSD sounds similar to the experience of a cancer survivor. During treatment, you are in “survival mode.” The adrenaline is pumping and you may not allow yourself to experience emotions like fear so you can do what you have to do. Treatment ends– and what then? I’m not aware of cancer patients having flashbacks to episodes of treatment (does that happen?). However, I do know that cancer patients may have trouble adjusting to life after treatment. Can some of the strategies used to help people returning from wars be useful for cancer survivors?