What a funny thing

There is a passage in Michael Crichton’s book ‘Congo’ which has always kind of stuck with me. Before I go on, if you aren’t familiar with the book, Congo is the story of a research crew who take an expedition into the African Rainforest to recover a particular kind of diamond which will change the technological future.

As in so many Crichton novels, the human tendency to assume conditions may be controlled with technology and human intelligence proves fatal to many of the explorers. An ancient and unknown species of gorilla guards the diamond mines and ends up thrashing the efforts of the adventurers. A big ol’ volcano takes care of the rest.

Congo certainly isn’t my favorite Crichton novel; I think it’s probably one of his most far-fetched and least engrossing stories. I’m a big Crichton fan generally: Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, and even his lesser known novels like Timeline, combine science and ingenuity with a palpable emotional sense of tension and drama. Crichton was a tremendously talented and thoughtful author- not something I expect of mainstream novelists.

But the passage that caught me up was an observation by gorilla trainer Peter Elliott. The crew has taken a gorilla named Amy and her trainer with them on the expedition. Amy seems to immediately recognize the other species of gorilla. She uses sign language to identify them as ‘bad things’. These gorillas had something to do with an earlier trauma in Amy’s youth.

Peter is startled to observe that Amy, when faced with the absolute, inescapable fact of having to confront these enemies, becomes not overwrought or hostile or frantic, but rather… apathetic.

The overwhelming specter of her fate produces lethargy.

It’s like- it’s too much to react to. Almost a paradox: The most horrifying doom has descended, and Amy responds with boredom. What a strange reaction. Is it realistic?

I think so. I think I’ve gleaned a little insight to that very striking dynamic in what otherwise was a fairly farfetched and forgettable adventure. And I believe, though I can’t be sure, that Michael Crichton probably had some first-hand experience of post traumatic stress disorder which informed his description.

Major conflict takes place in the brain when we find ourselves in a situation where incompatible ideas arise side by side within us. People are a paradox, and cognitive dissonance is the natural byproduct of a consciousness that requires consistency, encompassing a nature that will tend toward intuitive rather than rationally informed choices. The vast landscape of human perception requires that inconsistencies will exist, and that there will be instances of hypocrisy between beliefs, behaviors and emotions.

For instance, you may abhorr violence, but feel satisfaction at the graphic death of an enemy. You may sincerely believe in inclusiveness, but silently house a prejudice that deeply influences your life choices.

People are a paradox. Striving to maintain a workable balance between conflicting thoughts and feelings is probably as good as most people can get to consistency.

In post-traumatic stress disorder, there is a similar conflict that takes place in the mind. People who suffer PTSD have been in a situation of intense harm or prolonged threat of harm to their person. Their view of the world and their place in it changes after the trauma, and so they tend to see things as before and after the traumatic event.

People who experience PTSD tend to be in a constant state of tension, because part of the brain is trying to resolve the traumatic event, trying to create a framework which reasserts the ego. But the ego also finds this painful to the point of impossibility because the obliteration of the self was the threat, and avoiding that scenario and the emotions correlated to that scenario are of utmost importance to personal well-being. So no sooner is the mind trying to resolve and process the trauma, then the mind is also, simultaneously repelling itself from that same process and everything associated with it.

The handbook of experiential psychotherapy states it this way: “The part of the self that expresses these avoiding processes often adopts an explicitly protective stance in which the reexperiencing processes are viewed as a threat to the person’s physical or mental integrity.”

This inner conflict becomes so seamlessly woven into the way you perceive and respond to things, that the person doesn’t really know what’s happening. They may recognize certain patterns, but not have any understanding of why such responses consistently play out.

It’s not unusual for their behavior to puzzle friends and family members.

For example, I am able to get close to people romantically, but when I become close to someone, it is usually followed by becoming easily angry and pulling away for the slightest of reasons.

What happens inside my head is I feel vulnerable when someone gets close, and I become extremely sensitive, attuned to any words, any behaviors, quick to close off from that nearness. Being too close is a threat. Push… pull. That phrase is a repeating mantra in a series of doomed relationships.

And so, it isn’t really that surprising that I feel a sort of despair when I recognize that I have fallen in love. It is an extremely agitating state, and the more deeply I feel, the greater the despair. Due to the emotional conflict and unpleasant feelings of hurt and anger associated with the hypersensitive receptors to threat, it isn’t a very pleasant prospect to find myself deeply, emotionally engaged. Part of me *wants* that very much, wants to be close, wants to treat the one I like a lot with care and tenderness. But it is extremely difficult to sustain. It’s like trying to keep your finger off of a hair-trigger, and still hold onto the gun. It would be a lot safer to all involved just to throw the gun far, far away.

Our gorilla friend, Amy… her apathy was despair. Faced with a situation of immense threat, a situation that she had avoided for as long as possible, one that she could not meet or overcome or escape, lethargy was the natural response. If you cannot face a situation and you absolutely hafto, yet you absolutely cannot, what do you do?

You give over. You don’t fight. You don’t respond. You are the plaything of fate, and you submit utterly to the circumstance because there are no alternatives. You shut down. Amy shut down.

I know that Michael Crichton worked as a doctor, and was a writer/producer for the television show E.R. Maybe this was the source which prompted insights into the mind of someone with PTSD. Or maybe he had first-hand experience. Anyway, it’s a funny thing: Horrifying doom producing boredom, crazy love inspiring despair. Such contradiction thrives in fictional accounts, but its home turf remains at the heart of human nature.

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7 thoughts on “What a funny thing

  1. Michael Crichton lived a life of alienation from everyone else. First his height (he was 6′ 9″) made him the odd one out. Later, his intellect made him feel alienated from others around him. He never felt like he fit in so it would not surprise me that some of this caused him to have those PTSD feelings which enabled him to sympathize with PTSD victims.

  2. I read Congo so long ago, I’d forgotten about Amy. You explained her apathy, her shutting down, really well. I understand that kind of shutting down.

    This was so well written. I want to comment on the more personal aspects, but will leave that alone. For now.

  3. You r piece shows a remarkable insight into the reality of inter-personal relationships. I can personally relate to the issue of ptsd and I think your assessment is correct, even if there might not seem to be a rational solution. Perhaps your reactions toward your burgeoning relationship will serve to keep you grounded enough that you won’t need that hair trigger. Maybe Amy’s example need not become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

  4. Am, you’ve nailed a number of important points here and conveyed the meaning and impacts really, really well. Thanks for that.

    Untreated PTSD clients tend to operate at the outside ends of the thought, mood and behavior scales. Like you said ‘hyper’ or like the example of Amy, ‘hypo’… way over the top or sliding under the doorsill. That mid-range goal is an elusive target seeming always to be just beyond grasp.

    There have been great advances in treatment which provide valid reason to be hopeful for good long range outcomes.

  5. I hope you find healing and happiness. But then, when you do, you’ll probably realize you don’t need to be writing this stuff anymore. And then we’ll be sad.

  6. As a trauma victim and 25 year sufferer of PTSD, I can really appreciate the insights in this post. You’ve hit on all the really tricky psychological things.

    I would like to stress, too, that while apathy may be the instinctive response to PTSD (or anything that causes us distress), we don’t heal by giving in or accepting — if we get stuck there then we’re really in trouble!

    I WAS stuck there for many years, and then I decided to take matters into my own hands. Now, I’m into my second year of being completely PTSD-free. I rose up, fought back and found the courage to face the fear until I became bigger than it was. Anyone can do this. Many people are doing it by participating in my free healing PTSD workshop at http://parasitesofthemind.blogspot.com

    Really living and loving is frightening stuff.
    Life is tough, but we all contain a great reserve of courage; it’s up to us to tap it.

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