The importance of war stories


“Have you heard of EMDR?” he asks from across a table at a noisy bar in Oakland, I tell him I haven’t, he explains the process to me in lame man’s terms. Fascinated with trauma, stress, and stories, I gobble the information up; the innovative therapy to trace and treat the way one’s brain packages trauma. He continues to tell me about it and my mind races back to the paramedic and the lifeless infant; another comment unfolds, and the officer involved shooting in a garage; the overflowing memories of everything he told me, I stare at his glasses and am reminded of a paramedic working well beyond his tenure, crumbling. And then my own crumbling.

It was a sunny morning, all normal, not much traffic. A few days prior I had been in an affluent area, speaking with a war veteran firefighter. White fluffy clouds, and his straightforward lilt; my hands grip the steering wheel and I can still see his deep brown eyes and how he said, “I just didn’t want to be here anymore.” The area below my ears begins to tingle with warmth, I feel helpless hearing about such a happy, loving, successful man, being declared 5150. The way he sat up a little straighter at the end of our conversation and asked in earnest, “What do you advise me to do?” My heart drops, I change lanes, find a quiet outskirt of suburb, pull over and sob. I get out of my car and walk around it, wishing I could shake the stories that people tell me like sweat.

Not long after, in a sitting area, tucked away in a church, a man asks me if I’m a doctor, what’s my role. Again, solid, certain, broken; damaged by stress. The way he said my name, and followed it up with the pressure he felt in his position, but why did you wait so long, but when did you first feel, how much did you drink, what did you do, why. When he tells men about EMDR, I light up, having just heard about it nights prior. I think of glasses and chronic illness and intellect, I ask the hurt man to describe it to me, because I have to know what works, if it worked, how it felt, that something has to work.

Sometimes, I think empathy is a sin or a weakness; an uncontrollable earnest camaraderie I would turn in for something else, if it didn’t make me so human.

We learn the most about ourselves from the stories we are told by others. There’s something in it that holds us all together, the legacy of shared experience; the agony of recovery of any kind. Other people’s pain shows us how deeply we can love and when we wish we could stop. Lessons in masculinity and vulnerability shows what lies beyond a badge, a gun, a flag. What resonates make us better, makes us kinder, numbs to the core because it stings so much.


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