In the first presidential debate, Senator John McCain exhibited an emotionally flat "shutdown" response — that is, when he did not appear irritable and cross. He wounld not make eye contact with Obama, favored grandstanding over dialogue, and stated that he would refuse to come to the table with world leaders who don’t agree with him. If, in place of the Paris Peace Talks, Henry Kissinger, McCain’s hero, had displayed similar attitudes back in the 1970s, we might still be in Vietnam.
McCain’s posturing has a mothball whiff, like the contents of a time capsule from the 1950s. But before we renew our subscription to that particular brand of leadership and heroism, let’s take a closer look.
Back in the 1950s, many post-war kids experienced their Great Generation fathers as cold, angry, and unknowable. What we didn’t know then, but do know now, is that many brave men who saw intense action in WWII came back suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — a then-misunderstood illness that will last life-long if left untreated. The hair-trigger temper, impulsive behavior, numbed emotions, disassociated responses and flat expression are all hallmarks of this real disease.
The person’s original traumatic experience (and their neurological response to it) become hardwired into the body, causing ongoing deterioration in key areas of the brain. In PTSD, to protect itself from the external dangers, the body will neurologically freeze or over-activate (or both), releasing a cascade of neurochemicals and hormones that shut down normal responses and functions for the sake of survival. Once the dangers pass, the responses still continue permanently.
Sadly, earlier generations of veterans (from the World Wars through Korea and Vietnam, in which McCain served) received no treatment whatsoever. It was mistakenly believed that the wide range of physiological, cognitive and behavioral aftermaths of PTSD were "all in their heads." Instead the veterans had to tough it out — by containing silently within themselves the wartime horrors, or by medicating themselves with drink.
All who incur PTSD in the line of duty deserve our respect. My own grandfather and father were brave men who fought and survived with these kinds of scars. While we can and should feel compassion for them, there’s no reason to adopt their PTSD behaviors as the leadership style now and for future generations.
Times have changed. Now soldiers returning from Iraq are encouraged by the U.S. military and the Veterans Administration to receive the new and definitive PTSD treatment methods that were developed following research that emerged after 9/11. Soldiers are helped to heal rather than suffer "heroically."
As part of that healing, it’s vital to identify classic signs of PTSD,and distinguish those symptoms from the true skills of leadership.
According to psychotherapist Belleruth Naparstek, "impulsivity, crankiness, and sudden rages are all standard PTSD symptoms, " punctuating more episodes of being "numbed out, emotionally flat and isolated. Some keep themselves ‘on alert’ and focused on the ‘enemy’ to override their flatness… but you can hear it when they are not spring-loaded in their favorite, ‘pissed off’ position."
In addition to affecting emotional ballast, PTSD also impacts cognition and decision-making. Though frequently misconstrued as age-related deficits, "cognitive ups and downs, memory lapses, poor concentration and jumping from one focus of attention to another are common PTSD symptoms," Naparstek says.
In her book, Invisible Heroes (Bantam 2004), Naparstek cites studies showing that PTSD sufferers may exhibit "impairment of higher level information processing and decision-making." As a result, they overlook "critical details in making a choice or solving a problem. They might reach conclusions based on narrow, impulsive, or stereotypical initial impressions."
In other words, making brash decisions may (or may not) be the sign of a maverick, but it sure is symptomatic of a PTSD sufferer.
Over the last weeks, many have noted McCain’s tendency to impulse buy mismatched stances and strategies, which when put together look like the ensemble from hell. His selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate, like many an overnight infatuation with a stranger, seems different in the morning. The flexibility needed for true leadership would dictate admitting that mistake. In our complex world we need leaders who tolerate ambiguities without rushing to judgment driven by neurological and brain chemical imbalances that are etched deeply within by traumatic experiences. It’s also well established that PTSD sufferers can feel triggered or endangered by slight occurrences which they perceive as a threat.
Even when a person with PTSD came by their wounds honestly — as most do, is such a person the steadiest hand on the red button during a nuclear age?
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