Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Warrior Culture

Here is Ceridwen asking a question of Sidroc in The Claiming:

“How many men have you killed?”

I had never asked this of any man, and surprised myself by doing so now.

He paused and said, “Three-and-forty.”

It seemed a huge number, forty-three, but from the way he spoke I could not tell if he thought it few or many. But the fact that he gave a sum at all told me each one was recalled in his mind.

“Those are killed outright. There will be more, perhaps two score, who died later from the wounds I gave them.”

“That is a lot,” was all I could say. I felt my voice grow small.

“More than some men, not so many as others,” he answered.

“Even if it were only forty-three, there are also forty-three mothers, and wives, and many children, behind that number.”

“You cannot think of that,” he answered at once. “When you are in battle you can think only of keeping your enemy from killing you. The quickest and best way is to kill him first.” He looked across the surface of the flowing grass. “Those are the things you think about later, when you have drunk much ale, or late at night, when you waken in the dark.

“Some of them I will have to fight again, after I die,” he reflected.

Later, in The Hall of Tyr, both Ceridwen and Sidroc are frequently awakened by nightmares stemming from the violence they have been subjected to.  Ceridwen finds herself repeatedly on the ships they travelled on, with her either as a slave, or helpless amidst horrible violence. Sidroc’s dreams are of the necessity of fighting and killing over and over again; an activity by which he had once defined himself as successful warrior but now wants to leave behind. Hand-to-hand combat entails a particular and intense intimacy; as he dreams he finds himself in the chaos of battle but continually looking into the eyes of the men he is killing.

Nightmares, or “riding the night-mare” – being carried away by a wild, terrifying power we have no control over – are one of the most complex aspects of posttraumatic stress disorder, for they are the least controllable of all the symptoms. Nightmares have the uncanny ability to return the dreamer over and over again, over miles and years, to the scene of trauma, fear, and violence. The dreamer is trapped in the dream, unable to move past the trauma, to move on. Time turns in on itself and deposits the dreamer back in the moment of terror.

Yet there is and was help, even centuries before this syndrome had a name. Sidroc and Ceridwen acknowledge to each other the distress they suffer from the nightmares; neither are in denial about them. Ceridwen awakens with a start, but focuses on the here and now – feeling the solid floor beneath her, noting the moonlight falling in the room, drawing deep, slow breaths, cherishing the comfort of pressing her face against Sidroc’s chest and hearing his heart beat. This focusing on real objects, and on the here and now, the good available right at that moment of awakening in terror, helps reinstate a sense of calm, and allows the reassurance of the present to spread.

Each must come to terms with nightmares in their way. Sidroc believes his are just recompense for the blood he has shed. It does not lessen his symptoms but does lessen his distress; he believes there is a reason. We know that victims of torture deeply committed to the cause that they suffer for recover quicker psychologically from their ordeal. Ceridwen is aided by simple, yet miraculously intricate body chemistry. She came to believe that everything she had been through had served its end – to bring her to her new and happy life with Sidroc, and the fulfilment of their child. Her nightmares end when she finds herself expecting.

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