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Thursday, January 06, 2005

Intergenerational Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and Torture

An odd correlation, it might seem --- an even odder thing to think about. But it is something I've thought about quite a bit.

I think about it because I live in Indian Country and because I spent some years working with fullblood (for lack of a better term) communities. And I know for a fact that there is such a thing as intergenerational post-traumatic stress syndrome and that its effects on a people are profound.

In other words, torture imprints not simply the individual, but the community and descendants of any individual subjected to torture. Torture is a part of colonialism, in my opinion, a necessary part, and is even more effective than guns or tanks or anything else to the process of conquering a people.

In Killing Us Slowly, researchers for American Indian and Minority Health, Inc. note the complex relationships between PTSD, diabetes, alcoholism and the staggering death rates among American Indians. Each element is necessary to the whole and forms complex feedback loops:

"Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from traumatic events continues the effects of the stress over time, continuing a cycle of cortisol production with ongoing depression. PTSD patients typically continue to re-experience a trauma, avoid stimuli associated with the incident and feel numb. They demonstrate hyperarousal, irritability, insomnia and inability to concentrate.

In circumstances where we are under someone else's power with little of our own-whether a child in an abusive family or in the extreme situation of genocide and slavery-we cannot fight or flee so stress becomes chronic and the levels of cortisol remain elevated. At some point in time we may no longer be able to produce the cortisol needed for times when it might actually help with fight or flight actions that are appropriate to a situation. Not only can we ourselves become cortisol depleted, but children born to mothers with low cortisol levels have often been found to have low cortisol levels as well. The related behavioral effects can be seen in situations of hopelessness and poverty where people no longer seem to be able to fight for their survival, leading to assumptions that they are lazy and don't care-as opposed to depressed, hopeless-and cortisol-less.

When powerlessness has been sufficiently abusive and lasted for a long enough time, an individual develops an expectation of ongoing abuse and even when moved to a safer situation often has great difficulty responding in any other way. New situations are interpreted as the same as those in the past so that fear continues to stimulate what small levels of cortisol may still be produced.

Eduardo and Bonnie Duran, in their book, Postcolonial Psychology, write that American Indians experience intergenerational PTSD similar to that of survivors of the Jewish Holocaust. The authors note that not only did the survivors of the Jewish Holocaust suffer from PTSD but many of their children did as well-even though they had not directly experienced the events of the Holocaust. Normal human development is 'mutilated by the traumas of loss, grief, danger, fear, hatred, and chaos' write the Durans, and dysfunctional patterns of behavior come to be seen as part of Native American tradition-the alcoholism, child abuse, suicide, and domestic violence (p. 35)."

This is what we have done in Iraq, not only at the sites of battle, but worse, in the prisons under the directives of our administration. No matter what happens now, generations upon generations will suffer the consequences. Exactly how it will play itself out remains to be seen. But we are all culpable --- we are all responsible, even those of us who screamed against the war and who have fought this administration's policies tooth and nail.

Here, it shows itself in child abuse, spousal abuse, alcoholism and drug addiction, wreckless behaviors, individuals who are literally 'shut down' emotionally and intellectually. For all the fantasies people have about American Indians, it is not an easy life. Quite the contrary. And each seems to carry with them memories of a distant past and anger which, at this point, is turned inward or onto those closest to them.

We already know the consequences. How anyone can condone it for any reason is completely beyond me.

Or maybe they know exactly what the consequences are --- and that's why they so enjoy it.


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