You have probably heard the expression “he has the thousand mile stare”. Might have even seen it in someone, like your best friend, maybe your spouse, your son, your father…Yourself.
Having seen too much death and destruction, the mind shuts down, at least to the warrior. The amygdala, our brain’s fight-or-flight center, has been overwhelmed with sensory data no one is prepared to process. And yet, they did…process it I mean. It may have been done in a very perfunctory way, and likely was, because they were in survival mode.
In reality, if in war there can be such a thing, this processing of incoming sensory input goes to the brain’s recycling center, the hippocampus. In that tiny, but powerful memory organ, the war experiences are processed and sent to long-term memory storage centers. From there, they can be repeatedly pulled up, from the past to the present, recycled in flashbacks or nightmares. The memory’s valence is so strong, it can’t be extinguished, even though a person can try. One traumatic war memory piles on top of another, much like the old turntables of stereo systems could stack albums together. And just like with the albums on the turntable, once you start replaying the memories, it is hard to turn them off.
So does the mind, in battle, really “shut down”? It can’t, not even if the person wanted to, and with their survival at stake, they can’t. And so the mind’s memory turntable plays on.
So, getting back to the “thousand mile stare”, if we can. After our tour of the amygdala, hippocampus, and long-term memory storage centers, what is it really? Neuroscientists understand the roles of these brain centers, and we can too, but I don’t think they are the cause of our phenomenon.
The warrior, after repeated such war conflicts, becomes overwhelmed, and not just from a physical or mental standpoint. They begin to see the meaninglessness of all they were taught from a moral or spiritual standpoint. The destruction that is war seems total to them. No longer able to differentiate right from wrong in war, those lines seem blurred in all aspects of life. The destruction of the anchors of their moral or spiritual beliefs lead them to the edge…to the Void. To nothingness. This void is infinite, but as we can’t see the infinite, we see only their “thousand mile stare”.
And so when we talk about survival from war, we are talking about way more than their physical or mental survival, though that is essential for the next step in their healing process. They have to walk back from the void, from the nothingness, from the scars to their soul. While they do much of this on their own, we can all be there to assist them on their journey.
Robert B. Goos
Author of “Portal to Erytheum”
Robert B. Goos, a psychiatrist, worked with the Veterans Healthcare Administration for nearly a decade before moving into private practice. He specializes in treating veterans, particularly those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He currently resides in Colorado City, Colo. For more information go to http://www.robertgoos.com/
Goos believes the VA, in its current iteration, is incapable of treating veterans with the resources necessary for healing. He hopes readers will see his book as a wake-up call.
“Post-traumatic stress disorder is not just a mental issue or a physical issue – it’s a spiritual issue, a wound to the soul. It derails the lives of its victims. This book is about helping them live, even love again.”
“Portal to Erytheum”
By Robert B. Goos
Published Dec 8, 2015