It's easy to understand why members of the military suffer from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Life in a war zone, being a front row witness to death and injury to a member of your company, or even your "enemy" can and does, understandably leaves a mark, or scar on your psyche.
Recently The National Center for PTSD released a study that suggest, journalists too regularly suffer from PTSD, almost on a daily basis. I noticed the study on my phone for a few seconds as I waited for a public information officer to come and give me some details about a man who had run over his girlfriend during a fight.
At first I scoffed at the idea that journalists could suffer from the same issues that plague soldiers, police officers and emergency responders, then, as I stuffed my phone in my pocket, a woman, who later told me she was the victims aunt, rushed to the edge of the crime scene tape wailing, and sobbing, "Oh my God! Oh my God!" She anguished with tears streaming from her eyes, causing pronounced black streaks to angle around her cheeks, and drop on her white blouse leaving a dark spot above her clavicle. As she thrust her arms into the sky, asking for answers, I found myself obligated, I had to intrude into her inner pain to see if I could find any answers about what had happened. "Tell me! Tell me!" she pleaded with me, "what do you know, please, what do you know!" I solemnly explained to her that a man had run over a woman during an argument, and she was taken to the hospital in critical condition, "Oh God, That's my niece, Oh Lord, that's my baby!" She then ended our conversation abruptly, "I don't have nothing to say to you!" Then a friend coddled her head against her chest, while darting a look of absolute hatred deep into my eyes, as she ushered the grieving aunt on a crooked line to the curb where the 2 sat down, and wept privately.
"All in a days work," I thought to myself, as I peered over the police tape at officers taking pictures near a pile of bloody clothes, and talking with witnesses, while dutifully scribbling details into their small notebooks. After the news cast, as I drove silently back to the station, I thought again about the PTSD study, and realized, no matter how much I wanted to deny it, I had just been through a traumatic experience. Clearly nothing like the victim of this horrible crime, or her aunt, stricken with a terror punctuated by a lack of details, but a trauma non-the-less. I found myself at the edge of tragedy, cloaked by shear grief, forced to insert myself into a private moment of despair, and engulfed in the usual rampant hate of the "media."
During my 20 years career I have witnessed plenty of horrifying scenes. The remains of a woman struck by a train, and a man who smashed through his windshield during a Thanksgiving Day auto accident. Early one morning on I-90 in Pascagoula, Mississippi, I stood under a dark, humid Mississippi sky as the highway patrol unraveled white sheets over the bodies of 5 teenagers who where riding in the back of a pickup that crashed into the jersey barrier late that night.
I've always been able (I thought) to bury the grisly carnage into a mental grave inside my brain. Like the time my partner and I interviewed a woman whose only daughter had been struck by the school bus she was waiting for one morning. The mother, heartbroken and likely sedated, spoke to us for a few scattered moments and we left. In our news vehicle, my partner poured himself behind the wheel, sat silently for a few minutes, then turned to me, "I can't do this anymore," he said as his eyes filled with tears. A few weeks later he quite, went home to live with his parents and took a job at a toilet seat factory in northern Mississippi.
It affects you, you feel it, but, are forced to move on, sometimes without properly processing what you have witnessed.
A few days after that woman had been struck by her boyfriend's Lincoln Town Car, I interviewed her mother. She was stoic, but scared, and broke. She was now caring for her daughter's 2 children, and was unsure how she would pay for the medical bills climbing exponentially literally by the minute.
I thought about her for several hours after the interview, but had moved on to other stories the next day. Last week it was announced the woman struck by the car was dead. As I heard the news, I picked up the phone, breathed in and out, then dialed her mother's phone number.