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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks

A Blog about Military, Childhood, and Other Trauma

September 2019

A couple of years ago I noticed that all aspects of my work have hovered around trauma. This includes my literary writing and my charting of human behavior—abuse, military service, or commercial fishing. The other dominant themes have been death and grieving, all easily relatable to flashbacks.

It doesn’t take much for me to piece together the reasons for my unusual professional behavior. I had a near-death experience at the age of five. I was abused by the elevator man while living in the newest apartment building on the most expensive address in the world—New York’s Fifth Avenue. I had lost three members of my family by the time I was seventeen. From there I went on to similar traumas.

I had grown up in a solid, secure, and loving family and home. All my siblings seemed (and seem) quite normal. Extended family—grandparents, aunts, and cousins lived with us at various times. My parents and I lived in a small Quaker hotel one year. We also lived in rural Maine. It was a privileged life that I had, except that none of my siblings and I realized it till we were in our fifties. I had two versions of myself. One was the healthy, vibrant person who had spent her life trying to catch up to her siblings in school, athletics, and personality. Thus, I became an overachiever. The other one was that I was a person who had her very own albatross hanging around her mariner’s neck. Different from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, though, I kept mine hidden for decades until its weight became unbearable.

In the meantime, I’d done what many other people do after continued traumatic events—I created more personal tragedies because that was what I had learned life was supposed to be. At the same time, I also racked up more accomplishments because my family and schools had taught me that was what life was supposed to be. I attribute the positive attitude to that background of the strength and education my family and schools offered.

Most of my professional employment life I worked with troubled children and families. My first job was by accident. I was a freshman at the University of Colorado and bored my first semester. Too many of my classes taught material I had covered in my education at Friends Seminary, a private Quaker school in New York City. One day when I could have been studying, I read the ads in the student newspaper, The Colorado Daily. I saw one ad that said M-F, 3-9 pm, working with children. I called, had an interview and got the job. Not long after, I changed my major from Greek and Latin to Psychology. Thus began my work as a residential counselor with children ages five through twenty, three of them older than I. In the first week, we had a group music activity during which I played the piano and the fourteen children and I sang songs. Harriett was disobedient. I told her to sit down. No, she loudly responded. I told her a second time. Same response. I told her a third time. She slapped me across the face. I was eighteen. What experience did I have to handle this? Evidently plenty. I told her to sit down. She sat down and we continued singing songs while I played. I didn’t tell the director because I had handled it. One of the other children told her and Harriett had her consequence. For the next three years, she and I got along fine and I doubt I ever had to tell her something twice again.

I loved that job. There were the children, their families, their lack of families, the innocence of some, the tragic abuse of others. My second and third years I lived at the school. They wrote letters home on Monday afternoons. We rode the horses on Wednesdays, listened to music on Thursdays, had an outside activity on Fridays—roller-skating, a movie, anything that was going on in the greater Denver area. One evening I took ten of them to a drive-in movie. I didn’t have enough money. I drove away and we calculated how much we were short. Three of the older ones volunteered to crawl in the trunk. I questioned the ethics of that, but they convinced me it would be fine. Three in the trunk, in we went, and out they crawled. They loved it! I think it was the first time I ever cheated. Perhaps sometimes we have to do something kind but not quite cricket for children.

Or like the time several years later when I was a teacher in Oregon and Charles was prancing around the room yelling while I gave a spelling test. (We all intentionally ignored him for the students to earn points for a field trip). Danny didn’t hear the word. I repeated it. Again. The next time I said, “Hit! h-i-t. Hit!” He nodded his head, returned to his paper to write it, looked up at me in surprise. We both grinned. He wrote the word and I gave him credit for spelling it correctly.

Definition: post-traumatic stress disorder

According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder has been around for millennia—at least since the time Homer wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey, and in more modern times, Shakespeare wrote Henry IV and Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities. During the Civil War, what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was called soldier’s heart, in World War I shell shock, and from World War II battle fatigue or combat stress.

In 1980 the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III (DSM-III) of the American Psychiatric Association first named and identified PTSD as a disorder. This was after the Vietnam War and it has become best known as a disorder related to people returning from war. However, it is also true of people who have had to endure in any extremely stressful situation from sabre tooth tiger attacks to rape, abuse, or hostage situations.

Take my casual acquaintance with Kaz. We worked together for two years seeing one another one to three times a week in hour-long meetings. After I went to the USSR for two weeks, I described parts of my trip to him, including the restrictive social aspects and the reality that no citizens smiled. I told him I thought Leningrad suffered from a generational PTSD that began with Bloody Sunday in 1905 and reinforced by World War I, the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the early 1920s famines, the Stalin era from 1936 till his death in the 60s, and World War II, including the 900-day blockade of Leningrad. Suring the blockade, almost half the city’s population died. Those who dropped dead from starvation on the streets were left there because no one had the physical energy to move them.

Kaz then told me of growing up in his Soviet country in the 50s and 60s. One morning he and his family awoke to the neighbors being gone. The police had come in the night and taken the father and his son, a sixteen-year-old friend of his, away never to be seen again. A Russian family then moved in. But to Kaz, who was fourteen at the time and deemed too young to work in the mines of a gulag, this was the removal of his friend, and perhaps a warning that the same could happen to him and his family. We talked for a half hour and it was an intense conversation. All I was looking for was some verification that my identifying Leningrad as a city with PTSD was possibly accurate.

A year later, he left the hospital where we worked. I called him a few months later and he had no recollection of our conversation or even of me. There’s a block, I thought. He has told me one of the most personal things of his life, but all recollection of our working relationship or personal interaction is gone. I now had my answer to my judgment about Leningrad.

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