Drinking coffee in Kyiv, my friend the physical therapist says we all have PTSD. I’ve never been a fan of diagnoses. This is both a gift and a fault.
It’s warm at home and the lights are on. No words can describe how tired I am.
On Monday I met a soldier who had shrapnel lodged in many parts of his body for a couple months while he was a prisoner of war. They were surgically removed only after he returned to Ukraine in the fall.
Sitting in a cafe I marvel at this tall young man, still underweight, with bright intelligent eyes. He came in on his own two legs; it’s the third day he’s walking unassisted. After the explosion that filled his body with shards of metal and glass he could only move his head.
“What did you do to get from that state to this?” I ask in wonder, watching his hands and fingers move lightly, same as anybody else’s.
We talk about how the body naturally repels foreign objects; small pieces of metal or glass would gradually migrate toward the surface of his skin. “And you pulled them out with your fingers?” Yes, he says, and smiles.
My grandmother is missing the nail on one of her big toes—the result of an infection that appeared just after the war. She was moving westward through Germany to avoid Soviet forced repatriation, sleeping in fields and dirty vacated barracks, eating old potatoes or whatever her band of young traveling companions could scavenge. It was becoming too painful to walk when she happened upon a doctor who had the instruments to remove the infected part of her toe.
Growing up in the US, I was hungry for stories from the war. I yearned to understand what it was like, what happened there. What did people go through that afterward they were so reluctant to talk about? All they told me—with utter conviction—was, “May you never have to see what I did.”
There is a threshold between comfortable, clean, civilized life and the brutality of war. From the vantage point of the former, it may seem solid, even permanent. Anyone who has crossed it by chance knows that it can be shattered in an instant.
I remember the woman from Mariupol who agreed to be interviewed for French television in March, just after arriving at the train station in Lviv. Her willingness to talk and her insistence hinted that she was well off. Hanna was a lawyer, now bound for Bali after spending three weeks in a dark basement as her city was bombed relentlessly by the russians. Deprived of light, they were afraid they would go blind. She had a message for the Red Cross and every international body: “Use your influence to get people out of Mariupol. These people want to live!”
Tens of thousands of Mariupol’s residents have died. Those that remain in the city are wintering in apartments whose shattered windows are covered in flimsy plastic. The occupying russian forces are renovating the Drama Theater that they bombed in the spring, killing hundreds who were sheltering inside. We will never know exactly how many people died in the city or what they experienced before their untimely deaths.
Thursday morning I took a cab to a doctor’s appointment, chatting excitedly with everyone I met, we were all a bit on edge following russia’s missile attack. By afternoon I’ve already forgotten about the four explosions I heard in the morning.
When the body is constantly at the mercy of the environment, whether this means protecting yourself from russian strikes or catching the light to have a warm shower, you enter a state of being more agitated and alert, quick to speak and act, impatient to the dull softness that is the privilege of living in a country protected by a nuclear arsenal.
This kind of physical knowledge changes you, even if you still remember how to act civilized. You might blend right in but nobody knows where you’ve been and even if you try to say it in words they understand they remain on that side of the wall and your excruciating job is to be a translator.
One gets used to living in inconsistency, to not being able to depend on anything or anybody. I feel changes in temperature, tiredness, anger. Not much else. But if the soldier I met could recover his movement enough to step onto the fast-moving escalator of the Kyiv metro, I’m sure I’ll regain the ability to feel when it becomes relevant again.
A person flees from a war zone dirty, smelly, terrified. And then you wash them, feed them, give them a clean, warm place to sleep. And they still have the war with them. Everything they lived through.
A woman at a weekly support group for IDPs shares: “I don’t like that I hate. I don’t like that they have made us hate.”
When my grandparents despised the russians it wasn’t through prejudice. It was a judgment based on experience.
Is the wish to permanently secure the wall protecting the sheltered life of civilization from the horrors of war a desire to remain innocent? To protect oneself from sharing the hardships that others have endured? To shield oneself from one’s own darkness and ugliness?
Perhaps our great error (or crime)—is succumbing to the illusion that the civilized world can be contained, sealing off the cracks through which people could slip out to scout the dangerous unruly territories beyond and return, taking it all in so that there is no longer an outside. And so the war starts to happen here, on the territory of the civilized world.
It’s been a year of great changes. As we move into the next, I wish you vibrant health, radiant love, spaciousness within and the courage to meet every new challenge with your own great power!
PS I’ve had the pleasure of working with many bright, tireless and joyful people over this past year. If you want to support Ukraine’s fight to stop russian terrorist expansion, here are my three favorite organizations:
Heroes Ukraine — building drones specially designed for Ukraine’s defense: https://heroesukraine.org/en/donate/
Community Self-Help — supporting the recovery and reintegration of veterans into civilan life (among other things): https://communityselfhelp.org/en/critical-needs
Ukrainian Patriot — providing a variety of humanitarian aid to people and communities living in areas battered by the war: https://ukrainianpatriot.org/patron/
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Regarding PTSD: I've been guilty of broadly assuming that Ukraine as a whole will face some level of PTSD when this atrocity is over. Your opinion on the matter is humbling, however. Ukrainians have shown inconceivable strength and resolve in living and fighting through this immoral war. Inconceivable to this Westerner at least. This is not familiar territory for society in America. Our fight for independence is literally ancient history. Yes, we have our own tragedies over here and they cannot be overlooked but we've never been tested on a level that Ukraine is facing.
There's strength in your country's history. That strength seems to be deeply inherent in your culture. Maybe that's the difference in how Ukraine will deal with the aftermath. Maybe the physical rebuilding of the nation will help to heal the unseen wounds in your souls.
I do hope that the knowledge and resources are widely available for those whose trauma lingers after crossing the finish line to peace and freedom. It's the least that can be done for such courageous defenders of freedom and democracy.
Thank you for sharing your story. It means a lot.
I'm thinking of you and all Ukrainians during this time. Thank you for telling us your stories. It helps us remember our humanity, and helps me not to take my current comfortable life for granted.