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When Treatment Is Trauma

David J. Morris' 'Evil Hours,' a gripping personal account of PTSD and its treatments, is worthy of conversation for all of us.

Campus News  |  Oct 14, 2016  |  By Jorge Labrador
David J. Morris

Author David J. Morris took this 2007 “war selfie” in Ramadi on what turned out to be his last assignment in Iraq as a war correspondent embedded with 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. “I had been in an IED hit a few days before and was feeling a bit like I was living on borrowed time or like stolen time.”

You don’t often see the word “biography” applied to an account of an illness. But no other word could get the scope of David J. Morris’ The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder quite right.

The 2015 book is an extensive chronicle of Morris’ own PTSD diagnosis and his experience navigating the state of modern trauma treatment. The work will resonate with those entrenched in dealing with the disorder, either directly themselves or as a caregiver, as well as those learning about it in depth for the first time. 

Morris, the inaugural Eleanor Kagi Foundation Fellow in Literature and Medicine at UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute, was a Marine infantry officer in the 1990s. He later worked in Iraq from 2004 to 2007 as an embedded war correspondent for Salon and the Virginia Quarterly Review. He returned to the United States after his third reporting trip to Iraq, following an improvised explosive device (IED) attack on his Humvee. 

Morris writes that trauma “destroys the fabric of time. In normal time, you move from one moment to the next, sunrise to sunset, birth to death. After trauma, you may move in circles, find yourself being sucked backwards into an eddy, or bouncing about like a rubber ball from now to then and back again. August is June, June is December. What time is it? Guess again. In the traumatic universe, the basic laws of matter are suspended: ceiling fans can be helicopters, car exhaust can be mustard gas.”

Morris’ horrifying description of the moments following the detonation are matched only by the newly dreadful, haunting context of the day leading up to it. Traumatic time, he writes, “doesn’t just destroy the flow of the present into the future, it corrodes everything that came before, eating at moments and people from your previous life, until you can’t remember why any of them mattered.”

He recounts his initial PTSD experiences, which manifested about two years after returning to San Diego: sleeplessness, nightmares, and even panic induced by an unexpected portrayal of an IED attack in the film Iron Man.

Morris’ eventual PTSD diagnosis and experiences with health professionals who often did not understand PTSD — or the war — moved him toward writing what would become The Evil Hours. Along with his own story, Morris weaves in the condition’s surprisingly long-spanning history, piecing together the “biography” promised by the book’s title. “There are deep, intriguing connections between literature and medicine,” said Morris in an interview shortly ahead of his residency. “There are signifiers of what we would now call PTSD in the Iliad and Odyssey — that’s going back to the start of Western literature.” 

Despite such references through time, PTSD didn’t enter the public awareness until the Vietnam War. Even as recently as World War I, “shell shocked” veterans were, at best, disregarded; at worst, subjected to electric shock therapy. But following Vietnam, returning soldiers campaigned to have the Veterans Administration (VA) recognize the condition. With recognition, came research. And then, treatments.

However, Morris said, the research — and the state of VA-preferred treatments — leaves much to be desired. Catch-all treatments often disregard the specific experiences of survivors. He also criticizes some research methods used to come up with the VA’s preferred treatments. For instance, a patient who doesn’t react well can be ejected from a study, and thus not counted in research samples, skewing results. 

Prolonged exposure is one of the most widely used forms of therapy. This treatment asks the patient to recount the worst moments of the traumatic incident over and over again. For some, the treatment works by desensitizing individuals to the trauma experienced and reducing their fear and stress. For others, including Morris, the therapy exacerbates a patient’s symptoms. 

Morris doesn’t back any generalized forms of treatment — in fact, he rejects the notion that any one thing could work for everyone — but he does cite some promising new research and studies individuals can explore. A few things that work for him: travel, yoga, and, uniquely, the haka dance, a traditional Maori dance originally performed by warriors. 

The dance “allows people to honor the dead in a dramatic and emotionally resonant manner that provides a kind of closure and marks the passage from the realm of war to the realm of peace,” Morris writes. “In North America, we have no rituals governing the return of warriors from battle, nor do we have any traditions to guide survivors of trauma back into society.”

Morris’ journey is fascinating. And although some of his ultimate thoughts on the core nature of trauma are more philosophical than scientific, they set the tone for a conversation that society needs to have.

More: Watch this short film in which Morris discusses PTSD and its influence on modern filmmaking, and conversely, how film has influenced the perception of the condition.

David J. Morris is the Black Mountain Institute’s Eleanor Kagi Foundation Fellow in Literature and Medicine thanks to a private donation with impeccable timing. “David was interested in residence [at BMI] before this particular fellowship came about,” said BMI Executive Director Joshua Wolf Shenk. “But then as it took form, it was a perfect fit for him and the university. Especially considering where we are with the School of Medicine and the timing of [The Evil Hours]’ release. 

In addition to the BMI, The Eleanor Kagi Foundation, A Lynn M. Bennett Legacy, supports several programs at UNLV including the Military and Veterans Service Center, the Lynn M. Bennett Mental Health Fellowship in the Partnership for Research, Assessment, Counseling, Therapy, and Innovative Clinical Education (the PRACTICE), and the Women’s Research Institute of Nevada.