Through my past documentaries, Shake Hands with the Devil, and Triage, I have had unique access to high profile individuals who have struggled with PTSD — people like General Roméo Dallaire and Dr. James Orbinski. Both were in Rwanda during the 1994 Genocide. Both witnessed some of the worst of humanity. Both were understandably haunted by the memories.
When I started making Beyond Trauma, I had an ongoing interest in PTSD. But my interest is more than professional. It’s also personal.
Most Canadians have never gone to war or have lived through genocide. But many know people who struggle with traumatic memories, friends and family who often suffer in silence — whether out of guilt or a belief that PTSD somehow only affects the military or humanitarians, or other “exceptional” people.
A few years back, on September 11th, 2010, my own parents were riding on a double decker bus near Syracuse, New York. In the middle of the night, the driver inexplicably went off route, and drove under a railway bridge, tearing the top-level off the bus.
Four people died.
My mom was physically hurt. But eventually she fully recovered.
My father was physically unharmed. But he couldn’t shake the memories.
As my siblings and I watched the unfolding media coverage, many of us had the same surprised reaction. My mom spoke in great detail about the event. My dad sat quietly beside her. My dad has never been quiet before in his life. Ever.
My father is a very interesting, thoughtful man, but of a generation where you rarely admit you’re struggling with a mental illness. For him, personal strength is a defining attribute, and essential as the father of 11 children. “Put your head down and keep your feet moving,” was one of his standard lines. And yet, in this case, that advice didn’t work for him.
“Put your head down and keep your feet moving,” was one of his standard lines. And yet, in this case, that advice didn’t work for him."
My father admires others like Dallaire and Orbinski who talk about their experiences. But for him, their struggles are justified because their experiences were exceptional. For my father, he was just in a traffic accident, however brutal.
Eventually, he did seek treatment, and his PTSD symptoms subsided.
For me, exploring the science of PTSD and profiling how different people cope with the disorder was motivated by my father, and people like him. Part of the healing process for many is finally realizing that PTSD affects not just the military, and is not a mark of weakness. Sometimes, in fact, the true measure of strength is admitting you need help.