…ceased is the lightning’s flash:His rage dies down like a fierce south-wind.But now, grown sane, new misery is his;For on woes self-wrought he gazes aghast,Wherein no hand but his own had share;And with anguish his soul is afflicted.
Yonder man, while his spirit was diseased,Himself had joy in his own evil plight,Though to us, who were sane, he brought distress.But now, since he has respite from his plague,He with sore grief is utterly cast down,And we likewise, no less than heretofore.Are there not here two woes instead of one?
-from Ajax by Sophocles, c. 440 B.C.E., trans. R.C. Trevelyan
Every week 800 Iraq & Afghanistan veterans are diagnosed with depression and 1000 with PTSD, according to estimates by the VA. Some West-Coast veterans have found help for their struggles through the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation, a nonprofit organization that fosters healing from trauma through creative mentoring. Their program entitled ”Voices of the Veterans, Voices of War” is a series of four-day retreats in which “The deeply moving and revelatory personal stories of veterans are converted into poetry and narratives that help make sense of otherwise bewildering and tragic experiences. The public ceremonies that occur after the retreats allow fellow citizens to become compassionate witnesses to the stories of war and the necessity of creating a conscious and genuine return for veterans.” Mythologist Michael Meade runs the retreats, using mythic stories from ancient Greece, India, Ireland, and other cultures to encourage veterans to explore their own experiences and create their own narratives or poetic works about them.
In another effort to use the arts as healing energy, the Pentagon has funded Theater of War, directed by founder Bryan Doerries, which produces readings of Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes for veterans, service members, and their families. Ajax describes the events leading up to the suicide of the famous Greek warrior, who has returned from war afflicted with grief, violent outbursts, and a despair that affects those close to him. Philoctetes tells the tale of a warrior whose own men abandon him on an island after he begins to exhibit bizarre behavior. There he suffers years of isolation, unable to get the help he needs for a major wound, and when he tries to rejoin his comrades, he is plagued by flashbacks and other PTSD symptoms. From the Theater of War website:
“It has been suggested that ancient Greek drama was a form of storytelling, communal therapy, and ritual reintegration for combat veterans by combat veterans. Sophocles himself was a general. At the time Aeschylus wrote and produced his famous Oresteia, Athens was at war on six fronts. The audiences for whom these plays were performed were undoubtedly comprised of citizen-soldiers. Also, the performers themselves were most likely veterans or cadets. Seen through this lens, ancient Greek drama appears to have been an elaborate ritual aimed at helping combat veterans return to civilian life after deployments during a century that saw 80 years of war.”Depression, PTSD, and other mental illnesses have been part of people’s life struggles from the very beginning of human civilization. Our human stories connect us even across millennia. This Memorial Day weekend we are thinking of the pain of veterans, the suffering of those who feel isolated and alientated by depression and PTSD, and the frustration of all who have dealt with or have to deal with a broken mental health system. There is so much trauma, so much woundedness, in the world; may we be part of its healing, wholeness, and increased health.
UPDATE: Click here to listen to a May 29, 2014 article on NPR featuring Aquila Theatre’s production of Philoctetes, in which the title role is reimagined as a female combat soldier.