Leonard Zwelling

One thing I realized as I grew older and acquired more maladies was that for all of the studying I did in medical school and all the clinical experience I gained in training, I never really understood what it meant to be sick until I got sick myself. All of those many sleepless nights on Osler Ward at Duke as an intern didn’t really prepare me for actually being in a hospital bed with coronary artery disease, a ruptured disc, an abdominal hernia, or a pulmonary embolus. Even the many sessions in psychiatry training did not prepare me for being clinically depressed and actually feeling the worst feeling of all. No feeling mixed with blackness. I say all of this because there are two other very prevalent conditions of which I was acutely aware, but not sufficiently sensitive while I was actually a doctor.

The first is addiction. There may be no more serious scourge on America than the combination of opiate dependency, alcoholism and other drug addictions, yet despite having treated many people with these afflictions, it wasn’t until horse therapy (a long story in my coming novel) got me to realize that I was addicted to academic performance and accolades. (I call it addiction to Gold Stars or achievaholism). Then I truly got how this addiction was driving my behavior in ways that were not at all good for me or anyone around me.

This week, I am beginning to understand PTSD.

Throughout the relatively brief period of no power or water that I personally faced, I couldn’t understand why I was so tired—exhausted even—and permanently anxious waiting for the next light to flicker and the power to go out again. I will yet find out whether my pipes held for another freezing night in Houston (so far, so good). I have a knot in the pit of my gut, yet with angst and fury mixed in. Yet this “trauma” I have lived is nothing compared with that experienced by people in battle or inmates incarcerated in prison or people deprived of their basic needs and rights. Now I realize that traumatic experience in the world translates into physical malfunction. I lost five pounds in three days doing no exercise. Just worrying. I gained a brief (and unwelcome) glimpse into the shock that follows trauma in the world. It was everywhere after Hurricane Harvey and after Tropical Storm Allison as well and it will be apparent again after this weather passes. Combine the freeze and power loss with the covid crisis and I will be shocked if the amount of mental illness in Houston and the country doesn’t double. I feel it myself and my trauma was a blip.

What makes the latest trauma so frustrating is that it was so unnecessary and that those responsible will never be brought to justice for the pain and suffering they inflicted on their fellow Texans simply by being incompetent at their jobs. There was a professor from U of H who predicted this ten years ago. This was a foreseeable and avoidable trauma to the system of the people of Texas and those in charge ought to be held accountable.

Governor Abbott, like his two predecessors, has national aspirations. This latest fiasco should preclude his ever running for any other office again, the one he currently has or even higher offices. The same is true of the Texas State Legislature that watched this all transpire over years and did nothing.

My little insight into the nature of PTSD is nothing compared with the real thing. Neither was my treatable depression, operable coronary disease and herniated discs the worst they could have been. But with each personal encounter comes new wisdom. It’s a hell of a price to pay for wisdom. If there had only been a way to instill that in me fifty years ago, my career might have taken a different path. I might have stayed a real doctor and not gravitated to test tubes and lab data and then administration.

Regardless, this past year has been horrendous for the people of Houston. Hell first in 2020. Then in 2021 Hell froze over. We are all traumatized. Mayor Turner and County Judge Hidalgo have done incredible jobs keeping the city and county going in hard times. We are lucky to have them. I will get over my little brush with empathy for the traumatized. I got over most of the other stuff, too, but each episode changes you. I don’t know if it makes you better. It does make you stronger and it certainly makes you more empathetic. That part can’t be bad. I don’t want to get over the trauma completely.

6 thoughts on “PTSD”

  1. Great column! “Then Hell froze over”. I empathize after no power for four freezing days, and no water for six.
    I also recall you said, “we treat mental health with a sledge hammer, not a scalpel.”
    Look forward to more about the aftermath of this very Texas nightmare.
    Be well and be warm.

  2. Nobody is minding the store. I left Houston and Texas in 2015 and won’t look back. As Jeff Foxworthy says….You can’t fix stupid!

      1. Moved to Hot Springs Village Arkansas in 2015. No floods ( high elevation), no hurricanes, less people! Less DRAMA.
        Got down to minus six degrees during the cold snap…no problems.
        As a former Long Islander, 40 year Houstonian, and M. D. Anderson retiree, I voted with my feet.
        Sure there are things I miss about Houston. Arkansas isn’t exactly the cultural hubbub of the US but where I am it is quiet, clean, safe, and cheap to live. We have friends and relatives to visit in Houston which is about eight hours away. Houston was….not Houston is!

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