Dying To Live

My personal PTSD experience

by Irving Bronsky

Life can be defined as the process of getting there: The movement of a body from one place to another in a given time, under its own power. For as long as I can remember I have had a powerful drive for moving towards challenge and adventure. But I almost didn't make it into this life, barely being the last born. My mother had three children in the first four years of marriage and when she got pregnant with me before the end of the fourth year, she wanted to abort me. She was stuck in an unhappy relationship with my father. She was talked out of jumping off a flight of six steps by a neighbor, the woman who had introduced my parents to each other four years before.

This, then, is my background: conceived in a bed of conflict and starting life as an unwanted child.

"Dying to live," was one of the expressions I often used to describe my zest for life. My mother was fond of using a negative variation of this phrase, a Yiddish exclamation which expressed her distress or excitement: "Oy, ich shtarb nisht." (Oh, I'm not dying.) I have always been a zealous and fanatic searcher for getting there, wherever there was. I penetrated new spaces and places, motivated by a rich imagination and fuelled by a deep curiosity. I had some peak experiences, and plumbed the depths of suffering. On one fateful occasion I was this close to death, and it changed my life forever. I got PTSD. Here's what happened.

My mother had her usual blind faith in me that day, when she sent me downstairs to play, her three year old "baby." She was too busy to be with me because she had no help with the innumerable household chores. My father never helped in caring for the four of us children: my brother Herby was eight years old, Nettie, seven, and Sid was five. We had her approval to roam our block, which included the park on the other side of the street. Her only condition for our unsupervised play was that we stay near enough to our tenement so that she could maintain visual contact with us from the fourth floor, front room window.

Mama didn't consider it dangerous for me to cross Fulton avenue, the block we lived on, not in the late 1920's. Most of the traffic on it consisted of horse-pulled wagons, slow moving trucks and the occasional transient car. I crossed and recrossed Fulton avenue with complete confidence.

That hot spring afternoon in 1928 Sid and I were standing in the kitchen watching my mother begin preparations for the supper meal. "C'mon Itch," he said to me, "let's go to the park and make mudpies". Momma nodded her agreement, adding, "Go ahead, Itchaleh, go have a good time. Just be careful, the two of you? Okay?"

Sid picked up an empty quart milk bottle from the floor next to the icebox and filled it with water, then hurriedly left with me trailing behind. We ran quickly downstairs and out of the building, stopping for a moment on the top of the stoop. My friend Natie was sitting on the top step.

He was four years old and my best friend. I liked him a lot because he was so strong, quiet and he had such a nice face. I asked him to join us in making mudpies and he nodded his agreement, saying, "Sure. Yeah. C'mon." Sid skipped down the steps with Natie and I following close behind. We ran across the street, eager to get started. At the top of an earthy embankment bordering the sidewalk we sat down to dig. In no time at all we had used up the water and Natie suggested that I take the bottle and get some more. I picked up the milk bottle and moved speedily down the little hill, the momentum kept me running across the sidewalk and into the street.

An insurance agent's speeding touring car hit me head on. The force of the impact threw me into the air and I landed on my head, fracturing my skull. I was taken to Fordham hospital in the North Bronx where I hovered between life and death for three days. One of the doctors told my parents that even if I did survive, I might have permanent brain damage.

The only memory of my month long hospitalization is that I was in a white crib, with thin, vertical, iron bars on the side of the bed away from the wall. There was a window high above my bed with sunlight streaming through. Every time I have this memory I experience a tiny, flickering, sinking feeling in my chest.

Much later in my life I learned that the doctors told me to lie still and not to move or else I would die. I was strapped down to the bed and immobilized for the first two weeks of my hospitalization. Strapping me was an additional trauma which added to my pain, suffering and helplessness.

No one in my family continuously sat by my side, nor did they visit me every day. I physically healed but there were the beginnings of psychological and emotional wounds that would persist for many years. In the years following "the accident," (the family label for the trauma), there grew in me the feeling that I was unwanted. Everyone in the family, except for my father, would criticize or make fun of me by calling me "crazy." It was only after I had returned from service in World War II that they stopped their occasional taunts: "Sure. What do you expect? The accident made him crazy." Or, "We're going to call an ambulance to take you to the nut house at Bellevue Hospital."

There is a humorous anecdote associated with my accident. When my brother Sid saw what happened to me, he ran upstairs to tell Mama. He came breathlessly into the kitchen and said to her, "Don't get scared Ma, but Itchy just got killed."

There was nothing funny about the nightmares I've had since the accident. The first one I remember occurred not long after I had returned from the hospital. I dreamt that I was lying prone on the roof edge of the five story tenement we lived in. Peering over the edge, and not being frightened, I was looking down at Fulton avenue. I wanted to go downstairs to play on the sidewalk, or in Crotona Park on the other side of the street, but I didn't know how.

Looking behind me, I saw a witch flying on a broomstick and descending in my direction. As she came closer and lower, I became more frightened. Her strange black flowing garment and high, cone-shaped black hat, increased my fears. When she was almost on me I panicked and fell over the edge. I made jerking and convulsive movements in a vain effort to save myself.

I awakened with a loud banging noise exploding around me, sitting on the floor next to my bed. I began crying for Mama as I scrambled clumsily to my feet. It was hot and dark in the back bedroom where I slept in the same bed with Sid. Crying louder and continuing to call for Mama, I groped blindly in the bed, hoping to find my brother there. He wasn't, and there was no answer to my pleas for help. I became more frantic and rushed out of my room looking for someone, anyone. I was alone in the darkened apartment.

I struggled to open the heavy, metal-covered apartment door and rushed out onto the lit landing of the fourth floor. Dressed in my underwear, I scrambled down the long flights of stairs and out the glass-panelled front doors onto the stoop. I stood there sobbing and gasping, wildly looking around for Mama. Then I saw my family across the street, sitting on a park bench, "getting some air," (as I later found out), on this stifling summer night. Mama was wearing a white dress and was clearly outlined as she stood in front of the seated family, with the darkened park in the background. "Mama," I screamed, and rushed headlong across the street, unaware that I was crossing the same spot where a month before I had been run over. She turned and began to move towards me but I was already on her side, and then nestled safely into her deep, soft protective embrace.

I became a problematic child. I bit my nails and cuticles so badly I sometimes drew blood. I fought frequently with Sid, about anything and everything, never winning but never giving up. He and I explored our neighborhood's alleys, backyards and cellars, looking for adventure and often came home late. One time he took me out of our neighborhood to the "Five and Ten" and we were caught stealing. We were severely scolded and threatened with being sent "Up the river," (Sing Sing), but we were released after being held for what seemed a long time. On one occasion Sid took me to see how they were building the subway on the Grand Concourse, (about a mile from our block.) We stayed away for about six hours and when we came back we found that search parties went out to look for us. He was seven years old and I was five.

In school, I was restless, undisciplined, and got bad marks in "conduct." (The failing D mark was circled in red.) From time to time my mother was called to the assistant principal's office because of my unruly school behavior. In high school I was still undisciplined and my sister Nettie would come to speak with the school authorities. In my relationship to my peers I had the reputation for being aggressive and I was sometimes called "Crazy Itchy." (Itchy was my nickname, derived from Itzchak, my Yiddish/Hebrew name.) I was often a clown, a cry-baby, super-sensitive to real and imagined injustices. I could be insulting, revengeful, and always imposed my need for attention on those around me.

World War II saved my life.

Because of my low self-esteem and aggressiveness, by the time I was eighteen years old I was on a crash course with serious mental illness, a fatal accident or criminal behavior.

I was a radio operator in the Army Air Corps for almost three years, the last two of them in the Central Pacific. When I was demobilized, I was already into transforming my life: I had begun acquiring social skills which eventually led me to become a mature person, successful husband, father and professional. How did I make this turnaround? I began to function in a social context where the people didn't see me as disturbed or crazy. I was treated respectfully and given the opportunity to prove myself in my work. I met and became friends with a number of intelligent, intellectual and educated people. Gradually, I began to believe in myself, rediscovering the positive aspects of my personality.

My social skills improved so much that I began to give advice to others. One of my first "clients" was Angelo, a thirty year old married man from Cleveland, who was a bank teller in civilian life. A gentle, quiet person, he surprised me one night in the mess tent when we were eating our midnight supper, prior to starting the graveyard shift. We were on the island of Eniwetok in the Central Pacific, eating spam and cheese sandwiches. With a hint of tears in his eyes he began to tell me about his problems with his wife, who had written him a "Dear John" letter, saying she wanted to divorce him. I don't remember the advice I gave him but he seemed very satisfied. I'll never forget that when he shook my hand at the end of our conversation, I noticed that the last joint on the little finger of his right hand was missing. Eniwetok was a small island and there wasn't much to do with my free time except sunning and swimming. I found a small library and took out books by authors like Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway and the poet Walt Whitman. I read and reread them. I realized that being educated was vital for turning my life around and gradually I realized that I had the need to help people. The choice of professions was simple: either I was going to be a lawyer or medical doctor.

At four in the morning one midnight shift I made my choice. I had a break and went outside to get some air and found myself standing in the bright light of a full moon, in front of the Quonset hut field hospital which was recently set up near the radio station. It was filled with the newly wounded flown back from the recent invasion of Guam.

The same curiosity that impelled me to search down alleys and backyards, impelled me to go into the hospital. The ward was dimly lit and there were no medics around. The beds were jammed next to each other, filled with the wounded. They were covered by a variety of bandages and many of them were hooked up to infusions and other kinds of tubing. The cacophony of grunts, groans, snores and moaning was loud and I was amazed that most of the wounded were sleeping. I walked slowly down the aisle, excited, and thrilled. When I came to the end of the ward, I stopped in front of the last bed on the right.

The soldier's chest was bandaged and in the middle of it there was a large bloodstain. From the middle of this a tube came out, ending in a large bottle hung at the side of the bed. He was making wheezing and croaking noises with every breath. I stood for a moment at the foot of his bed, fascinated, but shaking my head as if to say "No," to my helplessness. I turned and walked out. I knew that my life goal was to be a doctor.

I stepped out into the cool, fresh air of the moonlit night and saw the medic walking quickly towards me. He knew I had just come out of the hospital but he didn't say a word to me. He was carrying an armload of small bottles and I held the screen door open for him. He disappeared inside and I quietly closed the door behind him. But I had opened the door to my future.

Not long after that I discovered Freud and read his book, The Interpretation of Dreams. I was excited by what I read, and reread, though I only understood part of it. But my heart knew and the decision to be a psychiatrist rose spontaneously from this heart-felt reaction.

One of my new friends had loaned me the book. He was four years older than me, and was from the Boston area. His family was in banking. He had been a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard when he was drafted. We liked each other and became good friends. I loved his brains and culture and he

loved my street smarts and love of adventure.

My friend helped me to understand the importance of education and I sensed that it would also help me to become a mensch, a mature person. I was impatient to get started on my new career, (I was already nineteen years old), and with my friend's help and encouragement I wrote to Harvard. I applied for admission into their pre-medical program when the war will be over.

The response came as a form letter, polite, firm, rejecting. I wrote a bitter reply, stating, "If my name had been Irving Bronsky III, (the third), then I would have been accepted." I got a personal letter from the dean of admissions regretting the misunderstanding but still rejecting my request for acceptance.

The second vital step in my rehabilitation came when I met my wife Riva, some ten years later. I was a senior medical student at the university of Geneva, Switzerland in 1955, when I came to Israel for the first time. I worked for six weeks in a Tel Aviv hospital and then I went to Haifa to board ship for the trip to Europe. In the customs shed I noticed a pretty young woman, zaftig, (full-bodied), deeply tanned, with a thick braid of copper-tinted brown hair halfway down her back. She was crying and hugging her parents, obviously a separation scene. The next time I saw her was on the prow of the ship as it was leaving the port.

We began to talk and exchange information about each other growing increasingly excited by the coincidences. I was a medical student and she was a registered nurse. I was returning to Geneva to the obstetrics department to deliver five babies, and she was going to Geneva, to the same department, for a post-graduate course in pre-matures. When I asked her where she was going to stay, she mentioned the nurse's residence, which was one block away from where I lived with a Swiss family.

Beshert, (Fate).

The following year we were married and we have been living together, (mostly happily), for forty years.

We had five children. Now we have four. Our first-born son Yussie was seventeen years old when he got leukemia and in three months he was dead.

He looked strikingly similar to me, with a round face, bright hazel eyes, curly black hair, chubby cheeks, full lips and a slightly cleft chin. He was solidly built, almost six foot tall and weighed two hundred pounds. He was physically very strong, well co-ordinated, a good athlete and a natural leader. Because we looked so much alike, occasionally I was identified as Yussie's father by people who knew him but not me. "Aren't you Yussie's father? You look so much like him." When Yussie was four years old we were living in a garden apartment in Queens, New York. One morning I was walking to my car which was parked in the street outside of our court. Yussie was playing in the court with a friend and when he saw me leaving for work, he ran over to kiss me good-bye. When I got to my car a neighbor asked me if I saw what had just happened and I said I didn't know what he was referring to. He said that after we had kissed good-bye Yussie had quietly walked behind me, perfectly imitating my walk. He was an average student and did not study very much, rationalizing his casual attitude by saying that he was only doing what I had done when I was his age. He knew that I did poorly in high school and matured late. Since he was a child he had made up his mind that he was going to be a medical doctor and psychiatrist, "Just like Abba," (papa).

He had proven leadership ability among his peers and was socially very active in his high school. He was on the student council which regularly met with school authorities. There was a nation-wide program of peer support for the high school students from Kiryat Shmona, a town on the Lebanese border under constant terrorist attacks. He was the leader of a group of students from his school who went there, as a gesture of support.

He had organized and led a five man rock group, writing music and being the lead singer. The group had made several appearances at school dances and were getting offers for private parties when he got sick. (The noise of the rehearsals in our home occasionally made me angry and critical, and once in a while, I simply left home until the practice bedlam was over).

He was following in my footsteps, and I gave him my full approval. Occasionally I would chide him for not studying enough but my heart wasn't in it. One of my fantasies, which I frequently indulged in, was that he was going to be even better than I am.

And then...

From: Irving Bronsky irving@netvision.net.il


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