The vitriolic reaction to Nadia Whittome’s diagnosis shows how far we are from understanding trauma
At the beginning of the pandemic, I reread Mrs Dalloway. I wasn’t the only one – something about the novel seemed to resonate; as Evan Kindley noted in the New Yorker last April, the spectre of Spanish flu hangs subtly but perceptibly over it. I had first read it as a student – probably, on reflection, mere months before a terrible thing would happen to me, during which I expected I would die. This event changed the configuration of my mind and, in myriad unforeseeable ways, my entire life. It also, it turns out, changed the way in which I’d read Mrs Dalloway. Its portrayal of a shell-shocked mind, which I had noted but not fully appreciated before, seems all the more authentic, visceral.
I was not in a war, and neither – to my knowledge – was Nadia Whittome, the Labour MP for Nottingham East, who is taking several weeks off on the recommendation of her doctor, after a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. The military legacy of that mental health condition haunts it; some of the comments about Whittome’s diagnosis have been truly despicable, and they largely have the same timbre: “It’s not like you were in a war, love.” The political blogger Paul “Guido Fawkes” Staines stooped to a new low with a post titled “Nadia’s shell shock shows politicians need life experience”. “Parliament may be daunting though nothing akin to the trenches of the First World War,” it read. Aside from a concerning lack of empathy, the writer has no knowledge of the background to Whittome’s diagnosis, nor the medical expertise to make such claims. But no matter. To a certain kind of man, who has never fought in a war himself, there is no greater glory than armed conflict. (Virginia Woolf knew about hollow glory. In Mrs Dalloway, Septimus “went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square”, and returns numb, suicidal and plagued by memories and hallucinations.)
Military metaphors have been rife throughout the pandemic, which has seen PTSD diagnoses increase, especially among frontline staff. And for good reason: experts on defence mental health are studying the effects of the pandemic, particularly in terms of “moral injury” (perpetrating, failing to prevent or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations, leading to feelings of guilt and shame). Veterans’ groups have offered support to NHS staff. The staff themselves speak of being “on a battlefield”. Dr Julie Highfield – a clinical psychologist who works on an ICU supporting staff and patients – told me that the prevalence of complex or type 2 PTSD among staff (which comes about after repeat trauma, as in cases of child abuse or war) had given her a new understanding of what it must be like to be a veteran.
These conversations, the research and the continued presence of trauma in the media made me think that perhaps we were getting somewhere with regard to the stigma of PTSD. There seemed to be a greater understanding of symptoms and treatments, to the point where books about trauma were in the bestseller charts and people were even making memes about it. After the insurrection at the Capitol, the American congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke powerfully about how she had feared for her life and how, as a sexual assault survivor, trauma compounds trauma.
It felt as though we were moving further away from some of the attitudes that I encountered when I was at my worst, which ranged from “at least you didn’t die” to “in my day we just got on with it” – in the case of the latter, the “Blitz spirit” myth is being dismantled, with researchers finding that “people developed serious psychosomatic conditions, including involuntary soiling and wetting, persistent crying, uncontrollable shaking, headaches and chronic dizziness”. The ground was shifting, finally, or at least it felt that way.