PTSD throughout history: to feed your inner nerd
Updated: Aug 19, 2021
At this point in time, 3.5% of the United States population lives with a PTSD diagnosis. As tragic as that statistic is, it's nothing new. PTSD has been a problem since the dawn of time, in fact.
Some of the earliest records of PTSD come from sources out of Mesopotamia, ancient Greece, and the Bible. Let's start with Gilgamesh, shall we?
The legendary Sumerian warrior king, Gilgamesh, was a cool guy. He conversed with the gods, fought divine opponents, and went on epic adventures. Gilgamesh had a best friend named Enkidu, whose companionship was a central part of the story. They became friends after they fought in the streets of a city called Uruk, the place Gilgamesh ruled over, and found a mutual respect at each other's fortitude. It was the ultimate friendship until the duo defeated a bull sent by the gods to kill them, angering the gods further, who then proceeded to kill Enkidu out of spite. Mesopotamian gods were kind of jerks. One of the gods, Nergal, even attacked Babylon out of sheer boredom, but that's a different story for another time. The spirit of Enkidu later came to Gilgamesh to tell him about the unpleasant conditions of the Underworld. The far-from-jazzed Gilgamesh began to panic at the news. The death of his friend and the two-star review of the Underworld scared him into a quest to find the secret of immortality. As the story progressed, the intense stress caused him to suffer flashbacks of Enkidu's death and frequent intrusive thoughts. His refusal to accept his own mortality was even explicitly stated during his journey to find Utnapishtim, an immortal survivor of the Great Flood. No matter how heroically Gilgamesh portrayed himself, he still couldn't move on from what he witnessed in combat and suffered from crippling death anxiety.
Let's talk about our next PTSD victim. He was an Athenian soldier who fought at the Battle of Marathon. Keep in mind that combat back then was completely different. Back in those days, you had to be at COVID contraction distance if you wanted to kill your enemy. During the battle, the Greeks slew 6,400 men and lost 192, according to Herodotus. Yeah, I thought those numbers were crazy, too. Herodotus went on to tell of Epizelus, a soldier who was physically unharmed yet was unable to see. Epizelus was clearly suffering with hysterical blindness, a symptom of something called "conversion disorder." Conversion disorder is dissociative sensory loss or other neurological issues without an organic cause, which is triggered by traumatic stress.
And finally, King Saul, the first ruler of ancient Israel. He was no stranger to combat. As his life and the wars went on, it is said God's presence had left him and was replaced by an evil spirit. So, he essentially had anxiety and depression. Those around him said he had become a different man and was unable to sleep. The only thing that brought him comfort was David's playing of the lyre, but that was short-lived. A paranoid veteran, he was always armed, even during David's performances. He went into a rage one fateful lyre recital, which I can only speculate was a dissociative episode, and tried sticking David with a spear. David escaped and Saul hounded after him, resulting in yet another war. Eventually, Saul lost everything to the battlefield, including his sons, his sanity, and his will to live. Unable to go on, the physically and mentally wounded king fell on his own sword, something that isn't uncommon for veterans.
And there you have it. Not even the greatest warriors of history were immune from the invisible wounds of combat. Of course, the names, the nature of battle, and the societal and clinical views on it have changed throughout the millennia, but the scars have always been the same. At the end of the day, the legends of the past weren't weak or different because of their flaws, nor were they godly heroes despite them. They were just human beings like the rest of us.