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The Hero’s Journey: A Narrative Model For the Treatment of PTSD

Author: William Jamaal Fort

“A Hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself." —Joseph Campbell

As a professor in comparative mythology and comparative religion at Sarah Lawrence College, Joseph Campbell involved his students in the rigorous exploration of historical myths. Campbell had spent years plumbing the depths of mythological stories, and in those years he discovered the common threads that created the intricate tapestry of world culture.

His holistic view of mythology allowed him to reveal the very real connections between resurrection stories, stories of virgin births, and stories of great heroes from around the globe. Every type of mythical story from Arthurian myths to “Star Wars” were examined in great detail and all were perfectly illuminated by Campbell with his great wisdom, warmth and authority.

I first encountered Campbell’s work in 1988 on the PBS series, “The Power of Myth” hosted by Bill Moyers. As soon as Campbell spoke, I was completely mesmerized. By the end of the series, I was convinced that I had been given a completely new understanding of life. I no longer viewed these historical myths and legends as mere fairy tales from antiquity; I now perceived them as powerful tools for shaping cultures, nations, and people. I carried these new understandings with me throughout my life and professional career as an artist and filmmaker. In Hollywood, I learned so much more about the tools and techniques necessary for engaging audiences on a deep emotional level, and how to tell stories that were transformative in nature. It was during this time that I realized that Campbell’s model for The Hero’s Journey or “The Monomyth” was absolutely correct.

In Campbell’s view, the Monomyth is a model for all human stories in which a human is called to adventure, propelled through crisis and chaos, and eventually transformed in a powerful way and brings his or her transformative discoveries back to the ordinary world to serve humankind. The details and circumstances may change for each individual, but the story remains the same. It is a circular narrative that ends where it begins… and then begins again giving the hero multiple opportunities to be challenged, to overcome, and to transform.

As I continued to explore various narrative forms and how they could be expressed through different media, I soon discovered that not only could psychological and emotional change be effected by narrative, but in many cases physiological change as well. By examining the myriad of empirical data collected by the scientific community, it soon became apparent to me that narrative (and more particularly our personal narratives) can have a profound effect on our health and well-being. This was a revelation. So with Joseph Campbell’s model of the Monomyth etched onto my psyche, I became determined to find a way to apply his principles in the real world. My adventures in Hollywood were soon to be at an end, but I would come to use all of the skills I had acquired there in the areas of human development and human performance.

In my work as a human performance trainer, I worked with all types of individuals many who have suffered severe trauma in various forms. In 2010, I began working on a pro bono basis with a number of veterans who had just recently returned to civilian life. Each of the men and women that I worked with had seen combat. Each of them told me stories of the chaos, devastation, and trauma of war. The stories they told were vivid and horrifying. I could see each one of them reliving the emotional trauma as they spoke. Each one of them had been diagnosed with PTSD. Yet in the end, all of them had only one urgent desire: to be of service to their fellow veterans.

After months of listening to similar stories, I finally had my Eureka moment. What I discovered was this; We had taught these young men and women how to go to war?—?but we had not taught them how to come home...

Imagine this if you will:

You are watching a movie in which a young man is called to serve his country. He answers the call and is trained (mentored) in the ways of war. He is given new skills and new tools to assist him on this adventure. He is thrust into the ordeal of combat in a non-ordinary world that bares little resemblance to the world from which he came. He experiences the horrors of war and his only comfort comes from those serving with him, but of course they too are trapped in the same dark narrative. At the apex of the conflict and in the heat of battle, this young man suddenly and inexplicably finds himself back in his boyhood home surrounded by his loved ones. Bewildered and scared, the young man looks around the table as his family and friends share a meal completely unaware of his ordeal… The End.

For a movie viewing audience this would be jarring and confusing. The emotional incongruity might even cause some viewers actual physical discomfort. What just happened? Had part of the film been destroyed? Did the projectionist misplace a reel? Where is the resolution? Where is the redemption?

Now imagine this is the young man’s real life?—?or your’s. What would be considered jarring or uncomfortable to a movie viewer would be absolutely catastrophic to an individual in real circumstances. An existential crisis of enormous proportions would be the result. To a returning veteran, this could result in what has been called “the existential attitude” which is characterized as a sense of disorientation, or disassociation, confusion, and dread in the face of an apparently meaningless and absurd world.

Although approaches like exposure therapy have been proven effective in desensitizing a soldier to the more bombastic aspects of war, they are useless when treating individuals who possess a shattered narrative. We all live and die by our stories. Our worldview and our vision of who we are in it are essential to maintaining our mental health.

In Campbell’s view, (as in film) the cycle must be completed and redemption assured. The major difference in the two is that the Monomyth can be repeated throughout life constantly providing more opportunities for growth. In the case of our veterans, it is essential that they be taught how to process and synthesize the experiences of war into something useful that can be of service to humankind. The completion of that final act of resolution can provide balance and meaning to the lives of veterans and add a new and vital component to their recovery and reintegration into civilian life. So you might ask yourself, “How can an individual create meaning from such devastating circumstances?”

In my own work in human performance, I have been developing a program that helps veterans get the training they need to become adjunct counselors, therapists, and trainers to the many mental health professionals currently working with veterans. The program satisfies their desire to be of service to their fellow veterans while allowing them to heal throughout the process.

Completing the cycle means turning warriors into healers. Armed now with a new identity, these brave men and women can play an active role in their healing. In the years since his death, many individuals have built on the work of Joseph Campbell. His insights into the human condition have proved invaluable and will for generations to come. Below is my humble addition to his work. Please share it with a veteran in need.

William Jamaal Fort is the CEO/CIO of Flowlab, Inc., a Los Angeles based human performance and virtual reality development company.


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