(49) Sylvester Who?

Molly, the service dog

Golly, Miss Molly

A blog about a service dog and her veteran with PTSD

(Supporting the veteran and the family caregiver)

Word Association

I enjoy playing word association games with my husband. Tonight, he does not want to play.

“What do you first think of when I say the name, ‘Sylvester?’” I stand uninvited between him and the television.

“Who is Sylvester? I don’t know any Sylvester.” He looks around me with his earphones on to watch a sword-wielding scene on television. He gives up. “Okay. Sylvester the cat.”

Seriously? I try to keep disappointment from creeping into my voice. “Hmm.”

“What did you expect? Who do you think of?” He takes off his earphones in surrender.

“Stallone. You know, the guy who played in the Rambo and Terminator movies.”

William shakes his head. “No, Demolition Man, your former governor buddy played in Terminator. Sylvester Stallone starred in the Rambo movies.”

“Oh, the ones with the boxing?”

His crumpled face tells me I am not making the mental connections.

“Rambo, dear, the movies about Vietnam.”

“Yes, the movies I don’t let you watch.”

“I still like Sylvester the cat better.” He puts his earphones back on his head and resumes his sword-wielding television show.

 Can PTSD Symptoms Be Triggered By Television?

An article on the National Center for PTSD website, entitled, “Media Coverage of Traumatic Events: Research on Effects,” addresses the connection between violence on television and the impact on the veteran and children. The events of violence talked about in the article stem from actual events, including 911 and the Oklahoma City bombing. In most cases, for veterans and their children, the greater the number of hours watching these events on television, the greater the stress response is on them. Researchers discovered that viewing these events triggered PTSD symptoms in both groups.

I found early in my marriage that Vietnam War movies triggered William’s symptoms, causing nightmares, hallucinations, and depression. Consequently, I banned not only Vietnam War movies from our home but every movie with violence, war, or filthy language. The ban lasted about three hours. Over the years, however, we negotiated the next ban. Looney Tunes cartoons were in. Rambo was out. Actually, at this point, our agreement was he would use earphones so I do not have to hear the death-murder-kill sounds on television. He voluntarily agreed not to watch the Vietnam War movies.

Over the years, I’ve learned that William handles war movies as long as they are not about Vietnam. Since he agreed to forgo movies and documentaries on Vietnam, he has had no adverse reactions to other war movies. He enjoys World War II movies and watches documentaries about the war on terrorism without negative consequences. He even gets into rough and tumble games of the National Hockey League but finds pro-basketball much too violent.

Figuring out my husband’s PTSD triggers took me close to a decade. For him, participation in a VA-sponsored PTSD program helped him learn the triggers and ways to either avoid them or rethink the trigger and respond differently (cognitive behavioral therapy). This journey moves at a snail’s pace but is well worth the time and effort.

Identifying PTSD Triggers

The National Center for PTSD offers a link to a program called After Deployment. The website provides a section on Post Traumatic Stress, which includes a pdf file for identifying triggers. You or your veteran might find this worksheet and website helpful.

In the article I mentioned above, it suggested that as parents we likely do not expose our children to violent or stressful television programs intentionally. Unfortunately, just like growing up in a home with PTSD, our children are exposed and often suffer because of it—all the more reason for understanding PTSD triggers and working to change how we respond to those triggers.

A Service Dog’s Triggers

The same applies to Miss Molly. When my husband and I argue or when he watches a violent television show, Miss Molly heads for the closet. She’s a gentle soul and cannot handle the stress of unhappiness in the house.

Now, it’s time for Miss Molly to play the word association game? What do you first think of when I say, “Sylvester?” Miss Molly licks her chops and says, “Meow.” Am I the only female in this house who thinks of Sylvester Stallone?

Post your Comments:

Have you or your veteran spouse discussed PTSD triggers? Was the discussion helpful? Please comment below.  

About the blogger

Dr. Penelope “Penny” Culbreth-Graft is a retired city manager and graduate professor. She lives with her disabled Vietnam Veteran husband, William, and his service dog, Molly, on Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. She writes, paints, cares for her husband, and spends time with her grandchildren.