Every month or so, I see a patient called Fraser in my primary care clinic, a soldier who was deployed in Afghanistan. Fifteen years after coming home, he is still haunted by flashbacks of burning buildings and sniper fire. He doesn't work, rarely goes out, sleeps poorly, and to relieve his emotional anguish he sometimes slices at his own forearms. Since leaving the army, he has never had a girlfriend. Fraser was once thickly muscled, but weight has fallen off him: self-neglect has robbed him of strength and self-confidence. Prescription drugs fail to fully quieten the terror that trembles in his mind. Whenever I used to see him in clinic, he'd sit on the edge of his seat, shakily mopping sweat from his forehead and temples. I'd listen to his stories, tweak his medications, and tentatively offer advice.
When Fraser began coming to see me, I was reading Redeployment (2014) by Phil Klay – short stories about US military operations, not in Afghanistan, but in Iraq. No book can substitute for direct experience, but Klay's stories gave me a way to start talking about what Fraser was going through; when I finished the book, I offered it to him. He found reassurance in what I'd found illuminating; our conversations took new directions as we discussed aspects of the book. His road will be a long one, but I'm convinced those stories have played a part, however modest, in his recovery.