Billy Pilgrim's Coping Mechanism for PTSD in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

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In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim becomes “unstuck” in time. The question here is, why? The fact of the matter is that he does not actually begin to time-travel. Billy “becomes unstuck” as a coping mechanism to deal with his traumatic experiences during the war. Billy attempts to reorganize his life’s events and cope with a disorder known as post traumatic stress (PTSD). “Post traumatic stress disorder is a debilitating condition that follows a terrifying event” (Marilyn 8). It occurs when one has witnessed or experienced a traumatic event, such as war, child abuse, or other types of violence. Victims may claim to relive or re-experience events that were traumatic to them. They may even “feel” or “hear” things from the event. Other symptoms may include: “forgetfulness…amnesia, excessive fantasizing…trancelike states…imaginary companion, sleepwalking, and blackouts” (Putman 2). A lot of times, coping mechanisms fail and the following inner dissonance can lead to a multiplicity of upsetting emotional and physical symptoms (Robert Saperstein 2). Some children suffering from PTSD may show traumatic play. This refers to the reenactment of a traumatic experience. Usually, children will change the ending to make it happier. This is an extreme example of using the imagination as a way to escape the terrible memories. Billy has all the symptoms associated with the disorder as he also used his imagination to escape his bad memories. When Billy Pilgrim goes to war in Germany, he is soon captured by the Germans and taken to a prisoner camp. While there, he is mocked and ridiculed. He is a very passive character, and so is not bothered by this taunting, but when Billy realizes that the war doesn’t just affect soldiers and people, but all animals, such as the horses they find after the bombing of Dresden, his life is scarred forever. He sees that the horses are bleeding from their mouths and that they are in agony when walking. When Billy sees that his colleagues had mistreated the horses, he realizes that that is what war does to the entire world. Billy is forever changed and even weeps (197). This may have been the trigger for PTSD in Billy’s life to begin with. One of case post traumatic stress disorder tells of a Vietnam veteran sleeping with a gun under his pillow and having nightmares so intense that he woke up strangling his wife. Another time, the same veteran saw a neighbor walking outside after dark and dodged under a bush and started crawling around with a gun (McGirk 1).

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