WASHINGTON — They have endured what one leading psychiatrist calls "overwhelming psychological trauma." And now, they begin what another describes as "a massive process of reorientation."
For former hostages Robert Polhill and Frank H. Reed, the return to freedom is fraught with emotional pitfalls that, in unpredictable ways, could be no less difficult than their dark years in captivity.
"I would treat such persons as if they had survived a terminal illness and then came back alive," said Dr. Martin Symonds, a New York psychiatrist.
The rush of emotions after suffering intense deprivation ranges from anger to bewilderment, from guilt to "psychological numbing," mental health therapists, former American hostages and their families said in interviews this week. These and other potential problems loom not only for the two men but also for their loved ones.
"I found freedom overwhelming," said former Tehran Embassy hostage Moorhead Kennedy, recalling a sudden sense of bewilderment one day when he walked into a hardware store. "I wanted to buy everything in it," he said.
Four years after his release, Kennedy woke up screaming from a nightmare.
"I dreamed that the students holding me captive were coming in to shoot me," he said. "Once you've been a hostage, the experience stays with you. It never goes away."
Almost without exception, experts said, the hostage experience irrevocably alters one's outlook on life--for better or worse.
Barely a year after the January, 1981, release of the 53 embassy hostages, for instance, a half dozen of them were under psychiatric care, four were divorced and a half dozen others were struggling with troubled marriages.
Others found quiet renewal in being able to fulfill the simple pleasures they dreamed about during the lonely years. For L. Bruce Laingen, who was in charge of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran when a mob of Iranians stormed it in November, 1979, that meant being able to take a walk in the rain.
The readjustment period and intensity varies, but no one escapes unscathed.
"They are like prisoners of war," said Symonds. "They can't just go back without any kind of stress."
"You're not going to forget those horrendous years," said former Beirut hostage Father Lawrence Martin Jenco, who was freed in 1986 after 19 months in captivity and is now a campus minister at USC.
"The goal should not be to help them forget, but to help them remember and then come to peace with it--because it doesn't have to be the central event in their lives," said Dr. Jerrold M. Post, a Washington psychiatrist.
"Each individual needs to be understood on his own terms and be paced according to what he wants and needs," added Ben Weir, the San Anselmo, Calif., Presbyterian minister who was held in Beirut for 16 months before his 1985 release.
For freed hostages, the first difficult hurdle often is the celebrity status that accompanies their new roles, according to therapists as well as former hostages.
"It can be very exciting. But it is also very disturbing," said Laingen, who was held hostage for 444 days, along with Kennedy and 50 other Americans. "It's a fine balancing act between respecting that person's privacy and the intense public interest in what they have to say."
Such acclaim also can lead to unintended delayed reactions, such as a feeling of betrayal after the publicity has faded, cautioned Dr. David A. Soskis, a psychiatrist at Temple University in Philadelphia and former chairman of the American Psychiatric Assn.'s task force on terrorism and its victims.
"They are expected to respond with lovingness, elation, warmth and jubilation. But many of them have a great deal of difficulty in coming back into a world of feelings after a period of deep, deep freeze," said Post, who specializes in the psychology of terrorism.
Anger and guilt are two common emotions felt by hostages--feelings that, Post said, "can be quite painful."
Indeed, Reed in Wiesbaden told reporters on Wednesday that he felt both anger and guilt.
"I'm absolutely embarrassed I'm out before they (hostages still in captivity) are," he said. Reed's wife, Fifi, told reporters, "He's angry with everybody--everybody."
But such venting of emotions can be healthy. Said Post, "This is a catharsis."
On the other hand, some captives erect psychological walls that amount to "psychic numbing or psychological anesthesia," he said. "These are walls that don't come down automatically just by virtue of being freed."
Experts caution, and former hostages confirm, that the process of getting reacquainted with wives and children can be as painful as any other aspect of reconstructing one's life. Hostages and family members alike must readapt.
"The hostages' lives were on hold for those three years," Symonds said. "Their families grew without them."
Kennedy put it this way: