Freedom may prove to be emotionally difficult in the months and years to come for Terry A. Anderson and the rest of the former American hostages, all of whom can now begin the long process of rebuilding shattered lives.
Once the cameras have stopped recording and well-wishers have stopped calling, they must deal with spouses who have learned to live without them, children who have grown older and a world that has changed in numerous ways.
Yet, ironically, the greatest source of stress may be the very freedom they sought and dreamed of through all their months and years of captivity. As soon as they return home, the former hostages will have to confront thousands of daily choices, large and small, that were long denied them: what to wear, when to eat, where to sleep, how to structure their lives.
"Making those choices may not be as easy as it seems," said Charles Stenger, a retired psychologist with the Veterans Administration in Washington who for years has worked with former prisoners of war. "Anderson expressed it when he got off the plane: He said he was 'afraid of freedom.' As horrible as their ordeal was, and clearly it was horrible, what they have ahead of them is also very scary. It's often quite threatening to have choices. It can cause enormous stress and anxiety."
Dr. Samuel Karson, retired chief psychiatrist of the State Department, observed: "It is probably unwise to try to draw conclusions about how the former hostages seem to appear in public in the early days or even months after their release. There is a lot of pressure on these people to say everything is fine, whether it is or not. . . . They want you to be strong, to be a survivor. And not everyone is that way. . . ."
Before Anderson's release this week, government protocol in debriefing newly released hostages had been to tell them not to talk openly even to their families about what happened to them while in captivity, since any complaints or grim descriptions of abuse could jeopardize those still imprisoned. Such constraints mean "you are still held captive in many ways, and your mission is to do all that you can to enable all of your fellow captives to be released," said Dr. Charles R. Figley, director of the Psychosocial Stress Research Program at Florida State University.
Psychologically, these limits can be useful because they provide a way of ordering one's life, of setting priorities, of assuming responsibility. But now there are no fellow U.S. captives, and the time has come for former hostages to begin to think, talk and do for themselves.
The notion that freedom is difficult for people to handle even under ordinary circumstances is not new to psychiatrists and psychologists. Writing during World War II, psychoanalyst Eric Fromm described in his most famous book, "Escape From Freedom," why he thought people surrendered their freedom to dictators: They are willing to submit to authority to escape the burdens of freedom.
Most experts agree that it is unwise for any trauma victim to make decisions too quickly after returning home. "A lot of people believe that after the immediate crisis is over, the ordeal is over. Nonsense," Figley said. Yet, he added, "there don't have to be permanent scars. People can come out stronger as a result of this."
Dr. Robert Rubin, a psychiatrist at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, observed: "Perhaps the most important thing for families and friends to understand is that the process of reintegration into society needs to be done slowly."