Before I joined the Army National Guard back in 1991 I was volunteering at a Vietnam Veteran Counseling Center. I was drawn to this experience because of a traumatic event in my own life that left me with a severe case of PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. By helping Vietnam Veterans with PTSD I felt as though I was helping myself as well. It was my job to do the initial intake screening of new patients. I would ask them a series of questions to determine the type of counseling that would be appropriate for them. Whenever we’d get to the category of wartime experiences, asking them to describe their experiences during the war in Vietnam, one of two things would happen. Either the veteran would completely shut down and refuse to talk to me or I would often hear the phrase- “You wouldn’t understand, it’s a combat thing.”
I will be honest in saying there aren’t many phrases in the English language that make me angry- but the phrase “You wouldn’t understand-” has to rank up there with the top five. With those words ringing in my ears I eventually found myself at a recruiting station swearing to uphold the constitution of the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic. I was determined to serve my country honorably and never allow anyone to be able to say to me that I wouldn’t understand because I hadn’t served. I had other more practical reasons for joining the Army, but the main reason for my recruitment was to prove to myself and everyone else that I could understand it, that I could survive that too.
For those of you who don’t understand Basic training is designed to literally break you down physically, emotionally and spiritually. You are stripped of everything that makes you… well you. The men get their hair cut, we all get uniforms, we aren’t allowed any personal belongings aside from hygiene products and paper to write home with. Our day is ordered by someone else from before sunrise to after sunset and into the evening. We are told when to eat, drink, sleep and shower. Any and all information about the outside world comes from one source… our Drill Instructors. We are nothing, we come from nothing and we learn to be nothing. During my time in service I learned a lot about myself; my strengths, my weaknesses, and why a letter from home was so meaningful! Eventually during the process of breaking you down as an individual, the Army begins to build you up as a soldier. You’re rewarded for being a good shot, you’re praised for being able to march 12 miles with a full ruck sack, you’re applauded for showing leadership during stressful times. You may believe you’re made in God’s image, but the Army re-makes you into their image. You’re stronger, meaner, leaner and better than you were before… so you’re told.
The only way a soldier can truly survive is to rely on their training. We repeat things we learn until we can practically do the task in our sleep. Constant repetition is important because you literally don’t have to think about it- it becomes a natural reaction. We train our soldiers to the point of becoming more machine than person… we remove the emotional component thinking it will make it easier for the person to survive prolonged exposure to traumatic events, like War. The problem arises when we realize that human beings are not machines, you can suppress the emotional reactions to stressful situations, but eventually the emotional part is going to seep through the cracks. That’s when we often see cases of PTSD, when there isn’t a constant need to be in survival mode.
I’m sure everyone can recognize the symptoms of PTSD. After my traumatic event I had nightmares of the event. A certain look, phrase or touch would send me back to the moment of my assault and I’d be lost in that moment… shrinks call that a flashback. I began self-medicating, I couldn’t sleep so I’d drink alcohol until I passed out and then I wouldn’t remember the constant nightmares. I became irritable and downright rude to friends and family. My mood swings would vacillate between happy and pissed at the world. I did reckless and stupid things, like try to walk off the edge of a roof. I spent money I didn’t have to spend. I skipped out on events or came really late- pushed friends away when they tried to help. I was on constant alert, always aware of my surroundings, completely freaked out in large crowds. I would have anxiety attacks, be really anxious about simple tasks I did everyday. I had feelings of severe depression, wanting to be alone and wishing I could just end the pain… permanently. I was a complete wreck… until something happened that changed all that. I was given the chance to see I wasn’t alone.
PTSD is one of those rare disorders that isolates us from each other. When we suffer from PTSD we feel as though we’re the only one, or worse yet that we’re crazy for feeling what we feel. Our training from Basic through to deployment convinces us that any weakness, especially a mental disorder will cause the death of people we’re sworn to protect. The truth is for most of us we simply don’t believe we have a problem- I often hear the same phrase from returning veterans, “I don’t have a problem you do- because this is who I am now.” And they aren’t wrong. War -simply put changes a man. But here’s the good news, change is never permanent, and with a new set of coping skills even PTSD can be conquered! You may never be the person you were before PTSD, but the great news is that you can become a better person because of PTSD. I have always looked at it as just another obstacle that can be transformed into a lesson of survival.
There are many steps and many ways to deal with PTSD. The biggest and bravest step is coming forward and admitting to yourself, your family and your friends that you’re suffering and you need their help to end that suffering. Because as much as we’re taught to believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness… I have personally found that receiving support from others is what kept me alive. “You wouldn’t understand, but you can try-”