The question many want to ask, but most are afraid to, is "Did you ever suffer from PTSD?" I've already revealed that I suffered acute PTSD twenty five years ago, even though I never realized it until this year. What about now after reliving the experience?
Let me start by explaining what I've recently learned about PTSD, because, truth be told, I really knew very little. I had relatives who were in wars and heard about some of their signs of PTSD. But I really didn't know what the symptoms for PTSD were; most people don't. Most of us think that PTSD is only related to experiences such as combat or terrorist attacks, or even police officers who have been involved in shootings. But the reality is PTSD is much more common than you might think. The most popular cause of PTSD is with combat veterans.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, "about 15 out of every 100 Vietnam Veterans (or 15%) were currently diagnosed with PTSD at the time of the most recent study in the late 1980s, the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS). It is estimated that about 30 out of every 100 (or 30%) of Vietnam Veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime."
They also state that "about 11-20 out of every 100 Veterans (or between 11-20%) who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom have PTSD in a given year."
What about Gulf War Veterans? The V.A. estimates that "12 out of every 100 Gulf War Veterans (or 12%) have PTSD in a given year."
So what is PTSD? Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can occur after you have been through a trauma. A trauma is a shocking and scary event that you see or that happens to you. During this type of event, you think that your life or others' lives are in danger. You may feel afraid or think that you have no control over what is happening. However, this does not only apply to those in the military or who have dangerous jobs.
The V.A. states that going through trauma is not rare. About 6 of every 10 (or 60%) of men and 5 of every 10 (or 50%) of women experience at least one trauma in their lives. Women are more likely to experience sexual assault and child sexual abuse. Men are more likely to experience accidents, physical assault, combat, disaster, or to witness death or injury. Someone reading this blog post right now has experienced PTSD, however, it is possible that they may not even be aware of it.
This brings me to my next question: What are the symptoms? There are four types of PTSD symptoms:
1. Reliving the event (also called re-experiencing symptoms)
Memories of the traumatic event can come back at any time. You may feel the same fear and horror you did when the event took place. For example:
You may have nightmares.
You may feel like you are going through the event again. This is called a flashback.
You may see, hear, or smell something that causes you to relive the event. This is called a trigger. News reports, seeing an accident, or hearing a car backfire are examples of triggers.
Did I have nightmares? Yes! While I was there, and for a month or so when I got back home, I had nightmares. Before I started my blog, I probably had three or four dreams a year. Once I started reliving the experience through my blog, I had dreams or nightmares nearly every night, and sometimes more than one per night. Some of them don't even make sense.
2. Avoiding situations that remind you of the event
You may try to avoid situations or people that trigger memories of the traumatic event. You may even avoid talking or thinking about the event. For example:
You may avoid crowds, because they feel dangerous.
You may avoid driving if you were in a car accident or if your military convoy was bombed.
If you were in an earthquake, you may avoid watching movies about earthquakes.
You may keep very busy or avoid seeking help because it keeps you from having to think or talk about the event.
The last thing I wanted to do was talk about my war experience...with anyone. I just didn't do it. I didn't talk to my fellow Marines, not even with my closest friends. Talking about it brought up the worst memories and affected my moods in a negative way so I just avoided it altogether.
3. Negative changes in beliefs and feelings
The way you think about yourself and others changes because of the trauma. This symptom has many aspects, including the following:
You may not have positive or loving feelings toward other people and may stay away from relationships.
You may forget about parts of the traumatic event or not be able to talk about them.
You may think the world is completely dangerous, and no one can be trusted.
I have suffered periods of depression for unexplained reasons. I have to be careful about what I'm reading, watching, or listening to because certain things may "set me off" and incite anger or anxiety in me. I even requested to change shifts to work the night shift because I needed the quiet, slower pace and wanted to avoid stressful situations.
4. Feeling keyed up (also called hyperarousal)
You may be jittery, or always alert and on the lookout for danger. You might suddenly become angry or irritable. This is known as hyperarousal. For example:
You may have a hard time sleeping.
You may have trouble concentrating.
You may be startled by a loud noise or surprise.
You might want to have your back to a wall in a restaurant or waiting room.
I have been told by a psychologist I'm seeing with the VA that I suffer from Hyper Alert Status. After just our first visit, I felt he knew me better than I knew myself as I listened to him describe how I felt and acted in certain situations. I didn't even reveal that many things, but he knew I was holding back because of trust issues. He asked if I ever had any suicidal thoughts and I revealed that I did some time in the early 90s when I drove to a parking lot late one night with a loaded gun and tried to think of reasons not to pull the trigger. I thank God I had more reasons to live than to die, much more.
He asked me if I thought I was paranoid. I answered, "Some people probably think I am because I have guns placed in every room of my house." He explained that I was not paranoid, but Hyper Alert, meaning I feel like I have to be on guard at all times. I laughed when he said, "Now, we just have to figure out what to do with your guns." I said, "I hadn't planned on doing anything with them." He recommended that I let someone else keep them for me for a while or at least lock them up. I'm not locking my guns up or giving them to anyone to keep for me. It defeats the purpose of having them, which is for protection. But, I don't carry any guns with me anymore like I used to.
Long story short, without knowing it, I initially suffered from acute PTSD which usually last one to three months after the traumatic event. After I returned to "normal life" I was able to put everything behind me and bury the negative feelings I had. I even avoided keeping in touch with my best Marine friends because I didn't want any reminders of the war.
However, after sharing my story, I have developed what is known as "Delayed PTSD." When I left the VA Clinic, I felt as if I had been diagnosed with an incurable disease. I felt like life as I knew it was over. I was really depressed and didn't want anyone to know initially. The first person I called was my mom. She wasn't surprised.
It was because of my anger issues that I decided to seek help. I went to the VA and had several tests done. That's when I was officially diagnosed with PTSD. I asked my psychologist if it was unusual to suffer PTSD so far away from combat experience. He shook his head no and said, "You had PTSD all along. It just manifested itself when you started writing about it." The good news is I'm getting treatment and medication for it and things are better. I sleep a little better, thanks to some prescription sleeping pills, and I'm not dreaming as much as I was. But it's a work in progress and will be for years to come. Some may say they would have never guessed I suffered from depression, anxiety, or anger problems. Well, that's because I try not to let it show. In fact, I like to use humor and sarcasm to hide true feelings sometimes. I'm the guy that makes people laugh. But I'm also the guy that has problems with emotions. I wrote a poem about how I use humor to cover deep feelings inside.
Cheers my soul so it forgets;
The things I’ve done with deep regret;
Evil things I’ve done and said;
That haunt my dreams at night in bed.
Sets my heart and mind at ease;
Fills my thoughts of things that please;
Relieves my mind of stress and grief;
In hopes my heart may be set free.
Brings my heart some needed cheer;
Reminds me of those things so dear;
Brings the heart and mind so near;
And calms the soul of inner fear.
Spurs my heart to sing and dance;
It puts my sadness in a trance;
Curves my anger with a glance;
And frees me from my circumstance.
Hides the face of self-condemn;
Refuses to let the demons in;
Puts on a happy face and then;
Pretends I have no guilt or sin.
Conceals the darkness that consumes her;
The inner thoughts that only doom her;
Deep down secrets that form a tumor;
The only way to cope is humor.
“You can't patch a wounded soul with a Band-Aid.” ― Michael Connelly