JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Tex. --
I live with PTSD.
It’s not a badge of honor but it’s also not something I’m shy about. Why? Because the only way we can really destigmatize it, is to talk about it.
I was diagnosed in 1995, well before the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program’s inception. My leadership was helpful, but they also had expectations of performance. They looked at my behavior as they would anyone else and were quick to punish if I acted out of line. However, they were also aware that I was dealing with something they didn’t fully understand and gave me the room to go to appointments for counseling and deal with the crushing weight of what was going on.
It all started in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti during a deployment in support of UN Peacekeeping forces to the country. My role as a security policeman was to provide security for a group of RED HORSE engineers rebuilding schools and an administration building at the hospital in the heart of the city. Every day we were there was a challenge. Every day has been forever etched in my mind.
When I returned home from that deployment I immediately went into counseling. Unfortunately, the mental health doctor I worked with had no experience with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, so everything he did was a new experience for him. Over the course of the year I spent with him, we talked about everything, but the traumatic events. We tried everything, but exposure therapy.
That was the first mistake.
At the end of the year of counseling, I was given a choice to either separate from the military or find another job. Since I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do as a civilian I chose to retrain. I also stopped all medications and ceased all treatment as I was told there wasn’t much more they could for me at that point.
That was the second mistake.
My third mistake was to self-medicate. I drank. I worked out. I worked hard. I lived life as if riding down a hill on a skateboard. The board wobbled and threatened to throw me a couple of times, but I managed to stay upright for most of the ride.
That would be the year that all of the failed attempts at therapy would come back to haunt me. I had a relapse in symptoms and felt like I was falling apart.
I remember when it happened. I was at work, sitting at my desk, when suddenly I saw a face of someone I hadn’t seen since 1995 and felt I had been transported back to the city. The smells were there. The feeling of the heat on my skin. It was a sudden shock to not be in the “now.” It was my first flashback, and it caught me completely unaware.
Over the course of the next few weeks I started to experience a whole range of symptoms, from nightmares to frequent flashbacks. I was easily startled and found my overall mood crashing, leaving me depressed and anxious.
My primary care manager prescribed me medication and sent me to behavioral health to see if there was anything they could do. At this time, they were conducting a test of a new form of exposure therapy, one that took the normal 12-week course and shortened it to 4-weeks. During the sessions I would have to write out a narrative on a traumatic event and then read it back. It was horrible. Exposure therapy is not a pleasurable experience, but it does work.
Unfortunately, for me, the new version they were using was not effective. My trauma had occurred 17 years before and had been buried with poor coping skills. Over the course of the next 8 years I would struggle. Some days were good. Others…not so good.
What I learned over the last 8 years is that I cannot do this alone. Isolating myself is what made things worse. So, I sought further treatment through the Veteran’s Administration. They set me up with a counselor who spent 12 weeks reframing my thoughts on what had happened. I found myself relearning how to view events and started asking myself questions I never thought of before. As the counseling went on, I started to notice a decline in some, but not all, of my symptoms. For the first time I started to see that I could actually do things without being on constant alert.
It was not easy. It’s still not easy. There are good days and bad days, but at least now I can see that I have more control than I did before. I’m nowhere near “cured” but I have found the things that work for me and that is a step in the right direction.
If I were to give advice to someone who was suffering through PTSD, I would start by saying, “Get help.”
I know it’s scary. You’re probably worried about how it will impact your career. I get it. Guess what though? Your career is a small part of your life. Without the help, you will suffer for a much greater part of your life and may have a harder time getting back to a new sense of normal.
My other piece of advice is, “Don’t do this alone.”
Reach out to your friends. Those you deployed with. Talk to someone you feel may understand what you’re going through. The more you connect, the easier it becomes.
I realize I still have a long way to go. There will be challenges ahead, I’m sure of it. But I’ve made the decision that PTSD will not define me, it will only be something I cope with.