As many of you might already know, I am a retired military veteran with service spread between two separate branches. I began my military career September 1981 in the US Navy which I was separated from in 1997 during force reductions. Skip ahead to 2008, and I re-enlisted into the Kansas Army Reserve National Guard which I retired from October 2010 after suffering a bad spinal injury on my civilian job.
As a result of too many highly stressful years and events during my military career, I was left with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which I will only refer to going forward as PTS while intentionally leaving off the “disorder”. I do not feel I have a disorder with my PTS as what has happened in my brain is actually a natural reaction when one has been overwhelmed with stressful situations.
What is Post Traumatic Stress?
From National Center for PTSD
PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault.
It’s normal to have upsetting memories, feel on edge, or have trouble sleeping after a traumatic event. At first, it may be hard to do normal daily activities, like go to work, go to school, or spend time with people you care about. But most people start to feel better after a few weeks or months.
If it’s been longer than a few months and you’re still having symptoms, you may have PTSD. For some people, PTSD symptoms may start later on, or they may come and go over time.
When you have PTSD, the world feels unsafe. You may have upsetting memories, feel on edge, or have trouble sleeping. You may also try to avoid things that remind you of your trauma — even things you used to enjoy.
Anyone can develop PTSD at any age. A number of factors can increase the chance that someone will have PTSD, many of which are not under that person’s control. For example, having a very intense or long-lasting traumatic event or getting injured during the event can make it more likely that a person will develop PTSD. PTSD is also more common after certain types of trauma, like combat and sexual assault.
From Mayo Clinic:
Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms may start within one month of a traumatic event, but sometimes symptoms may not appear until years after the event. These symptoms cause significant problems in social or work situations and in relationships. They can also interfere with your ability to go about your normal daily tasks.
PTSD symptoms are generally grouped into four types: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions. Symptoms can vary over time or vary from person to person.
Symptoms of intrusive memories may include:
- Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event
- Reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks)
- Upsetting dreams or nightmares about the traumatic event
- Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the traumatic event
Symptoms of avoidance may include:
- Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event
- Avoiding places, activities or people that remind you of the traumatic event
Negative changes in thinking and mood
Symptoms of negative changes in thinking and mood may include:
- Negative thoughts about yourself, other people or the world
- Hopelessness about the future
- Memory problems, including not remembering important aspects of the traumatic event
- Difficulty maintaining close relationships
- Feeling detached from family and friends
- Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Difficulty experiencing positive emotions
- Feeling emotionally numb
Changes in physical and emotional reactions
Symptoms of changes in physical and emotional reactions (also called arousal symptoms) may include:
- Being easily startled or frightened
- Always being on guard for danger
- Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast
- Trouble sleeping
- Trouble concentrating
- Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior
- Overwhelming guilt or shame
Intensity of symptoms
PTSD symptoms can vary in intensity over time. You may have more PTSD symptoms when you’re stressed in general, or when you come across reminders of what you went through. For example, you may hear a car backfire and relive combat experiences. Or you may see a report on the news about a sexual assault and feel overcome by memories of your own assault.
When to see a doctor
If you have disturbing thoughts and feelings about a traumatic event for more than a month, if they’re severe, or if you feel you’re having trouble getting your life back under control, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. Getting treatment as soon as possible can help prevent PTSD symptoms from getting worse.
If you have suicidal thoughts
If you or someone you know has suicidal thoughts, get help right away through one or more of these resources:
- Reach out to a close friend or loved one.
- Contact a minister, a spiritual leader or someone in your faith community.
- Call a suicide hotline number — in the United States, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. Use that same number and press 1 to reach the Veterans Crisis Line.
- Make an appointment with your doctor or a mental health professional.
When to get emergency help
If you think you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
If you know someone who’s in danger of attempting suicide or has made a suicide attempt, make sure someone stays with that person to keep him or her safe. Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. Or, if you can do so safely, take the person to the nearest hospital emergency room.
In America, we have a national tragedy which has been unfolding for several years now. This tragedy is an average of 22 veterans per day are ending their own lives through suicide as a direct result of Post Traumatic Stress. I’m not going to get into all the details of all that has transpired for mine to occur, but still want to relate a portion of my experience.
In 1996, during my fourth tour of duty in the Navy, I was experiencing symptoms of PTS, although I had never heard this term used before. I knew I needed some help and reached out despite the fact it was taboo in the military to do so. Learning to embrace the suck, and drive on was the mentality, and heaven forbid you display any types of weakness. I did begin receiving therapy, and lost my military career about a half a year later. After all, what kind of strong military leader ever needs to see a shrink. Right?
As with many veterans, I suffered in silence. I suffered in silence because I was first and foremost, embarrassed for my weakness, secondly because I still had a family to support. Life goes on despite our personal issues. It’s not like it’s a merry go round we can just step off of when we tire of the ride. And lastly, there was little actual available help from the Veterans Administration for Post Traumatic Stress until just a few years ago.
When you have family responsibilities, sometimes you feel you have to put aside your own problems in order to best take care of your loved ones. Getting help gets even tougher when you are viewed as a pillar of strength, the one who others go to for help. You try to put the PTS behind you, but then you always feel as if you are about to burst apart at the seams. Like a simmering pot of water about to boil over.
And despite the low simmering boil, you just do your best to mask it, to keep it contained and hidden from your family and friends. Pressure cookers at least have a vented lid to control the pressure, I’m no pressure cooker.
Who was the weak one?
My PTS has resulted in over 20 years of chronic insomnia and scary dreams. It has resulted in a mind that never shuts down, a mind that is always in deep thought. My mind often wakes me up in the middle of the night in deep thoughts over serious topics. This low simmering boil makes it difficult to deal with individuals who do not have a similar life experience. This low simmering boil makes it easier to say “fuck it” in the work place. After my life experience, who needs lame bullshit out of a boss. Who wants to work around a bunch of weak ass pussies when you are used to working and living with the toughest of the tough. I have had more jobs over the last 22 years than I am proud to admit. I am the one who had a problem, not my bosses or co-workers. I am the one who was not reacting in the best manner to what I perceived as weak foolishness. I had to accept that it is up to me in how I manage to deal with the world around me.
Back around 2000, give or take a year or so, I went to the VA for help. I had no clue as to where to begin so I filed a claim for benefits. As when I was on active duty, stepping out and asking for help was a huge deal for me. I went to the American Legion office at the Leavenworth VA and was treated really nice by the Legion folks managing this office. They were glad to help me file a claim since I had a previous diagnosed condition of major depressive disorder diagnosed before my separation from the Navy.
A few months went by and I finally received an envelope in the mail from the Veterans Administration. They had denied my claim. They said my case was resolved and was closed. It was also implied that my major depressive disorder was actually nothing more than me being angry at my last command leadership. What a crock of bullshit, but I saw no hope in trying to fight the entrenched bureaucracy. I got on with life, but the insomnia and bad dreams never eased. The low boil irritations never settled. I never learned to quit seeing everything in black and white while never allowing any gray areas into my world. I never learned how to turn the military off in my mind. After all, while we are serving, we are trained to be the best in our jobs, but, we are never trained in how to come back home to normalcy. Our normalcy in the military is not so normal in the civilian world, and this makes adjustments tough. The toughness is made even greater when we no longer have our military brothers and sisters to lean on for support. Often, when veterans leave military service, we might lose our identity. My identity was that of an Aviation Ordnanceman. Once out in the civilian world, some cannot even spell Aviation Ordnanceman, much less give a damn what the hell one is. No one cares about the tremendous amounts of responsibility that begins riding on the shoulders of a young service member, that keeps building over the years until their retirement. Once you are out, you are just another number, another cog in the gears of life. Your military experience and exploits sound like nothing more than tall tails to those who have never experienced the same, so you learn to just be silent about a good amount of your past experiences. What was an important part of the shaping of your life means little to nothing to a lot of folks we veterans encounter once our careers are over.
Help is available at the VA now!
There are two main types of treatment, psychotherapy (sometimes called counseling or talk therapy) and medication. Sometimes people combine psychotherapy and medication.
Psychotherapy for PTSD
Psychotherapy, or counseling, involves meeting with a therapist.
Trauma-focused psychotherapy, which focuses on the memory of the traumatic event or its meaning, is the most effective treatment for PTSD. There are different types of trauma-focused psychotherapy, such as:
- Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) where you learn skills to understand how trauma changed your thoughts and feelings. Changing how you think about the trauma can change how you feel.
- Prolonged Exposure (PE) where you talk about your trauma repeatedly until memories are no longer upsetting. This will help you get more control over your thoughts and feelings about the trauma. You also go to places or do things that are safe, but that you have been staying away from because they remind you of the trauma.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which involves focusing on sounds or hand movements while you talk about the trauma. This helps your brain work through the traumatic memories.
Actions you can take for yourself in addition to seeking help.
I only returned to using the VA last spring after suffering a kidney stone. Up to that point, I viewed the VA as a huge bureaucracy that was failing veterans daily. Therefore, over the course of several years, I learned to create some of my own coping mechanisms for Post Traumatic Stress which I believe are helpful, but not a replacement for professional care by a doctor. Please, do not attempt to go it alone when dealing with this issue. Twenty two veterans per day lose this fight when they take their own lives to escape it.
- Learn to make your world small as best as possible. Do not allow yourself to get caught up in issues beyond your control, or that have no direct impact on your life.
- Even if you do not believe in God, learn to live by the principles of the Serenity Prayer. Lord, grant me the serenity to accept that which I cannot change. The courage to change that which I can. And the wisdom to know the difference.
- Practice good nutritional habits. The foods we consume can and will have a direct impact on our health and how we feel each and every day. It is easier to have a better outlook on life when you actually feel healthy instead of suffering from preventable ailments as a result of poor nutritional habits.
- Exercise on a regular basis. When your body is at its strongest and healthiest, you will feel better about life. Your self esteem is increased as well as your levels of confidence in taking on new challenges. regular exercise has a number of benefits. It can contribute to many positive physical health outcomes, such as improved cardiovascular health, weight loss, and greater flexibility and mobility. In addition to these physical health outcomes, regular exercise can also have a positive impact on your mental health by reducing anxiety and depression.
We can all help prevent suicide, but many people don’t know how to support the Veteran or Service member in their life who is going through a difficult time. A simple act of kindness can help someone feel less alone. If you are a veteran suffering from Post Traumatic Stress and are feeling suicidal, please reach out for help.
God bless and thank you for reading.