In our first conversation, Coming Home: Veterans Readjusting to Civilian Life, our contributors — including veterans, family members of veterans and members of organizations that support veterans — share their own stories, offer insights on the challenges facing returning veterans, and provide tips and resources on the kinds of support that families, friends and communities can offer veterans.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), one of those battlefield "gifts" that keep on giving, is something that I would wish on no one.
PTSD has the influence to keep combat skills, training, and reactions alive and well and on a hair trigger, even though these extreme battlefield necessities are no longer relevant to the here and now of what most of the people around you know as normal civilian life.
My personal view is that PTSD is set in place by a single or many events that are traumatic to a magnitude such that it transforms one's mind in ways that makes the mind behave as it has never behaved before. The magnitude is probably the most profound and pervasive you can experience. This is a BIG thing. I do not say "caused" because once you are afflicted with PTSD the "cause" is academic, except of course, to academics and mental health professionals.
Before I get into the toe stubbing and stark realities of reintegrating into civilian life with PTSD, you really need to understand the disorder's ways of announcing itself so you can get the help you need to control it. Depending on the person, it can raise its flag slowly, or quickly, and in ways that may be very unfamiliar to you. I can only discuss my own personal experience with certainty, and I hope will give you some insights that help.
A very experienced and learned psychiatrist once told me that the mind can compartmentalize things. What this meant to me was that I took my Vietnam battlefield experiences and put them in a box, so to speak, and tied down the lid with locks and chains. I did this in an attempt to forget the whole thing and never have to deal with it again. It did not work.
Another lesson I learned was that the Vietnam experience I put in the box were memories that were "unprocessed," that is to say, raw, emotion-riddled memories with attached unresolved things — like grief, fear, guilt, survivor's guilt, survival instincts and everything in between. These raw memories of my experience were corrosive, and leaked out of the box disconnectedly, resulting in behaviors, feelings and experiences that were inexplicable, not grounded in the present reality of things, and very much unlike my behaviors in my pre-Vietnam life. Since I could not be objective with myself, I just became the product of those behaviors, thinking all along that I was perfectly OK! That was not true.
Prying open the Vietnam box in my head made things more acute, and I went on a mental elevator run to the bottom. I learned painfully that I had a problem when all the so-called demons took me for a ride.
In my experience, if people you trust tell you that you are out of line, very different from what people knew of you before your combat experience, please believe what these people are telling you! Your behavior might include becoming "an angry person" for no apparent reason; being intrigued with what it is like to die or wanting to join fallen friends; becoming aimless; using risk or the power of authority to get that adrenalin boost to counter depression; literally flashing back in time and space to where you see, feel and smell things that are ordinary or extraordinary; and other like things. If this is the case, and people you trust are worried about you, head for the closest medical professional skilled in the diagnosis and management of PTSD, and get checked out. Keep in mind that these things can happen independently or all at once, and can happen sooner or decades later. It may be just a false alarm or something else, but it is far wiser not to judge that yourself.
There are several things I have to remind myself frequently:
On November 30, 1996, 13 years ago, on the PBS POV RE: Vietnam interactive site, I wrote the following about my personal conflict with PTSD, being very frightened of the reaction to my revelations. All of what I wrote remains valid, except for the measure of control I now have over my PTSD and my ability to speak freely about the topic without being tied up into knots and wanting to hide in a bunker. My continuing treatment must be having an effect. Be advised, it is a difficult process to stay on track, and I do slip off from time to time all by myself, without warning.
THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING
Sat Nov 30 6 33:58 US/Eastern 1996
Like the fragments of memory and the flashbacks to things I almost recall but don't want to remember, or won't remember, the PTSD effects of the Vietnam War will be with me forever. These things are a part of my life.
Memory gaps, trust issues, not caring for myself, seeking danger, going about things like I was still in combat, night sweats, extreme irrational anger, fear, claustrophobic reactions, hearing, seeing, feeling, and smelling the war, emotional pain, avoidance, and the rest of it, plague me now more than ever. Its funny how when you finally rip the lid off to free yourself it gets worse. A lot worse. When bridge abutments on the interstate began to look good, I knew I was really in trouble. It took twenty six years of living with the problem and a crisis three years ago to start me down this track.
I have been at it now for eleven months with a lot of help. It is as difficult to admit I am diagnosed with PTSD as it is to admit I am a Vietnam War Veteran, but here I am, doing just that. Am I scared? You bet!
My wife and family is beginning to understand. My wife said that she should be entitled to a disiability for the twenty five years of our marriage because she thought some of it was because of her! This stuff can really ruin lives, and not just your own.
I have been told by several experienced mental health professionals that I am one of the lucky ones. I turned this adversity to my advantage in my profession. I know they are right. The trick is to now learn how to recognize the early warning signs and control it. I am just beginning to be able to do that.
In a course on PTSD for Vets, I finally became aware that I was not alone. Yes, there were other guys out there with problems like my own. They are just ordinary guys. We are connected through the war and its aftermath. It helped to realize this.
I am following a very active course of action with this. No matter how anyone comes to grips with PTSD, the key seems to be in your attitude, and personal recognition of the problem. I am just learning the many sides of the problem, and I expect that it will be a life long struggle.
PTSD is really the gift that keeps on giving.
If PTSD is now part of your life, what are the realities other than the treatment for it? In other words, what are the expectations that society has for you, and what are your expectations of society? Society includes everyone and everything in your life. PTSD often creates unexpected challenges to surmount, as well as disappointments to process, especially during every step of the way in trying to become readjusted to civilian life.
My next blog entry, coming next week, will discuss PTSD in the "outside" world. How do family, employers, and other people perceive and react to your disability, and all the mythology surrounding it?
Vietnam veteran. On coping with PTSD and lessons from Vietnam.
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