Friday arrived, and a relative lent me his car for the weekend so that I could head to Jersey to see my family. It was my first time behind a wheel alone since redeploying back from Iraq, and I started the near 40-mile journey without concern or hesitation. I had no reason to -- or at least I thought, since prior to Iraq I had made this journey from Manhattan's Upper East Side a hundred times before. As the highways began to condense and the roads turned into overpasses, the same anticipations I had felt on the many MSRs (military supply routes) once traveled while in Baghdad began to start up again. The only difference was this time I was not in uniform, I was not carrying a weapon, nor was I in any immediate danger. The difference, oddly, was that I was home..."safe" and approaching symbols that I had, for some reason, still associated with my year as a Military Police officer. The anticipations started to grow, and my heart started to race. My palms were sweating and I had no idea why. Throughout my life I have always been an avid athlete. In the Army, I was awarded the Expert Physical Fitness Badge twice, but my mind had started to race thinking this was a heart attack on the rise and I was going to collapse any second, right here on the road if I wasn't careful. So instinctively I pulled over and just tried to wait it out, cursing the passersby and praying to God for help. I sat there, alone, on Route 280 West for almost twenty minutes before I headed out again slowly, focusing on my breath and eventually soaked from the sweat of my anxiety toward this completely upending experience.
This occurred several times over the next year, before I realized that maybe I needed to look into it with the guidance of a professional. It was that which led me to the Manhattan VA and Dr. Michael Kramer. And it was there where, after playing the skeptic through many sessions, I came to embrace the notion that I had been suffering from panic attacks -- ones related to combat -- and was about to become 'One of those Guys' who was diagnosed with PTSD. It was the biggest hurdle for me to accept because I had never thought of myself as penetrable in this way before. Only in my accepting of this fact and allowing my time with Dr. Kramer to evolve therapeutically did I agree to take part in a brand new, state-of-the-art and cutting-edge way of treatment: one that would look to help the almost 80% of America's soldier population who suffer from similar, if not worse, experiences when readjusting back into society. The treatment is called Virtual Reality.
I think one of the funniest things I remember before starting VR was how, after looking into the video image for the first time, I blurted out to Dr. Kramer: "What, you want me to play video games now! How the f--k is that going to help!?" I was very naive. So much of what I have now learned about how this treatment works is that it's not meant to offer you actual images that assist your stress levels, only video prompts that are mainly designed to trigger memory. Our minds are so powerful. As I described before, when I went under those overpasses for the first time at home, my mind was telling me 'overpass=danger=ambush!' Everything that I was trained to experience and prepared to face, day in and day out for 365 days, had now carried itself over traumatically. But it wasn't THOSE images in NJ that were causing it. Rather, it was the similarities those images held with the ones I knew from war. It wasn't anything more than what my mind had yet to tell my body to believe in differently since arriving home. And, as easy as that may seem for me to describe now, trust me, it's a lot more difficult to identify initially. So, I panicked, I stressed, and well...the rest is history.
Could the absence of my weapon, the symbol of security and control to me and every soldier, have been a part of the trigger? Possibly. But what VR gave me is something more -- it gave me an understanding of the great power that memory can hold for an individual. It taught me to learn that you can continue on through your stress levels in these situations and NOT have to pull the car over. And that is it in a nutshell, because with the lack of this guidance I couldn't put a face to the reasons. I couldn't build confidence enough to apply the VR work toward its greatest goal: my life. I have been working with VR for well over a year now, on and off, and have taken part in numerous sessions. Though the imagery and combat scenarios that VR provides are only part of the process, I would have to say that the most important parts of the work are within the individuals themselves. I don't believe this program can '"save" anyone completely. I don't think it's meant for that. Being a veteran with PTSD is a very complex identity to understand, and each soldier is different and may spend a lifetime trying to balance this. I know I've accepted that. But if given the chance, maybe the best thing VR can offer is an opportunity for it to become a very effective tool in the individual's process -- one that, in my belief, leads toward the truest form of adjustment and recovery: understanding.
~Gerald Della Salla,
SGT, US ARMY-Reserves (OIF 3- Veteran)