Wednesday, June 27, is National PTSD Awareness Day. I personally believe every day should be PTSD awareness day but every single piece of public information and dedication to this serious condition counts.
Today Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is best known by the public through various heart-breaking stories about service members who after returning from combat zones are having challenging times to deal with what they have experienced. However, PTSD touches way many more people: anyone experiencing a traumatic event from assaults to natural disasters and serious accidents is in a risk of developing anxiety disorder that typically occurs for example through feelings of confusion, fear and anger. In mild cases a person may just feel uncomfortable in situations reminding from a past traumatic events, and in worse cases he or she can suffer from severe flashbacks, nor can separate the past events from the reality.
My first experience on PTSD was years ago, in the beginning of our military actions after 9/11. But I didn’t know what I had been witnessing until later… Shortly after the first units returned from Iraq, I was visiting a friend of mine while he was on the leave after deployment. It was obvious the deployment had changed that young man: he had become more quiet, more private. But don’t we all change over time? We grow up, we change, we develop. Deployment to a combat zone will definitely change us as human beings, and readjusting is always a process that takes time. It would be unrealistic to expect that we can flip a switch and in a heartbeat become used to normal civilian life, after being outside the wire for 12-15 months, seeing friends getting hurt and dying. And what I saw, I considered it a readjustment process. At the time when I didn’t have any formal training in psychology, nor real knowledge on any anxiety disorders. Later on, these experiences have been one of the motivations for furthering my education in the field of psychology.
But back to the story. I saw my friend a few days after the unit returned. At first he looked happy and acted normally. Then on the second day I got a glimpse of what the PTSD can do to a person. His girlfriend at the time was supposed to return home a few days later, from a work related occasion in a neighboring town. He wanted to go to a mall with me to look for a gift for her, so out we went for gift shopping and dinner. After dinner he wanted to drive my rental car. I gave him the keys, and hopped on the passenger seat. It was a quiet, rainy, dark night in this midwestern town, he was driving and we were chitchatting about this and that. Then in the corner of my eye I saw his forehead getting sweaty and he was breathing heavily. I asked if everything was okay. He assured he is fine while squeezing the steering wheel so that his knuckles started to turn white. Breathing got heavier and his face were white and sweaty. I was sure I was gonna die in an accident. I begged him to pull over. He did. And let me drive. He blamed heavy dinner for a sudden heartburn. Somewhere deep in my mind I was wondering if that was the truth but I didn’t know any better.
Later that night, I woke up to a weird feeling. I was sleeping in their guest room downstairs while their master bedroom, office and kitchen were upstairs. Still today I don’t know what prompted me to get up and go to kitchen for getting some water. I made my way upstairs, and found him wide awake, all lights on doing something on his computer. Nearly empty bottle of cheap vodka next to him. The bottle was unopened a few hours earlier.
I pulled a chair, and sat in front him. Confronted him about drinking asking what’s wrong. He couldn’t tell me but just said he felt like he needed a drink. I was looking at him and nearly empty bottle, thinking “a drink, that’s a liter of 40% alcohol, dude”. I let it be but took the bottle away, and said I would drink rest of it. I walked back to my bedroom with the bottle, after emptying it into the bathroom sink. In the morning I prepped breakfast for both of us, obviously he wasn’t feeling well nor got out of the bed before noon. And I talked to him about drinking and stress, told that there are ways to get help if he frequently feels like drinking too much. He assured me he didn’t have a problem, and I didn’t see him drinking again while I was there. But then two days after I had left, his fiancée called me at night, sobbing how he had been drinking practically nonstop. She was frustrated and scared. She worked hard to get help for him but he didn’t admit his problems to anyone, and eventually closed her out of his life. Shortly after breakup with her fiancée I got an email from him completely out of the blue. It was a long monologue about what he was going through. He didn’t expect my response, sympathies or help but needed someone who would listen, or in this case, read. He told how he, on that night in my rental car, was patrolling on Iraqi roads, and how the dark water puddles looked like potential IEDs too him. I tracked down his mother, told her that he needs help, and she pulled all the strings she could to get him into therapy. But it didn’t work out.
The vicious cycle of PTSD combined with alcohol abuse for self-medication eventually destroyed the life of this at-one-day-a-very-fine soldier. His invisible wounds are haunting him every day. Significant alcohol abuse has damaged his health. He is pulling himself away from social contacts, hasn’t talked to his parents for a long time except when he occasionally needs money. He can’t keep a job. Or stay in a relationship.
And he is not the only one.
However, PTSD is not the end of the world but the help is available out there. For example VA’s National Center for PTSD has extensive resources for PTSD patients and their family members, as well as a lot of information about self-help and coping skills.
The complexity of human mind never ceases to inspire and fascinate me. Why some people make it through traumatic events better than others? This story is one of the drivers that has kept me studying, and has been the light at the end of the tunnel when I have been drowning in the textbooks and research papers…
If I can help even one of these people who are struggling, why wouldn’t I do it?