At my worst, I was a basket case. A rolling chassis with bits and pieces still hanging off and a bunch of pieces in a plastic bucket. Probably an old five gallon pickle bucket with grease on the side. I remember the absolute fear that would hit me when anyone asked me what was wrong. “No! I’m not ready! I can’t even think about that.” How can you explain to someone what it’s like to hold the hand of another man while they died, from a wound they took following your orders? Looking down the sights at a living person who is nothing more than a target. It’s not even math anymore, at that point it’s just survival.
In the early stages of my counseling, I found a book by Dr. Abraham Twerski, “Addictive Thinking” (Hazelton Press, 1990). It was on a discount rack in the mall and I just wanted something to read. It turned into a personal guide to recovery. As I read, there were constant points where I saw my own life in the pages. Making excuses for my actions, trying to hide what I was doing from others, binging on rage and violence, shame and remorse in the aftermath. There were even co-dependents and facilitators, family and friends who helped me make excuses.
The excuse, “no one else understands”, let me continue to associate with other PTSD Addicts. There was comfort in their presence. There is a real feeling of belonging and safety with others who had “been there”. The same as with high risk behavior, it fed the disease. Self-medicating out of a bottle or popping pain pills that some got hooked on after an injury. Anything to numb the pain and let us pretend to be normal. Denial is still denial, no matter how you dress it up.
How can there be a problem if I’m still able to function in society? Sure, there are some rough spots. Relationships are destroyed, but that happens to everyone. New job? Just a change of scenery, they didn’t like me being gone for a year, either. Uncontrolled emotions. Not a problem. I can deal.
Step 1. Admit that there is a problem.
That was the hardest part. Like most addicts, it took a situation and moment of clarity, waking up with your belly on fire, head pounding, feeling your body dying from the abuse you’ve poured into it. Admitting weakness, injury or not being strong enough is anathema to most soldiers.
Step 2. Commit to the change every day.
You are going to have tough days and episodes no matter what you do. Be prepared for them and dedicate yourself to getting better every day, some times every hour.
Step 3. Be honest about what PTSD means and what it has done to you, your life and those who share your life.
Most of the people who love you haven’t been to war or shared the trauma, they can’t understand. It is also true that they won’t have a chance to understand unless you try to explain. Apologies are probably in order as well. You’ve been through hell and put them through the hell of watching you suffer.
Step 4. Live the changed life.
You are trying to reprogram your brain. It won’t happen over night or in the first few years. You will have PTSD for the rest of your life. The only way to avoid relapse is to change those things that are your personal triggers.
Step 5 (?). Get help.
You can’t do this by yourself. Find someone who you can trust and talk to. It doesn’t have to be a professional but it does have t be someone who is committed to the process. Another plus to professionals is detachment. Your significant other can be easily hurt by what you say and do. It is important that you be able to vent sometimes, more often in the early stages than the later ones.
Step 6. Use the tools.
It’s stupid to try to tough it out unless you have to. I don’t recommend meds because your body tends to adapt. On top of that, you can’t reset your brain chemistry if you keep artificially adjusting it. As a short term assist, they work to give you a break, room to catch your breath. Not every therapy will work for you. If you honestly try something and it doesn’t work, go to the next one.
There is so much more. Faith. Friends. Catharsis. Practicing trust and love.
For those who don’t fight this daily, pass it on. There are 22 Veterans who lose the fight everyday and choose suicide. That’s a little less than one an hour, almost a quarter of the daily suicide rate in the U.S. alone.
Help them keep fighting.