Not Quite 12 Steps (Addicted part II)

PTSD2At 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.

Addicted to PTSD

Have you ever been terrified?  I mean so scared, that for a while you couldn’t even think, not really think.  Your brain saw something, tried to classify it and all you recognized was danger?  You may have reacted or froze, trying to determine what to do, but there was no time to think your way through the situation.  Your breathing and heart rate jump, adrenaline pours into your blood, eyes dilate.   Your hearing may filter everything but one sound or a voice.  Even thinking about it today can make you feel anxious.  Welcome to your basic instincts of Fight or Flight and the potential for PTSD.


Like so many veterans returned from overseas, I came back with a problem, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  It’s not unique to the military, so I’m not trying to claim any special status.  What is unique is the way most Veterans who succumb to its effects react or the way society in general sees them.  Most people expect veterans with PTSD to look like Rambo, unemployed vagrants, wandering from town to town,  drunk or strung out on drugs because they can’t face their past.  For the majority, we return to our lives and struggle with readjustment and trying to put ourselves back together.

Here is the short explanation.  There are two types of PTSD.  Type I, is single event or short term trauma, that causes changes in behavior after the fact.  Type II, is long term events where the person adapts survival or coping methods during the event.  Think Stockholm Syndrome.  In addition to what I like to call, Inappropriate Social Responses, like violent reactions to misinterpreted stimuli, there are several other changes.  PTSD is not a single aspect disorder.  However one of the most persistent characteristics is depression and the chemical changes it causes in the brain.

The chemical change is important to understanding why it is so difficult for someone suffering from PTSD to recover.  Reprogramming survival instincts, that have been proven to work, is hard enough to start with.  Extended exposure and reinforcement over time hard-wires them into the brain.  There has been enough research to prove that depression involves chemical changes in the brain, which is why some drugs can mask the worst of the effects.  This is also where your body betrays you, it adapts.  Your body and your brain are constantly trying to maintain the status quo.  If you take opiates to suppress pain, your body increases you ability to feel pain. Increase the drugs and your body continues to adapt.  The same effect can be seen with anti-depressants.

It really sucks when you realize that your own body is conspiring to keep you in the cycle that is tearing you apart.

“Great!  My own brain is trying to kill me!  Now what do I do?”

“I don’t know, dude.  What worked last time?”

“We killed the shit out of the last thing that tried to killed us.”

“Sounds good.  I’m in.  Wait, aren’t we are already doing that?”

To maintain the right balance, you need the adrenaline so High Risk Behavior gets added in.  I love sky-diving, riding motorcycles fast or just danger in general.  It feels like I’m alive again.  It’s all of a piece.  My job lets me feed my addiction because I can explain it away as necessary.  The truth is, I’m getting my fix.  That, took me years to understand and admit.

On a subconscious level, you make excuses for your actions and try to maintain the feeling of being whole and alive.  Like an addict, you do the things that support having PTSD.  Like an addict, we make excuses for it.  Like an addict, we are in denial.