PTSD: The Cage of Your Mind – A Veterans Day PSA (Trigger Warning)

My father served in the Navy, specifically the SEALs. He’s seen a lot of things, most of which he still can’t talk about. It speaks volumes to the experience that, what he can say is pretty horrific on its own, despite him having a flair for finding ways to put a comedic spin on it… though, I think, if he and I were honest, the fact that that is the only way the story can come out is also pretty telling.

What sorts of stories does he tell? Ones that involve close brushes with death, pinned down in an open field and only escaping because one of his team mates managed to sneak around enemy lines and (likely figuratively) ripping heads clean from the shoulders of their attackers. The hazing “pranks” that would go on during and after training – one of which involving being trapped in the place where they slept with a gas grenade was sent rolling in… after the “pranksters” removed their gas masks from their trunks. He still has night terrors from that one.

These are the kinds of things he talks about. I dread the things he can’t. There are things that happened to him that he will never be able to say. He isn’t alone in that. There are many, thousands of people – not all veterans of war, mind, but veterans of their own battles for sure – who are just like him.

With how little I’ve said, it should come as no surprise to many that he suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. My mother tells about how, in their early years, sometimes he would wake up swinging because of it, or would move in his sleep – attacking an invisible foe, not realising it was his wife in his bed with him.

Growing up, even as he’s gotten more versed at controlling the symptoms of it, we were always keenly aware that my father had times where it was very, very, hard for him to cope. You were mindful how you moved when you were around my father when I was a teen, especially in a stressful situation. Sometimes the wrong body movement would “trip him offline,” in his words. One second he would be okay, the next second you could find yourself laying on the floor wondering what hit you and he would be spooked like someone who was abruptly awoken from an intense dream-state.

My older brother could vouch for that one, first hand. It happened only once, but once was more than enough for both of them. Hours later, he would piece together what happened and why and try to find some way to find the dark humour in the situation, but the reality would be the same. The damage would have been done, the hurt and pain would still be there, and I’m still not convinced that either of them have quite recovered from the episode.

That he suffers from PTSD does not justify the violence. It does not make it acceptable or okay. He knows it, and I think sometimes he hates himself – hates the PTSD – even more because of it. Is he 100% better at coping? No, but he is learning and it takes a lot of strength to walk down a road like that. And let’s be clear: there is not enough help for suffers of PTSD in the world. All too often, because of that, people like my father have to walk that road alone. The statistics for veterans who have committed suicide in the USA alone (22 a day, as of 2013 – one every 65 minutes), would underscore the necessity for greater access and additional resources.

No one, I repeat, NO ONE goes off to serve their country and returns home unscathed. Is the damage evenly distributed? Without taking away or minimising the pain and suffering of others, I don’t think so. While there are some who would love to calm their own worries by telling themselves that only certain types of individuals experience PTSD, the truth of the matter is that it does not discriminate – it can and will come for you regardless of status or privilege, or there lack of.

On days like Poppy Day, Memorial Day, Veterans day… ect. al., these thoughts instantly spring to mind for me. For one day, people boast and coo their pride and support for people like my father. They hold celebrations and parades and all this stuff that does exactly NOTHING to actually help. It’s a fine display we’ve got, but don’t look too closely, or you’ll notice how hollow and empty it is. Especially in nations where they will honour their veterans and soldiers with their mouthes but strip them of dignity and self respect with their hands by way of cuts to the programs that are supposed to exist to help them (I’m looking at you, US and UK).

It wasn’t until… 5-6 years ago that my father was diagnosed with PTSD and has been able to receive help through Veteran Affairs (VA) for it; my father left service 30-odd years ago. So little did we understand what he was going through, even in our own family, I can recall one time my mother once set-up the computer at the house to play a klaxon (“General Quarters: All hands man your battle stations…”) as an alert for the critical-stop as a minor prank. My father heard it and “tripped offline.” Long story short, he had a flashback and would have jumped out of the second story window had he not tripped over the sofa trying to get to it.

At least 25 or more years he has fought to escape the cage in his mind on his own. He isn’t the exception in today’s world, his case is all too common and there are jerk-wads out there that cut resources to make it even harder for people like my father to get help… all the while they wear a poppy on their lapel and/or a yellow “we support our troops” magnet on their bumper.

I’m not going to lie, the hypocrisy of it all leaves me feeling hot under the collar and it is not in the good way.

As well documented as the condition is (going back as far as the days when it was still called Shell Shock in World War 1, best explained by George Carlin in the clip above) here are people who do not believe that PTSD exists. Some of them are veterans of war themselves, much like the person that prompted this PSA. In some ways, I’m grateful that they were fortunate enough to have escaped the experiences that people like my father have had to the point where they feel PTSD is a myth, in other ways… I want to do unspeakable things to them because they are partially responsible for creating an environment where those who suffer feel like they must do so in silence. They do not realise how lucky they are, how fortunate they are. All I can hope for is that my father never gets to hear someone trivialise his experiences.

But as I’ve said before, PTSD isn’t limited solely to those who have been in or seen combat. Anyone who has suffered a traumatic event can go on to suffer from PTSD. Given how many different forms of trauma there are in the world, and the numbers of people subjected to it, PTSD is a severely under-diagnosed, chronically so, according to some studies.

Why? Even when it stares us right in the face, we all too easily dismiss the signs of PTSD. Is this just another example of how mental illnesses are ignored for fear of stigma? It’s possible, but a part of me feels that is over-simplifying the root problem.

When people are denied access to help, very often the first question I ask myself is: who stands to gain what from this? In this case, it certainly isn’t those suffering with PTSD who are benefiting, so who is? Why is it culturally acceptable to pretend a form of suffering does not exist to the point of leaving programs designed to help with ever decreasing amounts of funding and resources to do the job properly?

On a society-wide level, beyond the military, erasing those who suffer with mental illness also erases the requirement that the ones responsible for the manifestation of the illnesses change. For example, how many people have experienced hazing? How many people went on to haze others? Hazing has all the hallmarks to create situations where people can go on to develop PTSD. To deny the existence of PTSD allows the ones who inflict trauma onto others to sleep peacefully at night – after all, if mental disorders do not exist, their actions could never do any lasting harm on their victims.

It’s on par with people refusing to see racism and other forms of discrimination; doing so would mean owning up to the fact that they may have performed or condoned the actions at the core of the bigotry in the first place, or at the very least been guilty of being a silent witness (see: silence = tacit approval).

In the military, PTSD is a two-sided blade. Owning up to the existence of it in our own people means also accepting that, in a war zone, there are more than just enemy combatants being affected. If those of us who have served and are serving can develop PTSD from time out on the battlefield, then we have to take ownership of the fact that we have created the exact circumstances for PTSD to occur in civilians. That is a heavy weight to bear.

It’s something I haven’t gotten around to asking my dad about, despite my talent at asking hard questions. I honestly do not know how he would deal with that. He’d likely agree that it has happened. In the past, he would have tried to laugh it off somehow, but time has granted him more freedom in his emotions and I think now he may cry a little at the thought. No one, no matter how insidious their actions may be, deserves to go through what he has with PTSD.

I contacted the Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre of South London about their experiences with PTSD. Dr Fiona Elvines was kind enough to respond to my query and had this to say:

Many of the women who access our centre have had or are experiencing the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, often around re-experiencing the trauma. This can make it difficult for women to live their lives in the way they want, flashbacks to times of sexual violence are terrifying and can be triggered by anything, the aftershave a perpetrator wore for example, or a man on the bus who sounds like the perpetrator. We understand PTSD as being the mind’s need to understand how you survived something that is so life shattering, so it will continue to replay (or try to avoid through numbing/dissociation) what happened to try to understand it. We find that accessing specialist long-term (12-18months) therapy helps survivors be able to manage the symptoms as well as process the trauma so that for many of our service users the effects of PTSD diminish after counselling.

For female survivors of sexual violence in the UK seeking help or information, please contact: Rape Crisis (National helpline 0808 802 9999 rapecrisis.org.uk)

For male survivors, please contact: Survivors UK (helpline 0845 122 1201 survivorsuk.org)

For Veterans in the UK suffering from mental health related problems, please contact: Combat Stress (helpline 0800 1381 619 combatstress.org.uk).

So while everyone takes some time today to remember those who suffered for our freedom, I ask that we make it more than just lip service. If you can, make a donation to any of the charities I’ve provided above and others like them; lobby and contact your MPs and push for greater awareness and positive change so that those who fight PTSD do not have to do it alone. If you are in another country, I wholeheartedly encourage you to give to equivalent charities there and also to not allow politicians to get away with honouring our soldiers and veterans with empty words and no actions.

Always remember: Silence = tacit approval. Things will remain the same only for as long as we allow it.

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