By Senior Master Sgt. Brian M. Boisvert, 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
/ Published June 24, 2016
One in three service members are being diagnosed with serious Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or related symptoms. Less than 40 percent will seek help. June is National PTSD awareness month and June 27, 2016 is National PTSD Awareness Day. Break the negative stigma. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Senior Master Sgt. Brian M. Boisvert/Released)
About 7 percent of Americans will experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or have related symptoms in their life and that places them at a higher risk for suicide. June is National PTSD awareness month and June 27, 2016 is National PTSD Awareness Day. Break the negative stigma. (Courtesy graphic illustration/Released)
Waking each morning brings new experiences, new problems and new challenges. Some are amazing or completely devastating, some are easy or complicated and some are exhilarating or painfully debilitating.
Each of us have ways to deal with life experiences, but when we become mentally “stuck” on one event that was painful or devastating to us emotionally; letting go and living life as it was before the event is no longer possible.
When we are unable to mentally recover from a terrifying experience or an event that was so horrible our very existence was threatened, that mental trauma can linger in our psyche like a 5,000 pound time bomb eating away at our inner self. If ignored long enough, it tears at the very fabric of who we are and silently ticks away towards an explosion.
When that happens, a new emotional state may emerge that ultimately destroys everything positive that we try to surround ourselves with. This time bomb is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In the military, the acronym, “PTSD” is something most of us have heard and for some of us, we may even know someone who we think has PTSD. Just knowing about PTSD is good but what does it mean to have PTSD? What does it look like, why does it affect certain people and is there a cure?
For me, that PTSD time bomb started ticking during one of 70 outside-the-wire patrols while on loan to the U.S. Army at Provincial Reconstruction Team, Kunar, Afghanistan between 2009 and 2010 while assigned as a combat photographer.
When I returned March 15, 2010, I came home to a loving family who could never understand the memories or visions entrenched in my head taunting me around the clock.
Waking in a sweat at 3 a.m., I thought I heard a round being chambered into a weapon. In reality, my wife was simply adjusting the speed of the ceiling fan by pulling on the chain. The click I heard literally pushed me up the wall in a fit of overreaction and unjustified terror. This event, about 4-months post deployment, forced me to decide that I needed to get help, or at least try to.
I buried my pride and took a chance with my local mental health professional. Sadly, I was disappointed, quickly left treatment and stuffed every negative emotion in a mental box, stated “I am cured” to the world and locked that box forever. Unfortunately the problem with mental lock boxes is they leak, locks rusts and the mental anguish I refused to face in 2010 began to rot.
“Avoidance is the great perpetuator,” said U.S. Air Force Maj Dennis Tansley, 48th Medical Group, RAF Lakenheath clinical psychologist. “When we avoid our symptoms and memories, we give them strength. The only way to that peaceful state of being you yearn for is through [facing] your memories and through treatment that brings you through [recovery] in a controlled manner.”
By 2013, a now oozing unpleasant stench was mentally torturing me and my past undiagnosed PTSD symptoms that I refused to deal with suddenly ignited when sparked by the normal stressors of my daily military requirements. That spark lit a fuse on my mental time bomb and suicide sounded like the best option to deal with it.
“Allow yourself to slow down, to work through your experiences and to redefine them so that they don't crush you,” Tansley said.
Dealing with your memories and facing your giant in a controlled environment is a painful but surefire path to healing.
“[Addressing your memories properly] gives you strength, wisdom and compassion, and you become better, stronger and wiser for the hell you've been through,” Tansley continued.
My lack of addressing my memories was three years ago, and was one of the worst days of my life. PTSD can manifest itself rapidly within a short period of time or can slowly brew into an explosive cocktail of negativity over the course of months or years. Even worse, there is not a single pre-defined incident that concretely ties any trauma into producing PTSD. In other words, an event that affects one individual negatively may not affect anyone else the same way. Conversely, an event that is so terrible does not mean PTSD will develop.
Following this mental explosion in 2013, I self-identified for help dealing with night terrors, sleep deprivation, hyper-vigilance/startle reflex and trust and relationship issues. I now have a team of professionals who are all dedicated to my recovery and my return to duty while helping me redefine and accept who the “new” me is.
“Symptom and stress management is great, but it won't get to the root of the problem,” noted Tansley. “Exposure therapy brings us through what is needed in order for us to recover from our battle wounds. Pain is your friend! Do not turn away from your emotional pain and try to put a ‘Band-Aid’ on it with alcohol or by burying yourself in work or some avocation, etcetera.”
This June 27th is National PTSD Awareness Day as enacted by congress S. Res. 481 in 2010.
The whole intent of PTSD Awareness Day is to promote the understanding of what PTSD is, why people develop it, how it can be treated and most importantly, how to remove the negative stigma associated with being unfortunate enough to have it.
PTSD does not happen to combat veterans exclusively but to anyone who experiences such a traumatic event that they simply can’t recover from. These individuals can be rape, domestic abuse or other violent crime victims.
According to Dr. Paula P. Schnurr, Executive Director of the National Center for PTSD, “Greater understanding and awareness of PTSD will help Veterans and others recognize symptoms, and seek and obtain needed care."
If you are a silent sufferer or a person who has a problem that you think nobody can possibly understand, I assure you that the longer you think you can hide it and tell yourself you will be fine, the shorter your fuse gets. This is a recipe for disaster and your life or the life of a friend or loved one is potentially at risk.
I encourage you to rethink about baggage you or a friend may have that is silently festering in your/their mental lock box. If it is there, get them or yourself help today or go talk to an expert about what the options for help are. If you are scared to share or ask for help because there is a fear of being negatively labeled or possibly losing your job, let me ask you; is it worth losing yourself or those you love over it when there is a chance of getting help?
Today there is so much help out there when compared to 20-, 10- or even 5-years ago. The traditional chaplain counseling path is an easy one because of their confidentiality but there is also the Military & Family Life Counseling (MFLC), Mental Health providers, Primary Care Provider, Wounded Warrior program members and counselors, and survivors like me.
“We're here to keep you in the fight; we're not travel agents eager to send you home,” assured Tansley, “You have the choice, make yours a good one. You're worth it!”
More information can be found at http://www.ptsd.va.gov/ and for information how to get help, go to http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/where-to-get-help.asp.