PTSD, the mighty four letter word!
PTSD, the mighty four letter word. You know, for those of us who have it, it's not something that you wear with any degree of pride. In fact, it's quite the opposite. It's somewhat embarrassing because we feel like we're broken. We feel like we need to be fixed or something, because at times things are completely amiss or skewed. My layman's version and interpretation of this condition is that we that have PTSD view the world through a kaleidoscope. Do you remember those little toys where you could look through the lens and see it fracture the light. It skews your vision and makes it an abstract and colorful display of what you’re seeing through it. The problem is it that it is that It's not reflecting the true view that is beyond the kaleidoscope.
This article is for those who have experienced trauma in their lives. The victims of assault, the veterans of combat, 911 services, rescue and recovery operations, or those that have or are dealing with death and the difficulty of loss. Basically anybody, and everybody who has had an experience or multiple experiences where they have felt the firehose effects of trauma, triggered by risk and crystalized by an acute awareness of mortality.
I actually had a wonderful experience in dealing with my personal PTSD that began as a result of my experience in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake there. As the Chief of Security for the Utah Hospital Task Force, I ran missions for an abducted three year old American citizen, and did some really hard things related to that. Beyond that., just the nature of the environment and the overall mission itself had a huge effect on me. Bringing medical aid to the largest natural disaster in recorded history was an epic, emotional, and a very traumatic experience.
As a result of this experience, everything that I had done in my life previously, the military, growing up in a gang area in Los Angeles County, my rescue and recovery missions and all the operations I had participated in crystallized into a very intense and real “I could not breathe moment”. While the kaleidoscope wasn't recognized by me at that time, the reflection of my behaviors were apparent. I actually just thought the world looked the way it did and that it was the thing that was fractured. I thought I was right in my view. I would exhibit anger and my frustration at the simplest and dumbest of things. For example, I would tell my children “don't run with a pencil or you're going to fall and it's going to enter your eye socket and be stuck there.” And then in my mind someone's going to have to deal with these terrible images and events.
My world was acutely fractured. My vision was so skewed and I didn't even know it. I just knew I couldn't breathe. So, after a series of things that took place in my personal life, I went to a trauma doc and I sat with him to get some help. I didn't want to, but I did. He was really good. He was in his early seventies and he had come up with a program to help rewire the brain in a short period of time. The process he used is one that is familiar in treatment circles. He took me down a path of experiences that painted pictures in my mind of walking and interacting with people from my past and present. I visualized things and felt strong emotions that were triggered by the methods he used. All these different aspects of treatment were very powerful and meaningful to me. I had many sessions with him and then, at the end of one session he said, “well, David, you're good to go”. I said, “what does that mean?” He said, “well, you know, I think you now have the tools, you are smart and resilient.” During the treatment process he had given me some very specific tools to deal with my issues, to understand the triggers, to be aware of the symptoms and onset that may lead to negative behaviors. He helped me to understand what was happening and why it was happening through the stimulus of sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. Those senses would trigger emotions that were tied to experiences I had previously had. Experiences similar to when I was recovering burned bodies or bodies in the water, or where my best friend was blown up in Tunisia. Gang activity in LA, where I grew up. I was able to learn that there are methods to identify the physiological, psychological symptoms and triggers to these and other trauma’s, and then apply tools to mitigate my anxiety and response. I learned to relax the body, the brain, to reduce the stress that's happening in real-time. I had never had these tools before and a new world opened up to me.
When I first sat with him, he asked me, “so what's going on?” I told him that at times I can't breathe. I said, there's these images that go through my mind, hundreds of them that go round and round. The images going by won't stop long enough for me to grab one of them, and hold it still to deal with it. It just moves to the next image rapidly. He said to me that my description is a classic definition of PTSD. It is like you are not able to really lock down and deal with the specific event because there's so many coming at you over and over again. He said that the brain is wired in a specific way to help us deal with trauma, but what happens when we experience traumatic events in frequency, duration or intensity sometimes the storage, the place where the trauma goes is not exactly where it should be. It is not stored correctly in one of the many places it should be filed. He was telling me something about several parts of the brain where it's stored, and if it's not stored correctly, this carousel of visual experiences can happen and be overwhelming. It becomes the kaleidoscope of fractured vision related to how we see the world around us based on past impressions and reality. Because of this sometimes we don't see the world exactly as it really is in front of us now. Like I said earlier, the kaleidoscope fractures our vision. Our loved ones around us, don't understand why our responses to seemingly simple things are elevated or intensified. They become the victims of our anger, our rage, our frustration, our self-destruction, our compulsive behaviors. They begin to suffer also.
So in order for us to not check out of life and to become productive, we have to recognize that we have some challenges and may need some help rewiring our brain. This is not an easy thing to admit or to do. In fact, because of my realization of this, I will go to a Police department by invitation to share my experience. I've been to 911 agencies, dive teams, and many other groups to talk about the elements of stress, trauma and my personal experience with PTSD and healing. Perhaps the reason it's effective for me to share in person is that I'm a six foot three, very large guy. I am very intense and robust. So when I get up and tell people that I'm not broken, and I'm not a casualty, but I have suffered from the negative effects of trauma. I have received help and tools that help me to cope. These hardened cops or 911 professionals kind of look and say, you know, maybe it's okay for me to go talk to somebody.
I would say that, I don't think PTSD is well understood by many people, even many professionals that are out there. There are focused experts on the subject that should be sought out. People who have been trained specifically for trauma and its effects. Those are the people that I think you need to seek out. General counselors at times might have an awareness of it. They might have even gone to seminars or had some training on it, but the core expertise needed to really help somebody navigate this terrain is very specific as it is a difficult place to go, walk through and to come out on the correct side of it. I want to also express that I don't believe that there is a magic cure for this, but it can, with time and effort get much better. Treatment is only as good as our willingness to do the work and to apply the correct principles and methods.
I know that you can do this. You can get the brain wired more correctly and have a great quality of life after hard times. For me specifically, since I have such a volume of trauma experience, such as being in Japan after the tsunami, recovering bodies, doing search and rescue for many years, dive rescue, recovering bodies under the ice, successes and failures and everything in between. Vehicle extrication, fires, putting children in metal coffins. Being assaulted by gangs in the Los Angeles County area. Navigating gang terrain when I was a young man trying to get to and from school. My battle buddy, getting blown up in Tunisia and many other experiences in Southeast Asia, Central America from Desert Storm to the Berlin wall coming down. All these different things have created imagery, all these experiences have caused memories to be written and many needed a guided type of processing.
Interestingly enough my doc and I did not really delve into specific experiences when I met with him. I actually only shared a couple with him early on. The method was to treat the brain as a whole and not each specific experience. I am sure there are many ways to address PTSD, but for me this approach seemed to work effectively.
With previous trauma and PTSD, sometimes we don't always get to control when the symptoms want to show up. To that point, I was actually at one of the seminars doing my PTSD kickoff presentation as the opening speaker when I saw this first hand. I did my hour, made the cops laugh and told them some hard stories that weren't related to police work. They were related to rescue and recovery missions, which was more comforting to them because they're not in that role. They were however able to understand the related trauma and difficulty. They could look at a trauma from a perspective that was not specifically cop talk, and that made the subject more approachable. After my presentation, the main speaker got up and did a really phenomenal job for several hours. She was able to really walk people through what can happen and why. The veteran cop sitting next to me leaned over to me after the first hour while she was talking, and asked me; “Do you think I have this?” I said, “well, how long have you been a cop?” And he said “Over 20 years”. I said, “In my opinion, how could you go through a 20 year career and not have stuff build up unless you have processed it effectively?” He then said, “Well, what do I do?” Simple. I said, “The things that keep you awake at night, and that you can't get out of your head, or those things that cause you tremendous anxiety... Those are the things you need to go and talk about. A professional like Amy will walk you through the path and help you understand the tools that will help you get your brain wired more correctly. That will give you quality of life because you'll recognize the triggers, and you'll get the tools. Then you'll be a more productive father, husband, friend, and brother.”
He actually said to me that he had felt that he had buttoned everything up, folded it neatly and put it in a box and had kind of controlled it. And I said to him, “You don't get to pick when that box opens up. It all comes out. Sometimes that happens after you retire.” From what I heard, he did go get some help. Often what happens is what happened to me after Haiti. A reckoning takes place. Haiti was just the trigger that launched my brain from the previous decades of service into the “I can't breathe and I'm going to die mode”.
One of the other points I wanted to make was we have a specific common characteristic among military veterans, police and 911 professionals who have experienced large volumes of trauma because of their chosen professions. The one thing that we share is LOVE. A therapist taught me this. We share the fact that we desire to help people, we care and so we go and do. We want to make the world a better place so we risk life and limb and are exposed to huge amounts of trauma. We definitely do not go for the money. It might be initially for the stability of a job, but that's not enough to keep you motivated to be there, especially for a long period of time. So love is the commonality and love is what makes us vulnerable because we care and our hearts are open. We invest ourselves into what we do, then when we see the hard things and we can't seem to do anything about some of them, we begin to fracture. It creates a real dichotomy in the brain. It affects the wiring of the brain. It affects our sense of, and basis of reality, and what reality really looks like. That kaleidoscope begins to develop in a way that skews our future vision, even vision of normal, common, and beautiful things. This is why veterans of these activities stick together. This is why you'll often see veterans like veterans, cops like cops, firemen like firemen and rescue people like rescue people.
If you do suffer from exposure to any form of trauma, whether you've been a rescuer, assaulted or been in deep combat operations. Whether you've seen blood, death, or any trauma related difficulty. I hope that you reach out to somebody who has the skills and the ability to walk you down the path that I was able to walk down. To be healed and become functional and productive. You have so much to give because of what you have done and seen. I'm still in the process of this, just so you know. I've had my episodes, but I recognize them more than I used to. It might be that I recognize them after they happened, but I still recognized them where before I might not have. I'm not able to always stop them, but afterwards I'm able to recognize it, express to the person that's been involved an apology for my behavior, or what I might've said or done. Each time I get better at identifying and altering the negative effects of my triggers.
Fortunately for me there hasn't been physical violence to people close to me, other than those who have startled me and experienced a resulting smack down which I am not proud of. Those are very rare and happen less and less, but they have happened. Most of the time it has been an emotional outburst, impatience, or driving beyond the mark with this crazy superhuman, what people would call strength. A lot of it might be from personality, but some of it might be from fear of failure or not being prepared for the thing that might come. Some of the thoughts are to be over-prepared in some cases such as, 50 caliber machine guns on the corners of my home, Claymore mines on the perimeter, a 1911 pistol in my lap, a couple of dogs at my feet, the windows all locked and the alarm system on while I sit with my back to a corner and watch a TV show. That overstated example is called hypervigilance, and is not an appropriate reality unless you're deployed. Afterall, how many people are actually trying to assault the perimeter of my home and penetrate my basement and get to me in my safe place? Not many, if any. But because we have experienced the things that we have, the risk, the vulnerability and the fracturing of our foundations, we sometimes think that the world is out to get us. A
I have adapted to living a lifestyle where I am prepared most of the time, at least in my own mind. I normally have weapons around me at all times, and I check everybody who's around me all the time. I will engage with people verbally at times, politely and kindly to find out who they are, and as a filtering mechanism to determine if they are friend or foe. These are coping mechanisms that I've developed and yours might be a little bit different.
So in summary, if you have any of this stuff going on, reach out, get some help, stay with us, do not check out. The average of 22 veterans a day killing themselves is not acceptable and must be reduced. Same with the cops and 911 professionals that are killing themselves. We need to try our best to keep you with us, to keep the experiences and the value that you have to offer in our communities, and in our families. Never give up and never quit.
I hope you have a beautiful day to day and I really appreciate you taking the time to read this. There's some risk in sharing this, but you know what, it's worth it. If I help one person, I have done something productive and made a difference from my personal truth and difficult experiences. Have a great day!