Sunday, May 6, 2012

PTSD: The new four-letter word

The acronym is familiar to me, as it is to anyone who has access to mass media in the western world and can read, watch and listen to how it’s “breaking” young men and women returning from military deployments. It’s familiar to me as a veteran, who has known and worked with many whose records bear those letters. I witness every day how it colors the words and actions of someone I love.

But recently, PTSD hit me in a new way.

As of last week, I’m donating my body to science. (Incrementally, by way of Veterans Affairs research studies.) My initial study is investigating brain functioning in veterans with diagnosed stress disorders and/or traumatic brain injury. I spent a day clicking blinking computer boxes, memorizing words and pictures, and counting backwards by threes (by FAR the hardest!). The study also involved a lengthy psychological evaluation. As I prepared for that section, I settled into my chair, ready to rehash what I’ve been discussing with social workers, psychologists, and my unwitting creative writing classes for the last two years.

I talked. The psychologist nodded, scribbling notes onto a series of pages. She prompted me, I kept talking. Then there were no more pages and I had nothing left to say, and, flipping back through her notebook, the psychologist said, “Well, you’re definitely still exhibiting symptoms of low-grade PTSD.”


This was not something I’d been told by the previous social workers or psychologists. This is not the diagnosis reflected in my VA disability rating, which proclaims me a sufferer of Chronic Adjustment Disorder . . . Is that the same thing?

“No,” the psychologist clarified, “they’re definitely different. What I get from you is definitely PTSD.”

Definitely PTSD. Not an official diagnosis, really. An opinion rendered in a non-treatment capacity, one of many professional opinions I’ve received. The outlier. But hearing those letters with my name brought an onslaught of emotions:

Affirmation – so that’s why I feel and act the way I do. Maybe I’m justified, after all. (Followed quickly by . . .)

Guilt – what right do I have to be linked with PTSD? I, who spent most of my deployment behind a desk, who was never shot at, who never shot at anyone, who was never blown up, who made it home safely with my entire unit. So many horrible things I didn’t experience. How can I be associated with veterans who did?

Weakness – maybe I am linked with those who suffered more, and because I suffered less but had a similar reaction, that makes me weak. They say everyone has a breaking point, maybe mine came sooner than most. Maybe I was never meant to be a soldier.

Fear – if I do have PTSD, what does that mean? There are so many things that scare me about that acronym, about the complication, the destruction it can leave in its wake.

More guilt – how can I fear the things in others that I myself embody?

Ultimately, I know I’ll be okay. I know I’ve come a long way in the two years I’ve been back from Afghanistan. In many ways, I think I’m stronger. I know I’m stronger. Those four letters are merely scribbled in a research notebook. They hung in the air for a moment over a table in a VA testing room, then disappeared.

But they seeped into my consciousness, where they’ve been gnawing at me, making me think about how we view PTSD as a society – something that has colored my perspective more than I’d like to admit.

Despite living on the fringes, I don’t understand PTSD. Most people don't. My boyfriend, Colin, had been lecturing on PTSD for a couple years before he was officially diagnosed. When we started dating, I was hesitant to get involved because of those four letters. Conversely, I was convicted by my fear. If anyone can understand a veteran’s emotional state, shouldn’t it be a fellow veteran?

PTSD is scary because it is unknown. Until recently, no one talked about it; military mental health care has always been shrouded in stigma. Now, it seems, as soon as the military is beginning to acknowledge the inevitable mental and emotional affects of war, the issue is being sensationalized outside the military, and veterans are stigmatized by the civilian community.

Lack of knowledge breeds misrepresentation and misunderstanding – two things the media is famous for propagating.

In the latest example, on April 19, “Dr.” Phil (quotations added), aired a show titled “PTSD Takes Veterans from Heroes to Monsters.” As if the title weren’t enough, it came with this melodramatic ad. Following heated response from the veteran community, the show’s name was changed to “Heroes in Pain,” post-broadcast. But the message was already out. As they stressed in public affairs training, the initial message is the one that sticks.

Before Dr. Phil’s show, military mental health advocacy faced another hurdle when U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales became the new face of modern warfare after allegedly massacred 17 civilians in southern Afghanistan. For many, Sergeant Bales has come to represent this generation of veterans: broken, unstable, a hopeless tragedy.

Veteran unemployment continues at an unprecedented rate. There is no denying the PTSD stigma plays a role. In the minds of employers, the “impressive military resume” we were all promised upon enlistment is being weighed against an imagined mental health resume.

No one wants to hire a Sgt. Bales. No one wants to associate with the likes of those profiled on Dr. Phil: the drug addict, the husband who beats his wife, the one who set his wife on fire.

To Dr. Phil’s audience, I’m Frankenstein.

To civilian employers, I’m a loose cannon.

To the VA, I’m damaged goods.

Amidst these messages, how am I supposed to view myself? How are veterans dealing with the emotional scars of war supposed to respond to military messages encouraging them to seek help when seeking help might lead to a diagnosis, and a diagnosis might lead to labels and disenfranchisement?

A new debate, discussed in this article, questions whether a name change would help alleviate the stigma around PTSD. Replacing "disorder" with "injury," for example, communicates that healing is possible.

Whatever you call it, the truth is, PTSD can be scary. It can manifest in ways which, when sufferers don’t get needed treatment and therapy, can lead to violent outbursts like the extreme examples above. These examples are hard to ignore when they scream at us from every news broadcast. But they are the exception. There are many more like Colin and me than like Sergeant Bales.   

Mental health will always be an issue in the military. Just as combat is in the job description, emotional and mental strain are among the expected side effects. Mental health is a bigger issue than it needs to be because we either don’t talk about it, or we talk about it in the wrong way. We ignore it, or we sensationalize it.

On either end of the spectrum, the ones who suffer are the veterans. And they have suffered enough. 

1 comment:

  1. From a fellow veteran: You think you might have PTSD, yet were never under fire? Seriously?

    I think you might have OD'd on the navel gazin' there, Ma'am.

    There is so much that needs to done in the world, and every day you waste on wondering how you should FEEL is a day you are not accomplishing any of it. Find something outside yourself worth doing, and get crackin' .......

    .... for one day, no matter how scared you are, or were, or will be, you will not be able to do anything, and will wish you had done this or that thing, when you were able.

    Stop whining, count your Blessings, and find your Purpose.

    Jim, 5/18FA