In this article, we examine the life of John, a Vietnam vet (name and situations have been changed, but this is based on a true story). Research studies indicate that post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans is far too common. PTSD may develop when someone is exposed to horrors or traumatic events outside the norm of typical crisis events, such as combat veterans, who have some of the highest rates.
In exploring a number of studies, the risk for PTSD varies between 7 – 20%, while on average, 22 veterans commit suicide daily, and a high percentage of vets are homeless, addicts and alcoholics.
The Story of John
John came to see me for counseling due to his life struggles since he returned home after spending significant time in Vietnam as a combat officer. John was a friendly, interesting individual, but struggled initially in trusting this therapist. He was unable to work because of his symptoms although he did have housing. He had lost all family support due to his extreme symptoms. Not only was the PTSD affecting his life, he was also alcoholic and actively using.
In assessing John, he stated that he had directly experienced the destruction, death, and horror from combat. However, over the few years I saw him, he refused to talk about the experiences, only stating that they were horrible. He told me, “Carol, I like you too much to tell you about the things I saw, and worse, the things I did during battle. I did horrible things to people.” He would be in tears stating this. No matter how much I told him I could handle anything he would tell me, he was unable to discuss these atrocities. John lived with these ongoing flashbacks throughout the day as well as struggled with sleep due to nightmares and always being “on guard” awaiting the next battle. He also suffered from day-mares, where these flashbacks took on the intensity of nightmares, although he was wide awake. In these struggles, he would sometimes dissociate, meaning he felt he was actually in combat and was not in the here-and-now reality of being safe back in his hometown or he would dissociate by leaving his body and being a viewer of the horrors.
Although he was coming for counseling, he refused to examine the trauma – avoidance is often a part of PTSD for it allows the person to try to stop any reminders or situations that bring back the distressing events. Unfortunately, by not addressing the PTSD, John continued to have severe trauma responses, responses that may have been lessened through therapy. This led to psychic numbing – where he struggled to feel attachment to others or to life in general.
Other symptoms John had were intense anger outbursts and hypervigilance regarding everyone and everything surrounding him. By being constantly on guard, he was never able to relax as everything was a threat. Also demonstrated was an intense startle response. On day, I ran across John and his inpatient psychiatric social worker taking a wake outside. For some reason, when I came up behind them, I called his name and touched him on the shoulder (I never touch my clients without permission). He whirled around and was ready to hit me when he saw who I was. I apologized profusely and he was upset that he nearly struck me. I tried consoling him with the fact that it was my fault, but he couldn’t be consoled.
Along with these issues, he, like many others, struggled with loud noises. Unfortunately where we live, we have the Blue Angels participate at a yearly festival. Every year, John would “hit the deck” and re-enact being back in combat as these exceptionally loud military planes flew overhead for four days. For John and other vets, this demonstration of military prowess brought back some of the worst symptoms of the PTSD and he was terrorized for the four days every year.
Another common aspect of PTSD is self-destructive behavior. John was an alcoholic and was unable to stay sober although he tried. His PTSD was so intense that he used alcohol to try to cope. And unfortunately, like many veterans, sadly he died from a combination of his mental health issues, not complying with taking his psychiatric meds (so he could drink), and his alcoholism. John drank himself to death in a slow suicide. What a tremendous loss. Here was someone who fought for his country, but was terminally affected by this duty.
For thousands of other veterans, this story is all too familiar for PTSD is a horrible, difficult mental illness to overcome and alcohol and drug abuse often go along with the PTSD. Learn about ways to help our vets to not only survive from PTSD, but to thrive by finding ways to heal through various medical and psychological treatments, find housing and employment, and recover with their loved ones.
A Reach Out Recovery Exclusive By: Carol Anderson
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