Saturday, February 9, 2013

P.T.S.D. penned in 2013


I have been asked to comment on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the following ramblings are my take on it...

I must at this juncture let you know that I have no formal 'educated' background with respect to PTSD I have never studied the subject or had any association with anyone suffering from PTSD excepting myself, I am purely relating my own personal experiences and it is a homegrown approach to a subject that can and does get very complicated.

The time it has taken me to get to this is close on 26 or years now and as strange as it seems it is never something that you actually get right or manage to handle correctly. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a 'very' real set of issues and afflictions but it is not restricted or only relating to military veterans, even though it was military that popularized the 'PTSD' catch phrase. Anyone who suffers a traumatic experience 'could' and I specifically use the word 'could' suffer from PTSD. Everyone suffers trauma differently and the consequences of addressing it or not needs to be acknowledged and recognized.

If you ask me what is PTSD I would be hard pressed to give you an accurate clinical explanation or for that matter plot out a set of occurrences that would either prove or disprove the existence of PTSD. All I can relate is that there are general symptoms that affect me that are very difficult to pin down. At this stage I think I should start at the very beginning.

Going through a traumatic experience gives your mind a duty to perform and a set of rules to adhere to and they all stem from self preservation. Your mind seems to have an uncanny ability to shut down during a time of extreme stress and it shuts down in order to preserve and survive the threat irrespective of its origin. I am not going to speculate or try and draw parallel experiences here as I have only three or four to work on that I have personally experienced. Your body does the same thing under extreme stress as it closes down most of the outer extremities and rushes blood to all the vital organs in order to keep them as preserved as possible during an "attack". Your mind remains completely receptive to any and everything happening during this period. I can't stress this enough. Your senses will collect a vast amount of information during this time that you will most likely be oblivious to for years after the incident.

Everything your eyes see, ears hear, nose smells, body experiences such as temperature, wind, clothing texture all gets imbedded into memory somewhere and is stored for recall at a later stage. You will not 'know' this on the surface but your instinct will definitely use that experience at a later stage in a similar set of circumstances as it knows it could be personal survival time again. The reason military personnel seem to suffer PTSD to a larger extent than civilians is the 'length' of time that they are exposed to the threat or even the potential threat that they face on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. It is an exposure that can become unnaturally long and difficult to endure. It is endured because of training, circumstances and the simple fact that they can not just walk off a battle field and essentially abandon their fellow soldiers.Please do not take the learned doctors pretty pictures that it can be likened to a football team on tour and they have to watch out for each other. The one's consequence is 'lost' and the other one's consequence is 'dead' Acknowledge it or not there is no greater pressure to live with constantly than the fear of loosing a close friend because you were negligent, scared or not prepared.

In order to maintain this state of readiness and anticipation you condition yourself to be on high alert and believe you me when I say you can achieve this alert stage and sleep at the same time. Many a time we as a group faced threats that materialized in a thick African bush environment in the dark of night and at least eighty percent of personnel woke at the slightest hint of trouble and were battle ready in under a minute. I don't know if this is going into too much detail, but because this is essentially reading that I hope will reach PTSD sufferers, I will elaborate a little further.

Under 'battle' conditions every single noise, image, smell or movement is suspect. If you understand the terror one faces advancing on a position that is known to have in excess of thirty tanks dug in to defend a regiment of foot soldiers you may understand what I am getting at here. This territory is new to you and they have been here preparing their defenses for two weeks, and you know they know you are coming. During this advance you hear the 'whining' sound bullets make as they pass you by and the realization dawns on you that those bullets are from snipers but you are unable to hide in your vehicle turret as you need to stand with your torso extended outside the turret and direct your driver carefully through a maze of trenches and traps to get within firing distance of these tanks. Now contemplate the fact that you did this two or three times a week for several months. I can in graphic detail tell you what and where the vehicles stood, their turret directions and I can clearly describe to you the color of the uniforms the 'enemy' were wearing and if I could draw I would give you a accurate drawing of a mug shot of the persons face. It would unfortunately either be an expression of anger but most often it was an expression of terror that is etched into my mind.

But enough of the details. Essentially your mind registers the threats and believe you me there are many and records them for retrieval later. Now one such stressful situation is possibly easier to handle but PTSD in soldiers is more apparent because they spend months under these circumstances and face such situations two or three times a week. It got to a stage that we would stroll through a target area with mortars raining down around us and you wouldn't care. Very few people realize how far you have to be pushed not to care whether you lived or died. You were just so sick to death of the stress and tension that your mind has now gone beyond self preservation and snapped over into the 'I don't give a damn' mode.

Now this is where we get into the PTSD that matters. For you see once you have reached a stage where you don't care you start running on adrenalin alone and your survival is not up to your mind or for that matter your instinct but training and the will to protect those that you lead. The responsibility of leading or following is immense and this keeps you going. Every single act after this advanced stage of "How bad can it get?" pales in significance. My brother and I have a saying that when life gets us down and we seem to loose control of work or home life or we are simply taking strain in the civilian world, we jokingly comment that "At least no-one is shooting at us" And you know the honest truth 'is' just that real.

No matter what is thrown at us and no matter how difficult life gets "At least no-one is shooting at us." always comes out and makes us relax enough to spread a bit of light onto 'our' reality. Adjusting to 'normal' life is so difficult for people that have been through a traumatic episode, and this is simply because they have experienced or seen things that are so far beyond normal that very little else in life holds their attention. This is not to say that they obsess about their experience necessarily but rather that little or no importance is placed on their current set of circumstances.

A persons attention span diminishes dramatically with most spheres of our lives. I have for example moved apartments or home in excess of twenty times since the military. I have held thirteen jobs in that time, the longest period being nine years. I have had a string of relationships, of which two, one for close on fifteen years and the second more recently of over four years where I seriously attempted to settle down and live a homesteaders lifestyle. These did not work out. Now I do have very valid points as to why they did not work out but that at this stage is elementary to the discussion. The fact is that it is very difficult for me to be satisfied in this world. Nothing is too my standard and when I make a conscious effort to lower our expectations I land up with the very short end of the stick. My expectation and deal with the world is and was during those periods of my life, to be loved unconditionally. I would change into anything you wanted me to be but when i got home all I wanted was to be loved without reserve, without judgment and especially without criticism. Now unfortunately that does not seem to be the way of the world and alas I shuffle on alone.

Having been pushed to the limits psychologically and physically for such a long period of time means we fully understand our limits and abilities. We would often be pushed to the limit physically and your body would react by emptying its stomach. But now keeping in mind that you are unable to stop but are forced to carry on because you have other people to think about so you force yourself on. you are forced to control the shakes and the shivers and maddening desire to give up. You find that your body has reserves as yet undiscovered and you get a second wind. Everything is fine at this stage and you are feeling invincible because even though your stomach has done its thing the shivering and shaking has stopped and the clarity of thought has returned with a brilliant sharpness things change again and after a few more hours things get a whole lot worse. Disorientation sets in and hallucinations become a problem and eventually your body either levels out and maintains this half awake consciousness or your body shuts down completely and goes into shock. You have now rendered yourself pretty much useless and your body will remain in a shut down state in order to both preserve vital functions and to start rebuilding the energy and mental stability platforms.

I digress, let me return to the final decision. The limit your mind and body set itself to give up is death. When you reach a stage where you literally couldn't care whether you lived or died psychologically a barrier or boundary in your mind is shattered and you enter a whole new sphere of mental exploration. This also happens to groups of people under battle conditions where they are so angry, emotional, stressed for a myriad of reasons that they collectively move with one purpose. An example of this was we were attacked by Mig aircraft whilst traveling one morning and we were traveling when we shouldn't have been and got spotted by the 'other' side and they attacked.

The chaos that ensued is all a little jumbled in the mind  but safe is to say there are four or five measurable incidents from that morning, one, I got knocked off the ratel (military vehicle) I was standing on, landing on an ammunition case and injuring my back quiet badly. I recall running to the vehicle that had been hit call sign 33C. The dust, smoke, heat and screams drove me into a frenzy. Everything gets a bit blurred when you are running on adrenalin. I located the driver inside the vehicle all bloodied and limp. His name was De Jager and I was unsure as what to do, move him or not to move him his injuries were extensive. Just then the ammunition started exploding around us and I dragged him out into the open. Roderick came in to help me move him far enough from the vehicle. I could still hear someone screaming so I went back into the vehicle. The heat was unbearable and the acrid smoke intense enough to burn the eyes. I could not find Gary and crawled further into the vehicle. Just then someone was pulling at my leg and I struck out at them, and returned further into the chaos, I had to find Gary. The explosions had by this stage deafened me completely and the person pulling me out was a sergeant from the support services. He was shouting at me but I could not make out a word he was saying. I had at this stage not comprehended that I had lost my hearing. On my third re-entry he dragged me out forcibly and it was then that they pointed out that Gary had been found. It was this action that possibly saved my life as the vehicle started shaking as the 90mm ammunition really started popping. Gary had lost his lower leg but he was alive. I assisted Dion and Roderick remove De Jager to a safe distance and all i can remember was the silence and smell of burnt flesh. No-one addressed me directly as they thought I had lost it. Admittedly I assumed I had too as everything was slow motion and not a sound to be heard. I still could not understand that I was deaf and no matter how much people shouted at me I could not comprehend what they were on about. I went looking for and found my crew scattered around the site and after ensuring they were OK and safe I remember returning to the medic station to check on Frikkie. The image I have is his head sideways on my leg and lap lying face down and I was swatting flies that covered his entire head, back and legs was one dark patch which I initially assumed was blood but it was in fact flies. I distinctly remember he was drastically loosing blood and the medics would not allow me to donate blood even though I am 'O Neg' (meaning I can give blood safely to any blood group) as they thought I was in too much shock. Unfortunately after eight or nine hours struggle and several injections of morphine he passed away. I had already returned to my vehicle by that stage.

The main reason for this retelling is that the next time we were in a similar situation I ignored the danger as many of us did, and walked through a target area with mortar bombs falling with little or no respect for my own life - something inside died with De Jager and till this day there is a part of me that was left in that burnt out Ratel.

Now after reading this, possibly imagined what that chaos and stress and total misery was like, then you are now expected to immediately transport yourself into a coffee shop in the center of the city. Where ever you find yourself right now. Keeping those emotions, smells, fears, and terror from battle and literally open your eyes and you are in the city drinking coffee. You desperately want to dive under the table for cover. A vehicle is traveling past on the road, usually a VW beetle and it backfires.
I cannot express to you the jolt and emotional storm that hits you feels like. You immediately look for your firearm that was close at hand and no longer is. You are planning escape routes, at the same time you are analysing threats instinctively. Your girlfriend or wife turns to you and says to you that you are ignoring her and you seem distracted. You need to bury those instinctive reactions within a second or two and converse with others as if you had been day dreaming which was and has always been my excuse.

Please understand that it is not always like this. When things are going well your body and mind mask and dampen down anything up to ninety percent of this reaction which, never really leaves you by the way. Well twenty six odd years on and I am still on the lookout for threats and danger spots in the shadows. Whether I have cultivated this seemingly paranoid state because of PTSD or not, I am unsure, but it remains a part of me till this day. The problem with this is that it creeps up on you and when your system is physically down or your emotional state is really low, these paranoid tendencies creep up on you and if not recognised and dealt with immediately they become an obsession and the tendency to become depressed and wallow in self pity is very strong indeed.

Now a mind that has stored and buried all those images, smells, sounds and feeling from all those years ago recognised some sort of a connection and lets you have one of a few reminders, the smell maybe, or a vision of a battle lived through or even a face and expression that reminded you of someone you knew. Or for that matter you stumble upon something on the internet that relates to your activity up there and a massive chunk of memory comes back to you. You 'must' deal with this memory and not bury it again. Your mind twenty six years on will release bits and pieces of the trauma to you to deal with.

My logic here is that the mind knows that you are unable to deal with the full trauma so it selectively releases information to you to deal with over a span of a couple of years. Yes you could become obsessed and dig it all up yourself but that would only be if you did it yourself and it would require a conscious effort.

this is all becoming a little long winded so I will close off here and carry on in the near future...

*focus on something greater than yourself



I seemed to have got a little carried away on the previous entry regarding PTSD but to close that conversation off, I want you to know this. PTSD is manageable and if the loved ones around you are aware and caring to your needs they can support greatly 'BUT' you will manage fine without that support as many of us have.

I attribute my seemingly decent result to the fact that I have managed to to focus on items greater than myself. Now I am no happy clapper but my focus has been spiritual of sorts. I acknowledge the fact that a 'entity' more powerful than ourselves exists and we are tuned to a vibration that we have yet to fully grasp and understand as humans. Nature is far more in tune with this force than we are and it is to this higher force and understanding that I focus.

Now in order to effectively combat PTSD you have to see yourself as a piece of a puzzle so to speak. The world does not revolve around you and even though you are the most important person in this world of yours it does not belong to you. You can NOT go around hating the people that sent you to war. You can not hate the education system that failed you and forced you into the belief that war was manly and patriotic etcetera Do not even think of blaming your parents for allowing this to happen to you at the tender age of eighteen or nineteen years old.

Feel free to acknowledge the fact that the entire system sucks and let you down. You can lament this fact with justification for hours and hours, damn they have created organizations that point fingers at the perpetrators, 'BUT' I ask you to what purpose. If you feel good blaming the rest of the world then, that is what you should do. But again I suggest that you do not go out of the house with this chip on your shoulder thinking the world owes you. Truth be told they do! They owe us big time considering they took a nineteen year old boy and screwed with his head, his morals and his entire balance of his life to be lived.

But realistically that pat on the back we all expected when we got home and never got does not exist. The rest of the world hide their heads in shame for what they allowed to happen but amazingly still do it today. Nobody wants to talk about it and very few people do. Once possibly twice a loved one has pushed me for information regarding what we did up there, if find myself starting at the most basic level of explanation and they lose interest or do not want to know anything further because you see we live with it every day and it is not shocking to us in the least. It is beyond their grasp and think we are trying to shock them. One classic statement I heard was that I watch too many movies and my imagination has run wild. For obvious reasons my attempt at explanation ended right there.

If you want someone to put their arm around you and sympathize then, best you seek out a counselor whom you pay to listen to you. It is as simple as that, you tell them that you expect sympathy and they will give it to you. Another alternative is to seek out a fellow comrade that stood next to you during the battles or at least someone who has been there. The counselor may or may not understand but that does not really matter as your greatest need is to explain what you did. Counselors do wonderful work and are able to give you the tools on how to manage your anger, social skills and a myriad of other topics. As for family, friends and strangers I do not believe I have the right to dump all this baggage onto someone else so I never have.

Please keep in mind that this is 'my' experiences and opinions and has nothing to do with an educated or scholars approach to PTSD. So if it is understandable to you then great if it is not then carry on looking. I do believe that each persons path is unique and based on your history, your current circumstances and your personality, these will determine the best route for you. Never expect a handout.

I have chosen one decision making principle in my life that is greater than myself, and that I have applied to every single decision I have made since the military 'wake up' I went through. And the question I ask myself every single time I need to make a call about a direction at work or in a relationship or for that matter a moral judgement that needs to be addressed I ask myself this...

If my choice takes me closer to God realisation then I will make that decision without hesitation. If the decision takes me further away from that goal it is dismissed without a second thought. This process of decision making will never allow me to go to war ever again, I will never be able to hurt anyone if using this decision process correctly and honestly. PTSD gave me huge anger issues and turning to violence was just a mere memory away and it was on tap to use 24/7. By applying my decision process honestly and consistently the majority of those problems faded.

Please do not be fooled as it is not an easy process but it becomes a habit and instinctive which allows you no second guessing as to the correct path to follow. I still live with PTSD with respect to the memories, the constant vigilance and at times paranoidal tendencies to threats perceived or real but this I can live with. I have managed to side step countless scenario's where the outcome would have been violent and aggressive purely because of this vigilance and attitude towards life.

So in closing my one overriding thought is this...

Seek out something that is greater than yourself and respect it, cherish it and nurture yourself back into a whole person with thoughts and original ideas. Don't spend a lifetime trying to escape something that is uniquely yours. Manage it and move on, as it is very, very easy to fall into the trap of self pity. I managed to step back into myself prior to the trauma and my sincere wish is that you manage to do the same...


No comments:

Post a Comment