One Veteran's Story of Living with PTSD
An inspiring story of strength, resiliency, and growth from a member of our community.
"It is my intent to share my story, in the hope that those who are still suffering like I was, are made aware that PTSD does not mean never-ending pain.
I want people to know that there is help out there, help that works."
It’s been about eighteen months since I lost the ability to control my demons. For the longest time I simply buried the memories and subsequent thoughts, emotions, behaviours and physiology. I coped by refusing to remember, by not bringing up the past and reliving that which upset me so greatly. And it worked. For the longest time I simply coped with the past by not dealing with the past. And that was fine, until the beast escaped. I was later told that there was no turning back. That which had reared its ugly head could not be locked away again, Pandora’s box had been opened. My descent into the abyss had begun.
The first casualty was my sleep. The nightmares increased in both frequency and ferocity at a formidable rate. It was not long before I was scared of going to sleep for fear of what lay waiting in the middle of the night. When I did finally collapse out of exhaustion, I found that I had trained myself to awaken once a dream (good or bad) had begun. I never slept more than 90 minutes without waking.
The negative vortex of emotions soon followed; anxiety, despondency, anger, guilt, shame and frustration to name but a few. And they all seemed to feed off each other, each negative emotion reinforcing and validating the others. I felt there was very little good in the world and even less within myself. I was falling helplessly in a downward spiral, and I had no idea what the bottom looked like, or even if there was a bottom. I was by this time dissociating and suffering from flashbacks. I was unable to do my job safely. Realizing that there was something terribly wrong with myself, I went on indefinite sick-leave.
I’m not sure where my nadir lay. I don’t believe it was a single day or event, rather it was a period of weeks. I was extremely depressed and at times suicidal. Self-loathing is a powerful ugly notion and I felt utterly and completely alone, lost in a blackness that didn’t seem to have an egress. By this time, I had been ‘red-flagged’ by VAC for immediate assistance.
I started psychotherapy, in the hope that I would find answers. I was clinically diagnosed with both severe PTSD and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). The psychotherapy helped. Although I was not ready to change my rationale in the manner required so as to recover, it allowed a door in my mind to open ever so slightly. And this ‘opening’ allowed me to see that change was absolutely necessary and perhaps even possible.
But there needed to be more. I was admitted to an eight-week in-patient program for trauma and stress recovery. I was terrified. I had no idea what the program was, what it entailed and what I would be at the end of it. And in the end, what if I didn’t get better? As ridiculous as it may sound, at this point I was only beginning to truly accept the fact that I suffered from severe PTSD. However, as my admission date approached, I was determined to utterly throw myself at the program.
Very early on in the program I realised a few very important things. Even though there were people from every walk of life, incredibly different people, there was commonality amongst us. We had all lived through a traumatic event or events, and despite those traumas being as different as the people who experienced them, there was a commonality of emotion, of thought processes and of behaviour. I was no longer alone.
The second phenomenon I realised was that I was in a completely non-judgemental environment. Neither the staff nor the other people in the program would judge what I had to say about my feelings, thoughts and behaviours. This led to an awareness and deep appreciation of being able to be utterly open and honest without fear.
After five weeks in the program, things began to coalesce for me. The answers that I so desperately sought were being formed piece by piece, bit by bit, like a giant jigsaw puzzle in my mind. I was learning new skills and techniques from both the Cognitive Processing Therapy and the Dialectical Behavioural Therapy that I was involved in. It was an epiphany for me when I realized that self-compassion was a critical part of my healing process.
I left the program after eight weeks, a changed person. I had learned as much from the patient community as I did from the staff, something I was told very early on would happen. I have embraced new ideas and ways of thinking. I am no longer afraid to go to sleep. I have challenged my previous precepts and have learned that what I so vehemently believed to be true in the past was not always the case. I am, after a very long time, hopeful about the future, and I know again what it feels like to be happy.
My journey is far from complete. Although I will always have PTSD, I no longer allow it to define me nor dictate my life. My demons can only affect me if I choose to let them. Rather than imagining and evaluating different scenarios in the past and future, mindfulness allows me to shift my attention to the present, quieting my mind.
I am still involved with psychotherapists and psychiatrists (and will be for the foreseeable future). I am also now aware that I will be learning and evolving for the rest of my life.
Every day I am truly grateful for the care, love and support that has been shown to me by my family as well as a host of other people during my ascent out of the darkness. I feel extremely fortunate that I was given the help that I so desperately needed. Very few things can be taken for granted.
There is no doubt that some days will be better than others. There will be times when I feel like I am regressing, but I will never again be the person who was lost and utterly floundering in the abyss. I am becoming me.