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Out of the shadows: PTSD and me

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After World War II, when the troops – the lucky ones — returned home, they settled in as quickly as they could to their new and relatively stable lives. Not all had seen combat, but those who had would bear the scars for the rest of their lives.

I knew a man who as a teenager had served in Italy, fighting house to house, eyeball to eyeball, for months on end. For the rest of his life he took walks alone in the woods, feeling one with nature and screaming to relieve the pain he carried from those early years.

Some of those who missed direct combat had seen some terrible things. A friend was telling me about his father who was a translator, never closer than five miles from the front. Part of the job was stacking bodies at the end of the day. Women served as well men. There was a lot of pain to go around.

For the most part they did not tell war stories when they got home. Some drank to forget. Some had twitches and tics. Shell shock it was called.

Now we call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – PTSD. There is more care for vets, but it is often inadequate. Alcohol and drug abuse are common. So is suicide. At least we can talk about it now.

PTSD comes from being immersed in difficult events far larger than you are. Put your head down, try to survive. Too much of this and you remain wary, hypervigilant, for the rest of your life. It is especially terrible when these events occur in childhood.

The day is going well when an event acts like a trigger, taking you back to that state of fear. It’s physiological. Stress hormones engage, heart rate and blood pressure spike. It’s hard on the body and soul. It might be a false alarm. A loud noise. A car backfiring. Doesn’t matter. Takes time to calm down again.

In my case the tough stuff didn’t start until after I had graduated from college. I returned home. My smart, fun-loving mother was sinking into a post-menopausal depression. She was on and off the meds, up and down, for the rest of her life. As the years went on other family members also suffered from mental illness. Alcohol was another way to cope. I became the de facto caregiver. I had the responsibility but not the power.

Nurses, doctors and social workers seemed eager to help, but after a while I realized not much was being done. The ill person had rights, and usually they didn’t cooperate. Their broken brain was refusing this treatment, backtracking from that. The system was broken. Eventually my sister, a schizophrenic in a group home, finally on effective medication, took her own life. I was surprised but only up to a point. She had gotten into the system 20 years too late.

It is also no surprise that I suffer from PTSD. I have tried many therapies over the years. Yoga and meditation, vagus nerve stimulation, calming supplements like rhodiola, exercise, and assorted psychological techniques, including hypnotherapy.

Guess what? They all helped. Especially hypnotherapy by Donald Brown, a semi-retired MD. Whenever I left his office he sent me on my way with a simple mantra. “Better days ahead,” he said. He was planting a seed.

I became more positive, less wary. One other practice really helped: being in nature. Walking in the woods, kayaking, cycling, skiing.

So here’s the point. The pandemic has created a curtain of suspicion, distrust, and fear. The media are relentless. We are isolated, cut off from family, friends and colleagues. People get sick. Some recover, some partially recover. Some die.

This is traumatic. It goes on and on. It is unpredictable. It dies down and then flares up again. It is the perfect set-up for PTSD.

There is one bright side. Because PTSD is so common now we can compare notes, compare therapies. It is coming out of the shadows. This is how society begins to deal with longstanding issues. PTSD has become so widespread that we can talk about it.

New therapies are coming online. It’s ok to be sad, to be angry, and to be overwhelmed. Mental health programs are gaining traction in the workplace. These issue are almost fashionable. New insights mean faster diagnosis, better treatments, and less social stigma. It’s about time.

You can read David’s other post on people who live their life on the fringe here.

Author: David Holt is the editor of Silver Magazine and Editor-In-Chief of HUM@Nmedia, the parent brand for Silver. This is his personal blog for Silver readers.

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