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Guest Blog: My Acceptance Of Living With PTSD

By Jeff Smith, Director of Military and Veterans Affairs, UNC-TV 

What is PTSD? 

For many years, society, the media and social norms have pushed the world to believe that PTSD is a unique issue facing all military members and veterans.  This is totally false.  Every day, I see and meet people who are suffering from PTSD, including myself.  Like them, I am not a military veteran either.   

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is simply the after effects of going through a traumatic event in life and then having memories or issues with reliving the feelings or scenario of the trauma when you come across similar situations in life.  Because the U.S. is involved in combat zones around the world on a regular basis, you do hear more about our military service members who now have symptoms of PTSD.  The good news for our military veterans and civilians, PTSD can be calmed or even stabilized in life so that you do not even recognize the effects in the future.  I personally have had to go through many years of counseling and re-training to be able to move through most of my issues with PTSD.  There are so many avenues to get help that it is less important to list those and more important to simply say seek help.   

My Battle with PTSD 

I have been in journalism for over 25 years.  While I am working with military and veteran’s groups daily now, it is not how my PTSD began.  One of my first events that led to me living with PTSD came in the summer of 1998 in Richmond, V.A.  My good friend and I were working the weekend night shift for a TV station and we were alerted of a shooting in the city.  It was getting close to the 11 p.m. news, so we took a live truck to the scene to be able to grab the video and interviews we needed and send it back to the station.  While my friend was concentrating on setting up the signal from the truck, I was gathering interviews and information on the scene.  Children were playing and families were out talking about the shooting.  I was interviewing a police officer when a drive by shooting took place where we were again.  I hit the ground as the bullets whizzed through the air.  When the shooting was done, I did not hear anything.  I looked up to see who was hit.  What I saw were those kids.  They were playing just seconds before.  Now they were laying on the ground dead.  Then, the sound of their Mom screaming out to them rang through the night.  There was nothing I could do.  These images and sounds stay with me to this day.  Now, whenever I hear gunshots or hear screaming of a parent over a hurt child, this is where my brain goes.  When I have a flare up, I shut down for a while.  It drives my wife crazy because she does not even know that I am having an issue.  I can’t speak.  I cannot communicate anything.  I just zone out and want to be away from everything.   

Throughout my life, I have had to face trauma.  The Richmond event was the hardest to move past in life, but it is not the only difficult trauma that I have been through.  Working in TV, you are asked to be at situations that the general public avoids whenever possible.  I have seen things that I never want my wife or kids to ever witness.  Whether it is the lifeless children that are being carried out of the burning house, witnessing the killing of a man on death row, the shootout in the streets, or even the aftermath of a hurricane where we witnessed cadaver dogs discovering bodies of drowning victims on the Tar River, I have been through a lot.  It does not make me worse off than anyone else.  It does not make me more deserving either.  I am just here beside you with PTSD.   

The breakthrough for me was the day I realized that these events were adding up inside me.  I was at my Uncle's funeral and I was standing next to my wife at the graveside service when I felt it.  I felt nothing.  Not sadness, not sorrow, not happiness.  Just nothing.  I leaned over to my wife and started to tell her of my lack of feelings.  She understood that what I was expressing was something she had been seeing in me for years building on itself.  She has always been the rock next to me to listen and encourage me to get help.  Life continued and I had more trauma, but at least now I knew I had an issue and could start getting help.

How Help Works 

Once you realize you have PTSD on any level, the first thing to do is try to let someone know.  Find someone who you trust and may have also been through issues similar to you.  It does not have to be a family member at first.  The important part now is to simply understand that you are not alone.  Once you have started that process, get to step 2 quickly and start speaking to a therapist, counselor, or someone who is trained to listen to you and help you recognize what the trauma is and how to cope with the triggers.  The third step is to inform those in your inner circle of what you are going through.  Families are a big help with dealing with PTSD only after they understand what the issue is.  They cannot solve the issue for you and should not attempt this, as it will often times cause the victim to shut down and push them away.   

One of the big things I run into with my work with veterans, especially the older veterans, is that they don’t want to share their feelings on PTSD because they don’t want to seem weak, or they feel that it is too late for them because the events happened so long ago.  This is the worst cop out there is.  But is the most commonly used.  Seeking help is the only way to move through and past PTSD.  It will never solve itself and you cannot solve the issue yourself.   

One example of this is a close friend who is a Vietnam Veteran. He never spoke of his time in service.  His family only recognized that he came home from Vietnam and began drinking, partying, womanizing, and losing his temper whenever challenged.  Over 40 years passed with him living as a functioning alcoholic before one day, at his Mother’s funeral, he finally opened up for a second on why he was the way he became.  It was that trauma of combat that he had suppressed for so many years, that he just needed to let out.  He could not face this demon in the past which led him through multiple marriages, health issues due to drinking, and more.  Even today, he does not seek help and continues to bury his emotions and pain inside himself.  It is a true fear that talking about this will cause him pain greater than what he is suffering from already and that is just too much to handle.  But I still try to get him to share just one more item, one more positive memory to allow him to know he can release what he has inside haunting him.    

Blaming the Victim of PTSD

I often hear people discussing a PTSD person as if that person should be able to control their PTSD symptoms. The fact is that no one can help how their mind reacts to trauma.  The only solution is to try to discover the triggers and try to learn how to lessen the reactions of the brain to those triggers.  I am not a counselor or doctor so understand I cannot give guidance on what the best practice for doing this is.  I just know that without proper help, you cannot move forward.  But the worst thing to do is blame the person going through PTSD for what they are suffering with.   

One of the side effects of PTSD is how it can cause secondary PTSD in a family.  Often times spouses, kids, or caregivers see their family member who has PTSD react to a situation and then they also are traumatized through this.  This is a tough situation for all involved, but needs to be addressed immediately, as well.  Every person that is close to the PTSD victim needs to understand that it is not their fault for having PTSD symptoms.

Out of Service, Out of Help

Many of the veterans I have worked with over the years have an interesting complaint about how the military deals with those who have PTSD.  Once the military sees that the servicemember is no longer able to carry on their duty, they discharge them out.  That seems like it would make sense from a business level decision, but here is where the idea falls apart.  Once the soldier/airman/marine/seaman is released from service, they are no longer receiving treatment for their injury or issue from the military.  The military medical groups work to heal a patient to get them back to a level of ability to be an asset in service.  That is a great idea for someone with a broken bone or torn ligament.  But when it comes to mental health issues including PTSD, the treatment needs to be seamless from military through their return to the civilian world as a veteran.  It was clear that the Vietnam Veterans were sent home without treatments and did not seek treatment for years after service for PTSD.  Today’s service members are doing better on the transition, but this is still a major gap in solving the PTSD issue among our veterans.   

PTSD and Suicide 

Recently, we have seen suicides of survivors of mass shootings come to light.  This is another example of how trauma can continue to affect a person years after the event.  Suicides among our older veterans, especially the Vietnam era, has risen sharply, as well.  There have been studies about this issue that say that loss of tribe is one of the contributors to this feeling of giving up.  In the military, the need to depend on those around you to survive in combat is a clearer description of the need for support.  In the civilian world, it is less clear sometimes.  The Columbine victims, who have recently given into their demons, may be suffering from the loss of tribe as they are no longer in school where they all went through the trauma together.  I dealt with a similar reactive issue in High School where we had a popular student killed in an accident, then a close friend committed suicide.  This set off a number of follow-up suicides among the set of friends.  It was a difficult thing to understand back then for them and for me.  Now, I understand that they were all suffering from their own PTSD.   

Normalizing PTSD

Once you get help for PTSD, there is hope.  No, you never will fully get past the trauma because it is a memory that is stored away.  The key is to learn to live with that memory and not allow it to be a burden to you.  Every traumatic situation that I have been through in my life has made me who I am in part, but it does not define me.  Don’t let it define you either.  It is a scar.  You can try to hide it, but it will eventually be seen.  When you are ready, you will be strong enough to handle the story.  After all, this is the first time I have ever written about my trauma.  It feels good to share.  It feels that the burden is not all on my shoulders now.  Thank you.