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The Reality of Living With PTSD
Today, I had the honor of standing and saluting a great American hero as he passed through our small Texas town. Unfortunately, that honor had to be done posthumously. Chris Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield were killed last week while attempting to help a fellow veteran deal with his PTSD. The funeral procession began in Kyle’s hometown of Midlothian, Texas, and proceeded to Texas State Cemetery where he was laid to final rest. Texas Department of Public Safety said this may be the longest in U.S. history. Thousands of Texans lined virtually every overpass between Dallas and Austin to pay their respects to a true hero.
Chris Kyle’s funeral procession as it passed through Belton, Texas, along I-35.
I wanted to take a moment to mention something that doesn’t get much or any publicity. I had a couple of email exchanges with Chris over the past year. It was only three separate conversations, but they were deep.
We hear about the man that murdered Chris and Chad who had PTSD. We always hear about the maniacs who had or claimed to have PTSD committing heinous or violent crimes. But, when we read about PTSD in the paper or see on the news, we don’t usually hear about it associated with someone like Chris Kyle. That’s because, like most veterans with PTSD, Chris found positive outlets for dealing with his combat experiences. And he used his coping strategies to help others.
PTSD does not make a killer. It does not make a robber. It does not make a spouse abuser. It does not make a thief. Some turn to drugs to numb the pain it’s possible that the drugs may lead to one of those. But PTSD is an anxiety disorder. And it’s manageable.
What we don’t hear when the Chris Kyle murder is discussed is that the killer, Iraq veteran Eddie Routh, is a criminal. He was most likely a drug addict as well, based on what authorities were told by his sister. She said that Routh told her “traded his soul for a new truck.” So, while PTSD may have led to Routh’s drug use, it didn’t cause Kyle’s murder; criminal behavior did.
When I was first diagnosed with PTSD officially in 2009 I thought my life was over. The label rested on my shoulders like a ton of bricks. I was a successful First Sergeant. I was on my way to Sergeant Major. The last thing I needed was something holding me back. I had swallowed the stereotype that continues to dominate the media when discussing people like me. I was perpetuating the stigma inside.
After much internal struggle, I decided to do what any good leader would do: lead from the front. I pulled my company together and explained that I would no longer be their 1SG. I explained that I had been struggling with PTSD for six years. Friends and family alike were telling me to get help and I kept blaming them for being nosy or being the problem. There was nothing wrong with me. I wouldn’t be so angry if people would just stop pissing me off. It was pure deflection. It was costing me my marriage.
During one argument with my wife, she said the words that still burn hot in my mind: “I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
I thought I was going to lose the love of my life, a woman I had been with since we were both teenagers. The mother of my three wonderful, smart kids. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I like to say that when you have PTSD you have two choices: learn to live with it or die from it. I made a commitment to learn to live with it. But, I needed help.
As a blogger, I also decided that I was going to document my struggles as I set about getting better. I made a promise to myself that I wasn’t just going to write about my progress, but I would also share my setbacks. I hadn’t written so candidly since starting this blog back in 2005. There would be no filters. My hope was that those reading my words would be strengthened by my successes and avoid my pitfalls. Friends privately told me I was making a mistake, that the Army wasn’t ready for an open, honest discussion like I was about to undertake.
As it happens, Troy and I were interviewing then-Vice of Staff General Peter Chiarelli about his efforts at encouraging Army leaders to take an active role in removing the stigma of seeking mental health counseling.
“This issue is real and must be addressed,” Chiarelli said at the 2009 Association of the United States Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition. “Contrary to what some believe, PTSD and TBI are not phantom conditions exhibited by weak soldiers trying to get out of a deployment. This is something that affects real warriors.”
He implored NCOs to take a different approach to the traditional one that was present at the time.
“If you believe anxiety and depression are signs of weakness, so will they,” he said. “This is the great challenge of your generation. And how you respond will impact not only the soldiers who serve beside you today but those in future generations.”
Going public about my struggles with PTSD has been a blessing and a curse. Some have attempted to use my writing against me, claiming that I’m a danger to myself and others. Others have said I should never be allowed to lead troops. Some have said that I should have my guns taken from me.
Even the great State of Texas has given me grief about my PTSD. When I went to renew my driver’s license, there was a question about seeking mental health counseling. Answering honestly because of my PTSD therapy, I was forced to retake the written and driving tests for my car and motorcycle license. The lady that literally right before me must have been in her 80s easily and needed a cane to walk, she wasn’t even forced to redo any part of her license, but because I had dared to seek treatment to deal with my combat experiences and I was honest about it on my application, I was singled out as someone who may not be capable of driving.
It was infuriating and I made sure that my Texas representatives knew what I thought. I contacted the DPS leadership as well. Everyone assured me that the employee helping me shouldn’t have done that, but how many other Texans are going through the same thing? How many are afraid to seek help because of this one question on the application or for fear of being denied their basic right to self defense and owning guns?
I would gladly take all my critics tenfold and would gladly take 1000 driving tests because the positive experiences I’ve had through my writings far outweigh any inconveniences I’ve experienced.
I’ve had the opportunity to share my story of PTSD and that dark night I thought seriously about ending my life. Over the past few years, I’ve literally had several dozen troops approach me either by email or in person to talk about their pain. I’ve had service members from nearly every service reach out to me for help because they didn’t know to whom they could turn. One Soldier approached me after a presentation to his company and said that he had a plan to kill himself that weekend until he listened to me. I personally sat down with that Soldier and convinced him to get help. I had the honor and privilege of taking him to a counselor and didn’t leave until he and I both knew it was safe. He is doing 100% better and still communicates with me when he gets a promotion or award, things that never would have happened had he decided to end his life.
Had I decided to end my life, I never would have been there for him. When we are in the deepest depth of despair and contemplating suicide, we may feel like there is no light at the end of the tunnel. I sure didn’t. We may feel like it’s just too much frustration, anger, and disappointment to keep on keepin’ on. In those moments where we are at our lowest we can’t think rationally. We don’t see the big picture and are focused too inwardly so that we lose insight. It’s at THAT moment we should reach out because those moments are nearly impossible to handle alone. Don’t pick up that gun or that bottle of pills; pick up the phone. Call someone, anyone. Keep one of the phone numbers I list below on your speed dial or favorites list. If not for you, then in case you need it for a friend. The suicide solution is no solution.
Dealing with PTSD is not a destination, it’s a journey. You will ALWAYS have the memories of your traumatic event. Those won’t go away. But, the way you deal with those issues in a positive and healthy way is possible. There are coping mechanisms and measures you can take to overcome the feelings of fear, anger, depression, anxiety, loss, and guilt. I know this isn’t popular, but there are also medications that help.
While I’m on the topic of medications, let me offer some words of advice. I went through three different medications for anxiety and depression before finally finding one that worked. As a matter of fact, it worked so well I thought I was cured and just stopped taking them! Big mistake. It was shortly after stopping cold turkey that felt the urge to take my life. ALWAYS take your medications as prescribed. If they aren’t working, get with your doctor and have them titrate (incrementally decrease or increase) you over to another medication. There is no be-all end-all solution for every person. If you are prescribed a medication and you don’t think it’s working, don’t give up and just stop trying. I have found what works for me, but the same may not work for you. Not everyone needs medications and I urge you to try getting better without them first.
Finally, when you make a decision to seek help don’t give up. Like medications, no one doctor works for everyone. If you don’t feel that a doctor or a program is working for you try another one. If that one doesn’t work, try another one. I have talked to so many people that simply don’t get counseling because the ONE time they did, they got nothing out of it. Don’t give up. Don’t think that PTSD is just something that is going to ruin the rest of your life and you might as well accept it.
Soldiers and families in need of crisis assistance can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Trained consultants are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year and can be contacted by dialing 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or by visiting their website at http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Army leaders can access current health promotion guidance in newly revised Army Regulation 600-63 (Health Promotion) at: http://www.army.mil/usapa/epubs/pdf/r600_63.pdf and Army Pamphlet 600-24 (Health Promotion, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention) at http://www.army.mil/usapa/epubs/pdf/p600_24.pdf.
The Army’s comprehensive list of Suicide Prevention Program information is located at http://www.preventsuicide.army.mil.
Suicide prevention training resources for Army families can be accessed at http://www.armyg1.army.mil/hr/suicide/training_sub.asp?sub_cat=20 (requires Army Knowledge Online access to download materials).
Information about Military OneSource is located at http://www.militaryonesource.com or by dialing the toll-free number 1-800-342-9647 for those residing in the continental United States. Overseas personnel should refer to the Military OneSource website for dialing instructions for their specific location.
Information about the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program is located at http://www.army.mil/csf/ .
The Defense Center for Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE) Outreach Center can be contacted at 1-866-966-1020, via electronic mail at Resources@DCoEOutreach.org and at http://www.dcoe.health.mil.