PTSD: Trauma lingers long after danger has passed
This part 1 of a three-part series on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD affects an estimated 7 percent of the general U.S. population at some time in their lives, but this series focuses on PTSD as it affects those in the military and their families.
William Blaylock of El Dorado Hills didn’t know he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when he returned from Vietnam in 1969. He didn’t know it for 37 years even though he had flashbacks of combat in Vietnam when he saw fireworks and felt the humid air wafting in from the jungle while on vacation in Puerta Vallarta. He slept only five to six hours a night, getting up to check the perimeter of his house every night and he had many, many jobs. He had recurring dreams and nightmare and it was hard for him to trust anyone. His marriage to a woman he married before going to Vietnam failed a few years after his return.
The term “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” has been used only since 1980, but the disorder has affected people for thousands of years, being noted in writings as far back as 490 B.C. It’s been termed “shell shock,” “battle fatigue” or “malaise du pays,” but PTSD is caused by trauma.
PTSD is an anxiety disorder caused by traumatic events, such as combat, disaster, terrorism, serious accidents or physical or sexual assault. It can affect anyone and often goes unrecognized. Experiencing painful memories after trauma is normal and usually lessens over time; but, for some, reactions are severe and they continue, often disrupting lives.
Traumatic Brain Injury and PTSD have been called the signature wounds of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. “TBIs and PTSD present very similarly,” said Lance Poinsett, veterans service representative for El Dorado County Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
The trauma leading to PTSD attacks on every level — emotional, physical, mental and spiritual — and manifests in an extensive variety of symptoms. These could include flashbacks, intrusive thoughts of the trauma, emotional numbing, withdrawal, hyper-vigilance, avoidance, irritability, easily startled, memory blocks, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, fear, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other addictive behaviors, difficulty holding jobs, relationship problems, isolation from others, guilt and shame, and feelings of grief or sadness.
“It can be subtle,” said Julie Leconte, facilitator for the Military Family Support Group, “when the symptoms are taken as separate issues. But if you put anxiety, sleeplessness and flashbacks together, you begin to see a picture of PTSD.”
PTSD may affect a person immediately after exposure to a traumatic event or it can take months for the onset. Like a splinter under your skin, it can fester and inflame and burst out in a variety of ways, years after the initial trauma. Often there are triggers such as certain noises, sights or odors that set off a PTSD attack.
“It doesn’t have to come from combat, “said Eric Rasbold, EDC, Department of Veterans Affairs veteran service representative. “A long-standing fear for your life or the life of others, knowledge that you are helping someone else to commit violent acts, sexual trauma for both men and women, which is on the rise in the military, can also trigger PTSD.”
“Anyone can develop PTSD and in the daily busy-ness of life, the signals are easily overlooked,” said Leconte. “We tell people to just get over it and we call them victims, but they are not victims. They survived the trauma and they are dealing with the after-effects of it. They are survivors. Society’s very verbage holds them back in victim mode.”
Blaylock, author of “Invisible: PTSD’s Stealth Attack on a Vietnam War Veteran,” said it wasn’t until 2006 when he was talking to another veteran he trusted that he realized he wasn’t the only one doing perimeter checks and having flashbacks. The friend encouraged him to contact the local Veterans Center.
“I was a non-believer in the elusive and invisible PTSD,” wrote Blaylock in his book. “I went through life, I thought, without much problem … I had a son and a daughter who were doing well on their own, plus a beautiful granddaughter. I owned two decent cars and a nice home.” He thought PTSD was an excuse used by some for sympathy and a handout.
But, after an incident in a parking lot revealed to Blaylock’s wife, Betty, how out of control the situation was, the couple began attending an 10-week PTSD counseling course at a Veteran’s Center.
“He was never abusive, never drank heavily or used drugs and he always got jobs,” said Betty, who has been married to Blaylock for more than 40 years. “After the course, things from the past began to make sense and I was so relieved he was getting help.”