Thursday, May 29, 2014

The War Within


This summer we will begin to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the beginning of World War One.  I would assume that this will be a much bigger deal in Europe than it is here as Americans, other than those who like history, are not very well informed about that war.  Didn't we enter it when the Japanese sank the Titanic?  Anyway, one thing that came out of the war was the beginning of a true medical study of something which they called "Shell Shock".  It goes by a slightly different name today.  We know it as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

It has existed ever since man first made war on his fellow man.  And contrary to what many, many people think, one doesn't have to serve in combat to get it.  ANY traumatic event can trigger it.  Samuel Pepys, the noted English diarist who survived the Great Fire of London wrote of his inability to sleep due to vivid nightmares and paranoia in the aftermath of the fire.  Charles Dickens survived a horrendous train accident at Staplehurst in 1865.  In the moments following the accident Dickens helped rescue trapped survivors.  Some of them died with Dickens at their side.  In the months to follow, Dickens wrote of feeling "unwell".  Later he wrote "I am not quite right within."  He had no words to describe how he felt because the medical profession really didn't either.  Dickens died five years to the day he survived the accident.  Those that knew him said that he was never the same again.

During the Civil War it was called "nostalgia" and in the aftermath of the conflict, those who exhibited symptoms such as anger, withdrawal, difficulty concentrating, etc, were said to have "A Soldier's Heart".  This is not a disease of the heart, however.  It is a disease of the mind.  Of course, I know it really isn't a disease in the true sense of the word but it can be just as deadly as cancer as it slowly grows inside your head.

Thanks to World War One, shell shock received more notice by the psychiatric community though their treatments ranged from simple to barbaric.  During World War Two, doctor's called it "battle fatigue".  Though it isn't really discussed all that much today, or admitted, it was a big, big problem.  The military tried its best to grapple with it but such a thing is tough to get a grip on.  My Uncle Forrest (actually my great-uncle) survived a vicious night of fighting on Guadalcanal.  As Japanese troops slipped through the American lines he was forced to lay under the dead bodies of some of his friends and feign death in order to survive.  He came home after the war but was never the same.  He attempted suicide on at least one occasion.  Sadly for him there was nothing done for World War Two veterans who had a hard time readjusting.  They had to learn to cope on their own.  Uncle Forrest was an American hero but he was never treated as one.

After Vietnam the medical community had to sit up and take notice.  They finally got their act together and came up with a diagnosis from which they could base treatment.  The problem before that was the lack of clear guidelines as to what this disorder actually was.  Now we know, or at least we think we know.

But what do I know about it?  I'm just a history professor, right?  Wrong.  I was a firefighter and a cop before I was a mild mannered history professor.  PTSD is rampant in the law enforcement community and NOTHING is said or done about it.  More current or retired officers commit suicide every year than die in the line of duty.  Furthermore, as a police officer you are THREE TIMES as likely to, as we so eloquently refer to it in the business, eat a Glock sandwich, as you are to have someone else shoot you.  Think about that!  Why is no one talking about this?  Simple.  If PTSD is considered a job related disability then it opens the door for widows of officers who commit suicide to receive line of duty death benefits.  The government and the agency brass don't want that to happen.  Think I'm kidding?  Watch this video.  Seriously, watch it.  The public is grossly uninformed about the issue of PTSD as it relates to firefighters, police officers, and EMS personnel.

Statistics say that as many as 1 in 4 active officers and half of retired officers suffer from symptoms of PTSD.  I am one of them.  I have always had calls that stuck with me in the days, weeks, months, and even years that followed.  I handed in my badge for good in August due to a back condition that prevents me from doing that job anymore.  I was fine for about a month.  Then it began.  It started innocently enough.  I'd have a nightmare every couple of nights.  Then they got more vivid.  In my dreams I was experiencing the call all over again and acting it out in my sleep.  I lost my appetite.  I stopped sleeping all together.  I couldn't concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes.  Reading which once brought me great pleasure proved to be impossible.  I began to withdraw from my family and push people away.  And then there were the flashbacks.  I felt void of any emotion other than anger.  I'd snap at the slightest thing.  I didn't know what to do.  Police officers really don't have anywhere to turn for help since this is something that is not talked about in law enforcement circles.  It isn't "manly" to admit you have a problem.  Thankfully I have a dear friend with whom I teach who gave me the name of someone.  I knew I had to seek help and I did.

It helped for a while, but this is something that cannot be cured.  You have to learn to cope with it.  Some days it just gets to you and there is nothing you can do but sit back and let it wash over you like a wave.  It destroys everything it touches.  I've put my beautiful redheaded wife through hell since not only do I suffer from this, I always suffer from a chronic back condition that prevents me from doing just about anything around the house.  She has to work full time and also play nurse to me in the evenings.  I wouldn't blame her if she left me.  I've told her as much myself but she has made the decision to stick by me no matter what.  My own family is either afraid or ashamed of me, I'm not really sure which.  I don't blame them.  I'm not a fun person to be around.  I wouldn't want to hang out with me either if I had a choice.  They don't understand what I'm going through.  I can't really explain it either.  No one can understand it unless you are going through it and I hope you aren't.  I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy.  PTSD kills a little piece of you each day.  You can see it when you look at your face in the mirror.  Some days you feel strong enough to fight back and some you don't.  

Please, for the sake of everyone who has suffered from this debilitating disease since the beginning of time, don't treat us like we are garbage.  Don't be afraid of us.  Don't push us away.  We are human beings who got this way through no fault of our own.  Though I may have a mental condition, I don't consider myself mentally ill.  I just saw things that overwhelmed my body's coping mechanisms.  PTSD is NOT about what is wrong with us.  It IS about what happened to us.  See the difference?

Please take 4 minutes to view the video I made about PTSD.  You may find it here.  Hurry before You Tube pulls it.  I think I can speak for all of my fellow PTSD survivors when I say "I wish my mind would forget what my eyes have seen."  I WILL NOT LOSE THIS WAR WITH PTSD.  I AM STRONG ENOUGH TO BEAT IT.

So as we approach this World War One Centennial, let us remember those who came home in body but not in mind.  They are the War's forgotten victims.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian.

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