I had suffered from symptoms of PTSD for about eight years after returning from the war in Somalia, where I served as a surgical technologist. I suffered depression, hypervigilence, hyper startle response, and emotional numbing.
I first sought outpatient treatment for a brief time about five months after returning. It would be two years before a new therapist suggested that I might be suffering from PTSD. I stopped going to sessions partly due to denial, but mostly due to the difficulty I experienced returning to the operating room after opening myself up to painful memories of Somalia.
As time passed, I became increasingly overwhelmed with daily living and afraid of the anger that was brewing inside of me. Another therapist hinted that I could be discharged for a personality disorder and I feared that I would be labeled as "crazy" and be dishonorably discharged from the military.
I just wanted to rest and looked forward to getting out and seeking treatment in a safe environment. My VA therapist helped me to come to terms with the fact that I had PTSD and suggested the Women's Trauma Recovery Program. Still I moved in and out of denial, hoping to pull out of it on my own. However, my life was falling apart around me. In the military, all of my energy went to maintaining a functioning level at work. It was a matter of survival. But when I got out of the military, I began to cease functioning in all areas of my life, including work.
Two weeks before September 11th I shared a nightmare with my therapist. I dreamed that we were being attacked and that New York and New Jersey had been wiped out. I thought that I was paranoid and crazy for never feeling safe, always wondering when the U.S. would be attacked. Two weeks later September 11th happened, in my own backyard. The fact that Osama Bin Laden was connected to Somalia only magnified my fear.
The Twin Towers held an important place in my heart. They were a symbol of strength and I felt safe there. As a kid we would point to them on our way into the city, amazed at the tallest buildings in the world. I would visit them on leave and when I got out of the Army to regain a sense of security and hope and to reflect on who I was before Somalia. Somalia had taken my sense of wonder of the world. But standing there looking up at those towers restored that sense of wonder, if only for a moment. Now... they were gone.
I began having panic attacks, reliving Somalia all over again. I had returned to the combat zone. I was sickened by the destruction and great loss of life in New York, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon. Four weeks later I reluctantly flew to California and entered the Women's Trauma Recovery Program. Ironically our mission in Somalia was called "Operation Restore Hope." It was there that I lost hope and it was at VA that hope was restored. Here I found out that I was not "crazy" and that PTSD is a normal response to an abnormal event or events. I received a full education on the psychology and physiology of PTSD and suddenly it all made sense. I gained the proper tools to manage the PTSD and regain control over my life.
PTSD is a lifelong recovery process. I am grateful for the tremendous teamwork involved in setting up an aftercare plan for me. I am currently in outpatient treatment and attend a monthly women's PTSD group. And just knowing that this program exists is very therapeutic. I am a full time student, maintaining a 4.0 GPA and after many years of isolating I take time out to be with friends and family. I also look forward to being in a relationship.
This program sends a strong and healing message to women veterans, that we are valued. There are many women veterans suffering today who have suffered for many years, bearing the heavy load of PTSD alone and in silence. "Suck it up and drive on" is a trademark statement of today's military. For a woman that means you have to suck it up twice as good as the man standing next to you. You're a soldier FIRST. It's a constant battle to contain all emotions. Admitting to PTSD would be admitting to a weakness that is already expected by our male counterparts.
It is my hope that through outreach we will beginning to reach those in need and help our veterans (both male and female) returning from combat and those suffering from equally painful trauma to receive the much-needed treatment they deserve.
Perhaps we could take a pro-active approach to PTSD by working with the military to ensure that soldiers, airmen, marines, and sailors returning from combat and other who have experienced trauma understand PTSD and provide proper debriefing and immediate post trauma counseling. I believe that early intervention will help many to avoid years of suffering alone.
Maya Angelou says that when we cast our bread upon the water we help someone far down the river who's face we may never see. By helping our veterans deal with PTSD we are also helping those they come in contact with on a daily basis, their friends, spouses, families, co-workers, and their children. In essence we are helping a nation.