My life is the alphabet: When a young child, it was ADD. At puberty, I graduated: ADHD. Once a man, well, it’s now PTSD. Recently a VA rep tried to convince me I had a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). (That was scary.) That’s a lot of letters in a lifetime, too many for a simple man like me. I’ve carried the weight of these letters; for too long I left them in the back of my mind. Until recently, like a sandstorm lifting from my skull, I realized: These letters do not define me as a person.
To be sure, while entertaining the letters PTSD, I displayed many post traumatic stress symptoms, or more plainly, I was “messed in the head,” the widely held stereotype of the combat veterans. I’ll say clearly, for a time I was mentally unwell. This period was mostly defined by anger and feelings of isolation. But as with the majority of veterans who have symptoms of PTSD, the severity of my symptoms has decreased over time, though I still can’t say that I’m over it or that I still do not struggle with some things. But for me, (and I speak as an individual, not on behalf of all veterans) it was the rejection of these letters that ultimately lead to recovery. Other veterans wrestling with this issue may also find it helpful to call our struggles something else. I suggest NRPS: our natural response to prolonged stress. It’s not a disorder, a guy in a white coat didn’t ascribe it to you, and there’s no stigma or disability rating for it, but I find it serves the individual much better.
A veteran does not like to be told anything, so I won’t pretend to speak for our nation’s veterans, for that’s an impossible task. We are liberals, conservatives, gay, straight, all races and religions; we cannot be appropriately summarized or generalized. When the Department of Homeland Security decides to tell the nation that veterans are more likely to be right-wing extremist, they’re pretty much saying that every class/race of American is suspect of this charge.
Though veterans are not good candidates for generalizations, there is one thing most all share: After a six or 12-month stint in a combat zone, we all are likely to experience some symptoms of post traumatic stress. The severity of these symptoms varies according to combat experience and the individual’s response to reintegration.
You can call it PTSD. Sure, I have many of the symptoms described on Helpguide.org, as I think most vets do. But my condition is discernible only to those who know me very well. And I am not “broken” as an Army chaplain once so simply put it.
Emotional numbness is probably the most common complaint of combat veterans. Any soldier who has deployed to a combat zone has most likely endured a calculated and necessary desensitization courtesy of the United States government. You can call it PTSD, or you can call it a successful training of a U.S. troop. As for my own numbness, I don’t find it helpful to believe it a disorder more than something that I simply must work to improve.
When application of a “disorder” is this broad, does it not lose its meaning? I do not see how labeling someone with a psychiatric disorder is useful if it applies to nearly every person who served. Having difficulty returning to your old life after such an extraordinary experience is not a disorder; it’s simply a natural response to an extended absence and extreme stress.
My Army chaplain was right. None of the hundred or so men in that tent/church in Iraq were destined to have PTSD, none predestined to mental illness. The chaplain reminded us of this because a veteran is told by psychiatry and society that we are fated toward disorder. But the simple truth uttered by that chaplain is worth more than all the psychiatric applications or media hype in the world.
The problem is that labeling someone with PTSD usually does not justify the stigma that accompanies this label. The negative perception of veterans and the aforementioned stereotype is pretty obvious when you’re on the receiving end of it. When not writing for the pages of this newspaper, I choose not to tell people of my service, not because I am ashamed but because I hate the judgmental question marks that appear in people’s eyes after I tell them. I can almost see people trying to calculate how crazy I am; the misperception of PTSD and what it means to be a veteran has caused me to conceal my service, to fear that widely held misconceptions will be applied to me. How many veterans have a disorder to justify the stigma that PTSD carries? I’d say not many.
There is an important distinction that most do not understand. To come home and have symptoms of post traumatic stress is not the same as post traumatic stress disorder. None of these words are meant to discredit those who suffer from PTSD, for I know quite acutely it is real and often beyond the control of the individual suffering from it.
But there is another distinction that I fear veterans don’t even understand. Helpguide.org gets it right when they explain “the only difference between people who go on to develop PTSD and those who don’t is how they cope with the trauma.” To my fellow vets who are struggling, I suggest talking with someone because while you may think that it takes strength to walk it alone, in reality, it takes much more courage to admit you have a problem and seek help.
Ross Anderson welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.