Wednesday, April 18, 2012

War Story Wednesday: PTSD Misconceptions

Okay, Universe. I think it's time that we cleared up some of the false ideas that have been floating around the public regarding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Here are two good articles that get the point across better than I probably can, with statistics to back them up:

An article from the Department of Veterans Affairs

A write-up from a police officer suicide-awareness website

Some of the interesting facts from these articles:

*Despite being "trained killers", combat veterans (even those suffering from PTSD) are statistically much less likely to commit any violent crime than general laborers, construction workers, and gang members, who represent the three largest 'groups' to which violent offenders belong.

*As a group, Veterans are less likely to commit a murder than service workers and students.

*There is not a single piece of research to link PTSD to violent behavior; here is a quote from the second article:

"While anger and agitation are common symptoms of PTSD, these feelings tend to be turned inward, contributing to making it the terribly painful disorder it is. Combined with depression, it is not unusual for the sufferer to become suicidal. But a diagnosis of PTSD, in itself, does not make a person violent towards others. Again, the concern should be more that they will be a danger to themselves, not others.

*PTSD is primarily "fear" based, not "aggression" based. Put another way, the negative manifestations of PTSD are:
  1. Flashbacks
  2. Withdrawal / Isolation
  3. Emotional Numbing
  4. Hyper-arousal

Flashbacks, contrary to their portrayal in film, are not a psychotic break wherein the person loses touch with reality and believes they are back in combat or re-living their trauma. Flashbacks are much more subtle, and usually consist of a sense-memory (e.g. a smell or sound) that was present at the trauma unexpectedly intruding into the brain. Withdrawal and isolation are feelings of being distant or cut off from other people, be they close loved ones, or society in general. Here there again exists a big misconception, that this feeling of distance and disparity equates to viewing other people as 'the enemy'. Emotional numbing is not like the lack of remorse often equated with sociopaths; rather than feeling little or no empathy, the traumatized person feels too much, and will attempt to either avoid emotional situations entirely, to numb themselves with drugs or alcohol, or to choke their emotions down and ignore them. The traumatized person is not an unfeeling monster, they avoid feelings as a defense mechanism. Finally, hyper-arousal is a state of being constantly on guard, easily startled, tightly-wound...again, it is fear based. The person suffering from PTSD is on guard because they are afraid.

I think that as a generalized "class" or "group", traumatized veterans have much more in common with rape victims than with dangerous criminals. I am not saying that I am a victim; I chose to serve, and I volunteered for many dangerous missions. I am trying to say that my prolonged exposure to danger and my difficulties coping have led me to avoid violence and distress, not to seek it out. I am an even more peaceful person now, trying to diffuse anger and aggression, not create it.

To sum it all up, we veterans risked our lives to protect the ones we love. We gave up a part of our freedom, exposed our bodies and hearts to mortal peril, so that our fellows could live free and unafraid. Some of us never came home, and some of us that did are still struggling to understand and move past what we saw, what we did, what we lost. I would never presume to speak for all of my brothers and sisters in arms, but I served this nation and the Marine Corps with the highest virtue I could summon and the purest of intent, and I believe that my brother and sister Marines did the same. We believed in the Marine Corps motto: Semper Fidelis, meaning 'always faithful'. I did not give so much to shield you all from harm, to keep your lives free of danger and fear, just to come back and be perceived as a source of danger and fear. I am not an aggressor - I have always been, and shall always remain, a faithful defender.

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