Do the Impossible: Healing from PTSD
by Michael Scarn
I joined the Marine Corps straight out of high school in 2001. My intent was to fight. Not serve, but fight. My recruiter once asked me why I wanted to be an infantryman. “Because I want to kill people,” was my response. I was lucky enough to be a part of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I felt completely at home. I was surrounded by other guys who just wanted to kill, and that was our sole reason for existing. Kill bad guys, move north, sleep, repeat. I had achieved nirvana. To say I wasn’t concerned about dying was an understatement. I and a couple of other guys from my unit would intentionally make ourselves vulnerable to try to lure would-be attackers into a fight. It never really worked, and we eventually got into trouble for it, but I suppose it’s the thought that counts.
After Iraq, we deployed almost immediately to Afghanistan. It was a mostly uneventful deployment save for a few illnesses and injuries that I caused to myself by being stupid, but it left me wanting more. More action like I had in Iraq. More deployments, more killing, more warrior lifestyle. I decided that the best way to quench this thirst for action was to leave the military and become a contractor.
My first contract was a 6-month party with some of the hardest guys I’ve met from every branch. We were in the middle of nowhere, unsupported, and there were almost no rules. I loved it so much that I only went home long enough to say hi to everybody and then go back over for another 7 months. Rinse and repeat this cycle for 7 more years, and I was living my own dream.
When I met my wife, I was an almost 30-year-old sexual deviant with tons of cash, no savings, a couple of cool cars, and a long resume that only worked in 1 career field. I was living in the moment and unbound by social convention. I did what I wanted because I was accountable to no one. By this time, I had lost a handful of friends and been hit a few times myself. I was still the same 20-year-old Marine, just a little wiser and a little less reckless.
The following year we tied the knot. Just a few weeks before my wedding, my vehicle had been hit by an IED outside of Jalalabad and we were bogged down in a complex attack for what felt like the entire day. It was honestly rather typical of that particular program and most of the other ones I had been with, but after saying “I do” my perspective on all of it changed drastically. I was back downrange just a week or 2 after our honeymoon. Back into the same routine: getting hit, shooting it out, lifting weights, calling home, living life a day at a time. This time, however, it felt completely meaningless—even counterintuitive. That deployment would be my last. I didn’t want to lose my wife because I was never home, and I certainly didn’t want to make her a widow, so I did what I thought was the right thing and came home for good. That’s when my life fell apart.
At first, I tried my hand at college. I wanted to be a nurse because it was a way of getting back into action, as it were, and it helped people that truly needed it. I could work in an emergency room, I could be a flight nurse, the options were almost endless. The hypervigilance that I had developed from all the years of needing it to keep me alive was too great of a hurdle to overcome. In spite of my best efforts, I could not study, I could not retain, I didn’t learn anything. I’d stare at a book for hours and accomplish nothing. My mind would inevitably drift to this ambush, that attack, the time that so-and-so got hit, the sounds, the sights, all of it. Hours would pass and NOTHING would get accomplished. I failed all of my classes. Okay, time for plan B.
I found a well-paying job just up the street from me, and my previous experience helped get me in. This was it! I can settle down now! No more worrying about how my life would play out. No stressing over whether or not I’d be able to pay my bills. This seemed like the answer. Wrong again, sport. Within the first month, I was lying to myself that I could stick around and maintain my sanity, that I wasn’t already unhappy. By the end of the first year, I had reached pure, unadulterated misery. My life was completely flat, and I was completely numb. There were days that I would think long and hard about my own death, and then about my funeral. The thought of my wife grieving made me cry, and those were the only moments that I was capable of feeling emotions. Sometimes I would drive around to be alone and hope that a semi would plow through an intersection and take me out. That it would do what I didn’t have the balls to do. I knew in my heart of hearts that I wasn’t capable of taking my own life, but the thought of not being alive seemed to bring me comfort—it was almost something to look forward to. Like an exit strategy if things got any worse.
Things did get worse. The downward spiral continued. My metaphorical circle around the drain had gotten tighter and tighter. I became addicted to pornography. My marriage was on life support. We lost our house. I was genuinely fearful of who I might become or what I might do. I had lost control of my own self. I was no longer that master of my own destiny. I remember the night that I hit rock bottom. I was at work and I was alone, sitting in front of a computer and crying. I had no idea what was wrong with me and what’s worse is that I didn’t know what I would do next. I thought about all the missteps I had taken in life that got me to that point, and I thought about my beautiful perfect wife being unwillingly dragged into one man’s depression. I hadn’t communicated my feelings with anybody at this point, people just knew that something was wrong with me. I sat down and wrote what was on my mind at that exact moment, because if I somehow ended my life then at least my family would know what I was going through.
Is it depression or painful tragic clarity?
Something inside of me is critically wrong and there’s not much time left to fix it
But I don’t know what it is or how to
I can’t get right with myself, therefore, I’m right with no one
Do I want to die, or do I just want to not be alive?
But I’m still alive so it’s for a reason
I think I’ll never know the reason, so what’s the point???
The people I’ve hurt I did so for my own selfish gratification
But in the end the person I hurt the most was myself
I can reconcile with neither
It was about that time that a couple of my coworkers had approached me to tell me that they had all been recently diagnosed with hypogonadism, AKA low testosterone. My symptoms were consistent with that diagnosis, so I went to get checked as well. I was young(ish) and fit (looking), so when I told my doctor that I wanted to get tested, he advised me that I was depressed and wanted to have a conversation about antidepressants. I quickly made it abundantly clear to him that antidepressants were not in my future, so he relented and had my blood tested. A few days later when the results came back, the physician who read them to me said: “I don’t know how you even get out of bed with these numbers.” Vindication! I finally had some semblance of an explanation as to how I became the person that I was. Not only did I have an explanation, but I also had a solution! Within the first few weeks of treatment, all of my fire and intensity for life had returned. I knew that if I stayed in this job that I merely settled for that I would never forgive myself. So, I returned to school.
At first, it went well. I was on fire! It was a freight train! During the course of my contracting career, I had gotten an EMT license, so I began working as a tech in a level 1 trauma center to get exposure to nursing and hospital life. It was great being a crucial part of a team again and being able to help save lives. Eventually, however, it became difficult to balance the work schedule with school, and school began to falter. My hyper anxiety hadn’t left and studying the stuff I wasn’t interested in was very difficult. My grades began to drift south. I failed a class here, dropped a class there. Was it happening again? Was I doomed to a life of constant failures? The old familiar feelings of depression and wanting to quit quickly resurfaced. My life was yet again in jeopardy.
About that time, my wife had a friend from school who specializes in what’s known as neurofeedback, and she was having great results in her work with veterans. She was local and offered to help me. Over the course of the next few months, we took a holistic approach to my mental health. The neurofeedback combined with proper diet, supplementation, and breathing exercises had made me noticeably calmer, more focused, and able to retain and recall what I’d learned. It turned my straight F’s into straight A’s. My hypervigilance was gone, my anxiety was nonexistent, and insomnia that I had acquired in Afghanistan had vanished. I was once again the master of my own destiny, thanks to the help afforded to me by so many caring people who never gave up on me, even when I had given up on myself.
Everything I just told you was to tell you this: the first step for me in moving towards healing was knowing that I wasn’t alone. Read that again: you aren’t alone. Whether it be friends who told me their depression stories, the people I was in sex addiction counseling with, even reading the stories about healing that other people have written online. I was surrounded by these people and I never knew it until they identified themselves to me. As embarrassing having an addiction is (especially a porn one), acknowledging that I had it, seeking treatment for it, and meeting others with the same addiction is what showed me that I was not a freak, I was a malfunctioning man. My brain was using an unhealthy coping mechanism to deal with all that those deployments had thrown at me. We can’t help what our brains choose for comfort or relief, but we can create new systems of reward for it. We can re-program it.
The next step was recognizing my hypogonadism. When we’re emotionally imbalanced, there’s a chemical component to it. So many of my friends displaying classic PTSD symptoms had low testosterone, and testosterone replacement therapy helped turn their lives around. Thirdly: anxiety, hypervigilance, and ADHD (which I was diagnosed with at a young age) can often be mitigated or even treated with simple healthy changes to our diet and lifestyle. If what you put into your body can affect you physiologically (see diabetes), then it stands to reason that what you put into your body affects you mentally. Often times overindulging in the foods that comfort us only make our condition worse. A lady much smarter than myself put it to me like this, “Don’t associate food with how it makes you feel while you’re eating it, associate it with how it makes you feel afterward.” Meaning I can eat (and I can) a whole package of Oreo’s and love life while I’m doing it, but after I crash from my sugar rush and don’t want to get off of the couch, my day is over. I’m in a mental fog and my plans are shot. Instead, think of all the energy you have after you have that chicken with those veggies. How awesome it makes your workouts. How mentally sharp you are. It’s setting yourself up for success that helps you accomplish your goals. You wouldn’t step off for a mission with half-empty magazines and no fuel in your vehicles, so don’t ask your body to fight the fight called life with similarly limited resources.
Let me share a few epiphanies that I had about PTSD:
1.) PTSD presents itself differently in people. My friends who were diagnosed prior to me told me I had it, but I disagreed because I had none of their symptoms. Something was wrong with me, yes, but in my mind, I was completely different from them. You may have it and not realize it.
2.) However your PTSD presents itself, no matter how weird or embarrassing, you are not special. That’s a good thing! There are others out there who are struggling with the same issues, and some that have defeated it! The path to healing has already been laid out! These men and women are your support group and your inspiration.
3.) PTSD is not a terminal diagnosis. As with any sickness, diagnosis is only the beginning. Treating the symptoms is next, and there are proven methods. Seek them out. Give them an honest chance. Heal yourself. Always equip yourself properly. Give yourself every advantage. If you are in a fair fight, then you are already losing.
© 2020 The Havok Journal