Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is an illness that most people have a surface knowledge of, at best, even though its earliest reports date back to 6th century B.C. In the post-Vietnam War era, it made a more frequent appearance in the media, as combat veterans returned home and struggled with anger, insomnia, hyper-vigilance and flashbacks, among other symptoms. Since then, some people owe their knowledge on the subject to Oliver Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July," or even the current presidential election, as political pundits have accused John McCain of being unfit to run the country because he may have been traumatized by his POW experience.
But what do we really know about it? How close have most of us ever been to someone suffering from the disorder?
(Watch Iraq veteran Bryan Adams' story after the jump.)
Last week, I had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with 24-year-old Iraq war veteran Bryan Adams, who has not only had an intense struggle with PTSD, he has overcome its obstacles and turned his life around. There were many factors that were strong contributors to the healing process for Adams, a sophomore at Rutgers University at Camden. The underlying theme in all of them, though, was the recognition and understanding that he is not alone. (Learn about veterans’ issues and sign the petition for BRAVE, the Bill of Rights for American Veterans, here.)
The aspect of my interview with Bryan that stuck with me most was his openness about everything from his injury to his struggle with PTSD and the other obstacles he faced along the way. He talked about the challenges he encountered personally. "With a couple of my girlfriends, I was just mean, forceful, I guess you could say," Bryan admitted. He also talked about his frustration and anger with his classmates, whose conversations and interests he could not relate to. As Bryan explained, "I felt very isolated. ... I had been through all this stuff, and [my friends] can't even begin to imagine what it was like. They try, you know, but it's just hard to convey."
And finally, Bryan talked about one of the incidents that made him realize that he needed to seek help. "I got a DUI," he said. "I was going 75 in a 50. I was swerving in and out of traffic. ... Stuff like drunk driving. I didn't even think about it. I didn't care about it."
An inability to speak about problems and sensitive issues is one of the main symptoms of PTSD, so his candidness with me was a clear testament of how far Bryan has come.
After the interview, Bryan told me that part of the reason that he is open about everything that he has been through is because he hopes a veteran will hear it and realize that he or she isn't alone, and that help is out there. Discovering that what he'd been going through actually had a name and a diagnosis provided Bryan with relief and clarity, and he wants other veterans to feel the same. He told me that through his diagnosis, he learned to understand, "It's not you. It's [PTSD]," and that enabled him to see what was going on more clearly.
At the end of our interview, Bryan called upon both young veterans and others to put real and lasting effort into veterans' rights and benefits. To veterans, Bryan advised, "Don't give up hope, because you might not know what's going on. You might not feel like you have control over your situation in life, but you really do. If you want to make a difference, you have to put out the effort. It's just like anything else in life. ... No one is going to listen to you unless you stand up." And to those that have the ability to enact change, Bryan added, "The veteran is the expert. We're the ones that shed blood for this country."
If one solution to PTSD is knowing that you don't stand alone, there is no doubt that Bryan's words and work so far on the issue have already improved, and perhaps saved, lives.