“Looking back at my life I had before I joined the military and the life that I have now I have no regrets.
Less than one percent of the population joins the military and I am proud to be in that percentile. My life over the years have been up in down with substance abuse associated with chronic PTSD. People who look at me really have no idea what I am going through and it is like I live a double life. I try to be like everybody else but the truth is I am not. I am part of the Post9/11 Combat Veterans who deployed to Bagdad, Iraq for the first time in 2003. What I saw and went through changed my life forever. Being a member of the Armed Forces I thought that the training that I received would have prepared me for what was yet to come. The truth of the matter is that nobody is really prepared to see horrible things that you have no control over.
After my first deployment to Iraq which was fifteen months I visited my mother in my home town of Saint Louis, Missouri. It was good to see her face because at some point I thought that I would never see her face again or my families. “I prayed for you every day,” she said. Somehow those prayers were answered because here I was eating dinner for the first time in a long time. Sitting there with tears in my eyes I can remember the look on her face. She did not recognize her son. I wondered what was she thinking and was it something I said to make her have that unrevealing opinion of her son. I said to myself “I did lose about seventy pounds throughout my deployment from military operations and of course the blazing sun which made me think I was in hell.” No, it was something else that she could see that even I did not realize at first. War changes a person inside and out and that person will never be the same again.
My first night at home I kissed my mother good night and I went and lay down in my old room. It brought back memories when I was a young boy. I tried shutting my eyes but it did not seem to work so I lay there in silence thinking of what I just went through. Hours passed and I still lay there quiet and then I saw it. What I saw could not be explained in many words but what I saw was so real it made me freeze stiff. A black shadowy figure emerged from the corner of my bedroom. It had no eyes but endless darkness where they should be and an outlined figure of a mouth but there were no teeth just a black hole. It moved closer to my bedside and just stood there still as a manikin. I knew who this was. It was death! You can say I have escaped death on numerous occasions, probably because of my mother’s prayers but tonight death was letting me know that it was still hanging around. The night came and went and in the morning I found myself lying on the floor on a make shift pallet to lay my head. I immediately thought I was back in Iraq but as I looked around puzzled for a moment I was indeed in my old house. For a week I lay there on the floor and had trouble falling asleep. I started to hear sounds of mortars exploding as I lay awake and then once asleep I had vivid nightmares of men dressed in black trying to kill me and I would defend myself the best way I knew how. This went on every night until I received a call from my base in mobility. It was then I learned that my services were needed back overseas. I was only home a week. The look in my mother’s face hurt me as I said goodbye yet again for what was yet to come.
Over the next couple of years I would be deployed in support of Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. The time seems to go by so fast and every day seems to be a dream that I kept reliving every day in theater. After I returned to my duty station from my third deployment I realized that I had some serious issues with sleep and having nightmares of men dressed up in black trying to kill me. I also saw dead bodies including those of children that fell by the way side. I consider myself as well rounded individual but as a man it was hard for me to reach out to another for help concerning my issues. I felt pain that I have never felt before and I began to abuse alcohol as a coping mechanism for comfort. My unit started to notice my actions and attitude and I was summoned to see a mental health doctor. After talking with the doctor he explained to me that I suffered from adjustment disorder.
The year is 2006 and I was confused, why is this was happening to me. The years go on and I have been taking prescription medication for sleep and anxiety mixing it with alcohol which took me on a downward spiral in my life. I had three different doctors at the time and went through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) along with Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE). In 2009 I was found unfit to perform my duties any longer and was medically retired. Basically I could no longer do my part because I was not combat ready. The therapy that I went through simply did not work and the medications in my eyes were controlling my day to day functions in my life. I did not feel as if I had a future and the alcohol abuse was more prevalent than ever. I would go on binges 3-5 days at a time. I would just sit at home as my mind raced in my head having survivor’s guilt thinking what I should have or could have done in certain situations. I can’t help but to mention that was not living alone but with my wife and I had a family. The strain was so intense I don’t see how she stuck with me. My temper was so on edge the littlest motion would set me off and this alienated people away from me. More years go by and now it is the year 2014. I was still having the same issues and at times it would get violent and more sequential. I thought my relationship had ended when a good friend reached out to me, Tom Underdown from Fairways for Warriors. He had told me about The Camaraderie Foundation and that I should speak to Terri Wallace about getting some help. I have heard this song and dance before and was very skeptical about who I talked to. Remembering I have talked to plenty of people and been in many programs while I was in the military and while I was out with the Department of Veteran Affairs.
I was thinking what can possibly help out somebody like me. One day I called Terri Wallace and she told me about Gilstrap and Associates who provided counseling for combat veterans. I was given the contact information but Gilstrap and Associates reached out to me later on that week. I receive a call from Hart Meyrich, the office administrator who spoke with me briefly about what I was to be seen for and we set up an initial visit date and time. It was the first week in May when I visited the first time and there is where I met a gentleman that would change my life. His name is Mr. Greg Walker. He explained to me about a new program through the University of South Florida called Accelerated Resolution Therapy or A.R.T.
When Greg first talked about it I laughed a bit saying to myself, “I have been down this route before, what makes you think this will work.” It was the movement of the hands that had me saying to myself hocus pocus. “Why was this guy playing with me,” I said. As we talked further I learned that he was also in the military and that helped me open up to him more because we had something in common, so I decided to try the ART therapy. To my surprise it worked, and it also made my life better. I had a better feeling about myself when I woke up and some of the things that used to drive me to fuss and cuss having outbursts were gone. Some intrusive thoughts that were in my head were also gone. Where did they go? The alcohol was also tempered as well. I laughed about it before but now I can say the words hocus pocus.
I am not saying that this is a magic trick or a slide of the hand but what it does is replace your negative thoughts or thoughts that are triggers and replaces them with new ones, happier ones. I know that my PTSD will be with me forever but every little bit helps. What I am saying is that ART therapy worked for me and it might work for you. If there is a chance to make your life better and more complete than why don’t you give ART therapy a try. In the military we were taught never to give up, never stop fighting. The same applies here in my life where I am living the new normal with my PTSD. My heart goes out to all of my comrades in the struggle and my advice to you is to keep fighting, never give up. I am writing this article because I know that there is someone out there that could benefit from ART therapy like me. All you have to do is try and see where it takes you. Remember you are not alone and there is strength in numbers. One team, one fight!”
Michael Winters OEF/OIF Ret Vet