By Alex Downing & Stephen McCabe
Post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly referred to by its acronym, “PTSD,” is a mental health condition that is triggered by either witnessing or experiencing a terrifying event. Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about it. People typically only equate PTSD with veterans who acquired it during active combat. In reality, though, eight out of every 100 Americans will deal with PTSD at some point in their life. It can be caused by a wide variety of incidents, such as natural disasters, car accidents or the death of a loved one: essentially any event that triggers a dramatically negative emotional response.
Veterans who suffer from PTSD don’t always develop the disorder during combat. War is a cruel beast that carries with it many grim and hellish pursuits. It attempts to turn ordinary civilians into machines equipped to carry out harrowing tasks, tasks that bend the limitations of the human spirit. But we simply aren’t hardwired to withstand certain degrees of trauma. And some assignments gnaw sorely on the psyche of those expected to complete them.
Stephen McCabe, a Cavalry Scout deployed in Afghanistan from 2013 to 2014, knows all too well the horrors of war. During his deployment, he witnessed many unimaginable tragedies. While these events were traumatic, the event that left the strongest impact was one with no explosions, no bullets and no violence.
It came in the form of a dismounted patrol mission. The mission was to comb over an area of land with a metal detector and GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar) to make sure there were no explosives, rockets, or ammunition caches buried in the ground. What set this mission apart, though, was the fact that the Romanian Platoon that had been working in collaboration with them had lost two soldiers the day before from this very mission, when the lead dismount had stepped on a personnel mine, killing himself and the man behind him in line.
During an attack or a combat situation with deadly consequences, you rarely have the time to think about your own mortality. What happens is reactive, and you feel things like fear and pain and sorrow after the combat is over. Stephen had more than half a day to think about the high probability of there being more personnel mines, and the low probability that the detector would find them. He suffered through a panic-inducing adrenaline rush. Time slowed as his heart rate grew faster. It was the longest 14 hours of his life.
That night haunts Stephen to this day. The unbearable stress it placed him under caused him to develop PTSD. His primary symptom is something called “Adrenaline Muscle Memory.” This means that basically any time he is exposed to loud noises or conflict, the intense adrenaline he experienced that fateful night comes rushing back. On very bad days, this may drag on for hours. Everything he does, sees, hears or feels angers him to the point of abject rage. After an “episode” of prolonged adrenaline production, he is left defeated and exhausted.
But what about PTSD not caused by wartime incidents?
One of the most common triggers of PTSD is sexual assault. Although it may present itself in different ways, its wrath can prove just as severe and debilitating. I would know. I suffer from it as a result of sexual abuse.
When I was 18 years old, I was drugged and taken advantage of at a party. Due to the substance that was in my system, I was rendered unconscious; and therefore have no recollection of the actual assault. All I know are fragments of information that other people reached out to me with. The event left me emotionally damaged, but I think I would have been somewhat okay if I had received support following it. However, thanks to the malice of one supposed “friend,” I was made to feel as though everything was my fault. The guilt and the hurt that I was left with weighed heavily on my soul. Sometimes emotions are so powerful, you don’t even know how to even begin feeling them.
After I got blamed for my own abuse, I simply forgot about it. By that I mean my brain somehow managed to bury the memory of the entire ordeal altogether. It wasn’t until about six months later, when the incident got brought up in conversation, that I was actually able to recall it. I was forced to relive of the aftermath of the event. The pain returned, but this time it was magnified. I had a breakdown of sorts, which led to me being diagnosed with PTSD.
Many things trigger my disorder: hearing my attacker’s name, seeing photos of my attacker, being in certain party atmospheres. I already had anxiety — I have been diagnosed with it since I was six years old — but the anxiety I feel surrounding this event is different. It comes on very sudden and without warning. It causes me to shake and hyperventilate. In certain instances, it has even triggered a seizure. I black out. I have visions in my head. I lash out at friends and loved ones. Meaningful relationships have been irreversibly damaged due to my episodes.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is real, it is devastating, and it can affect anyone. Stephen and I are two very different people with very different life experiences, yet we are linked by this one common affliction. In turn, we are able to understand each other’s pain on a deeply personal level. And we don’t want sympathy. Instead, we want to shed light on a tragically misunderstood disorder. If you suffer from PTSD, please know that there is solace to be found in communicating your hurt with someone who can relate to it. You are not alone in your fight. Speak up.