Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.
Let me take you back to 2014. My new case manager at Veterans Affairs offered to visit me at my house. At this point, my expectations for the meeting were low. This was my third case manager in 6 months and I had difficulty understanding why a civilian, with little to no exposure to the military, would be assigned to a medically released combat veteran.
At the time, I was living in my 12 x 22 ft garage and my property did not have running water or electricity. When he arrived, my case manager said “Oh, you’re building a house!” I answered plainly, “No, I’m not.” The expression on his face was my first hint that something wasn’t quite right. I invited him inside and we sat by the fire to stay warm. As the meeting progressed, I noticed he was assessing my living space as much as he was listening to my answers to his questions. He finally stopped me mid-sentence and asked if I would attend a PTSD assessment. Even though I thought things were fine, he insisted I was exhibiting multiple “red flags.” Clearly, there was a disconnect. Two months later, I was diagnosed with severe PTSD.
Somewhere along the way, I had given up everything in my life that had mattered. I rarely slept, and when I did it was for no more than 4 hours each night for no more than 4 nights a week. If I found myself restless in bed for more than an hour, I would get up and start my day, ignoring the time on the clock. My insomnia gave me a chance to really delve into my diagnosis. I started therapy twice a week and slowly started to exercise, focus on my health and look to my future. It took four years to make adjustments in my lifestyle to find balance. I was juggling academics, fitness, relationships, and even my sleeping patterns. Now in 2018, my life has completely changed and I am living a full and happy life. Even with PTSD.
Hitting rock bottom was a wake up call. It took me two years to learn I was solely responsible for changing the direction of my life. I stopped complaining and blaming the system at Veterans Affairs. There are an abundance of news stories that highlight the flaws in the system already and my own grievances won’t lead to significant change. I also had to identify and distance myself from the sources of negativity in my life. And then I figured out that the Infantry had given me all the skills I needed to survive this fight.
The Four Laws of Combat applied to my situation and here’s how I utilized them:
1. Cover and move. I built a team with the most important people in my life. My parents, girlfriend, therapist, physiotherapist, massage therapist and case manager were my support system. I relied on them for help every step of the way. My progress was a team effort.
2- Simplicity. I wrote a daily execution plan to keep me organized and focused.
0430 hrs Wake up
0500 hrs Workout
0600 hrs Shower and prepare for the day
0700 – 1200 hrs Study
1200 hrs Lunch
1230 hrs Read. I picked books in any subject that interested me: astrophysics, psychology, leadership, investments, personal finance management, more leadership and more astrophysics.
1430 hrs Assess my progress. If there were elements missing from my day, I made time to complete them. This included an extra workout or general maintenance around my property or in my life.
I also chose to surround myself with living things. I got rabbits, chickens, ducks and geese. I planted a garden and found that the struggle to fight for light and life was influential and inspiring. I learned that if a plant – a simple living organism – had to fight for light and space, than it seemed normal that humans – very complex beings would experience greater struggles. The plant doesn’t care about the struggle, it finds a way around it to strive and grow.
Most of my days were about reading, studying, working out, caring for my animals and gaining knowledge. The most important lesson: NEVER stop learning. My afternoons were the same but I would include time to listen to podcasts and build my schedule for the following day. I also realized that a second workout was necessary in order to function properly.
3- Prioritize and execute. Fitness became the most important task. It brought energy, strength and stability back and helped keep depression, anger and anxiety at bay. Working out also set the tone for everything else. I was motivated to accomplish my goals and stay energized until it was time to rest.
4- Decentralized Command. I trusted a team of professionals to help me improve. My therapist dug into the dark emotions and helped me find my way out. My case manager kept track of my paperwork and helped me to access the support available to me through Vetrans Affairs. My physiotherapist kept track of my improvement and my massage therapist kept track of my stress and tension. The people close to me were a tremendous help. My dad and girlfriend were great listeners and never judged me for my words and attitude when I needed to vent. For the things I could not control, I learned to let go.
To me, PTSD means Potential To Simply Dominate. My initial diagnosis felt unbearable at times. Through all of the frustration, struggle and depression I had a chance to learn more about myself. When my life started to take a turn for the better, the changes set me apart from my peers. My professors at university took time to ask about my background, my classmates made an effort to get to know me. The interests that I had developed gave me positive ways to interact and left little room for negativity. My life had completely transformed. In the beginning, my diagnosis felt like a limitation but changing the acronym to fit my new perspective shifted my focus. I hope this tactic can give you tools to keep pushing forward.
The military taught us how to fight but fatigue can dull our senses and lull us into mediocrity. As military members, past or present, we have a unique understanding and often bring a global perspective to the challenges we face every day. We understand what leadership looks like, we can function under pressure, our work ethic is strong. There is nothing we cannot overcome.