If you hold onto your past, then it becomes your destiny.
I am often asked to comment on how I have “recovered” from a condition that many argue is not recoverable.
In short – I believed I could.
Yes it was true that whilst serving in Iraq in 2007 my vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb. Not only that, my marriage to my partner Kirsty was on the rocks because I had given my all to the military up to that point. As a commander in Iraq I was allowing myself to get continually infuriated with decisions by Generals in Australia that, in my opinion at the time, put me and my soldiers lives at risk and made my job harder.
When I returned from Iraq, shrapnel and all, I had very little to no self esteem, even though I performed well as a commander.
Could I have been better? Yes, but that was not the reason for having no self esteem. It was because I had made a series of decisions that put me in an emotionally vulnerable position. Not a great position for someone to be in when they have shut off from their emotions as many in the military or emergency services would attest.
A couple of days after getting back from Iraq I was having dinner with a family friend, who happened to be an ex-General. He asked me how I was? I metaphorically traversed my cannon at him and let loose.
I told him what I thought of this person and that person, no matter what their rank. I told him what I thought of the mission I agreed to lead troops on, where some were physically injured and many to this day suffer intense internal wounds. To his great credit, as a man of balance and empathy, he listened. He didn’t justify, or try to explain, for I think I truly saw that the person in front of him was in no place for that.
A couple of weeks later, after letting this all stew, and trying to be a new man for my wife and daughter, but I was shattered – physically, mentally and emotionally.
My framework of who I was and why I did things was shattered.
I had been told I would be posted to the Australian Command And Staff College, a 12 month university style promotion course for the next rank, Lieutenant Colonel. In the Australian Military this is a great credit to a persons performance. But, inside I began to question my very existence. I was great at coordinating many people to destroy things, but I had no framework for me, myself, the person I really aspired to be.
So at a subconscious level in my mind, I chose to develop what is referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. This was not a conscious decision, and nor at the time did I understand how I got myself to this vulnerable position.
The thing about Post Traumatic Stress is that there is no globally agreed definition of what it is, and is a symptom diagnosed condition.
The predominant ‘belief’ is that a traumatic event has to occur. But this fails to recognize that the condition is developed at the subconscious level of the mind where perception is reality. Hence why two people can see the same event, one walks away unaffected, whilst the other is traumatized for life.
Post Traumatic Stress is developed within the mind (not the brain) and subsequently causes physical, mental, emotional and spiritual injuries.
Physical manifestations include, but are not limited to, damage of the limbic region of the brain, accelerated Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal Axis (HPA Axis) activity caused by unbalanced activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System, otherwise known as the ‘Fight, Flight, Freeze” response. Then over time the risk of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Diabetes and Heart disease are all elevated.
Mentally a person can feel like they are viewing life from inside a glass case other wise referred to as experiencing dissociative behaviour; continually have a cascade of negative thoughts that trigger intense emotions; be on the look out for anything that may trigger them; or develop controlling patterns of behaviour, which are a self defense mechanism.
Emotionally, a sufferer may be prone to fly off the handle in emotional outbursts to things that would never have worried them before; experience paralytic anxiety attacks and become so tried it feels like life is not worth living.
Spiritually, a person suffering Post Traumatic Stress has had their belief system shattered, or their trust in the way the world works and their part in it, destroyed. They have lost touch with the very fabric of a higher cause then themselves and meaning to life has run out the door.
If you ask a sufferer the very weird, and slightly psychotic question: Are you inside your body? At first you’ll generally receive, “I don’t know”, then followed by a confused look and a realization of “No”.
So what do we do?
Well, lets try and find a one size fits all pill that will trick the synapses of the brain to stop releasing as much coritsol, or other stress hormones, into our system.
Or we could try and remove the memory through only slightly invasive laser neurosurgery to destroy elements of a sufferers memory banks within the cerebral cortex, even when there is still debate as to where and how memory is stored.
Or we could put them on a medically supervised cannabis or ecstasy trial. Even when issues with drugs both legal and illegal is a serious issue facing our combat veterans currently.
I hear you laughing, but all the above are options currently being pursued by so called experts.
For the record cannabis suppresses the emotion sadness. Sadness is all about loss. Someone suffering Post Traumatic Stress has just lost the underlying framework for their existence, which to me from my personal experience – is something worth grieving over and requires processing, not suppressing.
But how do either of these solutions solve the issue of a father who put his child in the front seat of the car to just drive a couple of kilometers home only to have the last memory of the trip being the flash of a car out the corner of his eye before the collision that could have kill his daughter. It didn’t, but that doesn’t matter – his decision meant it could have.
Or the women who for years took a pounding at the hands of someone that she agreed to meet at the alter because they believed they were made for each other, only to face a verbal, emotional and physical barrage constantly. Then when she has finally found enough strength somewhere inside to walk away with their two children, knows that she can’t talk about him because of who he is in society.
Can a combat veteran take a pill for the fact that they removed another person from this planet? Or saw a family experience something that no one should at the end of his or her muzzle.
The short answer is those solution don’t.
Why can’t we find a one size fits all approach?
The answer is hard. Not necessarily to say, but for people to accept. Especially if you are the one who can’t handle picking your kids up from the bus stop because you experience cold sweats and overwhelming anxiety. Each time is like being taken back to 1971 in Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam when you put a gorgeous bunch of orphans on a bus and stood there watching the bus roll away, only for it to explode in front of you no more than 100m down the road after hitting a landmine.
That was why my father hated picking me up from the bus stop when I was a kid, and he died 12 years ago to an illness directly related to his undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress.
The answer is choice.
As I previously mentioned, the condition is one of perception.
Whilst the symptom debate centre’s around the now four primary clusters being re-experiencing, avoidance, negative cognitions and moods, and arousal; it still misses the causal wound – powerlessness.
Whilst understanding a person has a choice may, to the sympathetic observer, seem like things should then be able to easily be ‘fixed’; it is not that simple.
Cognitive behaviour therapy goes some way to intervening on this level. Attempting to assist a sufferer ‘reframe’, or change their perception of events and their involvement. Thereby changing their outlook on being powerless.
There are a number of issues with this. Foremost is that of emotional residue already in a persons system up until the time of reframing. A persons ‘buckets’, or reservoirs of emotions are full. This explains why I used to come home from work, trip over my daughter’s scooter and go absolutely ballistic as if she’d just burnt the house down. Oh, and who told her to put the scooter in the garage in the first place!
Any experienced practitioner working with sufferers of any adverse mental condition knows anger is a surface emotion that masks a wound. Anger will have to be continually ‘managed’, if that wound is not uncovered and allowed to heal.
‘But, James, I have been told I have a genetic disposition for the condition so I don’t have a choice.’ I’d ask you to look at the new science of behavioural epigenetics that articulates a new understanding that our genes are blueprints, for which our environment, and specifically mindset, can turn them on or off.
Or ‘I don’t have a choice because I have suffered damage within my brain because of the condition’. This presumes that the brain is finite and once damaged can’t heal, or re-wire. A once ridiculed concept in neuroscience referred to as neuroplasiticity clearly describes how the brain once damaged, can re-wire or even heal itself to achieve basic function again.
It is also now understood that the majority of your bodily cells will not be the same within 12 months. In other words your cells naturally die and other replace them, within a year. This is a far cry from the biology I was taught at school were the liver was the only organ that replaced itself. The question always occurred to me, what happens then when I peel from sunburn? Can I only peel a certain amount of times?
A helpful concept to be understood is we, as humans, each one of us, is an amazing entity. Our body’s, our minds, our emotions, all go together to create an incredible synergy we call ourselves. But if we leave it at that, we couldn’t be further from the truth. We are so much more than a combination of the three.
The sum is greater than the total of the parts. You’ve all heard it, but looking in the mirror tomorrow morning and believing it is another thing entirely.
Now multiply that by a 1000 and you get somewhere close to a person suffering Post Traumatic Stress or depression, which by the way have only recently been seen to be linked.
Recovery requires change. People believe they fear change – they don’t. They fear the perceived pain change may bring. For someone to commence the journey, the pain of their present situation must outweigh the perceived pain that change may bring.
So put yourself in the shoes of a sufferer of any adverse mental condition, but particularly Post Traumatic Stress or depression. You’ve built up coping mechanisms that are sort of holding your life together, but not really. You’ve seen death, or pain so intense, it’s indescribable. The very framework of reality no longer exists, and at the deepest level of your soul has been fractured. You’re experiencing intense rage, but don’t know you’re angry. You so tired, yes so tired. That tiredness sleep won’t cure.
Then someone tells you, you are the one who has to heal yourself. No, no way, I’m not going there! I’m not going back to those demons! I can’t … I just can’t do it again …
Coupled with this, you’ve been told by most ‘specialists’, that you can’t recover and that you are just going to have to live with this and try to manage it for the rest of your life.
What choice would you think you had?
Then the hard road commences. The road to recovery.
It’s a holistic road; one that has to address you at a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual level.
Yes meditation and mindfulness can help, but it is very hard to get someone with their emotional buckets overflowing to be able to use them effectively. So those buckets need emptying. And everything should be done in conjunction with looking at your diet, exercise – both physical and mental, and some form of practice that allows you to connect with yourself.
The road to recovery is one of integration. And this is why regression can occur on the journey of recovery. I had many days of two steps forward and three steps back. The regression occurred when I had a hiccup in integrating an element of my learnings.
Change is required because trauma and depression occur for lessons to be learnt. As Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist who survived the German WWII death camps once said,
“In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning”
The very fabric of an individual has to be rebuilt and this cannot be done by any magic pill.
The more a sufferer cries “poor me”, the more the pain is intensified. A victim is someone that lets the world just happen to them. I did, but by hell I would tell you it’s just how it was and IT WASN’T MY FAULT – I was the one who got hit by the roadside bomb; saw my life flash before my eyes, almost lost my marriage; for what, waving an Australian Flag!”
But who was I really yelling at …. ME – Ouch, that hurt more than the bomb!
The sufferer is his or her own harshest critic. The intensity of anger and resentment has festered to the point of being a one eyed jury. And their verdict is always guilty.
The journey starts with taking a breath and believing in the possibility of recovery.
Now we as a society can help by not advocating taking power away from the sufferer. By supporting them, but not facilitating a victim mindset. And ensuring they have their needs addressed in a holistic way.
The hard truth of this is some will not choose to recover. Some are beyond that point. And so systems need to be put in place to assist them gain some form of quality of life.
But the overwhelming majority of sufferers do so without knowing they have a choice. So lets educate, not medicate as the first option.
If you’re a Man and want help, visit Awakening The Warrior Within
If you’re a Woman and want help, visit Embodying The Sacred Feminine Warrior
 Viktor E. Frankl, Mans Search For Meaning, p113