PTSD: An Unspeakable Situation
My long-term project is about veterans and servicemen suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’ve met some of them in 2010 and did a series of interviews while they were following a therapy programme. Since then, I’ve been following a couple of them and met new veterans on the way.
I called my project ‘PTSD: an unspeakable situation’ because of the difficulties servicemen suffering from PTS face to talk openly about what they are going through within the military or on civvy street. PTSD symptoms are still a taboo subject within the military because they are seen as signs of weakness and, on the other hand, once on civvy street, veterans’ war experiences are so ‘abnormal’ that they can’t or don’t want to talk about them. As Dr Shay, author of Achilles in Vietnam, tells us, ‘the painful paradox is that fighting for one’s country can render one unfit to be its citizen.’
As far far as the NHS is concerned, GPs seem to be very ill prepared to deal with veterans’ trauma. Only specialised charities and hospitals can help those who manage to reach them.
Here are a few quotes from soldiers and veterans I interviewed between 2010 and 2012:
Lee has been in the armed forces for the past 20 years. Three years ago, after a couple of tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he started losing his temper at home and at work; he also had a lot of nightmares and suffered from paranoia. He took part in a 5 day alternative therapy programme for PTSD sufferers called Synergy in August 2010 without telling his boss:
I’m doing this at the moment all under the radar, why? Because of the stigma attached to it: I’m still a serving soldier. It’s crazy, I should be able, as a person, to turn around into this industry – the military – and say: ‘Actually no, I’ve been there and I’ve had helped and I’m proud of it and you can’t sack me for it or whatever because that’s my human right. But if I did say that I’d be looked upon on and looked down on and I’d probably get into some form of trouble. Because in their mind they would say ‘No we’ve got all the stuff in place’…Actually have you got all the stuff in place? Well I’ve been down that road and it didn’t fuckin’ helped me.” (Lee)
I was doing courses and such and I started to feel not right, I didn’t understand PTSD, I was not aware of it, and obviously the last thing you want to do is to go and talk to the guys in the unit about it…I mean, you can talk with your pals, some of your friends in the army become more or less your brothers, but you tend to not talk about how you’re really feeling inside it’s just the way it is unfortunately, so I suppose in a way, I suppressed it myself, and I thought well, I don’t want to think about it, so I’m just going to crack on with things and actually, looking back on it now, it was made worse by that.” (Joe)
I spent 2 years in Ireland during the 1990 tour, I came back from there and I had PTSD then. But what happened is that I was quite violent with it, and I ended up having a fight with a senior NCO, so they put me into the army psychiatric unit, and treated me for violent disorder instead of treating me for the right thing, and then they released me from there and I was under an army psychiatrist, but as an outpatient and he said to me, ‘you have PTSD, but I’m not allowed to diagnose it as that’, because the army did not accept that it existed at that time! It was in 1992.” (Clifford)
The training is very good, it does suppress emotions and you have to have that because you have to dehumanize a person in order to kill them; but there also has to be I think a ‘detraining’, if you like, because there was a period when I had absolutely no emotion whatsoever, I couldn’t feel anything for anything, but I knew that they were there I was just suppressing them and that’s a very bad thing to be doing, I think. This is why I went back to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, etc, because that’s what I knew and that’s what I felt comfortable doing even though it was with the private side of it, it’s the same thing, and they are all ex-military guys, they all have the same thinking, so you feel normal again going back to that. But for some periods you have to come back to civvy street and that is when you don’t fit in because you feel different.” (Clifford)
What I do find is that the people that have been chemicalised are often the most difficult to work with purely because their perception has been distorted by chemicals. They soon start to lose grip of what is real and what isn’t real and some of their perceptions are over exaggerated by the use of chemicals.” (Mick Stott, creator of the Synergy programme for PTSD sufferers)
I tried to talk to my brother once but he said, ‘Well, you know, you joined the army so’…” (Mark)
I had a few CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)* cessions with a therapist once I was diagnosed with PTSD. One of the exercises he gave me was that if I was having an anxiety attack or a panic attack – because I used to get quite angry or have anxiety attacks when I was shopping for some reason, I think because of the crowds of people…I still don’t know why – he told me to stop and start talking to myself and say: ok, there’re lemons over there, there’s a lady over there with a blue hat on, ok, there’s the fruits and vege aisle, oh look, there’s baked beans…taking notes of what was around me kind of thing…but when you have an anxiety attack or you’re having a flashback, or you’re feeling angry, you’re not going to do that because you don’t even know, you’re not in the right state of mind to start pulling yourself out of that, you can’t do that, so for me, the therapy was bollocks.” (Mark)
*CBT can be useful to some veterans suffering from PTSD, but does not work with all of them; the 2 main treatments recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) are CBT and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR). Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) is one among other alternative therapies that can also help to deal with PTSD symptoms.
Mark followed a 2 days NLP therapy at the end of 2009 and his flashbacks and fits of rage disappeared.
After the Falklands, the trouble I got into…if I hadn’t been in the navy I would have been in prison, it is only because I was in the navy that I never got locked up. And if I hadn’t met Jane, I’d be dead.” (Dave)
Stuart was doing some close protection work in Iraq in 2004 when two suicide bombers blew themselves up in Baghdad’s Green Zone killing 10 and wounding 20 others. Stuart was among the seriously wounded.
This painting here is what I see when I think of been blown up by a suicide bomber: the confusion, the colours that I saw, the blackness that I saw; all the boxes represent all the different factors of what I’ve been feeling over the last 6 years: the hatred, the revenge that I wanted to get, the pain, the guilt…” (Stuart)
Reiki as a form of relaxation for veterans:
A Synergy programme (a mix of Neuro-Linguistic Programming and hypnosis) organised by Mick Stott over 4 days…
followed by a ‘Creative Solution Programme’ organised by Steve Pratt:
I’ve just asked people: you’ve been here now for 2 to 3 days talking to the therapists, would you like to show where it is you are now?” (Steve Pratt)
From soldier to artist:
Steve Pratt became an artist after 17 years in the armed forces:
I started using the pencils to express how I feel, I usually have quite a lot of anger anyway, but even though I’m better, I still have the anger in there. In a way, the anger comes out…I suppose it is quite positive because it’s getting things out, and in fact, once I start, it is not anger anymore, the anger turns almost instantly to unconscious flow, so I suppose that is where the catharsis is, in the actual doing.” (Steve Pratt)
Steve started breaking frames at the beginning of 2011 as a way of illustrating negative emotions. After the violent act of breaking and the negative emotions it releases, comes the possibility of repair. Although Steve feels it is something he has to do, it is a mentally painful process. On one occasion, he questioned its relevance:
I feel quite stupid doing all of this. I don’t know if it is something I want to do, I know that’s the thing I have to do….I feel completely knackered now. And then I have a huge mountain to climb because I have to try to fix this now. I feel quite unhappy actually. To make that, it’s really difficult to do, I put a lot of pressure on myself to do this.” (Steve Pratt)
Steve’s latest exhibition started in June 2011 in Tornio, Finland, in the Aine Art Museum. I asked him what art had done for him:
When I was at university, I was studying fine art, I wasn’t somebody doing therapy, I wasn’t somebody with problems, I was making paintings…but I did realised that the painting conventions were kind of limited for me because I wanted to have actually a real explosion in a painting, the paintings were never enough. But now, I have come to learn more about where these things come from, I understand more now that these images or issues were locked in my head and art actually – although I was constructing – it was also enabling me unconsciously to get things out. When you see the size of some paintings, the large figures and the large guns, the size of that problem in my head must have been quite big and the art work enabled me to see that, it brought it out and here I am now thinking: oh, that’s gone, I can move on now as an artist.” (Steve Pratt)
In October 2011, Steve Pratt took part in a Culture Show programme on BBC 2 entitled Art for Heroes; he produced a few pieces of artwork for the show including this one he made using toy soldiers:
They are in a bubble, they are there forever, they will never get out of that, even if they do get out physically, they’ll be trapped in that bubble forever.” (Steve Pratt)
Steve is currently on a MA Art Psychotherapy course at Goldsmith university in London.
Surf for veterans:
In June 2012, I spent a day with Surf Action in Cornwall, a charity set up by Rich Emerson and Russ Pierre that uses surfing to help veterans suffering from PTSD regain self esteem and mental strength.
I first met Trevor Luttrell:
I’ve never surfed before and I had a fear of cold water that goes back to my service, but as soon as I got into the water I realised there was nothing to be frightened about, nothing to be worried about and I just enjoy the surfing; I’m not much good at it but it doesn’t matter, you’re in the water, you come out with a smile on your face and for me that’s all I really want. I’ve been doing it for 18 month now.” (Trevor Luttrell)
The feeling of going into the water, […] the sea has got an energy to it, like a battery, and as soon as you put your hands on the water you can feel the energy and as soon as you get on a wave that’s a totally different experience, you can feel it lifting you up and it is a tremendous sensation of nothingness, it’s just: oh boy, this is it! And even if you don’t stand up, just the feeling of the wave there, you’re at one with nature which sounds a little bit trite, but that’s how it makes you feel and you come out, you go back in, and you do it again and again and again and you’re hoping for the perfect wave and of course it never comes, but it doesn’t matter, and that is what surfing does to me.
The idea is not to cure people, it is purely to signpost them to somewhere where they can then get themselves sorted out, so really, it’s very much a recuperation thing and we’re just helping them on the way.” (Trevor Luttrell)
I’ve been with Surf Action for the past 18 months; I remember the first time I came, I really didn’t want to, that was a real case of putting one foot in front of the other and just make sure I got here…I was just really nervous about it…I had no connection with any ex-forces things, no friends who were ex-forces, I had completely shut that bit away and I wasn’t really sure how I would react to it…I think I kind of felt ‘I just feel so much apart from it’, you know, it seemed like a long while ago, but that was almost instant when I came down, I suddenly realised that I had missed that sort of friendship and the instant kind of trust as well.” (Mike)
And Rich Emerson, the founder of the charity:
I suffered from PTSD and on a trip to California, I discovered that in America, they are using surfing and the beach environment to help sufferers of PTSD. So I came back to the UK and decided that this needed to be done here and I started Surf Action, the charity. Going back 3 years, I had to start off just by working 2 jobs, I was working with wood, and I was surf instructing as well; and the money then would go to help the families come down; […] and then I got a partner and another director, Chris Hines and Russ Pierre, and they help me with the admin side of things. […] The advantage of me going through PTSD is that I understand how to help the others in a better way. I don’t give them sympathy, I give them empathy which is a little bit different: I totally understand where they are because I’m still there as well.”
Daren is not a veteran but was injured in a car accident.
The charity is set up to help ex service guys suffering from PTSD and guys who have been injured, so recently, it’s been a lot of amputees back from Afghanistan, but we also like to be inclusive, and not exclusive, so if there are other guys or other people in the community that need help as well, we don’t mind helping them, they can come down on the beach and have fun as well.
What the surfing does, working in the ocean and on a beach environment, it changes the state of mind; the guys get a respite, they’re not thinking about the bad stuff that’s going on, but also they start becoming happy, we get some smiles on the faces… once their state of mind changes, then we can start to break down barriers.” (Rich Emerson)
You can find some veterans’ stories on my Multimedia – PTSD page.