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Living with PTSD

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  This pencil illustration attempts to visualize PTSD.  Those that suffer from this disorder are constantly trying to regain some sense of the normalcy they had before events that caused pieces of themselves to go missing.  This illustration was created by MSgt William Vance, Medical Multimedia Manager for the 59th Public Affairs Office.  This image is 7.5x10 @ 72 ppi and is available up to 8.5x11 @ 150 ppi.

(U.S. Air Force illustration by Master Sgt. William Vance)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- "I started to get really depressed and lacked the desire to do anything but sit around and play on-line to 'escape' the real world. I was having dreams of planes crashing, the smell of burnt flesh and rotting bodies. I still tried to push through this even as my sleep started to dwindle down to a couple hours a night as I would wake up in cold sweats screaming. I decided something was wrong."

These were some of the symptoms Staff Sgt. Collin Moore, a former air transportation craftsman, was experiencing shortly after he made a permanent change of station to Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska.

"I decided something was wrong when I would watch a commercial and start crying then laugh then get [upset] and then become enraged," said Moore. "I went to the mental health clinic on base to get some advice. After a couple sessions my counselor introduced the notion that I may be suffering from PTSD."

Post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. It can be triggered by exposure to a traumatic experience such as an interpersonal event like physical or sexual assault, exposure to disaster or accidents, combat or witnessing a traumatic incident.

The diagnosis did not sit well with Moore. He felt he had no reason to be experiencing symptoms of PTSD. Although he had deployed seven times in eight years he still thought that only military who had been on the "front lines" or "sweeping the streets of Iraq or Afghanistan" would experience stress and trauma. For him this didn't make sense.

"I had never considered myself a weak-minded person. I accomplished everything I put my mind to, and to me, something like this could not be possible. Boy was I ever wrong. I started to go to mental health two times a week to try and work it out and started a healthy dose of medication, however this did not work for me."

There are many treatments for PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD, but at this time there are two types of treatments that appear to be the most effective, medicines and cognitive-behavioral therapy counseling. Often times different treatment options are tried to see what will work most effectively for the individual.

Shortly after Moore's diagnosis he rapidly got worse and his weight ballooned to 260 pounds. His desire to doing anything began to dwindle. His marriage began to fall apart. The breaking point came one night when he and his wife were arguing and he wondered what the point of living was.

"After a few venomous words were spit out by both parties I went to the closet and grabbed a friend's 45 caliber handgun, loaded one in the chamber and had my finger on a hair trigger ready to be done with all the pain. I stood there shaking while my wife was crying and at that point I realized this could not be me," said Moore.

Moore was sent to University Behavioral Health in Texas for 30 days, but it took time before he realized the cause of his PTSD and how to cope with it.

"The problem was that I still did not understand why I was counting windows in buildings, freaking out in the car as a passenger and still scared to death as the driver. I hated doors behind me and large crowds. I would go from what to me seemed calm to total rage in the blink of an eye," he said.

While Moore was undergoing care he went to group sessions and counseling where he learned that having PTSD is not a weakness but instead a natural defense mechanism that everyone has. Unfortunately, those who suffer from PTSD cannot turn off that defense mechanism.

"Simply put, PTSD is a state of hyper-vigilance and anxiety all mixed into one. There is no easy button for it, no magic pill to cure it or, honestly, any way to get rid of it," said Moore.

Treatment can help an individual who has PTSD feel more in control of emotions and result in fewer symptoms, according to the VA National Center for PTSD. But, even with treatment some symptoms may still be prevalent.

Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms are generally grouped into three types: intrusive memories, avoidance and numbing and increased anxiety or emotional arousal, according to the Mayo Clinic website. Intrusive memories may include flashbacks or upsetting dreams. Symptoms of avoidance and emotional numbing can include feeling emotionally numb, avoiding enjoyable activities, memory problems, trouble concentrating and difficulty maintaining close relationships. Some of the symptoms of anxiety and increased emotional arousal include irritability or anger, guilt, shame, trouble sleeping or self-destructive behavior.

Moore says that his mind still feels like it's in a hostile environment which creates a problem. Although there is no real danger, anyone who causes an uneasy feeling or added stress becomes the enemy.

"The way I see it is I have been given a toolbox and in it are different ways to cope with different situations," said Moore. "While I am a disabled veteran, I know I will never be the person I once was, but I also feel that I could not have become the person I am now. I am down to 170 pounds and I am working on my vocational rehabilitation to become an environmental engineer."

Across the nation, the Veterans' Administration found that nearly 400,000 veterans in all branches of military were affected by PTSD in 2009 alone, ranking the disorder as the fourth most frequent disability connected with military service.

Psychological intervention is available in multiple venues, including medical options through primary care and mental health clinics. All VA Medical Centers provide PTSD care, as well as many VA clinics. There are non-medical options as well, such as Military OneSource, chaplain's office and military and family life consultants.

Early diagnosis, prompt treatment and strong social support can all increase the chance of a good outcome for those who have PTSD.