21 November 2017
What PTSD Looks Like
Brian Scott Ostrom sits alone in a waiting room on a blue-checkered cloth chair. The chair has brown wooden arm rests, but he uses neither one. The chair to his left is open and has a magazine sitting on the cushion. An open area is to his right, and his green backpack rests against his chair. No one is sitting next to him. Two seats over to his left, another man sits waiting as well. Scattered throughout the lobby, several individuals sit waiting to be seen. Most appear to have been sitting there for a while. Some have a book or an iPad out to help pass the time. Others, like Brian, have headphones in so they can listen to music while they wait. This is how all waiting rooms in every VA Medical Center across the country look.
Brian prefers to go by his middle name: Scott. Scott is a Veteran of the Iraq war. He is sitting in a waiting room in the VA Hospital. His hands are together holding his cell phone in his lap. He appears restless, even anxious. His eyes peering through his glasses look uneasy. His mouth is wide open as if he is taking a deep breath very slowly. He shows all the signs of someone who has been patiently waiting for his turn. One by one, people are called. With every announcement of the next patient’s name, he anxiously waits to hear his name called. His anxiety slowly turns into frustration as each minute passes. Scott does not know why the other patients are there. He only knows that they too must need to see a doctor, just as he does. All of the other patients are veterans, varying in age. Scott reminds himself that he is not the only one who needs to see a doctor and his turn will come shortly. This only temporarily subdues the overwhelming anxiety that fills Scott.
You see, Scott struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or more commonly known as PTSD. He, like many other returning war Veterans, struggles to cope with everyday life due to PTSD. It affects every aspect of his life, and there is no way of getting away from it. No break. No pause. No relief. Instead, constant fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, impatience, resentment, paranoia, sleep deprivation, mal-nourishment, and stress are a few of the overwhelming feelings Scott experiences daily. This disorder is affecting his quality of life in ways that make him consider any way possible to stop it. He contemplates suicide almost daily. He can tell you his detailed plan of how he would commit suicide. Just by hearing his plan, you can tell that it has been rehearsed dozens of times in his own mind. Hearing him speak of it will send shivers down your spine. He has convinced himself that death may be his only escape from the side-effects of PTSD. However, at the same time, you can see that he battles with himself internally about that decision. Otherwise, why else would Scott be here sitting in a waiting room outside the pharmacy in the VA Medical Center in Denver, Colorado?
Scott finally hears his name called. He tells the doctor about the issues he is having and how they are affecting his life. After seeing Scott’s mental state, the doctor prescribes him some antipsychotic medication. Just another medication, another pill that he has to take. It seems as though Scott has a pill to take for every feeling he experiences. Two months later, Scott is finally accepted into the PTSD Residential Rehabilitation Program: a program designed to help Scott deal with the traumatic events triggering his PTSD. A program that will hopefully help Scott cope with the variety of overwhelming emotions he feels constantly and lead a more normal life. Time will tell whether the program helps Scott or not. He is optimistic about it and speaks of a day when he no longer struggles. He hopes that day is soon. In the meantime, he will work the program and focus on himself.
All too often, veterans return from war and battle with PTSD. Some cases are minor and eventually subside on their own. Others, however, such as Scott’s, require treatment. Oftentimes, veterans are scared to reach out for help. They are afraid that by admitting that they need help, they will be labeled as weak or crazy. So, they say nothing about it and try to deal with it on their own. Sometimes they can suppress the side-effects; other times they cannot. Meanwhile, the people that they are truly hurting are their family members. PTSD is a sickness and is no different than alcoholism; PTSD requires special treatment in order for its victims to live a healthy and normal life. Episodes of depression or anxiety can be so overwhelming at times that suicide seems like a relief. To many veterans who struggle with PTSD, the thought of committing suicide is less frightening then the thought of reaching out for help.
Just like Scott, I too have battled with PTSD. After coming home from serving 13 months consecutively in Iraq, I was not the same. I had paranoia so bad that I got anxiety driving, going into a gas station, or even spending time with loved ones who I had not seen in a while. I would lay down at night to go to sleep, but my mind would begin to play tricks on me. I would start hearing noises that could not possibly be real. I would break out in sweats from the anxiety and paranoia that someone was trying to break into my home. I had multiple panic attacks at places such as church, the grocery store, and even at my in-laws’ house. The only thing that brought me comfort or relief from these symptoms was medication or a pistol. I began sleeping with a loaded pistol sitting next to me on my night stand. I bought a dog and trained to him to be extremely protective of my house. So protective that he would growl at my own brothers and sisters. Eventually, the temporary relief faded. Once again, I was left alone to deal with my PTSD. Just like Scott, I finally broke down and went to seek help. It was by far one of the hardest things I have ever done in my entire life—much harder than physically fighting in Iraq.
So, if you happen to pass by while Scott is sitting on that blue-checkered chair patiently waiting his turn to be seen, sit down next to him. Ask him how he is doing and if he needs anything. Take a moment of your time to see if he is okay. You never know. You may just say something that changes his life. You may talk him out of committing suicide because he no longer feels alone. If he is sitting there with his headphones in, tap him on the shoulder and say hi. More importantly, tell him that, as a nation, we have not forgotten his sacrifice and because of his service, we will always be here to support him. Let him know that he is not alone, and we are eternally grateful for his sacrifice. Because of people like Scott, we all can sleep better at night. We can go to Starbucks in the morning on the way to work. We do not have to worry about a suicide car-bomber driving into the Starbucks while we wait for our caramel macchiato. Scott and other veterans need to know that we appreciate what they sacrificed for our freedom. If anything, our support will provide them with a moment of peace, and that sliver of peace is the least we can offer.