Anthony W. Pahl

PTSD: HEALING OR COPING?
A Response to the Question, “How did you overcome PTSD?”

I have been (and still am) thinking about your request about what was most helpful to me during treatment. It’s a difficult question to answer and what I’m about to write you may be quite silly because I don’t really know what I’m going to write.

I needed to be isolated from my everyday life so that the stresses involved with paying the bills, answering the phone, visits of friends and family, and all the “normal” facets of life were not intruding on my concentration on “getting better.” Accordingly, during the period between the onset of the extreme symptoms of PTSD (September 1992) until the moment that I felt that I accepted that PTSD is incurable but not fatal, and decided could cope with those symptoms without one-on-one help (June 1999), I was hospitalised in a psychiatric hospital for an aggregate of over 5 years, on one occasion for a period of 9 months.

The thing I found most helpful was the chance to determine for myself the nature of my illness. I learned the theory of PTSD and what the symptoms were and without being told, “YOU HAVE THOSE.” I was permitted to work out where I fitted in the PTSD scenario without being labelled with any particular symptom – at least, by the doctors and nursing staff. On several occasions during the 1st two years of treatment, I was in a ward with 6-10 other Vietnam Veterans and made no improvement whatsoever. In retrospect it’s clear to me that because of the innate bond between Veterans, the empathy is so intense that we incorporated each other’s illness into our own psyche in the hope to remove it from our brothers. It became so bad for me that I found it impossible to determine my own nightmares and experiences from theirs… all of their realities become mine.

The other problem with being hospitalised with other Veterans is the fact that we became very judgemental and competitive. “My experiences are more horrible than yours.” “You couldn’t’ have experienced that because when you were there, those things didn’t happen.” “That’s too horrible – it could never have happened – you’re a liar!” Not only was this a reason to clam up, but it was also a reason not to sleep because I became paranoid that these vets would be talking about me and ridiculing me behind my back.

At this point I’d better explain that I was in the Royal Australian Air Force and served as a helicopter gunner for most of my tour in Vietnam. I was trained and an Airfield Defence Guard, which is very similar to a Special Forces member of the Air Force… we were highly trained Air Force ground combat troops. Accordingly, I spent time with the Australian Army in Vietnam doing patrols and other field duties, as well as patrolling outside the Airbase at Vung Tau.

Never was I in doubt that I would “get better” and had strength of will that enabled me to avoid the pitfalls of alcohol and other non-prescribed drugs. In this I was somewhat unique among my peers, so much so that I was accused on “faking” PTSD in order to get a pension. The oft spoken comment was, “You don’t drink; you haven’t got PTSD.” Little did these blokes realise that to deal with PTSD without resorting to drink was a much more difficult proposition than using alcohol etc. to gain some, if only brief, respite. Of course, the problem of drink and drugs has to be dealt with before the PTSD can even be addressed. It’s no use treating a bloke for PTSD when he’s high or drunk.

Despite my attempts to brush these accusation aside, they persisted and caused so much stress that when a memory of one particular event at last came to the fore of my consciousness, I was ridiculed, abused and beaten so badly by 5 other Veterans and awoke to find myself in casualty ward of the Hospital. (It was a Repatriation Hospital – the equivalent to a VA Hospital in America). Apparently I was found on the road near the back of the hospital and it was thought I was the victim of a hit-and-run driver.

After recovery from that beating, special approval was sought and obtained to admit me to a private psychiatric hospital (at my request) and it was from that moment on that my battle with PTSD took a turn for the better. It still took me 3 years of hospitalisation and many bouts with self-destructive episodes, including several attempts at suicide and heavy gambling (in an attempt to give my wife an excuse to leave me) to gain enough self-sufficiency, confidence and positiveness to enable me to return to the community. That was more by a determination to try than any knowledge or hope that I was ready to do so. That was at the end of June 1999. In September 1999, Maria (my wife – still and since before I went to Vietnam) agreed to my request to purchase a computer. I had rarely used one previously but I took on that challenge and learned and the rest, as they say, is history.

I haven’t been admitted to hospital since then, and although I continue to have bad times and cannot function without medication, I have a life that I love, a gift for writings poetry that is both a source of pride and healing, a family that loves me despite and because of everything I am, and whom I love unconditionally and with my entire being, and a self-imposed duty of responsibility and love to all veterans and people with whom I come in contact through the IWVPA website.

Perhaps this story may not answer your questions, but it has helped me. It’s seldom I look backwards any longer (other than through nightmares and flashbacks), preferring today and the hope of tomorrow, so to have been afforded this opportunity, although being a somewhat difficult process, has been a blessing. God bless you.