An interest in PTSD improved the author’s relationship with his grandfather and sparked a flame to get others involved.
By Brian Lee
My journey with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has been unique. I transformed myself from a concerned, confused grandson of someone who has PTSD to a volunteer and researcher seeking to understand PTSD better. I hope to take what I have learned to create further awareness about PTSD.
Every Saturday, my parents, little sister, and I would make an hour drive up the freeway to visit my grandfather at the facility he resides in Northern California. On one of these visits, I noticed my grandfather, a heavy sleeper, had quite a bit of Xanax and Ambien. I asked my mother why he would possibly use those medications and how he would ever finish the three large bottles of pills. She sat me down and told me the story of his struggle with PTSD.
I learned that my grandfather was a helicopter pilot for the South Korean armed forces during the Vietnam War. As a former commissioned officer, the rural Vietnamese villages he entered always came rushing back to him in the form of vivid nightmares filled with bloodshed. Shrieking cries reminded him of the begging children living in dilapidated houses. Loud sounds in the middle of the night, from the ring of an alarm clock to the pinging sound of my uncle dropping a plate, reminded him of the sounds of a landmine detonating underfoot. These sounds, in turn, brought him back to the images of all the men he left behind. Unfortunately, and surprisingly, these experiences haunted more than 40 years after the war. For some reason, he could never let go. Every sleepless night replayed his year in hell. As I see how much his memories from the Vietnam War affect his life, dreams, loved ones, and community, I want to help others understand the ailment and help them learn what they can do to help individuals with PTSD.
To get to know more individuals like my grandfather, and possibly learn more about his disease, I decided to volunteer at a local hospital that was serving some veterans. I regularly helped transport patients and got to interact with them and hear their stories. I learned a lot about the experiences of PTSD while interacting with patients. In particular, I discovered the humanity of the patients. They are just like me. Almost anyone may develop the disorder, and those who are suffering the disease still appreciate people, love, and community. It was not always smooth volunteering. I learned that PTSD is a genuinely unique disease. It’s often treatable by human kindness and effective psychotherapy, but medicine and compassion are both essential tools to help others get better. One of the first interactions that made a lasting and positive impression on me started with a shock to my system. A man that I was transporting out of the ICU yelled at me: “Get your (expletive) together, KID!”
I was able to tell my supervisor about my experiences with this Green Beret. He knew the patient, and he came by one day to help me start a valuable conversation with the Green Beret. What I expected out of this conversation were a few cold stares, war stories, and ballads about lost loves, missed opportunities, and successful children. What I did not expect was to hear of the veteran’s troubled past, struggles with PTSD and survivor’s guilt, and unimaginably abusive childhood.
In other words, I never expected someone who seemed so jaded, tough, and domineering to be so human. From the desperate and ashamed looks in his eyes, I learned two critical lessons about PTSD and medicine: Medicine is a lot about interpersonal relationships you have with others. As can be seen in this man’s story, compassion is extremely powerful. As I empathetically listened to this vet’s story, he opened up and trusted me more. Over many long conversations and cups of Welch’s grape juice, we learned more about each other’s views and experiences. I also gained a friend and a better understanding of PTSD.
Learning more about the humanity of the veterans, including my grandfather, inspired me to research medical literature about treatments for PTSD. I wanted to understand more about the role of interpersonal relations in effective PTSD treatments. I read and sort through the data from multiple scientific journal articles from the Published International Literature on Traumatic Stress (PILOTS) Database, an electronic index to the worldwide literature on PTSD and other mental health consequences of exposure to traumatic events. Through my research, I learned how important it is for individuals with PTSD (like my grandfather and the patient above) to get the proper medical treatment and also connect with a helpful community.
From this research, I was able to reconnect with my grandfather and talk with his doctor to help him connect better with local veterans. What I also found inadvertently and surprisingly was that PTSD isn’t something only soldiers get. Civilians also develop the disorder depending on life circumstances. With all of the public shootings, terrorist events, and wars, the global community as a whole is experiencing more and more traumatic events every day. As a result, many individuals may feel more anxious over time and start to deviate from their typical lifestyles.
It is my belief to assist best our communities we must examine PTSD, determine the most effective treatment method, and then evaluate the impact of such advances and knowledge on our communities. What I feel is most important is that when individuals can learn more about PTSD and how much it can affect others, populations may become the right places patients need to recover and grow. If such a good location can be established in communities around my city, throughout the state, and even throughout the nation, we can make considerable progress in ensuring everyone is healthier mentally, and those with PTSD may thrive as fully integrated members of society.
What’s best of all is that when individuals act on these principles, lives are drastically changed. As a result of my knowledge, I am in a better position to help and understand my grandfather. My advocacy work consists of handing out PTSD pamphlets, starting a blog, and volunteering at the local level. It has given me the tools necessary to connect with the rest of my family and neighborhood. Hopefully, if we all work together, we can slowly make our city, state, and country a better place for individuals with PTSD.
That is my real hope.