William went to Afghanistan after a Platoon was deployed from Ft. Hood. Most of what he heard about soldiers’ experiences in the Middle East were rumors and media stories- he had no way to be prepared for what would happen to him. After nearly 6 months of swallowing sand stirred up by 110 degree winds, William had 5 days left until he would return home. Momentarily losing his hearing, all his senses were shaken when an IED tore shrapnel through his three closest friends. They were dead. Just like that. After being rushed by helicopter for triage medical care, William soon discovered he narrowly missed death himself- the same shards of nails and rocks that killed his friends were found inches away from where he stood.
Returning home is where cleaning up the fragments took the longest. After being debriefed and allowed medical and family leave, Bill struggled getting back to civilian life. Some of the most difficult times he faced were trying to overcome his own unexpected reactions to situations, usually late at night where he would awake from a noise, pulling his wife down from the bed onto the floor to take cover. When he became calm, he was covered in sweat, visually stunned by recalling what had happened weeks before- and so embarrassed to be dragging his wife- literally and metaphorically- into the center of his problems.
This is trauma. This is the story of William’s PTSD (post-traumaticstress disorder). Hopefully his story can help bring understanding to struggles faced by those dealing with trauma and respect for our service men and women.
It’s not very difficult to have some sense of empathy for William’s situation. It’s often much harder to understand another very real and very overwhelming problem. It is called obsessive compulsive disorder(OCD). You may be curious why this article spends so much time talking about PTSD, only to discuss OCD. Two reasons. OCD has similar features and neurobiology to PTSD, and secondly, if we are to listen to the struggles of others, often we must start with something wedo understand.
You see, whether a person is triggered into feeling distress from trauma or obsessive anxiety, their limbic system (the area of the brain dealing most with survival and protective reactions) becomes active to ward off a threat. This is a wonderful system when it is working properly, but when it is overly sensitive, it is like a faulty check engine light on a car that becomes counter-productive. It is a normal reaction- out of context. Think of the panic you would feel if you saw someone almost being run over by a car- your limbic system would activate and prepare the body and mind to fight, flee, or freeze. Now imagine it occurring at random times and being uncontrollable.
Despite popular references of, “She’s just OCD!” and “He really likes his house OCD,” the diagnosable mental health condition is a serious foe- and far beyond a person’s immediate ability to just “stop” their ruminating thoughts. Because the anxiety and distress a person with OCD feels is so bothersome and intrusive, they naturally seek to alleviate it- sometimes with elaborate mental rituals to “do away” with the anxiety, sometimes with physical compulsions to feel better (for example: “I feel anxious when some unknown object touches my clean clothes, so I either have to wash the affected area or change clothes”). To some people, this sounds crazy. But for the person with diagnosable OCD, their mind and body both SCREAM with discomfort until they do something to alleviate it. And the compulsion works! Momentarily. But what it does is reinforce the neuropathways linked to disorder as opposed to reinforcing healthy, non-compulsive behavior.
What it takes to find longer-lasting relief is to accept the problem and productively counter it, pursuing a number of treatment options that help free the person from thinking obsessive thoughts or acting upon mental or physical compulsions. There is hope and treatment that WORKS. We don’t have to understand, ultimately, to love. As many as 1 in 100 people wrestle with this. Look around- that’s someone in your neighborhood or at the restaurant where you last went. Will you lend a helping hand to those who suffer?
Justin K. Hughes