All photographs are courtesy of Trahan Studio Photography. Click here to visit their website.
One of my goals for my blog, My Big Fat Bipolar Life, has always been to share the stories of people’s personal journeys with mental illness.
It is important to know the facts about mental illness, but I think it is equally important to put a face to the diagnosis and examine how the disease affects a person’s day-to-day life.
When I considered writing a post about posttraumatic stress disorder, I had one person in mind to share his backstory. I am excited he agreed because I know his brutal honesty will encourage so many people.
I have known Kurt Trahan and his wife for seven years, and I remember the inciting incident that triggered his PTSD diagnosis. In all the years I have known Kurt, he has been candid about his struggles.
Today, as we examine the facts about posttraumatic stress disorder and hear Kurt’s experience in his own words, I hope you get a more tangible understanding of PTSD and how it affects people’s lives.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) 101
According to the American Psychiatric Association, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) “is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault.”
Although PTSD is commonly associated with veterans, it can affect anyone who has experienced a traumatic event. Posttraumatic stress disorder affects approximately 3.5 percent of U.S. adults, and doctors will diagnose an estimated 1 in 11 people with PTSD in their lifetime. Women are twice as likely as men to develop the condition.
Kurt’s Inciting Incident
On April 12, 2013, my pregnant wife, two children and I were involved in a car accident. I was at a stop sign, didn’t see any cars coming and pulled out into the path of an oncoming truck that was traveling at 65 miles an hour. After the accident, my family was examined at a local hospital, and the doctors released us believing there were no injuries.
I struggled for the next month with excruciating headaches that caused confusion, dizziness and nausea. Once I was referred to a neurologist and had a CT scan and MRI, the doctor diagnosed me with a traumatic brain injury, a concussion and post-concussion syndrome.
The tests also uncovered a never diagnosed brain condition called Chiari malformation that I had from birth. So besides having to navigate the traumatic brain injury, I also had decompression surgery to treat my congenital brain condition.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD symptoms can be divided into four categories, and the severity of the symptoms may vary:
1. Intrusive thoughts such as repeated, involuntary memories; distressing dreams; or flashbacks of the traumatic event. Flashbacks may be so vivid that people feel they are reliving the traumatic experience or seeing it before their eyes.
2. Avoiding reminders of the traumatic event may include avoiding people, places, activities, objects and situations that bring on distressing memories. People may try to avoid remembering or thinking about the traumatic event. They may resist talking about what happened or how they feel about it.
3. Negative thoughts and feelings may include ongoing and distorted beliefs about oneself or others (e.g., “I am bad,” “No one can be trusted”); ongoing fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame; much less interest in activities previously enjoyed; or feeling detached or estranged from others.
4. Arousal and reactive symptoms may include being irritable and having angry outbursts; behaving recklessly or in a self-destructive way; being easily startled; or having problems concentrating or sleeping.
Many people exhibit the above symptoms as a natural response to a traumatic event. For a posttraumatic stress disorder diagnosis, the symptoms must persist for more than a month and impair a person’s ability to function in work and social situations. The symptoms may persist for months or even years, and can lead to other mental health issues, physical symptoms and memory deficits.
After the accident, I fought with the pain not only from the wreck but also from the brain injury. I also experienced an excessive amount of guilt and anxiety.
When something traumatic happens, it programs your body to react in a certain way to protect itself. Because of the wreck we were in, I went into an abnormally heightened fight-or-flight response because my family with was me and because of the severity of the accident.
For me, the sound of metal crunching, blue Chevy trucks and country roads curving to the right were some of my huge triggers, but the biggest trigger of all was stress. I was eventually diagnosed with PTSD-induced psychogenic blackouts.
We established that the blackouts I had been experiencing were the physical manifestations of the PTSD. When faced with excessive stress and triggers, my brain would shut down to cope with it. The blackouts would last anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours.
On bad days, I had recurring dreams where I relived the events of the accident as they occurred or a darker version of the events where my family didn’t survive the wreck. Sometimes I would have that dream six to seven times a night.
I fell into a pit of darkness filled with hopelessness and helplessness. I finally understood the loneliness and darkness that people attribute to depression.
I had two bouts of crippling darkness where I felt there was only one way out, but I came through to the other side both times.
1. Cognitive Processing Therapy is a form of talk therapy that helps modify negative emotions and beliefs associated with the traumatic event.
2. Prolonged Exposure Therapy is a type of behavioral therapy that helps the patient reimagine the trauma in a safe and controlled environment to help them face frightening situations and memories and learn to cope with their triggers. One approach is the use of virtual reality programs to allow the patient to re-enter the setting of the trauma.
3. Eye movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) combines exposure therapy with a series of guided eye movements to help process traumatic memories and how you react to them.
4. Group Therapy with other trauma survivors is a way to find support and validation in a comfortable and non-judgmental setting. Family therapy is helpful because PTSD affects the entire family.
5. Medication can help relieve some symptoms of PTSD, enabling you to take part more fully in other forms of treatment. Medication alone is not a cure for PTSD.
6. Complementary and Alternative Therapies are becoming increasingly popular. Acupuncture and service dogs are two of those therapies.
Kurt’s Treatment Protocol
Treatment and managing PTSD is an ongoing process that I don’t think will ever end. I have come a long way in seven years, but there is still work to do.
The biggest hurdle in receiving proper treatment was admitting to myself that something was wrong, and I needed help.
My neurologist started treating me with antidepressants and anti-seizure medication, but I have always been a person who didn’t get along well with medicine.
I eventually relented and began therapy, and that is where I opened up and was honest about what had happened and what I was still going through. Those sessions were emotionally and physically draining.
In the sessions, I realized that PTSD was my brain’s response to the wreck and my body had been in the heightened flight-or-fight response for two years.
Have you ever had a moment when you feel an adrenaline rush, and your body goes into the flight-or-fight response? Typically, it subsides quickly. Imagine living like that for two years! It was living hell.
I had to bring myself to a place where my body could shut that response down. When it finally happened, all I could do is cry. Once I released the flight-or-fight response, the cortisol levels in my body dropped, and I lost 15 pounds right away.
Once we got the main hurdles of admittance and acceptance out of the way, we started identifying each trigger and mitigating them. I had to face these triggers and essentially reprogram my brain’s response to them.
One such trigger was seeing a vehicle like the one I was driving at the time of the accident. When I was triggered and felt my anxiety rise, my breathing getting rapid and sweat starting, I would eat two Oreo cookies and talk myself through it. Within a month, I no longer needed the Oreos.
A friend spoke to me about the effectiveness of service dogs, which I had not considered seriously until our talk. After doing some research, I decided to self-train a service dog. I found a young male Australian Shepherd named Obi Wan Kenobi, and the bond was instant.
A few weeks into the training, I noticed Obi started picking up my cues for panic attacks and blackouts. When I had a blackout, my wife, Heather, got Obi to see how he would react.
Right away he came lay on me and started licking my face. Up to that point, no doctor, medicine, treatment had brought me out of a blackout. With Obi, I woke up from the blackout in a matter of seconds.
The Effects of PTSD on Kurt’s Family
It has been beyond hard on my family—not only with the PTSD—but also with the brain injuries and surgeries. I am not the same person I was before the wreck, but I try my hardest every day to get to a better place.
The changes that were subtle to me were not subtle for those closest to me. The distance. The rage. The confusion. And then the blackouts.
I wasn’t the same person. I became a person I didn’t want to be around.
My kids have had to take on a role that most kids never have to think about. Sometimes we must leave social events, and I have to explain to them that my brain just can’t handle being around people right then.
They know what to do and who to call if I fall or blackout. It’s a lot for them to deal with, but I believe these challenges will help them become even stronger adults.
My wife, Heather, has been my rock through all of this. The rock may have cracks and chips from all she has endured, but it has only strengthened her and made her even more beautiful.
She has been my caregiver, mother and teacher to all three of our kids, the voice of reason on my bad days when I’m a stubborn old mule, and she is the light I always need when I am at my darkest.
Even when friends fade away during trying times, she is always there. I hope that one day I can be for her what she has been for me.
I believe the last question I asked Kurt may be the most important one of all: What one thing do you wish everyone knew about posttraumatic stress disorder?
Here is his response:
Posttraumatic stress disorder is not a “it’s in your head” or “you just have to get over it” type of thing. It affects your being, your soul, and who you are.
PTSD changes your outlook on life. It can take over your life, and if you’re not careful, it can take your life.
I encourage people not to forget about their friends living with posttraumatic stress disorder. We are still people, just a little rougher around the edges after the diagnosis.
We won’t reach out because we feel like a burden, but contact is what we need the most. Don’t be offended if we don’t answer the phone because it may be a trigger for anxiety since the PTSD may slow our mental processing. For me, texting is so much easier because I can really understand a conversation and formulate what I want to say.
And finally, don’t give up on us. We need cheerleaders in our court since living with PTSD is a marathon, not a sprint.
I hope that reading Kurt’s story today has helped you connect a face to the facts about posttraumatic stress disorder. I hope you now see PTSD as something more than a mental condition affecting soldiers who have seen combat.
Posttraumatic stress disorder can affect anyone, and chances are there is someone in your circle of influence who has PTSD or knows someone with it.
If Kurt’s story sounds like your story—or the story of someone you love—I hope his honesty encourages you seek professional help. Like all mental illnesses, the right treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder can enhance the quality of your life and make the disorder more manageable.
Subscribe to my email list to stay in the loop about my latest blog posts and news.