I saw American Sniper yesterday and like many, was emotionally stirred by Clint Eastwood’s depiction of the life of Chris Kyle.
Had I not seen The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), watching the graphic deaths of women and children in war would have been even more horrific. Sadly, if movies have to compete with CNN, then we are sure to see more over-the-top violence in movies to come. What I wish we would see more of is the human side of the story which I know is harder to tell (and sell).
After four tours of duty and 160 kills to his name – as you might suspect – Chris comes home a changed man. His post-traumatic stress symptoms and healing are embedded in the story, but more as a side show. We experience him sitting alone at a bar drinking, having one brief encounter with a therapist, and helping some other vets. And then miraculously his PTSD is cured, or so it seems.
To be fair, I have not read the book and mean no disrespect to Chris. There is likely a lot more to this part of the story, but Clint and his team chose to gloss over it. For most who go to war, let alone experience four tours of duty on the front lines, addressing PTSD goes far beyond one therapy session. If you want to see a more powerful depiction of PTSD and how it unfolds, watch Brothers.
We are miserably failing both active-duty personnel and veterans who struggle with trauma and addiction. Reports from the Institute of Medicine (PTSD, Substance Abuse) provide evidence that we need to do a lot more to help those sufferings. But what do we do?
While both IOM reports detail recommendations for improving care, if you are presently in pain, they offer little help. Thus I offer the following suggestions, with the caveat that there really are no simple solutions.
- Education. If you are suffering, or know someone who is and are unsure how to help, then your first priority is learning as much as you can about trauma and addiction. Once you understand how traumatic events and addiction alter the brain, body and emotional systems, the hope of healing becomes more than possible. For learning about addiction, check out the material on this website. For trauma, read Waking the Tiger, The Body Remembers, The Body Keeps the Score, and In an Unspoken Voice. Also, check out David Baldwin’s Trauma Information Pages. These resources alone, if read by active-duty personnel, vets, and family members, would be life-altering.
- Hyperarousal. It’s hard to function in life when blood pressure is through the roof and normal sights, sounds, and smells trigger a flood of chemicals that prepare the body for a life or death battle. While such reactions can be life-saving in the field, they are not such a good thing when you are wanting to successfully reengage in civilian life. Among the best antidotes to address hyperarousal is yoga, breath work, martial arts, and emotion-regulation skills. All of these are discussed in the above mentioned books, so there is no shortage of methods. While medications can be useful, often they can be avoided by engaging in these behavioral interventions.
- Mindfulness. Healing from trauma requires self-awareness. You must learn to reinhabit your body by gradually noticing what your thoughts, feelings and sensations do under different circumstances. There is a significant literature on the benefits of mindfulness for all people, but if you suffer from trauma and addiction, it may be the most important key. If you use alcohol, illicit drugs, pain medication, or gamble to medicate PTSD symptoms, you must become mindful of when and how addiction plays a role in keeping you stuck in life. Check out the site Mindful and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living.
- Therapy. While it’s not always necessary to seek therapy for treatment of trauma and addiction, both tend to be complex challenging problems that benefit from someone who can coach you to health. The key is getting good therapy that goes beyond talk therapy. There are a number of evidence-based treatments like EMDR, Internal Family Systems Therapy, Somatic Experiencing, and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy that require a trained therapist to implement the approach. How to find a good therapist, pay for treatment, and ensure good outcomes go beyond this post, but by exploring the links herein I believe you will be armed with knowledge that will help you find what you need.
Lastly, we tend to think of trauma and addiction as pathological problems requiring professional diagnosis and intervention. But in truth, these problems are actually normal responses to abnormal life experiences. I hate that we pathologize human behaviors that at their core actually help us to survive! It’s why my 5 Actions model of intervention embraces the healing power of creativity.