Ramey column: Overcoming PTSD
I returned to Ft. Benning, Ga. from Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the spring of 1991 as a Spec 4. I wasn't stateside long before I began to notice I wasn't the same person as I was prior to being deployed. Although I was the same rank as before, things within me were not the same. War does that to some people. I was having problems sleeping, and when I could sleep, I would often have recurring nightmares and suddenly jump awake sweating from head to toe. My patience was very low and I began suffering from periodic but uncontrollable rage.
Those close to me knew I wasn't the same either. It was suggested to me that I seek some help. But I couldn't. I was a soldier and soldiers didn't complain. Physically I was fine, but the war between my ears was a raging battlefield. I began to self-medicate by drinking. More often than not I would have had a couple of shots and a beer or two by the 0555hrs PT formation. On the weekends I would stay locked in the house (I lived off post) with my two buddies, Old English 800 and Christian Brothers brandy.
The drinking seemed to work. I completed my tour of duty and was honorably discharged in February of 1992. I was still a Spec4. The cut-off score for Sergeant was so high I had no chance of being promoted. Little did I know I had already become a functioning alcoholic. As the years went on, my symptoms of PTSD became more severe and my alcohol intake continued to increase. By 1995 the drinking was no longer working like it used to, but as a soldier, I couldn't surrender. I had to keep fighting. I soon added street drugs to the drinking and things didn't seem as bad. Little did I know I would rapidly spiral into full blown addiction.
My life got worse. Not only was I suffering from PTSD, I was also an addict and alcoholic. I bounced in and out of relationships, moved from job to job and was in an out of psychiatric hospitals and rehabs. It wasn't until April of 2006, after a number of years of chronic homelessness, that I ran into a man I often drank with in the 90s. I had been released from the VAMC psych ward earlier that day and decided to go to a 12-step meeting. When I walked in he was there. We went outside and spent the next hour or so catching up.
Why, I don't know - I guess I was tired of hurting - but I spilled my guts to him. To my surprise he was PTSD too. He told me about a trauma support group he attended weekly at the local VAMC and invited me to go. I did, and went every Tuesday religiously for the better part of the next year and a half. I also began extensive one-on-one counseling. In September and October of 2007 I completed an in-patient PTSD program at the local VAMC. I also became very active with a 12-step group.
In that group I found a sponsor, also a combat veteran, who guided me along the path of recovery. As a result of the coping skills I was learning in the trauma group and other groups, such as anger management, coping with emotions, cognitive thinking, and individual counseling, along with guidance from my sponsor and a growing network, I can proudly say; today, I am drug- and alcohol- free (for more than six and a half years), I now serve as a sponsor for others, my symptoms of PTSD are minimal at most and I have a promising career. I'm a few months away from a bachelor's degree in business management, and my relationships with others are the healthiest they've ever been."
I attribute my success to the VAMC, the 12-step program, and guidance from my sponsor. My continued success will rely on my giving back what so freely has been given to me. In giving back I have been introduced to the National Association of Mental Illness or NAMI. I have benefited greatly from their Family to Family training. The training I receive from NAMI coupled with the peer support specialist training I received at CenterPoint has given me great tools that will allow me to be helpful to those that are currently travelling that long and lonely road I once traveled. I hope to, in some way, inspire those who are struggling to stop fighting and surrender to win. Recovery is not easy, but it surely beats living a life of misery, the life I once lived.
Jeffrey Ramey lives in Greensboro.