(TORONTO, ON) – You no doubt have heard of Lionel Desmond, the Canadian Afghan-veteran living outside of Halifax, who recently murdered his mother, wife, daughter, and then killed himself. While in the Armed Forces he received treatment for PTSD. After that the story is not so clear.
It is the PTSD for Canadian veterans which has received much of press and media coverage over the past several years. Scores of vets have committed suicide, but killing yourself is very different than killing your family then yourself.
CBC’s The Nature of Things explains to us that PTSD is not merely a soldier’s story, but can affect anyone, whether an emergency response team member, a victim of a gang shooting, a sexually abused person, a terrorist attack witness, or a victim of an horrific car accident.
It knows no bounds and is not restricted to soldiers.
In PTSD Beyond Trauma – Not Just A Soldier’s Story you’ll be exposed to 45 minutes of cutting edge medical and scientific research into PTSD. You’ll get an inside look at possible treatments including the use of a common beta blocker, Propranolol, which is used to slow heart rhythms and for the control of Essential Tremor.
You’ll see the role played by sophisticated MRI’s of the brains of PTSD victims.
It affects more civilians than soldiers and more women than men. Let’s briefly take a few quotes from some of the sufferer’s of PTSD to give you a better understanding of what they are suffering.
“I don’t know how to explain this to you. The silence and the noise.”
“A horror show that was never supposed to happen.”
“It was like going so far into yourself that you couldn’t get out.”
“I felt like I was nothing. It can’t get lower than that.”
I’ll quote director Patrick Reed who explained why he wanted to make this documentary.
Through my past documentaries, Shake Hands with the Devil, and Triage, I have had unique access to high profile individuals who have struggled with PTSD; people like General Roméo Dallaire and Dr James Orbinski. Both were in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. Both witnessed some of the worst of humanity. Both were understandably haunted by the memories.
When I started making this film, Beyond Trauma, I had an ongoing interest in PTSD. But my interest is more than professional. It’s also personal.
Most Canadians have never gone to war or have lived through genocide. But many know people who struggle with traumatic memories, friends and family who often suffer in silence; whether out of guilt or a belief that PTSD somehow only affects the military or humanitarians, or other “exceptional” people.
A few years back, on September 11, 2010, my own parents were riding on a double decker bus near Syracuse, New York. In the middle of the night, the driver inexplicably went off route, and drove under a railway bridge, tearing the top-level off the bus.
Four people died.
My mom was physically hurt. But eventually she fully recovered.
My father was physically unharmed. But he couldn’t shake the memories.
As my siblings and I watched the unfolding media coverage, many of us had the same surprised reaction. My mom spoke in great detail about the event. My dad sat quietly beside her. My dad has never been quiet before in his life. Ever.
My father is a very interesting, thoughtful man, but of a generation where you rarely admit you’re struggling with a mental illness. For him, personal strength is a defining attribute, and essential as the father of 11 children.
“Put your head down and keep your feet moving,” was one of his standard lines. And yet, in this case, that advice didn’t work for him.
My father admires others like Dallaire and Orbinski who talk about their experiences. But for him, their struggles are justified because their experiences were exceptional. For my father, he was just in a traffic accident, however brutal.
Eventually, he did seek treatment, and his PTSD symptoms subsided.
For me, exploring the science of PTSD and profiling how different people cope with the disorder was motivated by my father, and people like him. Part of the healing process for many is finally realizing that PTSD affects not just the military, and is not a mark of weakness.
Sometimes, in fact, the true measure of strength is admitting you need help.
It’s a fact that just about all of us experience trauma. Some simply skip over it but for others it’s lived over and over again. The documentary probes if we can ever get over the trauma.
It then profiles some case studies.
Stan and Ute Lawrence were involved in a horrific mass collision on the 401 in southwestern Ontario which involved 87 vehicles and killed 8 people, including a girl on the roof of their car who died a horrific fiery death. Strangely when the accident is replayed an MRI of Stan’s brain shows great activity but Ute’s brain shuts down.
“The more repeated the trauma, the more difficult the disorder is to treat,” said Dr Ruth Lanius, the director of PTSD research at Western University. “People who shut down because they feel that they are entirely helpless, that you know whatever they do will result in their being hurt, and have this complete loss of agency during their trauma, clinically are much sicker than individuals who haven’t experienced that.”
Then there is Max who was part of the most recent Paris terrorist attacks and who has experienced nightmares, the smells, the colours, and the gushing of blood. Dr Alain Bruné of Montreal’s McGill University administers doses of Propranolol, a common beta blocker, and claims to transform PTSD from a traumatic experience into simply a bad memory. Six sessions are enough to defeat the PTSD.
There is then Lara McKeon, who was raped at 16 and sexually abused twice in the following decade. She suffered flashbacks, helplessness, and a devastating loss of self control focusing on seeking love. Laura was increasingly paralyzed by panic attacks and anxiety until the point when it became unbearable.
Simply sharing her story as an author was the initial step in her healing process.
Now, missing a few of the stories, let’s look at Dr Stolbach in Chicago, who works with African-American and Latinos who have been shot in gang warfare in the US murder capital. These youngsters are living in a war zone and they seem to be getting younger and younger.
Stolbach professes that these young men have been exposed to so many traumas, the real cure is to eliminate the toxins that permeate their lives. Living in constant danger seems to shut down part of your brain.
Stolbach’s cure is to have the shooting victims learn glass blowing.
“It’s very hard to be working with glass and not be in the present moment,” Stolbach concludes. “It’s very hard to do that work and not be in the present moment. And that’s the way to help people from being traumatized.”
Take a moment and think if you are suffering from PTSD. If so seek help.
CBC’s The Nature of Things airs January 19 at 8:00pm.