To the Editor:
Don’t judge those with PTSD. You have not walked in their shoes.
There has been a lot of news lately about sexual assault, post traumatic stress disorder and memory.
Having treated hundreds of clients with this diagnosis over 40 years as a psychotherapist in our community, I would like to clarify some of the misconceptions surrounding Dr. (Christine Blasey) Ford’s testimony.
I have treated mostly those developing PTSD from combat experiences. I have also treated many women who were victims of rape and incest. In all cases, the memory is frozen in time as a bad movie that plays over and over.
Many wake during the night in sweats as they dream of the event in minute detail, sometimes 30 years later. The traumatic event takes on the surroundings of the event.
For example, a soldier who has to pull comrades from a burning vehicle can’t stand the smell of burning hair or burning tires. Sometimes it is a car backfiring or firecrackers that create anxiety that the person is under attack.
Sometimes it is crowds, so the soldier goes to Walmart at 11 p.m. when few people are there because in a crowd he can’t check out everyone who might have a weapon.
Regardless the trauma, it sets off some generalization in the persons current surrounds that they think will help them protect against the next event.
In Dr. Ford’s experience, it was making a door in the bedroom allowing her to escape when threatened. Women who experience sexual assault deal with it differently. They often come to therapy because of another problem. Usually it is an anxiety such as not being able to ride elevators or close the bathroom door.
In therapy, this repressed memory is revealed and the work to not be a victim any longer begins. But how the memory is remembered varies.
Incest survivors often try not to feel when the assault happens since there are frequently multiple events. Trying not to feel as if it isn’t happening to you means the woman goes into a disassociation state.
If you try not to feel, it is a lifelong curse making it hard to feel many emotions. For the one-time assault, the event itself is usually the only thing remembered.
I was attending a lecture of a neurologist who was explaining how these memories are stored in the brain and he shared his own experience of being robbed.
He was thrown to the ground and a knife pointed at his face as his wallet was taken. He could describe the knife in great detail, but he was not able to identify his attacker. In such heightened and life-threatening circumstances, what the victim remembers is very fragmented but much more focused on the event itself. So, be careful how you judge others who have experienced these events.
Let me add one more comment about PTSD. The Army has done a great disservice to many victims of PTSD. In managing the symptoms, soldiers would often overuse alcohol and marijuana to sleep or not feel the anxiety. The Army frequently discharged them with bad conduct when the problem was PTSD.
Sometimes mental health was able to intervene in such hearings, but many are stuck with the stigma even today.
Warren Townsend, LCSW