This article was published on the Forum Page of the Kingston Whig Standard on January 26, 2013
I have what is called; Post Trauma Stress Disorder (PTSD). After nearly seventeen years of seeing prisoners kill and main each other, riots, having a prisoner try to stick a shiv in my gut, permanently injuring my spine wrestling with prisoners and finally finding a young prisoner who hung himself at 5AM on Mother’s Day, I knew I had problems when I watched what seemed to be his body, floating in my bathtub. The result was being put on what we prison guards referred to as ‘loony leave.’
Fortunately I had a psychologist and a correctional administrator who recognized that my situation was real. But I brought it home. As my wife writes:
* * *
“Damn!” I could hear him from the kitchen.
“IT’S OKAY. WHATEVER’S WRONG, I’LL FIX IT!” I shouted as I dropped what I was doing and raced towards him. Too late, by the sounds of something being dropped, broken and kicked.
What had I done now? Usually it would be something I’d never imagine could set him off – his coffee cup in the sink rather than his special place for it, the wrong brand of toothpaste.
Fortunately I did not marry a physically violent man though his tongue more than made up for it. Lectures over how inadequate I was, how disappointing our marriage was. Then long weekends of angry silence, holidays with no talk or laughter, often enough to break me because I AM a violent, impulsive woman.
I was living my life quite alone with a madman who would tell me I was the crazy one, that at a word from him they’d lock me up and grant him custody of our
children as I was obviously an unfit parent and he was the one with degrees. Then he’d calmly light his pipe and pick up a philosophy book. Body in the house, mind gone fishing.
One time he unwisely began this familiar rant while I was holding a pitcher of kool-aid. Another time I put a cold frying pan full of grease into the bathtub where he sat taunting me. Of course I had to scrub the resulting disgusting ring out later by myself.
But I still loved him. Even when he used our little cloth-topped Suzuki as a weapon, trying to run SUV’s and even a cement truck off the road.
He had been my introduction to God once at the small church where we grew up but that was a long way from the philosophers he read now who saw no evidence of God anywhere they looked.
So when I embraced a 12 step program that promised a Higher Power could return me to sanity and peace, I dreaded telling him that God was back. He could see things were different. I had begun to respond to his tirades with love rather than frying pan and pitcher…
* * *
My wife is four years younger than I am. We’d been married 22 years when the full-bore of what they call PTSD hit me. The year I was 17, my mother died suddenly in an accident. Shortly afterward, I saw a motorcyclist killed and his brain lying on the sidewalk. It was only a month or two after that, a friend with whom I worked the high steel, fell to his death from one of the beams. I offered him a cigarette and held him in my arms as he died.
I had shoved all this from my memory at twenty-seven when I married my wife, went back to university and took advanced degrees. The God I had once taught about was no longer part of my life nor were thoughts from that year of death. I didn’t expect them to all come rushing back when I began to work in prison…
* * *
One unforgettable night I was maced by a fellow officer who’d been aiming at a prisoner who was trying to stab me. I didn’t know whether to fly or cry. But my training had taught me to fight so I flew into battle, decontaminating the prisoner and locking him down but forgetting to do the same to myself.
The prisoners were rioting and had set fire to the range. I picked one up and carried him out on my back. He was a dead weight, passed out from smoke. Then I went home to bed, only to wake up with my face swollen, my tongue down my throat.
I was sent to a psychiatrist who had done two stints in Viet Nam and also had the PTSD label. For awhile we shared war stories and then he drove his car into the path of a semi, rocketing down the highway.
Not wanting my death to be so obvious, I put myself in harm’s way whenever something was going down. I wanted to die but not by my own hand. The fight didn’t go out of me till I saw what seemed the dead prisoner floating in my bathtub, where my wife was soaking my white nylon golf bag.
My tirades then became about her wanting me to leave the prison. She wasn’t stupid and the situations in which I was repeatedly involved, sent a clear message that I thought death was the only way out for me. One day at a restaurant, when she brought the topic up again, I cursed her out, then stomped off to the men’s room. I sat down in a stall and cried.
Then I came back and said the words I knew she wanted to hear: “Okay, I’ll quit.”
* * *
What is so-called PTSD? It’s when your body says: “I’ve had enough. I give up.” The toughest guard I knew, with years of service, went to a locked range one day, barricaded by prisoners and saw an arm sticking out with all the flesh slashed off and a feeble voice crying, “help me!” He never returned to work after that.
The Post Trauma Stress Disorder label is actually not ‘post’ or ‘trauma,’ nor a ‘disorder.’ I’ve learned it is a natural process in a body overloaded by stress. There may be one specific incident or many but one day the body says, “that’s it.”
But of course, it never is it. That’s why it it can’t be ‘post.’ The adrenal gland sends out a chemical, cortisol to act as a calmer in stressful situations. It also sends out adrenaline which gives the survival instinct of fight or flight.
If there is too much stress our cortisol wears out. All we have to run on is adrenaline. We become adrenaline junkies who get high on fight and low on flight. This is an addiction like any other. It is a fully natural process in the body.
You cannot understand a thing unless you describe it properly. The literature on what is called, PTSD, is full of failed descriptions. The psychologist, William James would say this is because academics who use the PTSD label, don’t understand it because they are not addicted.
Alcoholics Anonymous started when Bill Wilson, its founder, read William James’ comment; “…to understand the causes of drunkenness as a physician understands them, is not to be drunk.” AA’s success is that drunks help drunks.
When we who have mistakenly been labeled with PTSD understand that we are adrenaline junkies because of a natural process of the body’s stress reaction to situations that no one should have to experience, we can begin to help one another.
First we need to learn how to cope with our addiction. Wanting to commit suicide is a perfectly natural reaction to adrenaline junkie lows. Also natural are the bouts of anger, depression and attempts to control the universe.
We destroy marriages and relations with family and friends. We feel stranded from normal social intercourse. So how do we cope? I looked for answers in philosophy and science as I did doctoral work at university, since then I have been focusing especially on neuroscience. To my surprise, the same answers turned up that Bill Wilson and his fellow drunks found with AA.
Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century philosopher said people commit suicide because they don’t know themselves and God. I suspect, due to what happened in his own life, that Spinoza too was an adrenaline junkie.
His philosophy, which he called, The Curing Of The Intellect, was an attempt to describe: 1) Himself 2) God as he understood God 3) The passion that could destroy our lives 4) Freedom from this passion.
Modern neuroscience tells us that our brains are separated into three parts with different functions. There is a primitive brain on top of our spinal cords whose function is to give us the skills and emotions to survive. Fight and flight reactions come from this part of the brain.
As human animals our brains evolved into two more parts, left and right brain. The left brain knows. The right brain believes. Both have the function of controlling excesses from the primitive brain as well as developing the feelings that make us human.
The left brain seeks to know the laws of nature. Its language is mathematics. Ordinary language operates by metaphor and is often seduced by the emotions of the primitive brain.
The ancient mathematician, Euclid, described the function of the right brain in his axioms. He said we are part of the whole of nature. All true/real thinking and actions are held together by the glue of equal.
Throughout history, humans have called this whole, ‘god’, and the glue of equal, ‘ethics.’ The left and right brain connect in equal. In the left brain it is reason and in the right, understanding. The philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, said this understanding means; “now I know how to go on.”
Once I tried to find whole and equal in religion. When religion is a way of life, of course, it is a true path but all other is simply turned into dogma by the primitive brain with strife and hate as a result.
Bill Wilson used the word, ‘god,’ in his twelve steps while saying it could simply be the God of our Understanding, whatever that meant to the follower.
As a stress damaged, adrenaline junkie, labeled with PTSD, body reacting perfectly naturally to the stress I experienced, the answer to my problem turned out to be the same as it was for Wilson.
The first of his three steps can be paraphrased as: 1) I can’t control things. 2) What I call ‘god,’ does. 3) Therefore, I’ll accept it. Then we restore the glue of equal to our lives by the remaining nine steps.
As PTSD sufferers we need a twelve step program for our addiction. This is how I have been able to go on with my life. I would love to share my results with other sufferers.
My name is Dick and I am an adrenaline junkie.
Dick DeShaw did PhD work at York University before leaving to work as a federal prison guard. He has been published in textbooks, academic journals and other media. He writes a blog, Spinoza on Science & Stress ( http://dickdeshaw.com/category/blog)