Last week, while walking down the aisle to buy a bag of chips, I noticed an elderly lady trying to reach up for a bag of potato chips and dip on a shelf that she couldn’t reach. I offered to grab the chips and a jar of salsa dip off the shelf for her. I took the items and placed it in her cart.
She introduced herself as Laura and asked if I was in a hurry. I wasn’t in any rush and told her that, then offered to help her if she needed to do more shopping. Laura nodded with a smile and we walked through the store, adding a few more items to the cart.
As we were checking out, Laura invited me to join her for lunch: “My treat,” I remember her saying.
I accepted her invitation politely. As we were eating, her demeanor changed from being happy to being sad and tears came down her cheeks. I was alarmed but remained calm and listened as she unfolded her story.
Laura has four children and seven grandchildren. Three of her kids live off island. Her fourth child, Paul, has served in the military for 20 years.
Her husband of 45 years recently had a stroke and is undergoing rehabilitation. After hearing of his father’s stroke, Paul decided to retire from his lieutenant colonel position to help his parents. Laura described Paul as a considerate, affectionate and caring son. Even when he was off island, he stayed connected with his parents.
As of that day, Paul had lived with Laura and her husband for three weeks. Laura observed that Paul’s attitude, way of thinking and behavior had changed. Her once relaxed son showed signs of panic attacks, lacked motivation, went from sleeping all day to not sleeping at all. And when he did sleep, he would often suffer from nightmares and at times would drink excessive alcohol.
Laura was frightened that he was depressed. She said he would often sit in seclusion, staying away from other people and even at times from his parents. She was worried that one day she would find Paul lifeless in his room by suicide.
She had spoken to him and he admitted he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, caused by years of actively exposure to the tragedy, violence, and the viciousness of war without enough time to debrief and process the atrocities.
Our military soldiers, in the course of keeping Guam safe from harm, often are traumatized. It took Paul’s healthy state of mind and well-being. And Paul had the added trauma of losing his wife and two children to a car accident.
Guam has a very high rate, some say the highest per capita, of individuals joining the military. And many of us have seen the price our friends, parents, siblings, cousins have had to pay. PTSD is a serious issue for many of our veterans and they need and deserve our support.
What is post-traumatic stress disorder? It is a mental health disorder caused by traumatic event or experience in their past that has led to mental and physical symptoms that can last for years and can be debilitating and sometimes a life-threatening mental health condition.
Some symptoms of PTSD:
• Detachment from others, flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, lack of motivation
• Sleeping too much or losing interest in day to day activities and hobbies at long periods of time can lead to deep depression.
• Anger, feeling jumpy, loud noises can trigger emotional and physical responses.
• Turning to drugs and alcohol to mute emotions
Here are some things you should know about PTSD:
• It takes time to understand the impact of trauma on your mental health. You’re not alone and help is out there.
• Find someone to confide in.
• Physical exercise, walking, meditation or yoga, listening to quite relaxing music can help.
• Healing does not necessarily mean forgetting.
If you or someone you know has suffered trauma, there’s help out there:
• VA Guam Community Based Outpatient Clinic: 475-5760
• Guam Behavioral Health and Wellness Center: 647-5440
Marie Virata Halloran is a registered nurse, and is certified in Grief and Death Studies Rainbows for All Children Guam. She is the executive director for LifeWorks.