As I sit down to write about PTSD and therapy in Missoula, my mind wanders back to the hot summer days of my childhood, where my dad would sit out on the porch with a cold beer and tell me stories about his time in Vietnam. My dad was a tough guy, but even he couldn’t escape the horrors of war. And every year, without fail, the 4th of July would trigger him. The sound of fireworks exploding in the distance would send him back to his time spent in the jungle, where he would relive the trauma he experienced during the war.
Our family never quite understood what he was going through, but we knew it was bad. “There is nothing more fearful,” he once told me, “Than to know someone is shooting a rifle off in the distance, and then to discover, they’re shooting at you.”
Sometimes, growing up, he would shut himself off from the world, lock himself in his room, and we wouldn’t see him all day. Sometimes even the backfire of a car would send him reeling to his knees to take cover. He was just sort of always on edge.
This was why he was usually outside, working in the calm sereness of the yard. The green grass, the smell of summer, and the sound of the water coming out of the nozzle to water the lawn was where we could find him. No cars there.
It wasn’t until years later that we learned about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and how it affects people who have experienced traumatic events. For my dad, the 4th of July was just one trigger among many, but it was a powerful one. It was a reminder of the bombs and gunfire he heard every day for months on end, the sight of his friends dying around him, and the fear that he might not make it out alive.
I remember one year, my dad had finally agreed to see a therapist, thanks to my mom’s coaxing. It was a big step for him, and we were all proud of him for taking it. But as the 4th of July approached, he became more and more anxious.
He was worried that the therapy wouldn’t work, that he would be stuck in this cycle of pain forever. Plus, back then, therapy wasn’t looked on as a very macho thing to do.
But when he went to the therapy session, something amazing happened. The therapist helped him understand what was happening in his brain when he heard fireworks. He explained how the sounds were triggering a fight or flight response, and how it was possible to retrain his brain to respond differently.
The therapist also helped my dad work through some of the trauma he experienced in Vietnam. He helped him understand that it wasn’t his fault, that he did everything he could to survive, and that it was okay to have all the feelings he did.
The therapist explained that PTSD symptoms are generally grouped into four types: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions.
Intrusive memories are the most common type of PTSD symptom. They can include recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event, reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks), upsetting dreams or nightmares about the traumatic event, and severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the traumatic event.
Avoidance is another type of PTSD symptom. It can involve trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event, as well as avoiding places, activities, or people that remind you of the traumatic event. I thought of my Dad out on the grass and refusing to drive anywhere to go into town.
Negative changes in thinking and mood are also common PTSD symptoms, the therapist told him. They may include negative thoughts about yourself, other people, or the world, hopelessness about the future, and memory problems, (including not remembering important aspects of the traumatic event).
Some people even have difficulty maintaining close relationships, and for a variety for reasons there can be a feeling of being detached from family and friends. Some people have a lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed, difficulty experiencing positive emotions, and feeling emotionally numb.
My Dad told the therapist that he used to enjoy drawing, but for some reason, after Vietnam, he lost the itch to do it like he once had. He also used to enjoy dancing and being more adventurous. After Vietnam he just sort of wanted to relax for the rest of his life and to do “nothing” except to paint the house and water the lawn. The therapist said this is natural to feel this way after what he went through.
Finally, the therapist said, there can be changes in physical and emotional reactions. These symptoms may include being easily startled or frightened, always being on guard for danger, self-destructive behavior (such as drinking too much or driving too fast), trouble sleeping, trouble concentrating, irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior, and overwhelming guilt or shame.
When my Dad told me this I thought of how he was always on edge. It was hard for him to drive from one corner of the town to the other without having a crazy angry outburst because the “seatbelt” somehow got in his way. This made driving with him an adventure, to say the least, half the time.
The therapist also stressed the importance of people seeking help as soon as possible if they have disturbing thoughts and feelings about a traumatic event for more than a month. And in my Dad’s case it was for years.
Thanks to the help of the therapist, my dad was able to better understand his PTSD symptoms and learn coping strategies to manage them.
It wasn’t an overnight cure, but over time, my dad learned how to manage his triggers. He still struggles on the 4th of July, but he is able to cope better. He takes deep breaths, reminds himself that he was safe, and even talks to us about his feelings.
I can’t say that my dad’s PTSD is gone completely, but I can say that therapy made a huge difference in his life. It gave him the tools to manage his symptoms and helped him understand that he isn’t alone.
If you or someone you know is struggling with PTSD, I urge you to seek help. Talk to a therapist or a doctor. There is no shame in asking for help. PTSD is a real and serious condition, but with the right treatment, it is possible to live a full and happy life.
John Michaels, a Missoula native and author, has been captivating readers with his writing for years. A graduate of Brown University’s esteemed creative writing program, Michaels has spent the majority of his career crafting stories that resonate with his readers and capture the essence of the human experience. Despite the demands of raising children, Michaels has continued to pursue his passions, finding solace in the bustling downtown Missoula scene. There, he spends his free time honing his craft, whether it be working on screenplays, playing music, or dedicating himself to his work at Sunflower Counseling, MT.