The author in Afghanistan, early spring of 2003, at a special forces camp near the Pakistan border.
I have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I used to be afraid to say that out loud. I was afraid to admit I needed help. I feared telling anyone or even seeking treatment; I was afraid I would be mocked and ridiculed by the soldiers with whom I served. I was afraid I’d lose my security clearance and my job if I sought treatment.
The first time I said it, I was a field-grade officer in an airborne unit. I was serving in Afghanistan, leading more than 100 other soldiers. The dead had come to talk with me in my sleep. Then, the images came to me during the day; my mind’s eye was filled with images of the dead, the dishonored, and the mutilated. My hands shook. I trembled. I cried.
I tried to hide it for a while. When I could no longer hide the symptoms, my anxiety over trying to lead soldiers—while in that condition—overtook my worries about the job and my self-esteem. I sought help and got treatment. I recovered.
Then, I redeployed, and things got even worse. A few years later, I wound up alone in a pickup truck with a pistol and a couple of beers, in the middle of an African desert and ready to kill myself. And I almost succeeded. I had the pistol in my hand and a round in the chamber when my phone rang. It was my wife calling from Washington, D.C. Seeing that number flash on the screen was enough to pull me back from the brink. I turned the weapon in, came clean to the doctors, and went home for treatment.
Capps teaching a Veterans Writing Project seminar in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2011.
I took medications, and I went to therapy. When that wasn’t working well enough for me, I started writing. I wrote about the people I had encountered in Rwanda, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Darfur. The dead from Račak (Kosovo): 45 of them, most shot in the back or the head, and left to die in a ditch on a frozen January morning. The nun from Bunia (Democratic Republic of the Congo): raped and beaten by soldiers from her own nation. The Afghan taxi driver, guilty of no crime, who died in U.S. custody. The dead who had come to me in my dreams.
The writing helped. I kept at it. I decided to go public, to say it out loud: I have PTSD. I wrote an essay about my service, my suicide attempt, and my subsequent treatment and recovery. It was published in July 2010. I kept saying it in print and in public.
I wrote about my struggle for Time magazine, Foreign Policy and The American Interest. I spoke publicly at The Carter Center, on National Public Radio, and to pretty much anyone who would listen. I came out of the mental health closet, so to speak. I wrote a book about it called Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years. The book is the story of how I got to the point where I was sitting in the desert with a pistol ready to kill myself, and how I found a road home. It was published May 1, the first day of Mental Health Month in the U.S.
I was embarrassed the first time I asked for help. I felt humiliated going to the psychiatrist. I felt that way, because in America we think of mental health care as being something different than health care. It’s not. If you have a problem with your knee, you go to the doctor, right? It’s the same if you have a problem with your mind; you go to the doctor. But, there’s this stigma because we view these differently. Get over it, America.
It’s important that we all fight the stigma of asking for help. If you think someone is struggling, ask them. Offer to help. It’s hard, but you might be saving a life.
To anyone who is struggling with PTSD: You’re not alone. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s just health care.
I said it: I have PTSD. I asked for help. I survived. Don’t be afraid; just say it.
Ron Capps is the founder and director of the Veterans Writing Project and the author of Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years. He served in the Army and Army Reserve from 1983 to 2008.