MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
I'm Sabri Ben-Achour in today for Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." Today's show is all about stress. Now, there are certain kinds of stress most of us have felt at one time or another, like worrying about keeping your home or relationship or a job. And then, there are other unique sorts of stress, such as the stress of coming home from the battlefield. Steve Scuba knows all about it. He spent 14 months in Iraq between 2006 and 2008.
MR. STEVE SCUBA
"Sunlight had already managed to work its way around the edges of the green, wool army blanket which covered the large window on the far wall. During a mortar attack the blanket shielded patients from broken window glass."
Scuba, a Rockville, Md. resident is reading from his account of that time.
"Fatima, a slender nine year-old girl who sustained over 40 percent burns to her body, sat in bed looking sad and staring forward at the bare, faded white wall across the room."
Why did you write when you came back?
For me, it was a way to share my experiences over in Iraq. Started out sharing them with me, which I think is the basic and most fundamental part of writing.
Scuba began recording his experiences as part of a workshop with the Veterans' Writing Project. It's a nonprofit that provides no-cost seminars for veterans.
MR. RON CAPPS
I was really badly traumatized when I came back from the war. I was in a bad place.
Ron Capps is one of Scuba's writing mentors. He helped start the Veterans' Writing Project. He served in Rwanda, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and Darfur. He saw war crimes, genocide, every horrible thing that happens in war.
Everyone has to deal with traumatic memories sooner or later. They just tend to fester off in the side somewhere. I was on medication. I was getting help from a counselor and it just wasn't working. I came very, very close to committing suicide. I was actually interrupted in the act.
Capps found that only when he started writing down his experiences did he begin to feel better. His co-teacher, Dario DiBattista, found the same thing.
MR. DARIO DIBATTISTA
I've written about, unfortunately, two Marines I helped recruit were killed in Iraq and that would be an example of something that, you know, I was scared to death to write about. But I felt it was fair that the world got to know those guys. I did get a lot of therapy from that because it was I hadn't, honestly, processed through.
DiBattista served in Fallujah during the siege there in 2004.
I've written about what it was like to come home from Fallujah and then wait tables and just, like, how jarring a transition that was to be in Fallujah and then be back at Chili's. It was like, hey, can I get you a Coke? And people act like if they don't get it right away, like, their life is over.
Now, in a way, this sharing your feelings approach may seem sentimental, unscientific or even fluffy, but the military is taking it very seriously as a treatment method for PTSD and even brain injury.
DR. THOMAS DEGRABA
The persistent deficit that our service members experience as a result of that conflict interaction of traumatic brain injury and psychological stressors is really the primary challenge facing the military health system resulting from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dr. Thomas DeGraba is deputy director at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence or NICoE. It's part of Walter Reid in Bethesda. He says 27 percent of returning service members suffer from a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder or both and many patients don't respond to traditional therapies. So NICoE is launching a clinical trial to test just how beneficial these alternate therapies can be.
DR. JOSEPH BIENVENU
It seems very logical to me.
Joseph Bienvenu is an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Johns Hopkins University. He says during a traumatic experience, your whole brain is on fire with adrenaline.
Catecholamines, epinephrine, noradrenalin.
Everything is awake, including what Bienvenu calls your reptile brain.
This little part of the brain called the amygdala on both sides of the brain, they are associated with intense memories so very vivid memories.
That's how an important experience gets burned into your mind.
So most people can remember where they were on September 11, 2001, that morning, and older people can remember where they were when JFK was shot. We don't remember what we were doing roughly a week before then.
For some people, that intensity doesn't go away. The memory gets filed in the wrong drawer, as psychologists say. It's just out there ready to attack your consciousness. The trick to fixing that is to make those memories less intense and less threatening.
There are certain parts of the frontal lobes, the lobes that are above our eyes, that tamp down the activity of the amygdala.
Basically, our higher human brain can take that memory out of the reptile brain. But to do that, to use your higher human brain to file that memory away, you have to remember that awful terrible thing. And most PTSD therapies revolve around that confrontation, but that often means talking about it. And the problem with a troubled mind, says Dr. Thomas DeGraba from NICoE, is that sometimes you can't talk about it.
We're heavily dependent on our verbal skills to communicate information to one another. However, in traumatic brain injury, the complex network of brain cells necessary to speak fluently, capture the correct words to express our feelings, can be disrupted. In addition to that, we know that patients with PTSD have disturbances of the part of the brain that allows them to speak.
So if you can't talk about your trauma, you have to find another way in to the recesses of your mind where those memories are hiding. In art, creative writing, even music may well turn out to be that backdoor.
Patients have, in a number of studies, clearly demonstrated that they feel that they have now been able to empower themselves to understand those problems that are stopping them from recovering, as well as being able to explain to others those problems that are stopping them from recovering.
It comes down to something pretty simple, says Ron Capps, of the Veterans Writing Project.
Either you control the story or the story controls you. I tell people that I wrote my way home.
The Veterans' Writing Project offers no-cost writing seminars around the region for veterans and military family members. There's one coming up on March 10th and 11th at George Washington University and others all around the region. To learn more about the project and find out about upcoming events, visit metroconnection.org.
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