During 25 years as a soldier and a Foreign Service officer, Ron Capps served in Rwanda, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Darfur. He saw war crimes, genocide, and other horrible things that happen in war. The experiences left him traumatized and in a bad place, Capps says.
"I was on medication, I was getting help from a counselor, and it just wasn't working," he says. "I came very close to committing suicide; I was actually interrupted in the act." Capps later founded the Veterans Writing Project, a nonprofit that provides no-cost writing seminars for veterans that are now becoming part of the treatment regimen at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda.
Capps directs the project with instructor Dario DiBattista, a former Marine who served in Fallujah. When DiBattista returned from Iraq, he began writing about his experiences, and discovered its therapeutic powers. One of the scenarios he wrote about was how two Marines whom he had helped recruit were killed in Iraq.
"That was something I was scared to death to write about," DiBattista says. "But I felt it was fair that the world got to know those guys. I did get a lot of therapy from that, it was something I hadn't processed."
The science behind writing
Dario DiBattista joined Capps as a writing teacher in the program. He served in Fallujah during the siege in 2004.
"I wrote about what it was like to come home from Fallujah, and then wait tables, and how jarring a transition that was," he explains. "To be in Fallujah, and then be back at Chili's, 'hey can I get you a Coke,' and if people don't get it right away, their life is over."
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 for PTSD and even brain injury.
Approximately 27 percent of returning service members suffer from a traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress disorder, or both, according to Dr. Thomas DeGraba, deputy director and chief of medical operations at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, or NICoE, at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda. Many patients don't respond to traditional therapies, so NICoE is launching a clinical trial to test just how beneficial writing can be.
Intense memories stranded in the wrong drawer
Joseph Bienvenu, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Johns Hopkins University, says the idea of writing as therapy makes a lot of sense. He explains it this way: during a traumatic experience, one's whole brain is on fire with adrenaline. Everything is awake, including what Bienvenu calls the 'reptile brain.'
"This little part of the brain, called the amygdala, are associated with intense memories," he says. "Very vivid memories." This part of the brain is responsible for how an important experience gets burned into your mind.
"Most people can remember where they were on 9/11 that morning, and older people can remember where they were when JFK was shot," he says. "But we don't remember what we were doing roughly a week before then, what happened during that day."
For some people, that intensity doesn't go away, because it's never processed. In a sense, the memory gets trapped in the amygdala, filed in the wrong drawer, as psychologists say. It's just out there, ready to attack one's consciousness. The trick to fixing that is to make those memories less intense and less threatening.
"There are certain parts of the frontal lobes above our eyes that tamp down the activity of the amygdala, so we can, with these higher centers of the cerebral cortex, decrease the firing of the amygdala," explains Bienvenu.
Finding a back door into the mind
Basically, the higher human brain can take that memory out of the reptile brain. But to use the higher human brain to file that memory away, a person has to remember that horrible memory. That often means talking about it -- and the problem with a troubled mind, says DeGraba, is that sometimes, is that's just not possible.
"We're heavily dependent on our verbal skills to communicate information to one another," says DeGraba. "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 research has shown that patients with PTSD have disturbances of the part of the brain that allows them to speak, accoding to DeGraba. So if a person can't talk about their trauma, they have to find another find to discover where those memories are hiding. And art -- creative writing, even music -- may well turn out to be that backdoor route.
"Patients have in a number of studies clearly demonstrated that they have been able to now empower themselves and understand those problems that are stopping them from recovering," he says.
It comes down to something pretty simple, says Capps.
"Either you control the story or the story controls you," he says. "And I was able to get control of these memories, these stories, by writing about them. I tell people that I wrote my way home."
[Music: "Reporter" by Khanada from The Art of Chill 2]