PTSD and Collegiate Life

IMG_5810 IMG_5811 IMG_5812 IMG_5813This week kicked off a series of Salute to Service events among the different ASU campuses.  It is a privilege to attend many events as an employee but also in my role as an ASU veteran student. I was most excited and nervous to attend the staff/faculty awareness training on Tuesday regarding PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). ASU does amazing things to bring attention to veteran issues and I hope the non-veteran staff and faculty understand the impact their service has to returning veteran students.

Dr. Adam McCray, a clinical psychologist, who works at the West Valley Vet Center led the training and brought up key points I don’t think non-veterans may be educated about; he gave me permission to share his intellectual property (shown in the photos above).

Honestly, there can be a lot of stressors when individuals return home from a deployment.  I had my fair share with deteriorating relationships (a romance and family troubles), family deaths/illnesses, financial burdens, and taking on a new role at work when I became a Non-Commissioned Officer.  I’ve discussed with my ex, Nathan, before about how there was some counseling we should have gotten, but as Marines we chipped away at our own troubles.

There is a bit of a double-edged sword regarding receiving help.  Service members are taught that help is available and that they should use it; we are also taught to look for troubling behavior among our peers and subordinates and to get them access to help (Note: I said get them access.  We are taught that we are not a substitute for professional medical assistance.)  However, there is also the stigma of receiving help.  As a Marine, one of the significant issues I encountered is the perception of being a malingerer by going to medical. I’ve felt this way about Marines I’ve known and have also worried that I may be perceived as such should I get an appointment that conflicts with my training schedule.

Another significant issue is the lack of quality care.  I cannot say my experience is indicative of what all service members face but there were times that I felt my care was shoddy.  In particular, I reached out to an Ob-Gyn on Marine Corps Air Station Miramar regarding an issue and she tried to tell me what I was experiencing was normal and tried using her own gender as a reason why she wouldn’t let me have an ultrasound.  That and she tried to push NuvaRing on me as a means of birth control. At that point, I sought medical care at Camp Pendleton and found a male doctor who honored my request for an ultrasound.  One of the best things I found in the service with having male doctors is they cannot say they know through their own experience something I am going through since they do not have the anatomy to support those statements.

I am fortunate that I do not have many medical issues as a result of my service, but it is still awkward at times telling people I suffer from stress-induced chest pains.  It’s not a normal part of my conversation but if I suffer a chest pain and grimace, I let someone know what’s going on.  I was unable to get them properly diagnosed when I was in for a few reasons.  One, I was very hesitant to seek a lot of medical treatment for them because I knew it could interfere with my ability to attend training opportunities to further my career.  Second, I felt the assistance I was getting wasn’t giving me the answers I needed.  On my second deployment, I had chest pains for numerous days in a row so I did inform my command about them and went to medical.  I had a chest x-ray done and EKG’s which did not reveal any abnormal patterns.  Although I had chest pains for several days, I did not experience any during the EKG’s and matters were further complicated by the fact the adhesive on the monitors wasn’t sticking properly because of the high heat exposure.

When I separated from the service, I had such little documentation regarding the chest pains that I was told there was no service connection.  While I don’t feel I need disability assistance to cope with these, it is (and was) frustrating to be told they weren’t service-related. They developed shortly after returning from my first deployment and persisted pretty regularly (on a weekly basis) through 2008.  When I focused more on exercising in 2009, they abated to more to a monthly basis.  I am fortunate to manage them easily right now through exercise.  This year, I noticed what has reduced the severity and the frequency of attacks further is weight lifting.  The chest pains are almost non-existent when I keep a steady routine of weight lifting (and not the CrossFit kind) and combine it with some form of low-impact cardio and some running, when possible.  I had one maybe two through the spring and summer and they’ve only recently resurfaced this fall.

Unfortunately, this semester I haven’t kept up with my workout routine as much as I would like.  It has resulted in experiencing chest pains more often.  I do what I can to manage my stress when my schedule feels too hectic to include a workout.  Sleep is a big contributor to managing my stress and I am proud to admit I love to go to bed at 9, although now it’s usually more like 10 or 10:30.  I am also very vocal to my husband about when I need extra assistance around the house so I don’t feel the majority of the burdens fall on my shoulder.

And while I am tempted to not admit this, it’s important to share that from time to time, honestly a little bit of alcohol goes a long way to calming me down.  I rarely drink, usually a glass or two a month is more than sufficient.  However, there are 4 or 5 times a year when I really get bothered by people, family included.  In those moments, exercising or reading just don’t seem sufficient to help me unwind.  When I feel there is too much going on in my personal space or too much demanded of me, I will have a glass or two of wine to relax.  I don’t like prescription medications and willingly choose not to take anything for anxiety/stress because exercise works pretty effectively for me. I allow myself those extra indulgences of alcohol because I am pretty stringent the rest of the time.

College is more difficult for me this time around because I am juggling more responsibilities.  I work 40 hours a week (and sometimes more) whereas as an undergrad, I stayed home with my daughter and my GI bill was our second income.  My husband goes to school full-time and works 25 hours a week and it amazes me how little time we seem to have left for family activities after I get home from work.  I tried to add a female veterans writing workshop into my schedule but its location down in Phoenix meant the one night I attended, I got home at ten.  I didn’t attend the three other sessions offered in October.  It’s hard to bow out of commitments but with the amount of activities (including homework) I cram in- commuting to Tempe, working all day, attending class two nights a week-I was entirely too overwhelmed.    I took one evening off from class to catch up on other things and to relax and I broke down crying one night before a separate class after two weeks of constantly being on-the-go.

I know my Marine Corps life was harder in some ways but I also juggled less.  I worked closer to my job, especially on my deployments!  My walk to work took less than five minutes the first go around and the drive on the second was probably the same.  I had meals provided to me; chow hall meals may not be the best but sometimes, there are happy surprises.  For most Sundays of the first deployment, we were treated to crab legs as a dinner option.  I said yes every time.  The New England girl in me was thrilled at this simple luxury.  Our operation tempo required 24 hour work environments  as well the first time which meant when I showed up to work, there wasn’t a backlog of things to be done.  I cannot say the same currently as a civilian as we are running with less than a full-staff and I dislike falling behind in my work.

However, I know I am incredibly fortunate and privileged to work where I do, in the position I work.  My job is not contracted so I don’t face constant worries over unemployment.  When my GI Bill expires, I can rely on an employee tuition waiver to offset the cost of my education.  ASU offer family housing, so there are cheaper rental options available as a married student and which we take advantage of while we save for a home.  My supervisors and peers are great and when I need a moment to vent, I have a handful of supporters.  My college experience may not be typical but I understand more than most some of the unique challenges facing veterans in the classroom.



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