A Clean Mind

Blogging about a less stressful way to live…

NYC 9/11 Firefighter Gets Fast PTSD Relief

I have a client who was a firefighter in New York City for seventeen years, and he was on the job when the World Trade Center towers went down on September 11, 2001. And of course he gave me permission to tell you these details… He has since retired and moved down to the Pensacola area, and he came in to see me for relief from PTSD. He had found himself short-fused, and he didn’t want this to ruin his marriage. Of course I applauded him for taking that first step of coming in. He said he also has constant memories, nightmares, and anxiety, including panic attacks. His flavor of panic attacks last 15-20 minutes and consist of a racing heart and a body that’s shaky and sweaty.

This wasn’t his first time seeking help. He said, “I’ve been to lots of psychiatrists.” I replied, “You have?” And he said, “And they all suck.” After I stopped laughing, I told him I was sorry he hadn’t had the best experiences with them. Then I confirmed what he already knew, which is that the profession of psychiatry in this country (and probably most others, but I’m not sure) has slowly become one of medication management instead of talking to people. It now treats the symptoms (with pills) rather than the cause (with therapy). This is not to offend anyone in that profession at all – it’s just how the majority of it is these days, beginning in medical school. And yes, the huge companies that make the pills have a lot to do with it. Breathe…

Very quickly, this reminds me of another client who recently got on some medications for depression to act as a crutch to get him through some tough times, which is an excellent use for meds. His comment was that when they give the pills to you, they should also give you a plan for how to get off of them when you’re ready. I thought that was an awesome idea. He felt like he was on his own as far as trying to get off of them. Of course any doctor would help if asked about this specifically. He just thought that should be part of the deal up front. What a different philosophy than we have now. And this is definitely not to say that for some people, meds seem to be more of a permanent fix for adjusting their “brain juice,” as a good friend of mine calls it. But for most, meds are much better as a temporary help. Hopefully that wasn’t too much of a rant… Back to the story…

So my client came in for the typical 90 minute first session, in which he was taught about feelings and thoughts. PTSD is a situation in which one or more memories have lots and lots of feeling wrapped around them. I barely remember my lunch yesterday because it had hardly any feeling attached to it. If it had been the best turkey sandwich ever, though, and I was really, really excited about it, then it would stand out more in my mind. The reason is feeling. If I had gotten in a car wreck on the way to lunch, maybe I’d remember it more – again, there’s feeling there. For someone who was at ground zero on 9/11 witnessing horrific things, that’s a memory with tremendous power because of all the feeling associated with it. And you can see what all of that feeling can do if held in and not released – namely, my client’s symptoms mentioned above.

So what do we do with such a client? Have them close their eyes, recall the memory, and just breathe and feel. Let go of whatever comes up and allow it to be felt, but without holding it. He did this beautifully, and honestly he didn’t have the strongest reaction. He said that he felt himself unconsciously holding back, which is totally fine – we go with the flow in this type of work. He said that when he visits Manhattan, though, it all comes back. He particularly remembers the foul smell. What we did in my office was go there mentally, which of course isn’t always as strong. The fancy term for this, by the way, is “in vivo exposure therapy.” Actually returning to the scene of the crime is called plain old “exposure therapy.” Since he has such a strong reaction when visits, what I’m doing is preparing him for his next visit as well as clearing out what we can until then. When he returns next, he’ll go there, sit on the park bench or in his car, and he’ll just allow what comes up to come up – and out! He won’t be analyzing or judging or thinking at all. He’ll just release. When that smell comes up, it won’t even faze him because he’ll know what to do – just allow it to be there, but without holding it. He’ll breathe. And he’ll let go. Now he knows that the smell he smells is normal and not “bad.” HUGE difference.

His next trip to Manhattan will be an excellent opportunity to release what he’s been carrying for all these years. Until then, though, he’s already had some great results. He called me a few days after our first session and said that he was able to sleep eight hours for the first time in years. His nightmares are somewhat better, but he can go back to sleep after he wakes during the night, which he previously hadn’t been able to do. What was I doing on the other end of the line when I heard this? Why, I was high-fiveing the air, of course! There might’ve been some fist pumps, too, like I had just won The Masters. Maybe some bad dance moves, too. I get excited about this type of thing…

He also reports that the panic attacks and anxiety are definitely better. One of the biggest results so far involves major stomach issues that he’s had. It used to be that he’d eat something that didn’t agree with him and then he’d projectile vomit for the next 10-12 hours, with his stomach pain increasing. This would often land him in the hospital, which is a smart move under the circumstances. Since that first session, though, this has pretty much stopped. He’s gotten sick, but only briefly. The 10-12 hour thing seems to be gone, as well as the hospital visits. He’s dramatically reducing his meds, too, which is something he’s been wanting to do. And last but certainly not least, he reports that his wife notices a difference.

I said great job and keep it up! He’s applied what he’s learned form the first day, and he’s gotten measurable results that are no less than major. We’re treating the cause, which is all of the junk that he’s been carrying around since 9/11 (and before since he’s been a firefighter for so long). As that stuff gets released, all of the symptoms should improve in time. And some of them have improved dramatically from day one. This is so cool…

Final note on PTSD treatment… There’s an awesome therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) that’s very effective in treating PTSD. From what I know, the bulk of it involves experiencing the feelings that have been stored since the causative incident, which is what I do. EMDR has more to it, though, like reprogramming the beliefs that were learned. Examples of such beliefs might be that the world is not safe or that a person is not worthy of good things, etc. EMDR is also very structured and specific, which is helpful to both the therapist and the client. I have not been trained in EMDR, but I will be at some point. It’s pretty expensive, which is one of the critiques of it, but I hear that it’s totally worth it. So I’m saving up, and I can’t wait. It really is optional to hold all of that stuff in, and I want to help as many such people as I can. Until then, though, I’ll continue to do my thing, which is still getting results en lieu of the EMDR training. Instant success like what this firefighter has experienced tells me that it’s working some, and for that I am thankful.

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All anybody really wants is peace. The good news is that peace can be learned. I’m serious. This should be taught in middle school, but it’s not. So I’m teaching it now.

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