Recalling the pain of PTSD

Recalling the pain of PTSD
Atrocities such as the genocide in Rwanda, which resulted in the deaths of the hundreds of children pictured above, have an everlasting effect on soldiers witnessing such events.Photo: Tiggy Ridley.

Steven Lively was a Joint Task Force soldier, one of the elite one per cent of the Canadian Forces.

He served in Congo, Uganda and Rwanda in the early 1990s.

Then he came home to Ottawa, and his military experience caught up with him.

Lively talks of having panic attacks while driving his car, at the mall and at home. He tells tales of rapid weight loss, insomnia, of drug and alcohol abuse and what he calls hyper-vigilance, being constantly on alert.

At that time, in the mid-1990s, no one understood post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). No one could diagnose what Lively was going through. For two years he bounced from one physician to another, undergoing stomach biopsies, stool samples and other medical tests in an attempt to diagnose an “exotic bug,” as Lively put it.

In the end, his disease was mental, although it affected him in physical ways as well.

So when Lively looks at the services available today to treat Canadian Forces personnel who suffer from Operational Stress Injuries (OSI) like PTSD and depression, he feels pretty good about the situation.

“There are always critiques, but we’ve come a long way,” Lively says. “In a number of ways the Canadian Forces is at the forefront now of our allies in terms of treating PTSD.”

Lively now works for the department of National Defence, travelling the country talking to soldiers and military leaders about PTSD. Much of his efforts are geared at changing the stigma around PTSD, stigma he faced as a returning veteran which he says is still around today.

“At the time (PTSD) was a taboo subject for a soldier,” Lively says of his battle in the 1990s. “There are still leaders who don’t want to talk about it – a dinosaur mentality. But each year that stigma is getting less and less.”

Part of the solution is the mandatory OSI courses all military leaders have to take. Anyone who gets promoted within the Canadian Forces has had plenty of instruction of what to look for in their members in terms of mental illnesses, and what to do if those problems appear.

The main thing though is that all soldiers have the training to notice their own behaviours changing and be able to point to a potential mental injury as a cause.

That is a total shift from Lively’s struggles, when not even the doctors had any idea what he might have been suffering through. Lively at the time had absolutely no clue what was happening to him, eventually self-medicating with drugs and alcohol to mask the suffering.

“The level of expertise was very thin back then, to say the least,” Lively says. “Yet after Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, the military started to get bogged down with all these guys coming forward with these symptoms. DND didn’t know what to do about it.”

Lively’s story is well rehearsed. He has shared it with countless other soldiers, military leaders and members of the public. But he emphasizes that he never tires of telling of his former pain if it may help someone else.

“I know what I went through for 10 years,” he says. “There are still soldiers going through the same thing. Our goal is to diminish that over time.”

Meanwhile, the former elite soldier still struggles with bad days. But he says that when those days come he takes the time he needs to recover, and to examine his own condition to learn from what he can from it.

Then, on the good days, he gets back on the plane to another part of the country to try and help someone else with their own recovery.

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